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Rossini's riotous Barber of Seville, arguably the greatest opera buffa in the operatic canon, is richly represented in numerous superb audio and DVD recordings. But this one, made in the historic Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris in Dec. 2017 featuring Le Cercle de l'Harmonie and an excellent cast under conductor Jeremie Rhorer, deserves to find a niche. Staged in an innovative modern-dress production, it nevertheless is always true to the composer and librettist's intentions. From the first notes of the overture it is clear that Rhorer and his modest-sized orchestra have in mind a tasteful, classical performance, with few of the abrupt dynamic shifts we associate with Rossini.

Director Laurent Pelly sets the stage with a visual element that is nearly always present in some sense: a huge wall designed as a sheet of music paper (lined but with no notation) stands on the stage, rising nearly to the top of the curtain and rolled at the bottom to create a base where the cast walk or loll about. Continuing this aesthetic theme throughout the opera, whenever love notes and other bits of paper are passed around by characters, they are always clearly on music paper. Act II has an especially beautiful look following the "storm" interlude for orchestra; the curtain rises to an autumnal scene of dark, falling leaves against a haunting, blue-lit background.

The Beaumarchais play on which the opera was based is famous for its (at the time) scandalous intermingling of the nobility and working classes, the latter forever poking fun at their 'superiors.' Figaro, the title character, wears a ratty sleeveless shirt with prominent tattoos on his upper arms. The French baritone Florian Sempey fits the role with a powerful, nicely focused voice and a suitably clownish presence. His evergreen cavatina of self-boasting, "Largo al factotum," is a standout, and in the patter section he gets out every word with impressive clarity.

As Count Almaviva, Italian-born tenor Michele Angelini sounds impressive in "Ecco, ridente in cielo," showing off a pure, clean tone and flawless diction, with very agile runs. His Act II aria with chorus, "Cessa di piu resistere," is equally stunning. As Rosina, object of the Count's adoration, French mezzo Catherine Trottmann is ideally youthful and feisty, her husky, voluptuous voice blessed with a strong, resonant top. Her "Una voce poco fa," always a true test for any Rossini singer, is given an evocative visual treatment with a dark sky and full moon in the background.

Hungarian bass-baritone Peter Kalman, as Bartolo (who himself has designs on marrying Rosina), delivers some insanely rapid, and precise, patter in his aria "A un dottor della mia sorte." And the great Canadian bass Robert Gleadow hams it up as Don Basilio, the music master, with long greasy hair and glasses propped low on his nose. His snarling "La calunnia" aria, with his vicious description of the nature of slander, is a real hoot.

There is some enormously enjoyable singing in the ensembles too: the wild and zany finale to Act I; the lengthy quintet in Act II ("Don Basilio! Cosa veggo!");and the trio in Act II ("Ah, qual colpo inaspettato!"), as the lovers and Figaro, trapped on Rosina's balcony when their ladder disappears, take advantage of the situation and force the notary to draw up the marriage contract. The entire cast chimes in to wrap things up, leaving a despondent Bartolo alone on the stage.
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Author:MacMillan, Rick
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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