A lively, exuberant “Barber” contrasts with a dismal, revisionist “Carmen” in Santa Fe 

August 03, 2022
By Charles T. Downey
Rosina (Emily Fons) cavorts with Dr. Bartolo (Kevin Burdette), Almaviva (Jack Swanson), Berta (Murrella Parton), and Figaro (Joshua Hopkins) as Basilio (Nicholas Newton) looks on in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Photo: Curtis Brown

The programming formula at Santa Fe Opera generally includes two perennial opera favorites that are an easy sell to large audiences. The chestnuts this summer, heard in succession on Monday and Tuesday evening, are Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Georges Bizet’s Carmen

From top to bottom, the cast assembled for this Barber of Seville is extraordinary. Baritone Joshua Hopkins was in splendid voice as Figaro, reeling off blistering stretches of wordy patter and full-throated high notes. A team of assistant barbers with rolling chairs shadowed him, shouting out “Figaro” during the cadenza of “Largo al factotum,” after which Hopkins bested them with a rock-falsetto high note.

Multiple musical elements of this production went back to Rossini’s original conception of the opera, premiered in Rome in 1816, beginning with casting the puissant mezzo-soprano Emily Fons as Rosina. Her immaculate runs and embellishments took her into the role’s rich lower range, with not quite as many soprano high notes added, giving the role the piquant edge Rossini intended.

Young tenor Jack Swanson made a dashing, charming Almaviva, his dulcet tone and clear high notes crowned by astounding agility in the role’s many florid passages. Not content with the demands of the role as it is often heard, Swanson reinstated the Count’s blockbuster Act II aria “Cessa di più resistere,” cut from most productions after the premiere. (Not wanting it to go to waste, Rossini reworked it partly as “Non più mesta” in La Cenerentola.)

Bass Kevin Burdette’s Doctor Bartolo was a slapstick masterpiece, equal parts nasal sneering, plastic-faced mugging, and Jim Carrey-esque rubber-man contortionism. In addition to numerous dancing moves, pratfalls, and spit-takes, during “A un dottor della mia sorte” Burdette made hilarious use of preposterous yoga poses performed on a mat rolled out for the purpose.

As the servant Berta, apprentice singer Murrella Parton deadpanned her way through the evening, most of her recitatives reconceived as catty phone calls to a girlfriend. In her big aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” the soprano’s vocal exploits were matched by a dance routine with three top-hatted men and an on-stage costume transformation. Nicholas Newton as Basilio, subbing for Ryan Speedo Green, shrewdly wielded social media to spread lies in his aria “La calunnia.”

None of this buffo nonsense would have worked if Rossini’s effervescent score had not been whipped into such crisply defined form by Iván López-Reynoso, in his first U.S. appearance. From the bouncy overture to the zany Act I finale and beyond, the ensemble of singers and orchestra benefited from the clarity and assuredness of the Mexican conductor’s gestures. In a final authentic touch, Santa Fe Opera coach-accompanist James Lesniak accompanied the recitatives with subtlety and comic timing from a fortepiano just below one side of the stage.

For Santa Fe Opera’s first staging of Rossini’s screwball comedy par excellence since 2005, Australian director Stephen Barlow focused on physical comedy, often riffing on differences between the implied setting of the 18th century and modern innovations that intruded throughout the evening. Cell phones, laptops, tennis shoes, a hoodie and puffer jacket (for Almaviva’s student costume), a vacuum cleaner, Mariachi band costumes, and headphones all make appearances. (Barlow introduced this production at the Grange Festival in 2018.)

The set centers on a massive sculpted head that rises from behind the stage to stand on a rotating platform (scenic and costume design by Andrew D. Edwards and Rebecca Gunstone). An allusion to the climax of the Act I finale, which opens with the words “Cold and still, just like a statue,” this set piece is fronted by two shrubs shaped like a mustache. Rosina’s bedroom is surrounded by bars like a bird cage, perhaps a tribute to Sarah Caldwell’s production for New York City Opera in the 1970s, with Beverly Sills like a singing parakeet on a swing.

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Isabel Leonard stars in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Curtis Brown

Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen, its first since 2014, turned out to be an even gloomier counterweight to Rossini than expected. In her Santa Fe debut, French director Mariame Clément has staged a feminist rethinking of this sultry opera. Rather than the expected fiesta of Spanish color and dancing, this Carmen plays out like a savage nightmare, set in an abandoned carnival of broken roller coaster tracks and garish funhouse lights (set and costume design by Julia Hansen). The scenery clashed with the exceptional New Mexico sunset on view at the back of the open stage.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sang her first Carmen this May, in a Washington National Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello. Leonard has all the makings of a classic Carmen, a bold and smoky low range with armor-like technique and the physical beauty and stage charisma of a temptress. Unfortunately, Clément’s revisionist staging transformed Leonard’s Carmen into a sort of anti-seductress, costumed in unflattering modern clothing and with little emotional fire.

Because Carmen does so little to attract Don José, the tormented soldier is made even more villainous, a serial abuser who ensnares Carmen in a cycle of cruelty. Michael Fabiano, who also starred opposite Leonard in Washington, sang the role with steely fury, often overpowering both Carmen and Micaëla. His sometimes timorous head voice added the sense of a fragile ego under all that anger. The murderous denouement was shockingly violent, even for Carmen, as Fabiano backed Leonard into a grimy ticket booth and stabbed her repeatedly in a blind rage.

Soprano Sylvia D’Eremo, an apprentice singer in 2018 and 2019, brought grainy intensity to her main stage debut as Micaëla, conceived in this production as a blonde tomboy in sneakers and overalls. Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, also in his Santa Fe Opera debut, made a weighty Escamillo with plenty of vocal flair, although some more polishing of French pronunciation is required. Apprentice singers filled out the rest of the cast capably.

Clément has further darkened the opera’s emotional palette by excising the children’s chorus and the supernumeraries in the crowd scenes. All of that lost innocence and excitement has been channeled into one added character, a young girl in a fluffy pink dress portrayed by Isla Burdette, the seven-year-old daughter of Kevin Burdette, the bass and company regular heard the previous night in Barber of Seville. Perhaps a younger Carmen not yet ground down by life, she is shown covering her ears at the noise of the carnival, learning to dance for men in the lurid cabaret of Lillas Pastia’s seedy tavern, and staring in fear at a skeleton-topped house of horrors that rolls onto the stage.

The condensing of the music allowed the inclusion of more of the spoken dialogue, especially the lines that bolstered the director’s vision. Music director Harry Bicket took advantage of the more compact score to draw out details of the music that remained, often preferring stately tempos and a luxuriant rubato. The orchestra, which had sounded so disciplined in Rossini, played with a somewhat less cohesive ensemble.

The Barber of Seville runs through August 26. santafeopera.org. Carmen runs through August 27. santafeopera.org


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