So while it's tempting for smaller companies to program bonbons like Barber to please the masses, it's a nasty artistic quagmire if you're setting out to do the job well. Dramatic rehearsals often take a back seat to musical rehearsals when out-of-towners are gathered for their precious pre-performance tune-ups with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
That makes the bonbon Barber a gigantic challenge. So I'm happy to report that two little operatic Davids -- Opera Carolina in Charlotte and Piedmont Opera in Winston-Salem -- have double-teamed Goliath. After finalizing their co-op venture just this past February, they have conquered.
Utilizing a colorful, cunning pair of set designs by Allen Moyer leased from The Minnesota Opera, the Carolina/Piedmont co-production shifts the emphasis away from spectacle. James Meena, conducting the Charlotte Symphony, brought forth lively, sharply focused work from the pit, beginning with the famed opening overture.
Onstage, they were matched measure for measure by an effervescent six-pack of featured performers under the freewheeling direction of Bernard Uzan -- with just one notable exception. Dressed in striking Tyrolean garb, baritone Oziel Garza-Ornelas was making quite an agreeable splash in his OC debut in the title role, filling out Figaro's signature aria -- "Largo al factotem" -- with masterful brio. Until he reached the last trademark Rossini crescendo when tempo is pushed to the limit.
I can't tell you whether something he'd eaten made a sudden gaseous U-turn or whether he was experiencing opening night jitters, but when the CSO put the pedal to the metal last Thursday, Garza-Ornelas came up short of breath -- and fell noticeably behind in the dash to the finish. As the crafty mastermind who brings the ardent Count Almaviva to bliss with the overprotected Rosina, G-O's Fig was nearly flawless. But the robust aura of infallibility was never recovered.
Besides, he was mightily upstaged by mezzo Vivica Genaux's sparkling Rosina. More the sly coquette than the willful minx in her portrayal, Genaux commanded every tricksy coloratura twist with apparent ease and grace. We dipped, I suspect, close to the bottom of her range in her calling card aria, "Una voce poco fa," where she confides that a serenading voice has lodged in her heart. But nothing in Rossini's Rosina came close to the limit of Genaux's crystalline highs. Her appearance was more than sufficiently pleasing, and her complicity in duping Dr. Bartolo had a youthful, impishness that was perpetually captivating.
So there was definitely good cause for Count Almaviva to be singing so soulfully all evening long. And that's exactly what Paul Austin Kelly did in his OC debut -- as you expect from your Count Glamour Boy tenor. But Barber demands no fewer than three ID changes from our hero, two of them comical as he executes Figaro's scheme to gull Bartolo. Kelly does a creditable job in Act 1 masquerading as the drunken soldier who demands lodging with Bartolo, and he's terrific as the bogus music teacher who assails Bartolo in Act 2 with his wheedling.
Of course, none of the lovers' scheming and duplicity works half as well without a truly comical senex to suffer it all. Sporting a foppish pink outfit, Dale Travis was a fine foil as Bartolo. Though the bass baritone's resume includes little in the comic vein, Travis's florid rebuke of Rosina proves he should venture there more often. Likewise, deep-toned bass Kevin Bell as the true music tutor, Don Basilio, feasts on his comical aria advising Bartolo to slander our devilish Count.
Uzan understands Rossini comedy beautifully. He runs parts of the prolonged Act 1 closing chorus in slow motion and stop motion to inject new charm and lavishes plenty of tasty business on all participants during the bogus music lesson in Act 2. The "Bona Sera" when Basilio is shooed away gets milked resourcefully for its comic delay. Ditto the trio in the denouement when Figaro, Almaviva and Rosina agree -- interminably -- that they must escape immediately.
This Carolina/Piedmont production was every bit as well-sung and well-played as the Rossini Cinderella I saw last summer in Milan at La Scala, the Vatican of opera -- and nearly as hilarious. If you missed last week's performances at the Belk, this Barber is worth following to Winston as its run resumes at the gorgeous Stevens Center on April 14.