Everyone needs a good stylist. But being a barber is no easy thing: just ask Figaro.
This week the Houston Grand Opera opens its 57th season with Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville, which runs Friday-November 6. It remains one of the most beloved of operas and a sleek and sparkling example of opera buffa, comic opera, at its liveliest.
The plots of most operas at the very least flirt with the implausible. Some plunge headlong into absurdity. More than a few improbabilities lurk in The Barber of Seville, a tale of comic, erotic almost-mishaps at the center of which is Figaro, the most useful man in town.
Figaro finds himself enlisted to help the love-sick Count Almaviva elope with the lovely young Rosina whose guardian, the elderly Dr. Bartolo, is altogether too keen to marry her and get his hands on her dowry, amongst other things. Several serenades, a love letter, a laundry list, and a few disguises later, Count Almaviva has the happy ending he desires.
Figaro, of course, already had his happy ending in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which was composed roughly 30 years earlier, though its action takes place subsequent to the events of The Barber of Seville.
Like Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, Rossini's librettist, Cesare Sterbini, made the most of Pierre Beamarchais's theatrical trilogy. Perhaps the title alone of the third play in the Figaro sequence, The Guilty Mother, suggests why it, too, was not fodder for the comic geniuses of the operatic stage.
HGO's new production has much to recommend it. The triumph of last season's The Marriage of Figaro sets a high bar for hilarity, but the celebrated and rather hunky baritone, Nathan Gunn, is no stranger to either the Wortham Theater Center or to the role of Figaro.
Gunn has made headlines not only with his soaring voice but, well, with his rather impressive guns. His fitness landed him not only in the Wall Street Journal, offering workout advice for opera "buffs," but also on the hilarious blog "Barihunks: The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera."
Here he is in an Los Angeles Opera production of The Barber of Seville doing what he does best: dazzling a crowd with his voice:
Ana María Martinez returns to the Wortham as well after her recent triumph as Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly. Martinez tackles the saucy Rosina, proving her versatility after the tragic heights and depths of last season:
Viewers will remember Patrick Carfizzi, last season's fantastic Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro, who now takes his turn as Dr. Bartolo, while tenor Lawrence Brownlee, last seen in HGO's 2007 La Cenerentola (Cinderella), plays Count Almaviva.
Italian conductor Leondro Vordoni makes his HGO debut in The Barber of Seville while Joan Font, artistic director of Barcelon-based Els Comediants, returns as director after her much-noted La Cenerentola, along with that production's set and costume designer Joan Guillén.
With an all-star team like this, HGO is poised, yet again, to make complexity look easy. But why is it so hard to be a barber?
Figaro might you tell you himself. When you can fulfill so many needs, everyone wants you and no one is patient.
How interesting that an opera about a serious of eventually-resolved erotic complications makes a barber the air-traffic-controller -of-desire. This is no doubt why he's called a factotum, a word for someone with many different responsibilities. The word is an imperative command in Latin, which means: "do everything."
Early in the opera Figaro celebrates this condition:
Ready for everything / by night or by day, / always in bustle / in constant motion." Not so bad, so far. But here's the real life of a barber: "All call for me, / all want me, / ladies and children, / old men and maidens. / I need a wig, / I want a shave, / leeches to bleed me, / here, take this note."
No wonder he prefers the soap opera unfolding in The Barber of Seville to the needs and vanities of his clients.
But before dismissing opera buffa as superficial or lighter fare, remember that unforgettable overture. Whether you've seen or heard The Barber of Seville or not, you've heard the furious, signature strings and winds, with those darker tones beneath, deployed so-often as madcap chase scene music.
Never does this seem hackneyed to me because it reminds me of a truth about comedy. Humor and hilarity can wrack the body as potently and painfully as fear and terror. If you've ever laughed so hard that you've cried or ached, you know what I mean. Laughter can feel uncontrollable and Rossini often offers his listeners as much as they can handle.
Of course, to my simultaneous delight and chagrin, I must admit my first encounter with The Barber of Seville (and also Wagner's Ring) happened at a very young age thanks to Bugs Bunny:
A clip like this makes me wonder what happened to cartoons. Opera lovers may be wondering what's happened to me, but before anyone sets aside my point about the unsettling power of hilarity, remember this.
The guy chasing Bug Bunny has a gun, and hunting season never seems to be over.