Young Pros Make Trip to 'Barber' a Joy

By Christopher Hyde, Portland Press Herald

Mark Twain would have loved Thursday night's performance of "The Barber of Seville" at Thornton Academy in Saco. It had all the good parts, connected by Sue Ellen Kuzma's English narrative, and none of the boring exposition and recitative that make them such a relief to get to in the normal course of events. As a bonus, members of the young artists program of the Portland Opera Repertory Theater, and guest Steven Rainbolt as Figaro, not only sang very well but also thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Although modestly staged, and accompanied by piano rather than full orchestra, this is not an amateur production. The singers are young professionals who have already embarked upon strong operatic careers, and Judith Hunt Quimby's grand piano is an orchestra in itself, ranging from a tinkling music lesson at Dr. Bartolo's to a full-scale thunderstorm. It is a step up from some of the fully-staged operatic road shows to which Portland audiences have been subjected.

I should also mention Thornton Academy's auditorium, which is spacious, has good acoustics and is air conditioned. Some of its students also served as Portland Opera's first opera interns.

Rossini's "Barber," like Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," has a juicy part for everyone, even the shock-haired young cop who interrupts the fracas at Dr. Bartolo's by inquiring, in English, "What's going on here?" A relatively minor role, such as that of Dr. Bartolo's maid, Berta, can rapidly become a triumph with fine singing, which is what happened with soprano Rebecca Holbrook's portrayal, including a delicious (deliberate) screech in her final aria.

The put-upon Dr. Bartolo may be merely a foil for the plot, but he also has some opportunities to shine, made the most of by bass Mark Wilson. His superb voice often threatened to steal the show. I hope we hear more of him. Brendan Cook as the music master, Basilio, was also in good voice, especially in the great quartet where he is convinced by Figaro and the others that he is mortally ill.

Count Almaviva, sung by tenor Jeffrey Picon, finally emerges from under the shadow of Figaro. It is amazing what having a sword in hand will do for a man, even if it's only an epee from fencing class. Picon is a believable young lover, drunken soldier and music master. His shaking the score at Dr. Bartolo, when he sings the wrong name, is an inspired piece of musical stage business.

Soprano Heather Johnson is well cast as Rosina, who tempers her romanticism by making her guardian's life a living hell. She has a powerful, well-trained voice that is fully capable of negotiating the absurd curlicues that Rossini inserts during the music lesson. Maybe she sings too well, because there's no motivation for Dr. Bartolo to fall asleep.

Figaro, the instigator of every turn and twist, is wittily portrayed by baritone Steven Rainbolt, who never allows the stage action to drag. Mercifully, he does not turn the famous "Largo al Factotum" into the kind of road race that spoiled Chopin's "Minute" waltz. Those who attend the final performance today at the Portland Performing Arts Center might want to listen for echoes of that largo throughout the opera. It almost seems as if Rossini was inspired by the aria and built an opera around it.

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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