On the scene in LA for about two years, Pacific Opera Project (POP) has already established their identity as a company that produces FUN! Whether they put on a fully staged opera with orchestra and elaborate sets, or a “POP-Up” opera – still fully staged, but with simpler sets and using a piano instead of an orchestra – you can count on being lavishly entertained by the entire experience.
That was true of the opening night of The Barber of Seville by G. Rossini, presented at the Ebell Club of Highland Park. The merriment started as soon as we entered the theatre, background music playing while a slide show projected onto a screen that hung just above the stage, giving information about POP, the shows they’ve already produced and news about their upcoming season. Actually, that sounds pretty ho-hum if you think of slide shows you’ve seen elsewhere. But POP scattered just enough irreverence through the video that they consistently surprised and delighted the audience with unexpected gems of humor.
The floor plan for the audience was 10-12 café tables for 2-4 persons each, right next to the stage, with traditional concert seating starting about a third of the way into the room. Café tables were pre-set with candles, appetizers, wine goblets, bottles of water, napkins and plastic cutlery. Patrons who bought table seating received a ticket at the door, to be redeemed for a bottle of wine or other drink options. This elevated the mood of the house to the relaxed, convivial ambiance of a bistro, predisposing the audience to anticipate an enjoyable evening.
Two very accomplished pianists, Stephen Karr and Jessica Hall, delivered a four-hand arrangement of the Sinfonia to start the opera, from a position offstage, behind the set. An excellent arrangement, the music carried clearly through the house without ever overpowering the singers, since the vocalists were always closer to the audience. While the Sinfonia filled the room, a new slideshow filled the projection screen, introducing us to the characters of the evening’s opera and giving us their backstories, integrated with photos of Hollywood landmarks and retouched into candid shots of hot stars from the tabloids (think Tom Cruise). Set in present time, in the Hollywood entertainment culture, the POP-version of the libretto and the set pieces evoked this cultural shift with uproariously funny references to present-day angsts and fads. Once the singing started, the video screen was used to project the “updated” libretto.
All the singers were secure in their roles, both vocally and in their character development. Recitativos were delivered in rapid-fire Italian with excellent pronunciation and emphasis, and everyone showed the results of significant work in their staging and onstage relationships. The pace of the action was nonstop, with the entire cast clearly enjoying every moment of the performance. The twists and turns of the drama followed the traditional Italian libretto, but the nuances of modern-day vernacular in POP’s unique translation of the text, plus the almost-slapstick delivery by the performers, made for riotously funny moments that just never quit coming.
Fiorello, servant to Count Almaviva, was nimbly sung by Ryan Thorn, a lyrical bass baritone with a clean, warm tone, whose character struggled agitatedly to keep up with the madcap antics of his boss. Clark Sturdevant, as the Count, rolled off arpeggios and runs without ever needing a break, elegantly displayed in his early duet with Figaro, All’idea di quel metallo portentoso. Roberto Perlas Gomez, in the character of Figaro, performed with confident style and great comic timing. Defined as a “stylist to the stars” instead of as a simple barber, his commanding bass and stage persona established him as the go-to-guy in the circle of players onstage. He effortlessly hit every note, every rhythm, every facial expression and gesture called for. Oh, and by the way, he plays a mean acoustic guitar!
Rosina was captivatingly portrayed by Lauren Edwards, a young mezzo-soprano with serious chops for Rossini’s coloratura. Her rendition of Una voce poco fa was breezy, flippant, full of hip-hop references and even a few moves borrowed from John Travolta – with not a hint of the incredible challenge it is to sing. She perfectly captured the impatient, cheeky condescension of young adulthood toward her fuddy-duddy guardian, Dr. Bartolo, who never stopped scheming to get control of her prodigious wealth, and she displayed a solid, rich lower range in the ensemble at the end of Act I, Fredda ed immobile. Speaking of Bartolo, Alexander Adams-Leytes was transcendental in his myopic obsession with Rosina, unable even to recognize that her new vocal mistress was really a tall, unshaven young man in drag (Count Almaviva). His delivery of A un dottor della mia sorte (no cuts!) was positively spectacular – in the Allegro Vivace he never missed a syllable or a pitch, all the while rushing frantically about the room like someone on a major chemical buzz, never out of character and always creating a plausible motive for his insane vocal and physical acrobatics.
Rachel Payne played Berta, the maid servant/secretary, wearing a tight minidress, high leather boots and extraordinary patterned stockings. She dashed off her aria, Il vecchietto cerca moglie, like child’s play, delivering lovely coloratura while ornamenting the runs in proper style and still conveying her forlorn hope for true love, in spite of the cynical lyrics. Phil Meyer, in the role of Don Basilio, was truly possessed by the spirit of Mick Jagger, although (thank heavens) he managed to retain his own fearless and resounding baritone voice. Dressed in a skin-tight psychedelic top and leopard-print tights, with black ankle-high boots and a lime green scarf around his neck, he wore a mop of disorderly shoulder-length hair (I think it really was a mop) and a slim fuschia-colored shoulder purse. He sang with great resonance and power, his vocal strengths outdone only by his own inexhaustible skill at character acting. His first entrance onstage produced waves of laughter, and pretty much everything he did brought the audience almost to tears.
The chorus was bravely and ably sung by four men: Benjamin Raynor, Kyle Patterson, Randy Lee and Cody Lawry. They first came onstage as wandring minstrels, accompanying the Count’s serenade of Rosina, reappearing as “wigheads” in the front window of Figaro’s salon – where they bobbed obligingly in a stylish wig-eography under black lights. In the Finale to Act I, the four suddenly became twelve armed and uniformed police, summoned by Dr. Bartolo to arrest Count Almaviva.
I laughed myself silly at this show, accompanied by an entire theatre full of enthusiastic guffawers. I’m pretty sure my immune system was significantly bolstered by the experience.
This brings me to the only problem I had with the entire production. Normally I listen in a very focused way to the vocal performances in an opera, but I got so caught up by the story and by the entertaining performances by every single person in the show that I sometimes completely forgot they were singing! It seemed perfect for them to be on the stage, doing whatever they were doing. When that kind of cast chemistry happens, it’s not only a treat for the audience, it’s got to be amazing for the performers as well. Congratulations to Josh Shaw (Artistic Director), Stephen Karr (Musical Director), and the entire cast and crew for a first-rate production.
Photography by Martha Benedict.