I was of course thrilled that Nathan Gunn returned to the SF Opera House this season, though I would have preferred a revival of Billy Budd rather than Barbiere. But like the modest opera fan I am, I am content with what I’m given, more or less. This production is one of the Rosenberg updates, and it was instantly controversial in conservative San Francisco because it didn’t come with dust already caked on the costumes. But in all honesty I don’t think the production works all that well.
It’s set in a huge, rotating house done in a stripped-down modernist style (it’s sort of amusing to think that the stodgy Dr Bartolo would be a modernist these days, just as I can tell my taste for the 12-toners puts me a bit out of musical avant). There are lots of sight gags, most of them fairly clever, though some people object to the frenzy. But overly abundant shtick is inevitable when anything derived from commedia dell’arte is staged, as witness just about every production of Moliere ever done. And the Opera’s previous staging, which was extremely traditional in style, was also criticized for an excess of irrelevant sight gags, as many seemed to forget in their rush to attack Rosenberg. I think the big rotating house affects the acoustics. I’ve now seen this production three times (twice when it was new and then again this season) and I’ve noticed this each time. I think its odd open shape keeps the sound from bouncing out the way it usually does. It also affects the sightlines, which is kind of a sore point to me since I sit a bit off to the side and I think directors should keep the side-folks in mind.
The cast was very strong. I particularly liked the rich voice of the attractive Allyson McHardy, and I was glad to see that Catherine Cook recovered her reliable form after her caricature of Marzellina in last summer’s Nozze di Figaro and brought some poignancy to Berta’s aria about how no one wants to marry her, though she does plop down on a hatbox at the end of it. As for Gunn, well, you didn’t think I was going to say anything negative about Nathan, did you? I did notice that, compared with two years ago, his performance and voice seemed bigger and more in charge of the stage. We’ll see if this production gets jettisoned for the next revival, which I hope will not be all that soon. I like Barbiere, but there's a lot of other stuff to fill the Rossini spot in the rotation.