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The music and mirth of ‘The Barber of Seville’ both top-notch in Toronto

The music and mirth of ‘The Barber of Seville’ both top-notch in Toronto
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By Gioachino Rossini (libretto by Cesare Sterbini). Directed by Joan Font. Speranza Scappucci, conductor. Canadian Opera Company, Chorus and Orchestra. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W. Jan. 19. Performances run to Feb. 7. Coc.ca

The first performance on Sunday afternoon of the Canadian Opera Company’s “Barber of Seville” was a textbook case of Italian comic opera done well in all respects.

The pleasures began with the “Overture,” performed by the COC Orchestra in front of a drawn curtain, letting us savour the music (most of which has little to do with what we’re about to see). We beheld what was probably the most polished interpretation of that well-known music that I have ever heard. Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci — making not only her Canadian debut, but also her conducting debut with “Barber” — demonstrated an attention to detail and graceful interpretation that earned her and the musicians in the pit a prolonged and boisterous acclamation before the curtain went up.

It was a great way to start in on Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 comedy, one of the world’s favourite operas. It was also a foretaste of the care everyone involved in this production had taken to show us a good time.

The story, plucked from the same set of plays by Beaumarchais that gave us “The Marriage of Figaro,” borrows stock characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition: two young lovers (Count Almaviva and Rosina) caught in the grip of forces that try to tear them apart (instigated by her guardian and would-be husband Bartolo) or get them together (thanks to the efforts of the barber, Figaro).

The comedy has a happy end, of course, not just in the lovers’ triumphal marriage, but in the way Catalan director Joan Font and his collaborators followed the comic conventions of 18th- and early-19th-century Italian theatre and opera while also making the production feel timeless. The set and costumes suggest but don’t dictate — everything came together to put the focus on an excellent cast and some fabulous singing.

This production is not new (it was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2011), but it is true to Rossini without being a slave to the period.

The clear stars of the COC’s production are Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo as Rosina and Italian baritone Vito Priante as the resourceful Figaro. D’Angelo’s rich, powerful voice as well as a lithe and easy stage presence turned her into a magnetic force. Priante shared the same traits, making the two perfect partners in romantic scheming.

The rest of the cast was a treat, as well. This included Italian baritone Renato Girolami, who was vocally far more vigorous than is often the case in the casting of the older, nearly abusive Bartolo. Argentinian-Italian tenor Santiago Ballerini had a few hesitant moments here and there, but otherwise was a lively pursuer and his ringing high notes sounded as true as they come. He appeared to be at his best and most comfortable on stage when doing physical comedy rather than portraying the earnest young lover.

Because “Barber” is so popular and silly, it is not an operatic event like some more serious works. But this production treats it like no more and no less than the masterwork of opera buffa it is. The singers and orchestra under Scappucci certainly make it sound as good as anything produced in recent memory.

Fans will not be disappointed, and there may very well be some converts among newbies to “Barber.” Performances continue at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts to Feb. 7.
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