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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Music

This 'Barber' Sports Some Cheeseheads

January 26, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — Art and sport, as the ancient Greeks insisted, together make us complete. And we sometimes still manage that ideal if we try hard enough. The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 brought a new level of sophistication to the performing arts in Los Angeles and helped to make us a more important art city. Even the World Cup of soccer has artistic ambitions. This summer's version in Saint Denis, outside Paris, will kick off with new theater directed by Robert Wilson.

But tell that to the Cheeseheads, their Swiss wedges firmly on head, as they mingled at intermission with the fur-and-tiara set at the opening night of San Diego Opera on Saturday for "The Barber of Seville." Green Bay Bash '98 was held across the plaza from the Civic Theatre. And opera-goers looked so utterly of another world that some of the more sloshed Packers fans figured that they could only be from Denver.

San Diego Opera, a spokeswoman assured, did not plan to compete with Super Bowl weekend. The company thinks much further ahead than does the National Football League (indeed, it currently has dates reserved in the theater through 2015). Maybe it was even a stroke of luck for the company. It made for an amusing and unusually urban setting.

What appeared onstage, however, was entirely familiar to anyone who happened to have caught L.A. Opera's production of Rossini's opera last season at the Music Center. San Diego borrowed the same production by Michael Hampe but made it its own by featuring Vivica Genaux as Rosina. (Jennifer Larmore sang the role in Los Angeles.) The company began showcasing the young American mezzo last season. And word has caught on fast.

Just last month, for instance, she was warmly welcomed when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in a high-profile last-minute substitution for yet another mezzo sensation, Vesselina Kasarova, in "The Barber." And Genaux showed San Diego why.

Genaux is a natural, so much so that it is a little difficult to explain what makes her exceptional. The voice is neither large nor small. The timbre is slightly dusky in the lower registers, buttery and potent on top. But it doesn't exactly call the kind of showy attention to itself the way some of the flashier mezzos do these days.

In fact, it is this directness, this lack of artificiality in the singing (nothing has more artifice than Rossini's elaborate coloratura), that sets her apart. Sometimes it is only after she has finished an aria that it can dawn on a listener just how much art it takes to hide art.

Genaux is also a natural onstage. A pert, spunky yet vulnerable and touching Rosina, she commands her surroundings with ease, which was a good thing considering that Mauro Pagano's monochromatic and painfully symmetrical set looked even more stultifying here than it did at the Music Center, partly because it was lit even worse.

She also had no equal Saturday. John Del Carlo came the closest as the buffoonish Dr. Bartolo. Both Bruce Fowler (Count Almaviva) and Richard Byrne (Figaro) were light-voiced, careful singers who seemed constrained by the elaborate choreography of the production (Byrne was a substitution for an indisposed Mark Oswald). Julien Robbins (Don Basilio) might have made a good Laurel to Del Carlo's Hardy if he too weren't so cautious.

Hampe's production attempts a complicated balance between ironic, over-stylized movement synchronized with the music and more naturalistic acting. But that takes more coordination than San Diego could muster. Karen Keltner conducted with a nice sense of lyric shape and detail, but without the thrust to give Rossini the necessary bite.

And yes, the Super Bowl got in. Almaviva bought off Don Basilio's cooperation in his scheme to marry Rosina by offering two Super Bowl tickets. That was cute. But more insidious were other aspects of professional sports that have found their way into San Diego Opera. The company plastered a sponsor's logos directly under the title of the opera in the program (and in bolder type than that of Rossini's name). It now too projects advertisements on the supertitles screen before the opera and at halftime. Excuse me, I mean intermission.

*

* "The Barber of Seville" continues at the Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego, Tuesday, 7 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m.; and Feb. 4, 7 p.m. $31-$106. (619) 232-7636.

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