It’s hard to go wrong with Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” – great plot, funny characters, effervescent music – but it’s also sometimes hard to rise above everyone else. Seattle Opera has well and truly done this with their current “Barber,” which opened Saturday night to endless standing ovations from a capacity crowd at McCaw Hall. Their secret? A superstar tenor, a delightful soprano, an outstanding newcomer as Figaro and the kind of visual and musical jokes Rossini would have been proud of.
The crazy story of an aristocrat (Count Almaviva) who falls for a girl (Rosina) and enlists the trickery of the local barber (Figaro, with that signature aria) to outwit her pompous guardian (Dr. Bartolo) has been an opera favorite since soon after the ill-starred 1816 premiere. Seattle’s “Barber” has two very different casts, and though the alternate cast sounds good (Kate Lindsay as Rosina, Nicholas Phan as Count Almaviva) it’s the first cast that’s worth getting tickets for. As Count Almaviva, superstar tenor Lawrence Brownlee steals the show – not easy to do when playing against a comedic genius like Figaro. Making good use of his height, Brownlee gives the Count a Napoleonic ego, combining an entirely believable seductiveness with incredible vocal talent – a smooth, assured voice that handles endless 16th-note runs with perfection. So astonishing is Brownlee that when he adds the aria “Cessa di più resistere,” almost always cut due to its sheer difficulty, you almost don’t notice the impossibly acrobatic coloratura, so mesmerizing is his skill. (The fact that two other leads have to sit down to watch is a clue, though.)
A worthy partner in crime is José Carbó, an Argentinian baritone making his U.S. debut as Figaro. From the first clever entry to the final cocky curtain call, Carbó seems made for this role: adoringly vain, with a rich, powerful voice (and a rather good fandango.) Soprano Sarah Coburn sings Rosina, taking the usually mezzo role and filling it with everything from low husky threats to sparkling top-note ornamentation, and Patrick Carfizzi makes a bombastic, booming Bartolo, looking uncannily like Schubert (if intentional, then a good joke.)
The supporting cast is excellent and the chorus suitably silly, whether as drunk musicians or doofus policemen. A stunning three-part set provides eye-candy, looking more Colonial than Spanish, and the lighting flows from golden goodness to harsh white for the mix-up scenes.
A few things don’t work – the final chorus makes a great fandango but Brownlee just can’t dance; the “frozen statue” scene’s puppet choreography gets a little boring; Don Basilio as a mad hobo takes away from his menace. But the visual gags outweigh all of this, and the sight of Brownlee bopping his wig to Rossini’s ridiculously silly music the way we’d all like to do will stay with you the rest of your life.
“The Barber of Seville” runs through Jan. 29, see website for cast details. McCaw Hall, Seattle Center. Tickets from $25. 800-426-1619, www.seattleopera.org