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Maybe nobody will remember how bad this production was before

April 19, 2012

What’s that large white mass stinking up San Diego Opera’s toilet bowl–excuse me, I mean the Civic Theater?

Could it be the bloated corpse of Moby Dick by Jake Heggie?

Nope. That bleached-out piece of crap was flushed down the sewer two months ago. What will float to the surface tomorrow evening in the Civic Theater is an old petrified turd, originally shat out by director John Copley back in 1993. Although there is a new director, Herbert Kellner, SDO promises patrons that Kellner’s vision is based on Copley’s monstrous misconstrual of two great artists, Rossini and Magritte.

I reviewed that 1993 production of The Barber of Seville, and even though I enjoyed the singers and musicians, the show was undermined by the sloppy execution of a half-assed vision. I doubt anything this week’s singers and conductor and musicians bring to the work will redeem the resurrection of this colossal deuce.

Here is my original review, as it appeared in the La Jolla Light on Feb. 4, 1993:

In the old days (so I am told), one went to the opera and heard beautiful singing. There was little concern for staging or set design. The idea of making some kind of dramatic sense of an opera was unheard of. The emphasis was on musical production — if the singers and orchestra were good, their talent carried the story line.

Things have changed now. Movie and theatrical directors have demonstrated that it is possible to make convincing theater out of opera. Singers are expected to act. And designers have found that contemporary opera allows them to indulge their creative whims, unchecked by the dramaturges in theater who might otherwise spoil their fun.

Judging the San Diego Opera’s production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville on old-fashioned, solely musical terms, it could be considered a  success purely on the basis of bringing Australian baritone Jeffreý Black to San Diego. Black possesses a wonderful, full voice, which he used with bravura. He whipped through the tongue-tripping “Largo al factotum” with such verve that at times the orchestra had trouble keeping pace with him. He brought an earnest panache to his role; whenever Black sang, he projected a palpable enthusiasm that was the sonic equivalent to Figaro’s plucky resourcefulness.

Other standouts included Don Bernardini as Count Almaviva, and Kevin Langan as Don Basilio. Bernardini was a supple lyric tenor, whose upper notes were remarkable for their beautiful, soft, smooth tone. Langan was a basso profundissimo, whose lowest notes filled the hall with an enjoyable, almost string-like warmth.

Francois Loup was an enjoyable Dr. Bartolo, but next to Langan, his voice seemed diminished. Delores Ziegler was a capable Rosina, and Roberto Gomez pleasantly sang Fiorello’s opening number.

Conductor Edoardo Muller, who conducted Marriage of Figaro so tastefully last year, once again led the San Diego Opera Orchestra in a skillful, musically sensitive interpretation. The orchestra played flawlessly.

With a knockout lead, a strong supporting cast, and wonderful accompaniment from the pit, this should have been a buoyant Barber of Seville. But it was held down by John Conklin’s inexplicable stage design and John Copley ‘s pedestrian direction.

Conklin’s design is a half-baked pastiche of some of Magritte’s paintings. What is the connection between Magritte and Barber of Seville? None, so far as I can see. Not that this couldn’t have worked. But had Conklin and Copley truly wanted to invoke the spirit of Magritte, they should have explored the language of surrealism more convincingly.

Magritte’s specialty was the unexpected juxtaposition of banal objects–a train and a fireplace, a businessman and an apple. None of this is thoroughly carried out in the staging or design. For instance, the opera opens with a night-lit city landscape set against what could be a daytime sky—obviously a reference to the famous Magritte painting. But then an enormous moon pops into the sky, negating the juxtaposition. Later on in the scene, as a commotion ensues, bowler-topped silhouettes appear in the windows briefly.

These references to Magritte are not integral to the drama. Rather, they suggest nothing so much as the posturing self-indulgence of recent Hollywood films, in which directors advertise the fact that they once took a History of Cinema class with some brief, throwaway reference to a famous movie. It almost seems as if Conklin flipped through a coffee-table book of Magritte paintings, stopping at random images, and asking, “Gee, wouldn’t this be neat to put on stage?”

Admittedly, some of the images are neat, such as Figaro’s barbershop with clouds on the walls and a giant comb and shaving brush. And the restriction of the color design — primarily to sky blue, black, rose red and white— is often striking, particularly when a character peels off a costume to reveal clothes that unexpectedly clash with the color scheme, or when an enormous rose drops across a blue sky. But the failure to thoroughly exploit Magritte — the bizarre juxtapositions, and the commingling of one distinct object with another — in both the design and the staging becomes yet another dismal attempt of pointless, pseudo-intellectual quotation.

Quotation and reference can be powerful — one can imagine a stage design based on Goya’s work, or perhaps a resetting of Barber in early 20th century Spain with references to Picasso, Dali, or even Bunuel. But they can only have force if they somehow bring the text into focus.

Director John Copley revealed his penchant for cheap laughs and pratfalls at the expense of character exploration and deriving any kind of deeper understanding of Barber. This was the same light, undistinguished treatment of material he gave us in Cosi fan Tutte back in 1991.

And what were we to make of the references to Rossini in the stage design, and in the staging of the Act I finale as a sort of concert performance? The attempts to make this a meta-opera — an opera about opera — never really worked, due to the same lack of conviction in thoroughly exploring that particular dramatic idea.

Director Ian Campbell has displayed a talent for importing worthy vocal stars. Perhaps he should branch out and try to bring some of opera’s best directors to San Diego. Enough of John Copley! Give us Robert Wilson or Peter Sellars.

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