Tamerlano And The Barber Of Seville
Opera Review by Willard Manus

Los Angeles Opera closed out 2009 with two very different but quite remarkable productions: George Frideric Handels's TAMERLANO and Gioachino Rossini's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE. The first was a dark, brooding exploration of the battle between good and evil in the heart of man; the other was a light-hearted romp through the minefields of love.

TAMERLANO is a long, difficult opera to produce. The uncut score runs more than four hours and, according to conductor William Lacey, it doesn't always specify which instruments are meant to be played at key moments. Lacey not only chopped the opera down to workable (3 1/2hr) size but made inspired choices in terms of the instrumentation, using two harpsicords, two theorbos (a giraffe-like, eerily-sounding flute) for the opera's numerous recitatives, buttressed by violins, violas, basses, bassoons and recorder in the larger orchestral passages.

The opera's vocal demands are equally complex and daunting, with all kinds of embellishments and breath control called for, especially on the part of the Tartar emperor, Tamerlano, sung by the counter-tenor, Bejun Mehta. Mehta is a marvel, thanks to his high, limpid, pure-sounding voice and masterful stage presence.

Actually, all the voices in this production were of the highest order, beginning with Placido Domingo, who has recently added the role of the brutal (though defeated) Turkish despot, Bajazet, to his repertoire. Domingo's still-powerful voice and imposing physicality brought Bajazet to vivid life (especially in the opera's climactic, tragic death-scene).

The other equally gifted performers were Patricia Bardon (in the male role of the Greek general, Andronico); Sarah Coburn as Asteria (Bajazet's beautiful, love-stricken daughter); Jennifer Holloway as Irene (Princess of Trebizond); and Ryan McKinney as Leone. Together with Domingo and Mehta they made miraculous noises all night long.

The only jarring note was director Chas Rader-Shieber's decision to update the opera, in post-modern fashion, and set it in Nazi Germany. All principals and extras wore black military uniforms--except for Domingo, who was costumed in ornate oriental robes. Bizarre.

The costumes stood out as well in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, but in an organic and splendid way. Designed by Argentinian-born Renata Schussheim, they brought wit and raffish humor to L.A. Opera's latest production of the Rossini classic. Aided, respectively, by Llorenc Corbella and Eduardo Bravo's ingenious and jaunty sets and lights, this version of BARBER was a joy to behold from start to finish.

As for the principals, it would be hard to find better singers than Nathan Gunn, as Figaro; mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Rosina; tenor Juan Diego Flores as Count Almavina; Bruno Pratico as Doctor Bartolo; Andrea Silvestrelli as Don Basilio; Joe Adan Perez as Fiorello; Kerri Marcinko as Berta; Juan Talavera as Ambrogio; and Craig Colclough as the Sergeant. Emilio Sagi directed them with a flourish.

DiDonato and Florez are, of course, two of the hottest, fastest-rising young singers out there. Gifted with large, expressive voices, they also exude charm, sex appeal and good looks; and together they make a terrific team, especially in a sparkling, light-hearted comedy like BARBER. No doubt the opera world (especially L.A. Opera) will be hooking them up as often as possible in the years to come.

L.A. Opera also booked an alternate cast of singers for the three-week run of BARBER. Heading the list were Lucas Meachem, Sarah Coburn, Dmitry Korchak, Ryan McKinney, Daniel Armstrong, Ronnita Nicole Miller and Philip Cokorinos.

L.A. Opera will usher in the new year on April 3 with its production of Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung, directed and designed by Achim & Amanda Freyer. It will be followed (also in April) by The Stigmatized, by Franz Schreker. May will see the eagerly-awaited production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Running through June 26, the Ring Cycle will include performances of Das Rehingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.

For tickets and information call 213-972-8001 or visit laopera.com