Familiarity of ‘Barber of Seville’ makes Rimrock Opera’s latest production accessible to casual fan

September 25, 2009 12:15 am  • By Jaci Webb of the Gazette Staff

Masterful music paired with slapstick comedy – those elements combine to make the opera “The Barber of Seville” a favorite among both performers and audiences.

Think of a Bugs Bunny cartoon set to a stellar score. Conductor Andy Anderson praised the comedic “Barber” as composer Gioacchino Rossini’s masterpiece. Anderson will help Rimrock Opera Company stage the two-act opera this weekend at the Alberta Bair Theater. Performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

“The whole score is brilliant,” Anderson said. “The overture is one of the most familiar works in opera. The arias are stunning, but the ensembles are just amazing.”

Anderson, artistic director of the Mobile Opera in Alabama, has worked with the ROC on previous operas, including “The Girl of the Golden West” and “La Boheme.” He and Rimrock general director Doug Nagel have teamed up on four operas over the years.

The challenge in this piece is to keep it funny, but not allow it to cross over to schlock, said Nagel, who is stage director and producer of this staging of “Barber.”

“Comedy is about timing,” Nagel said. “In place of dialogue, this opera has speaking in pitch. So much of it is recitatives where you have to hit the music and vocals after the letter falls. It really adds to the humor, but it’s difficult to get it right.”

The opera is based on a trilogy of plays written by Beaumarchais. Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” was also based on the Beaumarchais works. “The Barber of Seville” tells the story of a young nobleman Almaviva (tenor Sean T. Miller) who wins his lover Rosina (soprano Lisa Lombardy) from her lecherous guardian Dr. Bartolo (Robert Aaron Taylor). To do this, Almaviva enlists the help of his friend, the barber Figaro (baritone Chris Johnson). “Barber” was first staged in 1816 in Rome and became the first Italian opera performed in the U.S., premiering in New York in 1825.

If you’ve never seen an opera, “Barber of Seville” is a great first taste because the music is familiar and this production will be sung in English, Anderson said.

“Everybody has seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon, ‘The Bunny of Seville,’ so the music will sound quite familiar. As an artistic director, I always say, ‘If we can get them in the door with one opera, they’ll come back.”’

In the title role, Johnson, a Billings Senior High graduate, said he channels his inner “goofball.” Johnson recently finished his master’s degree in music from Indiana University’s Jacobs School. He has performed in ROC productions before, including “The Old Maid and the Thief.”

“My character, Figaro, is the matchmaker, but he’s just a big goofball who comes up with this scheme.”

Johnson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in music from Montana State University where he performed in his first opera, is performing alongside his first vocal coach, Lombardy. Both said they were initially nervous about singing on stage together; the student trying to impress just as much as the teacher.

“I just want to make sure I’m doing everything she told me to do,” Johnson said.

Lombardy added, “I don’t tell my students that they should come see me. I would never expect that of them, but many do come to watch,” said Lombardy, who also plays violin in the orchestra pit and with the Billings Symphony Orchestra when she’s not singing.

Because “Barber of Seville” will be sung in English with super titles projected above the stage, Johnson said it was easier to memorize the lyrics, but making them fit into the score is the test.

“Italian has very pure vowels. So we need to have the diction so the English is understood,” Johnson said.