On Site’s “Barber” featured on WQXR’s Operavore
When Opera is About Location, Location, Location
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
By Fred Plotkin
When one talks about real estate value in New York, the old saw is that it is based on “location, location, location.” And so it seems with how opera is presented around town.
New York is its own summer opera festival this year with delectable offerings available for those who seek them. While the Metropolitan Opera means unrivaled grandeur, major voices and splendid musical forces in the other three seasons, summertime opera provides more unusual repertory and performance styles than any world city I can think of.
I was reminded of this on June 12 as I sat in the tranquil courtyard of the Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street. Although I am often in that neighborhood, this hidden gem had escaped me. And, on a Friday evening when all the wealthy residents of the block had repaired to their weekend homes, the street was completely quiet and an ideal place to hear an opera.
The work in question was Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), which had its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1782. The libretto is by Giuseppe Petrosellini, based on the famous play and characters by Beaumarchais. Paisiello (1740-1816) is undervalued today. His work as part of the 18th century Neapolitan school of opera influenced the evolution of the art form in its elegant and seamless integration of theater and music in which comedy and wistfulness are present in every moment.
The Barbiere I attended was a production by the innovative On Site Opera, which specializes in presenting unusual works in site-specific locales. I have enjoyed their productions of Gershwin’s noirish Blue Monday at Harlem’s Cotton Club and Rameau’s Pygmalion at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum on West 42nd Street. Their thinking is that these very distinct settings add to the experiencing of a particular work even more than seeing them in a theater with custom-built scenery.
In this case, the first act was in the courtyard of the mansion, which neatly served as the Sevillian plaza where Almaviva (David Blalock) and Figaro (Andrew Wilkowske) communicate to Rosina (Monica Yunus) at her window above. She is locked in by her ward, Dr. Bartolo, and we meet him and his servants at the entrance to the mansion. For the second act, the audience walked up to the mansion’s gorgeous library, where the rest of the story played out in a perfect space. For each act, a small orchestra was placed at one end of the space.
Seeing the opera this way, it was a pleasure to focus on the gradual unfolding of the story, familiar though it might be to anyone who knows every detail of the famous Rossini 1816 version. The staging of the Paisiello by Eric Einhorn emphasized narrative rather than attempt to be kinetic and farcical, as is now the standard in productions of the Rossini. This opera is the first in a planned Figaro trilogy to include the U.S. premieres of Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro (1800) and Darius Milhaud’s The Guilty Mother.