Any time a production is revived at the Canadian Opera Company, it’s worth asking why. Sometimes, it’s a sure thing for ticket sales, such as John Caird’s La Bohème or Mark Lamos’s Carmen. Sometimes, it’s about getting a second look at a Canadian masterpiece, including Robert Lepage’s unforgettable double-billing of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung.
And sometimes, as in the case of The Barber of Seville, on stage now – brought to life by director Joan Font and his Spanish theatre troupe, Els Comediants, and last seen at the COC in 2015 – it’s just about showing off some great singing. Specifically, the singing of Emily D’Angelo.
D’Angelo, the 25-year-old Toronto native who just won’t stop winning competitions and making major opera-house debuts (Santa Fe Opera, the Berlin State Opera and Houston Grand Opera, to name a few), is an ideal fit for Rosina, the whip-smart heroine of Rossini’s work. I can’t think of a better decision than for the COC to bring back its whimsical, physical and commedia dell’arte-infused production of Barber and thrust D’Angelo into her first true leading role in her hometown.
D’Angelo delivers. She sings a note-perfect Rosina with not a whiff of effort, flashing her megawatt smile wherever she can. She takes a few musical risks where she’s given the elbow room – Rossini’s style is all about letting the singer show off to near vulgarity, after all – but for the most part, she opts for excellent singing instead of reinventing the wheel. Well-played, for the young star; it’s thrilling enough to hear her reedy, agile sound spill out with ease.
Also thrilling: D’Angelo isn’t the only showstopper in this production. Italian baritone Vito Priante steps into the title role like Figaro incarnate, making his notorious entrance with one of opera’s most famous tunes – the one where he sings “Figaro!” ad nauseam and to our total delight. One can only assume that Priante can turn out a “Largo al factotum” before he’s had his first espresso, judging from the ease and fun in his sound.
Truly, this cast of singers was as close to perfect as I’ve heard at the COC. Argentine tenor Santiago Ballerini makes for an ideal Count Almaviva, from his machine-gun coloratura to his charmingly diminutive stature. Brandon Cedel is a booming Don Basilio, likely an accidental nod to the unmistakable speaking voice of a professional voice teacher. Even Joel Allison and Simona Genga, two young artists from the COC Ensemble Studio program, are polished and fun in their supporting roles.
But like any good bit of theatre, there’s a twist. The true star of this Barber is on the podium, in Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci. Brimming with energy, clean lines and an actual sense of humour, Scappucci drew applause and cheers after the overture, before the curtain even rose.
And as she hands the spotlight over to the singers, Scappucci spends every moment creating theatre. Her tempos are quick, at times exhaustively so, but her singers and orchestra are up to the challenge. She does away with a few tired traditions (mostly ones where the singers hang out for days on a big high note), reining in the performers in order to make drama the priority.
It’s all there, the atmosphere of something as playful as Barber, the impressive attention to detail and the mischievous game between pit and stage, one daring the other to go just a little bit faster. It’s thrilling and, mercifully, tons of fun. Let’s have Scappucci back to the COC, and soon.
This iteration of the Font/Els Comediants Barber of Seville solidifies, for anyone in doubt, the COC’s world-class status among opera houses internationally. This is a star cast from leads to comprimarios, slotted into a production that mirrors the frisky surrealism of this classic tale.
The Barber of Seville plays at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto until Feb. 7.
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