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Renato Girolami, left, as Doctor Bartolo and Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in the COC’s The Barber of Seville.

Michael Cooper

Title
The Barber of Seville
Company
The Canadian Opera Company
Music
Gioachino Rossini
Director
Joan Font
Stars
Joshua Hopkins, Serena Malfi, Alek Shrader, Renato Girolami, Robert Gleadow
Venue
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
City
Toronto

Consider the wingman. Tasked with helping his buddy navigate love's murky waters, he rarely gets a minute to consider his own romantic prospects. Just what would compel a man to such altruism?

In the Canadian Opera Company's new madcap rendition of Rossini's Barber of Seville, on now at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, the answer is clear: lucre.

"The mere mention of this splendid, all-powerful metal causes a volcano to erupt in my brain," exclaims Figaro, the titular scheming Barber, after Count Almaviva offers him a handsome reward of gold to help him secure the hand of the lovely Rosina.

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Fistfuls of oversized bills play a prominent role in this new production from the Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants and their director Joan Font, who return to Toronto after 2011's popular Cinderella (La Cenerentola) at the COC. The new staging draws heavily on the commedia dell'arte for its costumes, its troupe of non-singing actors and its unending shenanigans. Physical comedy and sight gags abound: A comically tiny pink stand gets brought out in the knick of time for a guitar player to prop his foot on, and the bad guys all have shaved heads ringed with bright green or blue tufts, the better to recognize them from the cheap seats.

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins cuts a jaunty Figaro, wearing an asymmetrical pink floral vest with one painted-on eyebrow permanently cocked. He plays his solos for maximum laughs-out-loud, especially his entrance aria Largo al factotum, with its famous "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro," etc. (which, yes, you surely first heard sung by Woody Woodpecker or conducted by Bugs Bunny).

Like any good wingman though, he's upstaged in the comedy department by Alek Shrader's Count, who prances about the stage in all manner of disguises, dispensing bribes and other payments to win Rosina's heart and elude the snares of her mean old guardian, Doctor Bartolo, who also hopes to marry her (it's that kind of opera). Shrader uses his nimble tenor to great effect, demonstrating perfect comic timing with his trills and embellishments, particularly in the opening serenade. At one point, he emerges dressed as Rosina's music teacher, and his pirouetting at the keyboard of a massive hot-pink piano was worthy of Monty Python. For a moment, you could barely hear his droll singing over the crowd's cackles.

That piano, along with a similarly oversized guitar in the first act, serves as the focal point for the colourful, off-kilter sets, which were inspired by Russian constructivism and cubism. At their best, they lend an absurdist unreality to the comic goings-on, although at times they come across as a little Spartan, especially in the opening scenes.

The Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi brings a gorgeous, dark tone and impressive clarity to the part of Rosina, the object of the Count's affections. (With her darting eyes and mop of brunette curls, she also bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Cecilia Bartoli.) Malfi's Rosina is a cunning, spirited maiden, as adept as Figaro in the dark arts of ferrying love notes past the hawk-eyed Bartolo (one shudders at what a decent text-messaging plan would do to many opera buffa plots).

As Bartolo, the Italian baritone Renato Girolami excels at playing the clown who's never in on the joke, and Robert Gleadow brings his big strong bass-baritone to the role of Don Basilio, Bartolo's unscrupulous, easily bought-off henchman (with the exception of Figaro, most of the principal roles switch off cast members in the latter half of the five-week run). The young Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, meanwhile, leads the COC Orchestra through a crisp rendition of Rossini's buoyant score.

With its intercepted love letters, wafer-thin disguises and, yes, actors hanging from chandeliers, The Barber of Seville is full of zany buffa delights. If certain elements – some seemingly underdecorated sets; the ambiguous focus on money, right up until a final gimmick I won't spoil – fail to fully cohere, that does little to dampen the fun.

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The Barber of Seville runs until May 22 (coc.ca).

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