‘Barber of Seville’ perfect for the first-time opera-goer

You may not be familiar with the story of Gioachino Rossini’s comedic masterpiece “The Barber of Seville,” but you certainly know the music. Think Bugs Bunny and “The Rabbit of Seville.” Think “Seinfeld” and the jealous barber episode. Think “The Simpson’s” and a barber-inspired episode called “Homer of Seville.” Think Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!

Matthew Lata says the music is explosive, energetic and simply irresistible. He should know. He is directing the New Orleans Opera’s upcoming production of “The Barber of Seville” Friday and Sunday at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts.

“It’s about good singing, good acting and fun characters,” said Lata, stage director of the Florida State Opera, based at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., where he is also a professor. “It moves quickly, and the plot is easy to follow.”

In other words, Lata says, “The Barber of Seville” often called the world’s funniest opera, is “absolutely” a perfect opera for the first-time opera-goer, children included.

In Italian with English subtitles, “The Barber of Seville” is based on a play by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, as is its sequel, “The Marriage of Figaro.” It is a whimsical, often wacky tale about a maiden forced into marriage, a handsome count in disguise, star-crossed lovers and the ingenious barber of Seville.

“Will everyone live happily ever after?” a New Orleans Opera press release asks. “Or will the beautiful Rosina be forced to marry the grumpy old Dr. Bartolo?”

The cast includes mezzo-soprano Deborah Domanski as Rosina. Domanski played the same role last month with the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit. Also in the cast are tenor Michele Angelini as Count Almaviva, baritone Matthew Worth as Figaro, bass Thomas Hammons as Doctor Bartolo and bass Samuel Ramey as Don Basilio. The conductor is Robert Lyall.

Ramey, who has more than 80 recordings to his credit and a resume that includes performances in the world’s most famous opera houses, is making his New Orleans Opera debut. At 70, he says he feels like a “fish out of water” but is thrilled to be working with such a fine cast, regardless of age.

“The cast is fantastic, so many great young singers,” said Ramey, who lives in Chicago. “I’m the old man here. But so far it’s been great. Matthew Lata is someone I worked with many years ago, and it’s been fun to hook up with him again.”

As Basilio, Ramey plays the role of a music teacher who gives singing lessons to Rosina and assists the evil Bartolo in his quest for Rosina’s hand. But Rosina, a ward of Bartolo’s, has her eyes on the handsome Count Almaviva. Worth plays the title role of Figaro, the meddlesome barber, matchmaker and jack of many other trades who helps the count win his love through a series of tricks and misadventures. With a voice that The New York Times described as “fully powered and persuasively expressive,” he also sings the opera’s most famous aria, “Largo al factotum.”

“For me the heart and soul of a piece like this is that the singers are showing off, the music was written specifically for that purpose,” Lata said. “If we can communicate that joy to the audience, we will have success.”

The laugh-out-loud production, which premiered in Rome in 1816, also has its share of slapstick. But, Lata said, “We don’t use shtick for shtick sakes and cheap laughs. The characters are really human, and we try to find those moments as well. It really is a perfect first opera. We try to tell a good story.”

Ramey agreed that the “The Barber of Seville” offers novices an ideal introduction to the world of opera.

“This is a production that people will enjoy,” he said. “Anyone coming to the opera for the first time will find it enjoyable. It’s very entertaining, and it’s very funny, and we have an excellent cast.”

Performances are Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $133. Ticket holders are encouraged to arrive an early for a “Nuts and Bolts” lecture about the performance on the second-floor mezzanine. For tickets, call the Opera Box Office at 504.529.3000 or order online at www.neworleansopera.org or www.ticketmaster.com.

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