What could be better than a classic romantic comedy for a Valentine's Day date night? How about a classic romantic comedy that's also one of the world's most popular operas, live, onstage with world-class singers? And you don't have to brave the crowds on Valentine's Day itself; in fact, you've got eight chances to catch Opera San Jose's production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville this month at the beautiful California Theatre.
The Barber of Seville has been a hit since its premiere in 1816, and it's easy to see why. Love conquers all, downstairs conquers upstairs, cleverness is a virtue and everyone gets a happy ending. It's full of beautiful and familiar melodies that have been used (and parodied) in films, commercials and television for decades, starting with the famous overture, which was the basis for one of the greatest of all Bugs Bunny cartoons, The Rabbit of Seville (and if you laugh out loud when you hear it in the theater, don't worry -- you won't be alone). There's nothing like the thrill of live opera done well, and if you've never been to one before, Barber is a great introduction. And I learned long ago when working at The Met in New York that date nights don't get any classier than a night at the opera.
It's a plot that goes all the way back to ancient Greece: the pompous old Dr. Bartolo has decided to marry his ward, the beautiful Rosina, for her substantial dowry. She of course, wants no part of him, and when she falls in love with a poor student who serenades her, she enlists the help of her friend Figaro, the very clever barber, to get out of the marriage. The poor student is actually the very wealthy Count Almaviva, who wants Rosina to love him for himself and not his money. After a series of tricks, misdirections, disguises and door-slamming worthy of a British farce, Almaviva and Rosina are married, Figaro is rewarded handsomely, and even old Dr. Bartolo finds consolation with Rosina's dowry (which Almaviva gives him). The original novel by Beaumarchais was banned when it first appeared in 1775; it was considered subversive in its disrespect for the aristocracy. But things had changed in the wake of the French and American revolutions, and by Rossini's time Figaro had become almost a folk hero -- which didn't hurt the opera's chances for success.
Krassen Karagiozov as Figaro. Photo by Chris Ayers.
As with most well-written comedy, The Barber of Seville needs a top-notch cast and production to do it justice. Opera San Jose may not get the publicity that the San Francisco Opera gets (not surprising, since SFO is the second-biggest opera company in the country), but they more than hold their own in the artistic department, primarily because of the wealth of vocal talent the Bay Area has to offer. This is, after all, the home of the world-famous Merola opera training program, the Schwabacher Debut Recital series at the San Francisco Opera Center, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which has one of the country's best voice departments. OSJ is unique in that they nurture a stock company of up-and-coming singers, who get valuable training and experience while they perform during the season. So your ticket to an OSJ production is also a chance for you to help build the career of one of tomorrow's operatic stars.
Rossini's The Barber of Seville opens Saturday, February 12 and runs for eight performances through Sunday, February 27 at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose. Performances are at 8pm except for Sunday matinees, which start at 3pm. There are English supertitles so you can get all the jokes, and pre-performance talks that start an hour and a half before each show, if you want to learn more about Rossini, his operas, or what it was like to go to the opera in 1816. Opera in his day was like the movies for us, and who knows how many love affairs have blossomed after a night at The Barber of Seville? For tickets and information visit operasj.org.