Central City Opera (CCO), one of the jewels of the summer season in Colorado, is offering two productions in the historic Central City Opera House this year.
The operas were carefully chosen for both contrast and quality: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a delightful comedy with the vocal fireworks of early 19th-century Italy; and Ned Rorem’s Our Town, a moving contemporary opera based on one of the great American stage works (through July 28; a third production, Jerome Kern’s 1927 musical Showboat, will be presented Aug. 6–11 in Denver).
I could exhaust my thesaurus listing the contrasts between Barber and Our Town: artificiality vs. reality; exotic vs. native; hijinks vs. solemnity; etc. But the underlying point is that these two works give opera-lovers many and varied reasons to drive into the mountains this summer.
And happily for audiences, the performances live up to the promise of the programming.
The Barber of Seville is a delightful, sparkling production of Rossini’s classic. Arnulfo Maldonaldo’s set makes effective use of CCO’s limited stage area to create a stylized gilded cage, representing Rosina’s imprisonment by her lecherous guardian, Don Bartolo. The vibrant Technicolor costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti are eye-catching reminders that we are in a world of fantasy where anything can happen.
The singing actors are thoroughly invested in director Marc Astafan’s staging. The inherent silliness of his approach serves the work very well, with only a few gratuitous bits that go too far.
One of the joys of the production is seeing the excellent young singers in the principal roles. If you know Rosina and Count Almaviva from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, you will be happy to be reminded that this earlier story (but later opera) presents them at a much younger age, in the throes of first love.
The entire cast was solid and the characterizations on target from beginning to end. As singers, Jennifer Rivera as Rosina and David Portillo as Almaviva impressed the most, handling Rossini’s vocal demands handily, even while charging about the stage. Rivera commanded attention in Rosina’s big aria “Una voce poco fa” (although I thought the audience surprisingly polite in its response for an opera house). As the title character, Daniel Belcher was an energetic and winning Figaro.
The beginning of Our Town underlines the contrast between the two productions: no bright colors, but a bare stage, soon filled with black-clad townspeople in mourning. Rorem’s atmospheric music helps set the scene, as gauzy chords surround an impressionistic rendering of a simple hymn.
Turn-of-the-20th-century Grover’s Corners is suggested with a few pieces of furniture and fragments of buildings. Alan E. Muraoka’s scene design makes effective use of projections to complete the setting: Main Street, the Webb and Gibbs homes, the surrounding hills.
Stage director Ken Kazan moves the characters, particularly the omnipresent stage manager, efficiently through the abstract spaces. Marcy Froehlich’s simple costumes evoke the everyday world without calling attention to themselves, exactly as they should.
The libretto is based largely in a distilled text of Thornton Wilder’s play. Anyone familiar with the original may find the occasional alterations, either for verbal efficiency or to create a rhyming text, disconcerting. In some cases nuance is sacrificed, although most audiences will not be disturbed.
Rorem does not aim for conventionally expressive music, setting the text instead in natural, conversational vocal lines highlighted with occasionally sweeping flourishes. This places emotional impact largely in the hands of the singers, who must convey feeling through performance. The Central City cast contains genuine actors who found many ways to bring their characters to life, well beyond the expressiveness of their singing.
In the crucial role of the stage manager, Vale Rideout managed the extreme ranges, register shifts and vocal cascades with aplomb, in spite of occasional roughness of voice. William Ferguson was an appealingly youthful George Gibbs, full of the energy and uncertainty of adolescence.
Anna Christy was touching as the story’s central character, Emily Webb, who affects and motivates everyone around her. She sang Emily’s show-ending aria, summing up the message that the living can’t see how much they miss while alive, with focus and intensity.
Finally, in contrast (again!) to the youthful cast of The Barber of Seville, that of Our Town profits from the inclusion of CCO veterans in the roles of Grover’s Corners’ older generation, especially the parents: Kevin Langan and Phyllis Pancella (Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs); and John Hancock and Sally Wolf (Mr. and Mrs. Webb).
Conductors John Baril (Barber) and Christopher Zemliauskas (Our Town) wielded effective control, and the orchestra performed incisively in both works.
Central City Opera´s productions of Our Town and The Barber of Seville run through July 28 at the Central City Opera House. Tickets start at $30. Visit www.centralcityopera.org for more information.