Cory Weaver

Watching a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville is akin to dropping the needle on a well-worn favorite record. It's so familiar that it becomes a comforting background hum, barely distracting from scrolling through Twitter or folding laundry.

That was the mood at the Keller Auditorium on Friday night as the audience settled in for the Portland Opera’s opening night performance of Seville. When Rossini’s overture kicked in so did a little dopamine rush of joyful recognition. Even opera newbies, like my guest for the night, recognized melodies they’d heard in other pop culture outlets: Looney Tunes, films, commercials, etc.

After the quaint opening scenes of lovelorn Count Almaviva (Jack Swanson) trying and failing to serenade the girl of his dreams, a palpable complacency settled over the crowd. And that may be just what director Christopher Mattaliano intended. Lulled into a state of glassy-eyed contentment as we all were, the arrival of Figaro—the titular barber (and wigmaker and tailor and matchmaker)—shocked us awake.

Figaro was played by baritone John Moore, an opera vet who has performed this same role around the world for the past decade. He sauntered onto the stage with the swagger of Ocean’s 11-era Sinatra or the ingratiating air of a Harold Hill-type huckster, and danced through his opening aria “Largo al factotum” with a jazzy approach, twisting those all-too-familiar melodies—particularly the often-parodied “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiiiiigarrrrooooooooo”—just enough to keep both the orchestra and the audience on edge. It was nothing short of electrifying. And the responding applause, from the audience, was the most clamorous I’ve ever heard at a Portland Opera performance.

Cory Weaver

Moore’s performance encouraged everyone else in the cast to up their game. Some rose to the unspoken challenge. Mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano (Rosina) matched Moore’s energy and joie de vivre, embodying both sides of Rosina’s personality. She's docile and loving, but—as she sings in her introductory aria “Una voce poco fa”—a viper if crossed. Swanson, as well, added another level to his blundering attempts at getting closer to his lady love, disguised as a drunken soldier and a stodgy music teacher. Only Eduardo Chama (Doctor Bartolo) took some time to rise to the occasion. The bass-baritone blustered masterfully, but stumbled when the end of the first act required him to rattle off lines in rapid fire pattern. By the second act, though, Chama settled in and charmed the crowd, even as we actively rooted against his efforts to keep Rosina from her fairy tale courtship with Almaviva.

Delightful as they often were, the rest of the cast paled in comparison to Moore, and his absence from the stage caused noticeable restlessness in the audience. He was compelling and hilarious, even as he threatened to push his performance over the top. I would argue that this is what so many of these centuries-old operas need: an injection of moxie, either through inventive direction or performances that pull staid roles closer to our modern era. The Barber of Seville is an established part of the operatic repertoire so playing it safe isn’t the worst thing an opera company can do, but this run took some chances and the delight of the audience was the clear reward.