Razor Sharp in Walnut Creek, CA

The Festival Opera Company in Walnut Creek, CA has developed a reputation for gathering an ensemble of fine young singers and delivering clever, uniformly excellent productions. This season's opening offering "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" is no exception.

Dr. Bartolo:
Don Basilio:
Fiorello/The Sergeant:


Artistic Director:
Brian Leerhuber
Jessica Tivens
Don Frazure
Bojan Knezevic
Phillip Skinner
Margaret Lisi
John Minagro

Ari Pelto (Mar. 25, 27)
Michael Morgan (Mar. 29, 31)

Harvey Berman
Olivia Stapp

The production had a minimalist unit set, portions of which were rotated to create different effects. An assortment of stylized painted drops were raised and lowered effecting interior and exterior settings. The costuming was rather standard, Figaro dressed in torreador costume and Rosina in doll-like dresses. Clever wigs and make-up transformed the youthful Skinner and Knezevic into a pair of crusty old codgers.

Much of the success of this production rests firmly on the shoulders of Stage Director Harvey Berman. Barbiere should be fun, frothy and full of hilarity and IT WAS. The cast's youthful exuberance was clearly evident and utilized to maximum effect. They were obviously having a good time on stage. Movement was choreographed for the maximum use of the stage with deft comic touches. However, none of the mugging, pratfalls or schtick got in the way of Rossini's dazzling, witty score.

Leerhuber's vocal artistry and stage presence shone throughout the evening. His warm baritone voice is solid throughout and his sense of comic timing is spot on. "Largo al factotum" was seemingly tossed off with the greatest of ease, ending with a comedic dance. Jessica Tivens' Cherubino last year stole the local audience's collective hearts and she came back to reclaim them, this time as a soprano Rosina. Tivens sang "Una voce poco fa" with lovely coloratura and fearless attacks on the high notes. Tenor, Don Frazure is the latest "find" in the Festival Opera ensemble. A Julliard Young Artist, Frazure was a bit timid in his opening aria "Ecco ridente in cielo" but moments later "Se il mio nome" was sung very well. Although he didn't display a ringing top, there was great beauty and clarity of tone and sincerity in his delivery. All of these young artists have wonderful careers in the making.

Show stealing continued with Skinner's "La calunnia". I've enjoyed Skinner in so many smaller roles at San Francisco Opera, so it is such a joy to see him sing a showpiece aria with his well projected, solid bass voice. I literally had tears running down my cheeks, I was laughing so hard. Knezevic was equally funny in the buffo show-stopper "Un dotor della mia sorte". The patter was delivered with precison in his bronzed bass-baritone voice. Knezevic was a most convincing pompous Bartolo.

Duets, trios and ensembles were also well performed. "Fredda ed immobile" had the audience in an uproar of laughter. One cut was made to the score and that was the scene just prior to the storm; the action was pantomimed with supertitles during the storm music. For those not familiar with the score, not a problem, but I was disappointed by this small lapse in continuity. Festival Opera mounts opera productions, the envy of much larger houses, on a shoe-string budget. Yet Festival consistently delivers artistic professionalism of the highest order. I found that the supertitles were unnecessary because the singers' diction was so good. Ari Pelto's able conducting added a lively pace to the production. Unfortunately there are only three remaining performances of this little gem: Monday March 27th 8:00 p.m., Wednesday March 29th 2:00 matinee (Morgan conducting), and Friday March 31st 8:00 p.m. (Morgan). There are still some tickets available.

Festival Opera's season will continue in the summer with L'Elisir d'Amore and Werther. Bay Area residents may wish to purchase tickets NOW as these performances are certain to sell out. Festival Opera also has a website at http://www.festivalopera.com.

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