A sidewalk pianist braved the swirling leaves as autumn finally blew into Charlotte last weekend, bringing out the scarves, knee-high boots and the opening of Opera Carolina‘s 68th season. Inside the Blumenthal Center volunteers in period Spanish costumes posed for souvenir photos with opera patrons. Waiting for curtain time, I wandered through the Belk Theater lobby, past a lecturer explaining that Rossini’s great fame rests on operas he composed before age 38 and that he enjoyed the fruits of those endeavors for the next 38 years!

The super-friendly staff was eager to help me to my seat and the whole experience was most positive – but then what explains the small audience for one of Grand Opera’s greatest achievements? Surely it is not apprehension due to recent protests – the streets were full of merry folks of every make, model and vintage. Nor do the Chicago Cubs appeal to the same segment of the population that thrills to trills. And the answer to small audiences certainly didn’t hide inside the theater where Opera Carolina, ably assisted by the Charlotte Symphony, put on a fine performance – a bit uneven in the beginning, but better and better as the evening progressed.

Gioacchino Rossini‘s The Barber of Seville (or Il Barbiere di Siviglia, since the performance is sung in the original Italian) is probably the most famous and popular comic opera in existence. The overture (already well known by the time Rossini used it for the third and final time with Barbiere) has graced Loonie Toons, and the famous Figaro aria (Largo al factotum) is known even by children. The plot is simple and not as absurd as most opera plots – a young nobleman, Count Almaviva, has fallen in love with young Rosina, the ward of a well known but elderly doctor of Seville, Dr. Bartolo, who would like to marry the lass himself. Disguising himself first as a young student, then as a drunken soldier, and finally as an apprentice music teacher, the Count impresses the young lady, who is struck by his voice, which echoes in her heart (Una voce poco fa…). The rest of the opera recounts how the couple contrives to bring their plans to fruition, which requires the guile and will of the ubiquitous and popular village barber, Figaro, who, by the way, also figures in two other stories concerning how the common folk could manipulate the aristocracy: the Marriage of Figaro (best known in the version by Mozart) and the Guilty Mother (which had to wait until 1966 to appear as an opera, this time composed by Darius Milhaud), all written by the brilliant jack-of-all-trades, Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799).

Great as the composer may be, the day-to-day reputation of an opera resides largely with its singers. And we are indeed fortunate in the offerings of Opera Carolina. I could not imagine a more accomplished and thoroughly delicious Rosina than coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek whose perfect intonation and marvelous vocal technique brought down the house. I have always been partial to a fast vibrato, and Lewek’s sound brought me to the edge of my chair in anticipation. “Una voce poco fa” was superb, ending on the upper octave E or F – a feat she repeated twice more during the evening. Her acting brought out an impetuous impatience in the character of Rosina bordering on lasciviousness.

The other character most susceptible to her charms is her guardian and would-be suitor, Dr. Bartolo, admirably sung by baritone Steven Condy whose portly stature, rich voice and superb acting stole every scene he was in. He was at his best when egged into ridiculous postures by the good barber, who suavely manipulated all the characters in the opera. The title role of Figaro, the Barber, was sung by baritone Hyung Yun, whose first act aria, “Largo al factotum,” was sung with verve, precision, and a swashbuckling insouciance!

A stain on one’s reputation may insidiously grow into a slanderous blot, a destructive calumny, preaches the authoritarian music teacher Don Basilio (Kevin Langan, bass) to Dr. Bartolo in instructing him how to fight back at his rival, the Count Almaviva in the Act I aria, “La calunnia é un venticello.” The victorious Count Almaviva (literally “Living Spirit”) was sung by Victor Ryan Robertson whose light but beautiful tenor voice was as seductive as Rosina would have us believe. Some early Act I melisma passages tended to be almost glissandi, but everything was back firmly in place for the rest of the opera. Robertson was an excellent actor on stage, impersonating the factitious apprentice music teacher with virtuosic comic charm.

Pamela Williamson, soprano, played the part of Dr. Bartolo’s rheumy housekeeper, Berta, who was prone to fits of sneezing. Ms. Williamson showed a lovely soprano voice in her solitary aria bemoaning the ills of aging. Michael Stromar, tenor, sang two roles: Fiorello, a sidekick of Figaro who organizes the Count’s opening serenade of Rosina, and an officer who is cowed into obedience by the reputation of the Count. The opening scene almost ran away as tempos on stage and in the pit varied precariously for a couple of seconds as the wayward men’s chorus, otherwise excellent, vented its opening night jitters. Music Director and conductor James Meena had his hands full for a couple of moments, but was otherwise firmly in charge of the excellent orchestra. Emily Jarrell Urbanek played the harpsichord during the unaccompanied recitatives, from stage left, in full view of the audience and merited the curtain call at the end of the performance, although the amplification of the harpsichord (and the hidden and anonymous guitar as well) was exaggeratedly loud and omnidirectional.

Michael Baumgarten‘s lighting played an interesting role a couple of times, changing the entire mood of the stage from over-the-top farcical to surreal with the flip of a switch. In combination with the stage direction of Bernard Uzan, this most impressive effect occurred just after the scheming trio had singled out Dr. Bartolo as frozen and immobile (Fredda ed immobile): the entire stage is bathed in eerie other-worldly light and the cast moves in slow motion while singing at break-neck speed that they felt as though their heads had been put into a fiery forge.

The opera will be repeated on Thursday, October 27 and Sunday, October 30. For details, see sidebar.