Aspen Music Festival review: Opera Theater has fun with Rossini’s ‘Barbiere’ | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Music Festival review: Opera Theater has fun with Rossini’s ‘Barbiere’

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

With a big, lumpy, Seville orange dominating basic but clever sets, a small coterie of clowns gathered to help Count Almaviva serenade the housebound Rosina to launch Aspen Opera Theater's high-spirited staging of Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" on Thursday in the Wheeler Opera House. ("Barbiere" continues with performances tonight and Monday.)

The chorus sang lustily, each clown approaching — with different character — his fake-playing of flat-painted instruments as Josh Lovell delivered the count's "Ecco, ridente" in a sweet lyric tenor. Sensitive playing accompanied him by the ad hoc student orchestra, under Christopher Allen, a young conductor fostered by Placido Domingo and James Conlon.

It looked like this was going to be good, and it was. Comic ideas kept coming, the pace never flagged, and the singing was strong up and down the cast, including the 12-man chorus.

Several of the clowns set up lighting to focus on the back of the audience for Figaro's entrance aria, the familiar "Largo al factotum," as the show-off title character makes his way to the stage. Baritone Juan Carlos Heredia sung it with zest and conveyed bravado. He even played his own guitar, effectively replacing the orchestra for the count's second serenade.

Rosina's famous aria, "Una voce poco fa," revealed a light, silvery, bright soprano with impressive coloratura in Hong Kong-born Vivian Yau, a million-watt smile endearing her to the audience.

Vincent Grana applied his light-ish bass to Rosina's grumpy, elderly, lustful guardian Bartolo, though his costume and makeup could not conceal his youth. William Guanbo Su's deeper, more solid bass made Basilio's music sound more like it, but he never quite topped off the big crescendo in "La calunnia," his aria about slander. Both brought comic zing to their quick patter songs.

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In the smaller roles, mezzo-soprano Noragh Devlin came close to stealing the show with the inebriated governess Berta's Act Two aria, baritone Walter Aldrich anchored the first scene well as Fiorello (Almaviva's servant) and baritone Stephen Maus stepped out of the chorus as the head policeman to get laughs without losing the musical line.

Though the arias get much of the attention, "Barbiere" is a series of duets, trios, quartets and a quintet. On opening night, all concerned combined stage presence and musicality, and if the big, fast ensemble at the end of Act One threatened to slip the rails occasionally it only emphasized the humor.

The Emerson Quartet had more serious musical fare in mind for its annual visit to Aspen on Wednesday in Harris Hall, taking on late Beethoven works that rank among the most sublime of string quartets — Op. 132 in A minor, Op. 130 in B-flat and the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge in B-flat. To say that they did them justice would be an understatement.

The ethereal molto adagio, the centerpiece of the A minor quartet, floated serenely, subtly gathering extra depth with each iteration of the hymn on which it is based. The march that followed opened out into an expansive finale, marked allegro appassionato, ratcheting up intensity until the last measures in A major spell relief. Eugene Drucker was the first violinist in this one, employing a suitable somber tone, and cellist Paul Watkins carried his lyrical measures with panache.

Philip Setzer applied his purity of tone and bright phrasing to the B-flat major opening allegro, making the composer's many unexpected modulations emotionally startling as they turn from somber to lively and back again. The gorgeous finale, marked as a "cavatina" (a sort of operatic song), found each of the members, from Setzer and Drucker to Watkins and violist Lawrence Dutton, making their instruments sing convincingly. The seamless transition to the Grosse Fuge, wherein Beethoven extends to his most daring harmonic complexity, finished with remarkable nobility.

Chopin, and Chopin-adjacent music, was on pianist Daniil Trifonov's mind Tuesday night in Harris Hall in a wily program that explored how other composers paid their own unique tributes to the Polish composer. He began with the Cátalan composer Federico Mompou's Variations on a Theme by Chopin. Trifinov applied subtly shifting textures to the statement of the familiar, gentle Prelude in A major, Opus 28, No. 7. He kept a straight-faced demeanor as Mompou's 1957 work sneaks in jazzy harmonies to the dozen variations and they veer off into complex harmonies and colors. Inspired by Debussy and Satie, they sounded for all the world like the work of the magnificent jazz pianist Bill Evans. When a few bars of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu, Op. 66 No. 4 ("I'm Always Chasing Rainbows") make an unexpected appearance, it came off as something a jazz artist might well have done.

Throughout the first half, Trifinov displayed thoughtful interpretations, wonderful control of tone and delicate use of pedal. A series of short homages to Chopin included pieces by Grieg and Tchaikovsky. The highlight for me came with the tangy twists to the lyrical flow of Barber's Nocturne. The first half concluded with a roof-rattling tour through Rachmaninoff's 20 youthful variations on Chopin's Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20.

A wry sense of humor colored a young Chopin's imaginative Variations on "La ci darem la mano," which never quite allows a simple, literal iteration. And the program concluded with Chopin's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, the one with the famous funeral march. Trifinov started strong, but the march and the finale missed the colors that made the rest of the program so illuminating. The refined encore, Corot's transcription of the Largo from Chopin's cello sonata, settled everything down beautifully.

NOT TO MISS IN COMING DAYS

Trifonov returns Sunday to play his own piano concerto with the Festival Orchestra under Ludovic Morlot on a program that concludes with Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." An all-star cast of faculty artists joins Orli Shaham in a chamber music program tonight. And Shaham returns on Monday's chamber music program for a Fauré C minor quartet with violinist Robert Chen, violist Choon-Jin Chang and cellist Eric Kim.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Stephen Maus was the baritone who was the head policeman.

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