It’s not often that Count Almaviva comes off as the funniest character in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville—he’s the tenor romantic lead, after all. But as Matthew Grills played him in the opening-night cast of Seattle Opera’s production, he’s a bouncy-ball of energy reminiscent of classic clowns from Oliver Hardy up through Nathan Lane. His voice is equally charming: light, warm, a bit reedy, and undaunted by the ornateness of his opening serenade.
He sings it to Rosina, his beloved; Sabina Puértolas brings the role a dark, imposing mezzo-soprano and an insouciant, improvisational way with the lavish ornamentation in her entrance solo, “Una voce poco fa.” (The soloist has quite a bit of choice in how much ornamentation to add to what Rossini wrote, and Puértolas piles it on, relishing every possible obstacle.) This aria is sung as an aside to the audience—“Don’t cross me” is the message—and when shortly after Puértolas sings more rapid scale passages in the duet “Dunque io son,” she’s now vocally much more prim and “ladylike”: a clever characterization, since she’s now singing to another character rather than alone and has to keep up the pretense of demureness.
It was cruel of Rossini in this duet to assign Figaro, who helps facilitate Almaviva and Rosina’s romance, the same coloratura scales, inviting comparison. John Moore, swaggering toreadorically through the opera in painted-on purple pants, has trouble here, though in his opening “Largo al factotum” his dashing, midweight baritone sounds excellent. (WARNING: If you have a broom up your ass about “political correctness,” skip to the next paragraph: The pose Moore strikes at the end of this aria will be recognized by every Mexican as the goal celebration of soccer superstar Cuauhtémoc Blanco, an homage to his namesake, the last Aztec emperor—a victim of Spanish genocide in the New World and thus an icon of Mexican indigenous pride. In other words, for a barber of Seville to make a gesture referencing Cuauhtémoc is a eyebrow-raisingly tone-deaf bit of cultural appropriation.)
As Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian, Kevin Glavin—padded out like Toad of Toad Hall in a grass-green suit—offers the most expert patter singing I’ve ever heard. I last heard Daniel Sumegi, as sinister intriguer Don Basilio, in a hugely contrasting Wagner role, Daland in The Flying Dutchman; versatility like that makes me hope Seattle Opera will just go ahead and cast him in every production. (They are, almost; he also sang in August’s Madame Butterfly and will be back next year for Beatrice and Benedict and Aida.) Basilio and Bartolo carry out one of their dialogues over the phone, which is the neatest solution I’ve seen to the contrivance of comic opera’s constant entrances and exits.
I assume this was the idea of Lindy Hume, whose direction is a tale of two finales. Act 1’s is a mess. Almaviva, pursuing Rosina, disguises himself as a soldier and gets himself billeted in Bartolo’s house, and their argument brings the police and general uproar. Plot complexity would seem to demand staging clarity, but there’s no telling what anyone’s supposed to be doing here. (See photo.) Before you say “It’s supposed to be chaotic, it’s a comedy,” I’ll counter that if you can’t tell whether something is intended as chaos or not, that’s a problem.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Act 2 finale, a rousing dance number for the whole cast, comes off beautifully simply because everyone has something concrete to do. These include a delicious added happy ending for servants Berta and Ambrogio, in zippy performances by Margaret Gawrysiak and Marc Kenison. It all plays out on Tracy Grant Lord’s witty set, designed as a collection of variegated doors—something between Laugh-In’s joke wall and an Advent calendar. McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 389-7676, seattleopera.org. $15–$275. Ends Oct. 28.