Madcap 'Barber of Seville' razor-sharp

Kyle MacMillan Denver Post Critic-at-Large

As two unidentified members of Doug Varone and Dancers in the roles of servants look on, baritone Ian Greenlaw (Figaro) and mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley (Rosina) share a duet in Opera Colorado's wacky new production of 'The Barber of Seville.'


Where even to begin?

That's the challenge for anyone attempting to characterize Opera Colorado's madcap new production of "The Barber of Seville," which shreds anything smacking of staid convention and transforms it into entertaining stage confetti.

Consider that Figaro (baritone Ian Greenlaw), the romantic farce's main character, appears as a red-haired Elvis in an aqua suit or, more aptly, a Las Vegas impersonator, a deceptively shrewd if lovable operator who knows how to turn a buck and get things done.

Or Cupid, who is portrayed by dancer John Beasant III in tutu and high tops. Not only is the mythological figure completely without grace, he has no idea how to use the bow that is supposed to shoot his love arrows, so he has to employ some unorthodox methods to get the job done.

Or the scheming Don Basilio (bass-baritone Christopher Feigum), who, like a good political operative, comes up with a dastardly plot to discredit Count Almaviva (tenor John Tessier) that includes planting rumors in the National Enquirer.

One expects the Marx Brothers to come bouncing in at any moment, because this hilarious, over-the-top world of camp would be perfect for their antics, which, like those here, have an improvisatory feel but are intricately planned.

In short, this production, which opened Saturday at Boettcher Concert Hall, is wild, wacky and wonderful - a four-star triumph in every way.

Doug Varone, the creative genius behind all this, has already done choreography for some major opera companies. But once they fully grasp what he has accomplished in this production and a 2001 rethinking of "Orpheus and Eurydice" as both director and choreographer, he is going to be in enormous demand.

Certainly, other contemporary directors have merged music and theater in vibrant new ways. But Varone adds the third component of movement, turning his productions into swirling, nonstop visual extravaganzas, which are as innovative and exciting as anything happening not just in regional opera but the field at large.

The veteran choreographer, who founded an internationally touring dance troupe bearing his name in 1986, does it by throwing out any preconceived notions, disregarding the boundaries of realism or naturalism and starting with the notion that movement has to undergird everything.

In this case, that meant staging the 1816 opera as a kind of informal play-in-a-play and updating it vaguely to the 1950s and '60s, with rudimentary, constantly reconfigured set pieces - mostly an assortment of mattresses, chairs and doors on wheels - designed by Christine Jones.

Varone's eight versatile dancers are constantly on stage as stagehands or servants or other back-up characters, turning arias into lively ensemble numbers and energizing the action in general. They wear comical, circuslike garb designed by James Schuette over which they put whatever costumes are needed for any given section.

None of Varone's vision would have been possible without singers willing to go along with what must have seemed pretty far-fetched at first. And Opera Colorado has put together an ideal cast from top to bottom.

The baritone appears right at home amid the comedic zaniness, comfortably anchoring the opera with a bright, suitably self-possessed portrayal and a creamy, agreeable voice that he skillfully uses to maximize the theatricality of the character. Bass-baritone Dale Travis almost steals the show with a performance of Dr. Bartolo zestfully brought to life by facial expressions, double takes and light-on-his-feet moves reminiscent of Jackie Gleason. And then there is his terrific voice to boot - deep, resonant and expressive.

Also deserving special note is mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley, who strikes just the right chord as the lovestruck Rosina. She agilely handles the high-register acrobatics the role requires and brings an appealing dark-tinged timbre to the low register. It's no surprise that Opera Colorado is bringing her back in 2005 in "Julius Caesar."

Skillfully assuring the cohesiveness and flow of Varone's complex staging while simultaneously animating Rossini's spirited score and helping the singers sound their best is terrific conductor David Agler.

Traditionalists who attended Saturday's opening are probably still trying to figure out what hit them. But if the cheers that greeted each big number are any indication, everyone else was thoroughly enchanted, especially newcomers wondering what took them so long to discover opera.