SF Opera Outdoors: Rossini Gets Big Stage As ‘Barber’ Gets A Trim

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Matthew Ozawa’s adaptation and direction present singers returning to the opera house, still masked and keeping their distance, eager to work again after more than a year’s hiatus. (Photo by Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera)

SAN RAFAEL, Cal. – Opera 2021 in San Francisco has a curious resemblance to the popular “outdoor movies” of the 1950s. Yes, through the car windshield and sound on the car radio. It might have worked better for drive-in movie theaters, but for the time being, and after 14 months of pandemic silence, that’s what opera is, and my confident prediction is that the genre will return to opera houses where it belongs, however limited the audience must be.

San Francisco Opera is proud of its enormous production of the Rossini-inspired Barber of Seville, one gigantic set looming over two large parking spaces next to the iconic Marin County Civic Center. At the fairgrounds, with view of the set and live performers, it’s $250 per car. In picturesque Lagoon Park, simulcast of the performance on a movie screen, it’s $50 per car. Performances run through May 15.

Abbreviating the show to an intermissionless 100 minutes makes good sense in these circumstances, but instead of compressing the opera, this production runs off in all directions, biting off more than what’s chewable.

While creating a framework of rehearsals and demolishing the fourth wall with personal references to the pandemic – following the example of Finnish Opera’s Covid fan tutte from last August – SF Opera makes short shrift of Rossini’s story. What prevents the lovers’ happiness? Nasty old Dr. Bartolo, who keeps Rosina captive but doesn’t appear here until late in the opera. Yes, Philip Skinner sings quite well in the role, but in recitals that stand apart from the story. The production is of the making of Barber, with (rather generous) excerpts from the opera.

The first and persisting impression of this “return to opera” is the gigantic physical production between Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings of the Marin County Civic Center. Looming at 40 feet high and stretching to 120 feet wide, the stage is surrounded by panels on which a dizzying series of projections appear, with close-ups of the singers, views of the 18-piece masked and distanced orchestra in a tent behind the stage, graphics, and – on the top – the text of the lyrics, which are sung in Marcie Stapp’s English translation. Set and projection design is by Alexander V. Nichols.

Matthew Ozawa’s adaptation and direction present singers returning to the opera house, still masked and keeping their distance, eager to work again after more than a year’s hiatus. Without the chorus and some smaller roles, the cast — all veterans of the company’s Merola and Adler training programs — consists of Lucas Meachem (Figaro); Daniela Mack (Rosina, the role to be taken over by Laura Krumm for the last three performances); Alek Shrader (Almaviva); Catherine Cook (Berta); Kenneth Kellogg (Don Basilio); and Skinner as Bartolo.

Audience members park their cars for a San Francisco Opera performance of Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ at the Marin County Civic Center. (Photo by Janos Gereben)

Except for one blown high note at the Tuesday performance – graciously and humorously acknowledged by the singer – all went well, the sound surprisingly “lifelike” through the microphones, audio mix, transmission, and FM radios in the cars. What could be more realistically evaluated was the cast’s excellent stage presence and consistent acting against the variety of challenges as they appeared both as themselves and their own caricatures – and even in the roles of the opera.

Conductor Roderick Cox makes his SF Opera debut leading the orchestra, which includes five wind and brass players performing in specially designed wind masks developed jointly at UCSF and the company’s costume shop. Given the separate remote locations and the electronic connections between orchestra and singers instead of physical proximity, ensemble performance was remarkably consistent, especially when considering Rossini’s extra demands on “keeping it all together.”