There are few operas more consistently delightful than The Barber of Seville. Fashioned from Beaumarchais' sprightly comedy of aristocratic highjinks, the libretto is succinct and funny. Rossini's music fits perfectly, being gay, tuneful, and happily short-winded.
This music, however, is as difficult to sing as it is easy to listen to. All the major parts have florid melodies to sing, as in Rossini's day coloratura was not only for sopranos. No one in last night's cast completely escaped this difficulty, but the singers made up in spirit what they lacked in flexibility. Anne Wallace had the least trouble with the style, and as well as singing tastefully she looked very pretty as Rosina.
The acting was of a uniformly high order, with Ronald Gerbrands' protrayal of Basilio setting the pace. His big aria "Start a Rumor" (La Calumnia) stopped the show. William Nethercut sang and acted Figaro without straining, and the result was a characterization that helped hold the entire performance together. Robert Cortright looked noble as Count Almaviva, but found the role too high in pitch and too ornate for his basically sympathetic tenor voice. Arthur Anderson also has vocal difficulties as Doctor Bartolo, but he acts the old stodge convincingly. In smaller parts Laurence Chvany and Grace Lewis are excellent, and Noel Tyl adds a marvelous bit as a lout of a servant.
The technical aspects of the production are quite impressive, considering the difficulties that are involved. Here Conductor Hewitt Pantaleoni deserves much of the musical credit for his general victory in the running battle to keep everyone together with his 25-piece orchestra, while the stage direction of Arthur Schoep also keeps the pace lively with an abundance of stage movement. There is never a quiet moment. The borrowed sets are very stylish, as are Leo Van Witsen's costumes. The biggest advantage of using Agassiz is that its small size allows most of the words to be heard. The Barber is a perfect opera to do in English, as the witty text stands translation better than do the tragic works of the next century.
The Harvard Opera Guild has done as good a job as possible in bringing opera to Harvard, yet the question remains whether a permanent repertoire company can be maintained when the proper voices are, quite frankly, lacking. Unless outside singers are brought in, there are few operas that can be capably sung here. But whatever its future, the first production of the Opera Guild is a spirited, if imperfect, performance of one of music's great comic masterpieces.