To follow your heart or your head — that is the timeless dilemma “The Barber of Seville” poses. It’s one that spans space and time, whether you’re wearing a corset and petticoats in 18th-century Spain — or spandex and leg warmers in South Beach.
Raylynmor Opera will present Gioachino Rossini’s opera with some more modern twists next Friday, May 17, and Sunday, May 19, at the Peterborough Players theater.
The updated setting is more modern than 1813 when Rossini wrote the opera in that rather than the story unfolding in a doctor’s home in a Spanish town called Seville, it takes place in early 1990s Miami at an upscale health club — also called Seville.
Rossini’s original characters are all here: there’s Rosina, the love interest of Count Almaviva, who attempts to win her love while in disguise at the home of Bartolo, the elderly doctor who intends to marry her. The driving force behind all the action is the barber, Figaro, an opportunist and factotum (jack-of-all-trades) who facilitates the Count’s pursuit. The Count is in disguise to hide his wealth so Rosina will love him and not his money.
The idea for the re-envisioned framework came from Raylynmor Opera artistic director, Benjamin Robinson, who wrote the new English libretto.
“Rossini is driven by this sense of rhythm,” said Robinson. “He’s also famous for the Rossini crescendo. The music starts small and builds and becomes exciting and then drops back and starts all over. What immediately came to mind as I was listening is pedaling in (spin) class.”
He thought switching the location to Miami gave the piece a distinctive flavor that captures the superficiality of some of the main characters like Bartolo and Basilio (Rosina’s music teacher in Rossini’s original score).
“The Barber of Seville” is a prequel of sorts, the first in a trilogy by playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart's opera, “The Marriage of Figaro,” composed 30 years earlier in 1786, is based on the second part. He was the first playwright to write about the mingling of the social classes — namely, a person in a position of servitude like Figaro interacting with a person of nobility like Count Almaviva.
“That was very unorthodox,” said Robinson. “The opera captured real life and took this very sharp look at that interaction. It begins to cut away those layers. It’s all the more reason to pick south Florida (as a setting). There’s such a wealth divide there and an obsession with image and lifestyle.”
In this retelling, the Count is a billionaire and Rosina — a budding television workout star who works at the health club owned by Bartolo.
“It’s set in the early ‘90s when there was still a lot of optimism,” said Robinson, adding that the story is the same.
“This is one of the things I’m most proud of about this company, what it has managed in terms of conceptualizing shows structurally to make them more accessible and offer a twist that should stimulate everybody’s enjoyment and make it familiar,” he said.
Not only is the piece bubbly and filled with humor (it’s an opera buffa, or comic opera), Robinson said the music is stunning.
“Even the overture is quite famous,” he added.
The cast includes tenor Kirk Dougherty as Count Almaviva and mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell — each played the same role respectively in “Barber” productions with Opera San Jose and Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theater.
Normally, the chorus in Rossini’s opera is all-male and limited to appearing in two scenes and the finale. Robinson thought it a natural fit for women to be part of the production and in more places throughout the story.
“It’s set in an upwardly-mobile time for the women’s movement,” said Robinson of the new libretto. “Rosina shares her feminine strength and power, but she also has to conform to what was a man’s perspective of beauty at the time.”
Robinson calls the production a loving tribute, updated with references that make Rossini’s work relevant.
“Opera needs to be constantly visited and re-evaluated,” said Robinson. “When I write new words, I think, ‘How can I be true to the music?’ and ‘How does it reflect society historically and presently?’ This company is nimble enough and the audience open-minded enough to go on this journey with us.”
Raylynmor Opera presents Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” next Friday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 19, at 2 p.m. at Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough. The 2019-2020 season will be announced during Friday’s performance. Tickets are $20-$45 and are available at Toadstool Bookshop in Keene and Peterborough and online at ticketelf.com.