A few short weeks after seeing On Site Opera’s Pygmalion I was on vacation in Italy with my mom and my youngest son. My elder child, in his infinite wisdom and certain envy as he was not slated for this trip (poor soul,) insisted that I secure tickets to the opera while in Repubblica italiana. Who was I to argue with such a demand? So we perused classictic.com for options and happened upon a performance of “Il Barbiere Di Siviglia” to be performed at Musica a Palazzo on the very night we had free in Venice. It was pricey, especially after calculating the dollars to Euro conversion but seriously, how often does one find oneself lounging around Italy with nothing to do on a glorious July eve so we booked ‘em; three tickets to the opera in Venezia.
Fast forward through Rome and Florence into Venice.
After a full day of touring Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Doges Palace
- a side note: #WQXR @operavore is playing Una Voce Poco fa from “Barbiere” on the air as I write this. Love it when moments and music cross in a harmonic convergence!
Where was I? Oh, yes. Touring Venice. Crowds and general touristing behind us, we found a nice restaurant, Kori Ristorante Pizzeria, off to the left of St Marks place for a pre-opera meal. One of our traveling companions on the Road Scholar tour with us joined us for the evening’s adventure and together the four of us consulted our map to figure out how to get from point a) to point b) for the evening. Nothing in Venice is straight forward; nothing in Italy is straight forward, come to think of it. Our handsome waiter helped us find our way on the map and – after knocking back a shot of Limoncello (Aaron had Limon Soda) – we set off into the night towards an authentic Venizian opera experience. The first hurdle was actually crossing Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) as it was now under about an inch of brackish water. We stepped carefully around the edges of the square giggling the whole way at the absurdity of the situation. This was only the beginning of the evening’s giggles, as it turns out. With shoes squishing a bit we made our way through streets and over foot-bridges to finally arrive at Fondamenta Duodo o Barbarigo. Nothing is on a grid here and everything’s way closer than you think it’s going to be so we happened upon our destination quite suddenly. Our opera house was an elegant home – a palazzo once belonging to a baron and identified by a single humble sign on the street. A basket of flowers just inside the door encouraged us to venture forth into the courtyard and up a beautiful stairway where we were welcomed by a young woman in a long red dress.
We found ourselves with about 50 other audience members in chairs that had been placed in two rows with a center isle – a classic Murano chandelier hung overhead – this was a location Opera On Site would have coveted mightily. The young woman in the long red dress who had greeted us and taken our tickets began lighting a large candelabra standing on a table in the middle of the room. She moved to the side and lit candles on either side of us. All had fallen silent as the audience was now settled in and we followed her move with great attention. The musicians entered from behind, a quartet, walking down the short isle and took their mark on the other side of the room.
A collective breath in…and the music began. The young woman went about putting on a bustle over her red dress, a long skirt over that and a flouncy cap on her head. Suddenly she was the house maid holding a feather duster and admiring herself in the large antique mirror on the wall. We had just been brought directly onto the streets of Seville, Spain in the 17th Century with The Help at Bartolo’s house hanging out the window to admire the serenade intended for the lady who was not there. The familiar scene unfolded quickly with Count Almaviva standing among the musicians who then unceremoniously dismissed them from “theatrical duty” while the chamber quartet defiantly played on to usher in Figaro in all his self-adulating glory.
I looked over at my 12 year old son and saw a smile stretch across his sweet face as he recognized the famed “la la la la la la” of the barber who, just at that moment, tussled his hair as he walked by singing gleefully. Aaron’s smile extended to his fingertips. I don’t believe he had ever been this close to an opera singer doing what they do best and he loved it. Musica a Palazzo’s motto, The Privilege of Experiencing Opera from Within, was exactly what we were getting and I had the added privilege of watching my Tween-aged kid experience it first-hand. Act one concluded, we were invited into the drawing room and offered Prosecco or soda. Two young men, audience members, who had been sitting in the front row were still wearing the goofy wigs that Figaro had playfully placed on their heads during act 1 and we all giggled together as they took them off and handed them to the maid/young-woman-in-the-long-red-dress who handed them each a glass of Prosecco for their troubles.
Act two was in the library off to the right of the drawing room. We made our way to the chairs and I followed Aaron’s lead. He secured us a position in one of the front rows! I knew he was looking to make himself an integral part of this story. Now we were inside Dr. Bartolo’s house with Rosina in her bedroom gleefully recounting the serenade of Almaviva that we all heard in act 1. She was dressed in a corset with her bosom bounding up to her eyebrows and naught on down below but a pair of frilly pantaloons and a hoop frame tied around her slender waist. No doubt about it, she was sexy and playing it up for the audience.
This was the point when I realized my son was not the only adolescent in the room; there was a family with sons (I assumed) all dressed up in jacket and tie. I figured the younger was 14, his brother, 16 or so. The younger was gazing at Rosina with a wistful look in his eye and she went to him, practically handing him her body to fondle as she sang. I felt for a moment that we were at a 17th Century brothel and this kid had himself a 17th Century lap dance going on. His wistful gaze had become a full slack-jawed gape with a stupid smile hanging off the corner of his mouth as she sang sweetly. I swear he nearly fell out of his chair as she moved away from him. It was the cutest damn thing I had seen all day. Well could he understand Almaviva’s desire to “wed” (or is it to “bed”) this woman and he demonstrated beautifully, for all of us, the motivation behind this story line.
Doctor Bartolo, in all his blustery buffoonery, made his entrance just as Rosina finished donning her full dress. He was holding something that looked suspiciously like an unused mop-head died black with a red ribbon tied in it. This, we were to suppose, was his pet dog which he would pat in dramatic manner in-between phrases. We got, instantly, what a ridiculous character he was. As the scene’s events progressed and Bartolo needed both hands to continue with the slap-stick he turned directly to my mother, sitting on my right, and handed her the mop/dog to hold. We giggled uncontrollably as we took turn petting the poor pooch on her lap. Hilarity ensued before us as Almaviva entered pretending to be a drunken soldier and Figaro attempted to pass messages between the unrequited lovers behind Bartolo’s wide-bottomed back. Near scene’s end Bartolo, covered with shaving cream and wearing a bucket turned over on his head, looked to my mom expecting to retrieve the prop/mop/dog from her only to discover that she didn’t have it! Aaron was now holding it on HIS lap. The performer gave her a fantastic stage reaction as we frantically pointed to my son and he grabbed back his canine mop with renewed vexation and bid a hasty and dramatic exit. We all followed him out of the room into yet another room off to the left where there was a large bed and seating for all. What, do you suppose, we were about to watch next?!
No, no, nothing like that. It was all very PG13. It was one of those operas with a happy ending. The girl gets the guy and the barber gets his commission. The only one who suffered any misery of any kind was Dr Bartolo who was the fall guy for all this stuff anyway so we thoroughly enjoyed his pain. In fact, I think he rather enjoyed it too. The opera concluded quickly and everybody was happy. The audience was happy. The performers were happy, the musicians were happy, at least I think they were, and we walked out of the Palazzo feeling, indeed, that we were emerging from an experience, not just another opera. This was a performance that far surpassed The Barber of Seville – Truncated Family Version we sat through at The Met two years ago. I can’t even begin to compare the two performances so I’m not going to. I am only going to say that we got way more out of seeing a production that cost hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars less to produce than what the Met probably paid to mount Barber. The spectacle isn’t always the thing – it’s the connection that will be the thing that will make opera work for me – every time.