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"Barber' is a little over the top

We'll be hearing a lot of the music of Rossini later this month because Feb. 29 is the bicentennial of his birth. The Sarasota Opera got a jump on things Saturday evening, with its opening performance of Rossini's Barber of Seville.

With a libretto drawn from an 18th-century play by Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville is Rossini at his best. The opera's music is attractive and accessible _ I always think of it as high-class circus music, and that's a compliment. The story combines comedy and romance in nearly perfect balance.

Barber's creation was Rossini at his most brilliant. Amazingly, it took him less than three weeks to compose and orchestrate the music. The opera premiered Feb. 20, 1816.

On opening night, the Sarasota production had the sound, look and feel of a work still in progress. From time to time in the first act, the orchestra, conducted by Will Crutchfield, overwhelmed the singers onstage, particularly the voice of Timothy Sarris, the baritone who plays Figaro.

In another first-act flub, singers backstage were sometimes visible through an upper window in the set from seats in the theater's mezzanine and balcony. It was more than a little distracting, during the tender aria (Io sono docile) by Alice Baker's Rosina, to see someone moving around backstage.

Both the singer-orchestra imbalance and the backstage problem were taken care of after intermission in the second act.

With one prominent exception, the singing in Sarasota's Barber is fine. Baker shines in the mezzo-soprano role, and tenor Warren Mok is a properly lyrical Count Almaviva. Other roles are performed with style. Although the all-male chorus doesn't have much to do, when it does sing it's excellent.

Unfortunately, the exception is Sarris' Figaro, the town barber who specializes in romantic intrigue. Sarris, a bouncy figure in a striped coat with a guitar, is theatrically adept but vocally weak. Not only is his none-too-potent voice lost in the orchestral mix, but the rapid-fire articulation called for in the barber's big opening number (Largo al factotum) does him in.

A weak Figaro hurts Barber, because he carries a lot of the weight in getting Rossini's concoction off the ground. In the comic opera tradition, the plot is loaded with mistaken identities, deceptions and tricks. Figaro has his finger in most of them.

It's the barber who arranges various disguises for the love-sick Count Almaviva to aid his courtship of Rosina, the fair ward of Don Bartolo (LeRoy Lehr), who hopes to make her his own bride. It's Figaro who buys off Don Basilio (David Groth), Rosina's music teacher as well as a marriage broker, clearing the way for the count's romantic pursuit.

Figaro, a roguish but charming character, orchestrates the entire deliciously ridiculous affair. Without the right person in this role _ a singer with an interesting, colorful voice _ the opera feels sluggish, at least in the beginning before the other characters come to the fore.

To compound the weakness of Figaro, there was another problem in the unfolding of the story in Saturday's production, one that might have prevented people not acquainted with the opera from enjoying it to the fullest. The English surtitles seemed too minimalistic. The screen above the stage, on which the translation of the Italian is projected, remained blank for long periods while the action proceeded apace.

Perhaps it's assumed that everyone knows Barber _ this production is the seventh by the Sarasota Opera, although the first in 10 years. But even people familiar with it can use a little help in following the twists and turns of the story.

Baker's Rosina becomes more and more fun to watch as the opera moves along. She's a woman who professes to have a meek and obedient nature, while actually remaining firmly in charge of the men around her.

As a comedienne, Baker is not subtle _ this is comic opera, after all _ but she embroiders her part with flirtatious little asides to express impatience and exasperation: puffing out her cheeks, fanning herself, tucking a handkerchief into her ample bosom.

As a singer, Baker's mezzo voice has a dazzling lift to it, soaring above the rest of the cast and the orchestra in the first-act finale, and again in a quintet in the second act. Her duet with Mok near the opera's end, when Almaviva throws off his cloak to reveal himself as an aristocrat in a richly brocaded outfit and a turquoise sash, is a sublime exchange on blissful love.

In a nicely costumed production, first prize for visual impact goes to Groth's Don Basilio, who sports straggly hair and a spectral mask-like face beneath a broad-brimmed hat and a long black garment that resembles a cleric's robe. His great aria on slander (La calunnia) is a show stopper.

Don Bartolo is another outrageous vision, an obese Babbit in baggy breeches, silk stockings and a powdered wig. Lehr has a powerful bass voice, but he's not afraid to sound awful for comic effect in the first-act aria (A un dottor della mia sorte), where his low notes approximate gargling.

An outstanding aspect of this Barber is the lighting by Adam Macks, who takes fine advantage of the opera house's intimate dimensions. During the second act's storm scene, the stage goes from an ominous blue shade to flickering yellow and orange to a warm red, in perfect complement with Rossini's wonderful music.

The Sarasota Opera production of Rossini's Barber of Seville, conducted by Will Crutchfield, has six more performances, including Thursday at 8 p.m.; tickets are $15-$35; call 953-7030 in Sarasota.