Live Theater Reviews

Theatre Review: Opera Theatre of St. Louis Presents a Sidesplitting and Surreal ‘The Barber of Seville’

Posted: May 31, 2024 at 10:46 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 49th season begins with a vibrantly colored, laugh-out-loud production of The Barber of Seville. Last staged by the company eight years ago, this production retains the vocal ornamentation, passion, and over-the-top melodrama found in Rossini’s comic bel canto masterpiece. 

But there are a few big changes. First, the opera has been scaled down to just over two-and-a-half hours. While it does help with pacing, it does, at times, create some thorny plot issues. For example, there is a storm that happens in the second act that basically is now superfluous. Also, some of juicier supporting characters have been marginalized.

The setting for the production is centered in pre-Francoist Spain. This period before the Spanish Civil War was ripe with creativity as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró shook up the art world.

It is this tumultuous time that director Eric Sean Fogel uses as a sandbox to unfurl his vision of the opera. Aiding him is set designer Andrew Boyce, whose staging is a nod to the surrealist movement of the time in the use of bold colors, vibrant costumes and warmly colored lighting.

Sadly, while this new setting initially seems interesting, it fails to serve the story. In fact, although it strongly plays into the notion that the drama onstage is a farce, the use of Daliesque imagery (i.e. a pink couch shaped like lips, and a neon sign perched stage left) are distracting.

Nonetheless, the use of vivid colors emphasizes the dark times ahead while also evoking an upbeat atmosphere of jollity and frivolity, thus creating the ideal environment for Rossini’s satirical mocking of societal norms, conventions, and the absurdities carried on by the opera’s characters.

Rossini’s themes of loyalty, freedom and social status remain at the core of the opera. The plot, spread over two melodramatic acts, revolves around Figaro, a matchmaker, barber and raconteur who assists the lovelorn and dashing Count Almaviva in capturing the heart of Rosina, a beautiful maiden who is kept under lock and key by the dastardly Dr. Bartolo.

Relying on a combination of shrewdness and outlandish deception, Figaro and Almaviva spring into action. Despite the risk, the duo launches a clever, yet altogether silly, plan for freeing Rosina from Bartolo’s clutches and whisking her away to happiness. From here things get zany as identities are mistaken, fools are connived, and true love wins the day.

Despite the soap opera shenanigans onstage – and there is a lot – the troupe’s singing, delivered by the perfect blend of young talent and new arrivals, is at the forefront of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ daring resuscitation of this classic opera.

Returning to the OTSL stage with a broader role, baritone Justin Austin is delightful as the mischievous Figaro. Serving as the lynchpin for the drama onstage, he is a commanding presence whose comedic flourishes create many of the opera’s most memorable laughs.

Andrew Morstein’s Count Almaviva is both likeable and vulnerable. While he debuts with the company playing a man clearly in over his head, this is clearly not the case with his performance, which is more nuanced than his costars. As a result, he gives the character’s passion for Rosina a dramatic gravitas that counterbalances the antics happening around him.

Stealing the production and scoring the most giggles is another newcomer, Nathan Stark. His cartoonish portrayal of the perfidious Dr. Bartolo (comedically referred to as Dr. Fart-olo at one point) mixes fierce and frolic equally, giving The Barber of Seville the perfect heavy.

Also knocking it out of the park is mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu as Rosina. Her luminosity onstage results in some dynamic chemistry with both Stark and Morstein. Throw in her dynamic voice as you have a stellar OTSL debut from a talented performer who will undoubtedly be heard from again.

While it is easy to heap praise upon the production’s wonderful ensemble, it is impossible to overlook the fact that none of their arias would amount to a hill of beans without conductor Jonathan Brandani. Performing an exquisite score with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, he set the pace with sonic textures that brought the operatic elements together.

Blending the tender with the mirthful, his baton breathed new life into Rossini’s score, making it a powerfully emotional frame for the tricks unraveling above him. Hopefully his stunning inaugural performance with OTSL leads to many, many more.

Riotously funny from start to finish, OTSL’s Barber of Seville is the perfect opening salvo for the company’s bombastic season. The symmetry of sight and sound, obnoxious colors and all, is slapstick gold.

The Barber of Seville runs through June 29 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University. Productions at Opera Theatre St. Louis are in English with musical accompaniment from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. For more information on programming or the 2024 season, visit

Photos: Eric Woolsey