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Opera shows wit and spirit

The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Opera brought its capacity audiences a comfortably traditional production of Gioachino Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) last weekend at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

With the downbeat to the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra for the world's most famous overture, musical director Ronald J. Gretz signaled the spirited performance to follow.

The comedic opera is a 19th-century musical adaptation of Beaumarchais' 1775 play about the rapscallion Figaro's efforts to help lovestruck Count Almaviva in his pursuit of wealthy and lovely Rosina, the ward of lecherous Dr. Bartolo.

For a price, jack-of-all-trades barber Figaro (earlier immortalized by Mozart) devises several ingenious schemes and disguises for Almaviva to help him foil Bartolo and win Rosina, all to the wondrous accompaniment of Rossini's score.

Stage director Braxton Peters brought humor to the Annapolis Opera's production, coaxing adroit performances from several cast members, including hilarious double-takes and pantomime while consistently maintaining a lively pace.

Gretz not only conducted a fine performance, but he also enhanced the company's reputation as a showcase for largely undiscovered singers destined for operatic stardom. With this performance, Gretz might have outdone himself.

In the role of Figaro, baritone David Adam Moore returned to the Annapolis Opera after stunning everyone at last season's Magic Flute, where he stepped in with 24 hours notice to save the performance. Now about to make his La Scala debut, the baritone offered another stellar performance that was beautifully sung, skillfully acted and highly athletic.

Mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov, another budding star introduced at last season's Flute in the relatively small role of Papagena, has returned in the leading role of Rosina to take the stage with her warmth, grace, splendid vocal abilities and acting. Her occasional minor difficulties with some fioritura passages mattered little as she soared to the vocal stratosphere.

The third singer Gretz introduced to Annapolis Opera who seems on the brink of stardom is Jimi James. Having heard James two years ago sing an unforgettable "Elijah" with the Annapolis Chorale and an amazing Billy Bigelow in the chorale's Carousel, I was delighted to find him cast as Dr. Bartolo in "Barber." He not only possesses as resonant and rich a baritone as we could find, but he also displayed natural comedic talent that included great pratfalls.

Adding an attractive presence to the cast was tenor Michael Gallant as Count Almaviva, delivering a dreamy serenade in "Se il mio nome" and also proving an adept comedian -- a rare combination. If Gallant's Almaviva conveyed exceptional ardor for Dirlikov's Rosina, it was not accidental: The two are newlyweds.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice, remembered by Annapolis Opera fans for a portrayal of Suzuki two years ago, delivered another memorable performance as Berta, Dr. Bartolo's housemaid, singing beautifully.

Bass Jeffrey Tarr was a fine Basilio, a singing teacher and Dr. Bartolo's friend. Baritone Mark Gardner was excellent as Dr. Bartolo's servant, Fiorello.

Lorraine vom Saal did her usual professional job as costume designer, and a hard-working costume crew assisted her.

Set designer Arne Lindquist made good use of Maryland Hall's limited stage space to create a believable dwelling. Staging opera presents another challenge due to Maryland Hall's lack of an orchestra pit, which makes the standing conductor a distraction to the audience, sometimes obscuring a view of the stage for many.

Despite these limitations, Annapolis Opera presented one of its finest performances that left the appreciative audience shouting a chorus of bravos.

Next on the Annapolis Opera's schedule is a weekend of opera for the family with "Pasta, Puccini, Ancora" on April 27 and 29 and the Children's Opera, "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," on April 28. Information: 410-267-8135 or www.annapolisopera.org.

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