Voices si, acting no

Though it’s well sung, in the main, and the pace travels at a merry gait, Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville has virtually no dramatic propulsion. You just don’t get the sense that the characters are motivated. They plot and scheme, but they seem merely to be going through their paces. Under Dorothy Danner’s largely spiritless direction, the cast lacks the emotional and dramatic drive to make their characters’ actions believable.

Barber is a comedy, but there’s a black undertow that serves as its dramatic springboard. Scheming, lying and duplicity are integral to the characters’ makeup, and the wiliest ones triumph. This is a cream puff comedy with a somewhat sour filling.

Count Almaviva disguises himself and fibs to woo Rosina, whose sly machinations make her more than just the ditsy coquette she’s often portrayed as. Rosina’s guardian, Doctor Bartolo, ends up being duped, but not after scheming to win Rosina’s hand and drive Almaviva away.

Another rogue, Basilio, conspires to help Bartolo. Figaro is intent on uniting Almaviva and Rosina, not because he wants to aid the young lovers, but because he’s getting paid handsomely for it. No one is morally spotless in this opera, but no one is really nefarious, either. It’s good, dirty fun, driven by relentless manipulation.

To Danner’s credit, she doesn’t make Barber a spectacle of slapstick humor, which mars so many productions of this opera. However, having Bartolo’s servants constantly sneeze and yawn is not only unfunny, but downright irritating.

As Count Almaviva, Bruce Fowler spins off Rossini’s garlands of coloratura with aplomb. Fowler is a true leggiero tenor who can negotiate the bel canto music without strain. However, he does little dramatically to alter the perception that Almaviva is just a rich, moonstruck wimp.

Earle Patriarco makes a robust entrance as Figaro, singing "Largo al factotum" with earthy elan. But after his opening aria, he gradually drains his character of color. He’s too docile to play a rapscallion.

Vivica Genaux dashes off Rosina’s difficult scales and roulades with ease. Her timbre and flexibility recall one of the great Rosinas, the Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza. But Genaux imparts none of the sly humor Berganza brought to the role. Genaux’s vocal filigree is impressive in her duet with Figaro, but her acting is rather square. Still, you’ve got to give Genaux credit for keeping her composure in last Saturday’s opening night performance when the house lights inexplicably and annoyingly came on shortly after her entrance aria, "Una voce poco fa."

Donato Di Stefano looks convincing as the rotund old buffoon Bartolo, and it’s refreshing to see a Bartolo who doesn’t milk the part for every ounce of wacky humor he can. Di Stefano, though, sounds more like a bass-baritone than a basso buffo. Bass Michele Bianchini brings little definition or vim to the role of Basilio.

Conductor Stewart Robertson’s sprightly tempos are invigorating. However, it’s disappointing to hear Robertson’s inattention to Rossini’s trademark crescendos, which should begin softly, gather steam gradually and explode like Vesuvius. The overture’s crescendos, for instance, were played at virtually the same audibility, with almost no variation in dynamics.

On Oct. 8 and 10, Zheng Cao alternates as Rosina; Marian Pop plays Figaro and Lorenzo Marroccu is Almaviva.

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