Opera Neo Brings Sparkling ‘Barber of Seville’ to Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Art Center

Richard Wagner’s low opinion of his fellow composers was hardly a secret, but his admiration for Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville was unbounded. On one occasion while attending a performance of Rossini’s popular comic opera, he turned to his friend and whispered, “How I love Rossini! But please don’t tell my Wagnerians—thy would never forgive me!”

(l. to r.) Jesús Vicente Murillo, Kyle White, Steele Fitzwater & Andrew Morstein [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

On Friday, Opera Neo Artistic Director Peter Kozma fulfilled a longtime dream of staging Rossini’s The Barber of Seville al fresco in Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Art Center. Kozma wisely selected the modest plaza in front of the sole two-story Spanish Village cottage with a dramatically useful second-story open balcony as his staging area. Several rows of seating made a wide semicircle around the staging area, and a temporary gallery was built to give patrons furthest from the “stage” better sight lines.

Since the opera’s first act opens in a public square in Seville, the Spanish Village setting provided appropriate ambiance, and I have no doubt that Opera Neo’s many years of presenting operas outdoors in the Palisades Amphitheater equipped the company to succeed under such minimal conditions.

With baritone Kyle White as Figaro, the “far more than a barber” of the opera’s title, I had high expectations because last summer in Budapest, White stole the show as Nardo in Mozart’s La finita giardiniera, Opera Neo’s bold co-production with Hungarian National Opera. White’s powerful but miraculously supple baritone soared through Rossini’s vocal gymnastics with astonishing confidence, yet under Kozma’s savvy stage direction, he kept his Figaro scrupulously within the bounds of his social status. From his galvanizing opening aria “Largo al factotum” White set a high bar for the production’s vocal standard.

Andrew Morstein’s dramatic prowess served him brilliantly as the entitled Count Almaviva, as well as the Count’s required characters in disguise, the inebriated army officer demanding to be billeted in Doctor Bartolo’s house and Rosina’s creepy substitute music teacher Don Alonso. Morstein’s velvety tenor easily communicated the snide undertones of his mellifluous and crafty second act aria “Pace e gioia sia con voi.” Since he sang Don Ramiro in Opera Neo’s 2019 La Cenerentola, his colorful tenor has grown appreciably, although in this Rossini opera, the composer’s occasional flights into the vocal stratosphere tested the Morstein’s uppermost range.

SarahAnn Duffy & Kyle White [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Mezzo-soprano SarahAnn Duffy proved an affable Rosina, although when bullied by Doctor Bartolo, she was anything but a pushover. With her creamy mezzo-soprano she soared gently through Rossini’s coloratura thickets, and her cavatina “Una voce poco fa” displayed finesse and a clear stylistic appreciation.

The character of Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian who is eager to acquire his ward’s substantial dowry, is too easily portrayed as a bumbling, foolish senior. I liked Murillo’s self-assured, assertive Bartolo. He firmly resisted manipulation by his peers with both his secure body language and his vigorous, rich bass-baritone, especially in his searing aria “A un dotter della mia sorte.” A less fiery bass-baritone, Steele Fitzwater, proved well calculated as Don Basilio, Rosina’s actual music instructor whose loyalty was always available to the highest bidder.

Baritone Matthew Reynolds carried off both the Count’s servant Fiorello and the role of the Police Captain with vocal assurance, and soprano Carly Cummings gave the thankless role of Berta, Bartolo’s housekeeper, unusual depth with a ringing account of her sole aria “Il vecchiotto circa moglie.” I hope we will hear more of this soprano in future Opera Neo casts.

Óscar Valero, Lakshmi Basle, Kambiz Pakan & Andrew Moorstein [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

To this opera set in Seville, Spain, stage director Peter Kozma added the local color of three Flamenco artists—dancers Lakshmi Basile and Óscar Valero as well as guitarist Kambiz Pakan. The trio’s rhythmic verve and bright traditional flamenco costumes added greatly to the Spanish character of The Barber of Seville. Kozma used the Spanish Village setting wisely, keeping the action stage center, with only occasional forays to the balcony and its outside stairway—a convenient place to temporarily hide characters in the clever plot machinations.

As orchestra conductor, Kozma’s dependable sensitivity to the panache of Rossini’s classical style and Kozma’s unflagging attention to the score’s vital dramatic pulse were nonpareil. Even with a less than ideal placement of the orchestra, Kozma kept instruments and vocalists in superb alignment.

Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ exuberant contemporary costumes juxtaposed bright, contrasting colors and whimsical designs to eye-catching effect. Her imaginative creations added subtle definition to each character. Bon Basilio’s music bag, for instance, sported a peace symbol, and Doctor Bartolo’s midnight blue formal coat boasted a giant “B” monogram. I want a sport jacket just like it with my own monogram, of course. Gittings’ also favored large aviator sunglasses for Almaviva’s military drag—another item on my personal wish list. Ditto the bright red baggy pants held up with suspenders for Figaro!

Clever, colorful and constantly changing lighting patterns from Azra King-Abadi compensated handsomely for the minimalism of the stage setting. And the floor lamp with the vivid Tiffany lampshade proved the ideal symbol for the opera’s interior scenes.

Opera Neo opened this production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Art Center on Friday, April 28, 2023. Additional performances are offered on April 29 & 30 in the same venue.


  1. Jim Kleyn on April 30, 2023 at 1:05 pm

    A thoroughly enjoyable evening, and in Spanish Village made it all the more special. Range and purity of the voices was a treat. The actors played their parts well. The social comment fit, while not heavy-handed. The overture demonstrated early that we were in for musical excellence. Thanks for considering the audience’s comfort in temporary seating. I brought my own seat pad and didn’t use it.
    And yes, we need more Carly Cummings in the future.

  2. Malou on May 5, 2023 at 11:51 am

    Since, I’m not in San Diego, I’m curious. How large was the orchestra, and where were they sequestered? You mentioned the balance was good – a difficult job outdoors, I would think.

    • Ken Herman on May 5, 2023 at 11:24 pm

      Opera Neo’s orchestra boasted 35 players. There was no pit, of course, so Peter Kozma placed his instrumentalists adjacent to the audience seating stage left. As this company did in previous seasons when they performed in the outdoor Palisades Amphitheater, the singers and orchestra used amplification.

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