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San Francisco Opera’s production of ‘Barber’ is a crowd-pleasing romp

Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” is the world’s most popular opera. Even when indifferently sung, it can energize a full house.

Tuesday night at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, “Barber” delighted the crowd.

At three hours — Woody Allen suggested that comedies should be no longer than 90 minutes — the evening succeeded because the cast was mostly tip-top and Johannes Schaaf’s busy production is still fun.

Introduced in 2004, the German director’s inventive jape proves less “psychological” and more wound like clockwork, with the most amusing schtick sill being the onstage stripping of Figaro’s shiny red Vespa.

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Schaaf doesn’t just aim for yucks, either. He gives his trapped Rosina an adorable stuffed kangaroo to hug and talk to — symbolizing her emotional adolescence. It’s significant that when she accepts true love with Almaviva, the kanga is forgotten.

With its original cast, this production seemed too frenetic and heartless. The 2005 revival saw more mature singers perform with a smooth, sharp result. The current revival is not quite, but almost, in that class.

Chief among them is Bruno de Simone (Dr. Bartolo), making an auspicious San Francisco Opera debut. The Neapolitan baritone is a Rossini specialist. You can’t take your eyes off him. Like certain Italian film stars, Simone cloaks his humor in realism; every piece of schtick rings true. He’s also a terrific singer.

John Osborn (S.F. Opera debut as Almaviva) was game enough to take off his shirt, execute Schaaf’s silly jokes with aplomb and was very funny in the singing teacher’s “Brahms” fat suit. As a Rossini tenor, his voice has metal and secure high notes.

Allyson McHardy made her S.F. Opera debut in that ghastly 2005 “Eugene Onegin,” (remember the orange Mohawk?). I had no idea that she was an accomplished comedienne. Her singing is relaxed with pin-point rhythmicaccuracy. The coloratura sparkled.

The usual suspects — old timers; Adler fellows; Merola grads — included Catherine Cook’s gumpy (Berta); Ricardo Herrera’s scene-stealing Ambrogio; and cavernous-voiced Phillip Ens (Basilio).

The only problem I have is with baritone Nathan Gunn (Figaro). Audiences love him — what’s not to like? He’s handsome, active, ingratiating. Yet I find his voice small and colorless in the War Memorial’s vast expanses. And his stage presence is too modern, brash and musical-comedy-oriented.

In the pit, Maurizio Barbacini seemed more at home with Rossini than he had been with Puccini and Donizetti, his previous assignments at S.F. Opera. He disjointed the famous overture only to put it smartly back together.

His tempos were lively but not overbearing, and he steered the ensembles with a firm hand.

Opera review

The Barber of Seville ???

When: Playing through Nov. 30

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $25-$235

Info: Call (415) 864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com



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