San Francisco Opera has accomplished the seemingly unfathomable task of bringing the art form to the drive in. On Friday, the troupe opened its historic run of an outdoor 90-minute “The Barber of Seville” to audiences in cars at Marin Center in San Rafael, and it was a treat from start to finish.
Moments during the production, some patrons even felt like they were watching in the War Memorial Opera House — closed for more than a year due to the pandemic — in that Alexander V. Nichols’ amazing, massive and clever set is a remarkable facsimile of the classic Civic Center building.
The deconstructed, abridged adaptation of Rossini’s popular comedy by director Matthew Ozawa isn’t a straightforward narrative, but instead offers up the performers giddily in rehearsal for the opera. It opens with a short, black-and-white silent film (shown on screens at the side of the stage) following them into the War Memorial building, proceeding to their dressing rooms. Soon, they’re each onstage, in upper-level dressing rooms, singing live for the first time in months.
Alternately, the video screens initially briefly reveal what’s going on in a tent backstage: conductor Roderick Cox leading a socially distanced ensemble of San Francisco Opera Orchestra musicians playing their hearts out, wearing masks.
Credit must go to technicians working on the crisp sound, which was excellent throughout the broadcast to car radios. (The opera even supplied transistors for those who couldn’t tune in from their vehicles.)
The singers, performing Marcie Stapp’s excellent concise English translation, clearly were having a blast on opening night of the 11-performance run.
In the title role, baritone Lucas Meachem, casual in slacks and a jean jacket (costumes by Jessica Jahn) got the show off to a great start singing the famed “Figaro” aria while amusingly fussing with wigs and the character’s other props. Tenor Alek Shrader as the lover Almaviva serenaded with a guitar, followed by soprano Daniela Mack as the sweet and sassy Rosina, rearranging flowers and reading a fashion magazine. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner, wearing a robe and boxers, was a riot as Dr. Bartolo, while mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Berta, in a leopard-print coat, and commanding bass Kenneth Kellogg as Don Basilio, rounded out the action.
The group numbers were thrilling, too, with the singers facing forward, backed by their faces and other dazzling designs projected in huge dimensions.
The fun production was filled with jokes. Voiceover by an omniscient stage manager cautioned the performers to keep their distance for COVID safety, even issuing a direct warning to real-life husband-and-wife Shrader and Mack, who’s pregnant. At one point, a tape measure was brought out to ensure the order would be followed.
Interestingly, though, while this multimedia “Barber” satisfies the yearnings of fans long awaiting the return of live entertainment, at the same time, it exemplifies the increasingly elemental role of technology in the arts. The Marin Center audience has two sections, with some vehicles getting the up-close stage view — where it admittedly was hard at times to focus on the live person competing with huge projections — while others at the nearby lagoon watched a simulcast on a drive-in screen. At some points, too, the production’s design even resembled Zoom boxes.
While San Francisco Opera seemingly spared no expense to mount such a unique show, with flawless production values and executed impeccably on every level, it remains to be seen if subscribers and fans who miss live music and musicians (many who are still out of work) will take to the drive-in format for the long term.
For now, though, it’s a tonic. And opera lovers in cars on Friday showed their appreciation at the conclusion not by shouting “bravo” but by enthusiastically honking their horns before driving off the Marin Center campus.
The Barber of Seville
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: Marin Center, Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael
When: 8 p.m. April 27, April 30, May 1, May 4, May 7-8, May 11, May 14-15
Tickets: $50 to $250 per vehicle
Contact: (415) 864-3330, sfopera.com