Cutting Up | Performance | Style Weekly

If laughter is the mark of a successful comedy, Virginia Opera’s “The Barber of Seville” sounds like a triumph.

At the opera’s opening night in Norfolk on Nov. 3, the laughter was so loud at one point that the performers couldn’t hear themselves or the orchestra backing them.

“They gave up on singing at one point because they couldn’t hear each other,” says Nora Winsler, the show’s director. “The laughter in the house was so loud. People were really enjoying it.”

In this new staging of Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 comic masterpiece, Virginia Opera has included a “play within a play” onstage that’s similar to “Noises Off” and “The Play Where Everything Goes Wrong.” At various points in the show the curtains don’t work, lighting cues are missed, and crew members appear onstage to “finish” the set.

“We play with the crew and the stage manager being involved in the telling,” says Winsler, who grew up in Fairfax. “Certain scenic elements don’t work, or we see some backstage problems happen.”

Winsler says this approach gives them room to incorporate some contemporary references.

“It feels like they’re putting on these period costumes to put on a show, but then we’ve added all these anachronistic modern props,” Winsler explains. “You’ve got cell phones, iPads, Starbucks cups.”

Still, the show follows the plot of Rossini’s opera buffa. Rosina is the ward of Dr. Bartolo, a doctor of medicine who is waiting until Rosina is of age so he can marry her and collect her substantial dowry. Count Almaviva is smitten with Rosina but wants to make sure that she loves him for himself, not his wealth. To woo Rosina and rescue her from Dr. Bartolo’s house, Almaviva enlists the help of Figaro, a barber and jack of all trades. Hijinks and many disguises ensue.

click to enlarge

  • Dave Pearson Photography
  • Aaron Crouch as Count Almaviva and Hilary Ginther as Rosina.

Winsler compares Dr. Bartolo’s guardianship of Rosina to Britney Spears’ conservatorship nightmare.

“He has complete ownership over her and she’s kind of locked in this house,” says Winsler, adding that as “Barber” follows Commedia dell’arte stock characters, new audiences should easily understand what’s happening. “All of these characters are familiar. It’s not hard to be locked into the story already. There’s a lot of cultural context.”

This production marks mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther’s fourth time playing Rosina. Ginther says “Barber” is always a very physical show, but that this version has been the most challenging of her career so far.

“This is the most athletic, and it requires me to pace myself the most of any ‘Barber of Seville’ production that I’ve done,” says Ginther, who grew up in Bristol. “There are so many moments where I know I’m going to be out of breath, or my heart’s going to be racing because of all the schtick that’s onstage.”

Ginther must also meet the challenge of singing coloratura as Rosina.

“The role itself, singing-wise, is very, very, very challenging, very virtuosic. I have to sing a lot of notes,” she says. “You still have to deliver that beautiful singing while you are battling your heartrate and being out of breath. It feels like I have a chihuahua inside of me because I’m shaking. My ‘inner chihuahua’ is what I call it.”

Winsler compares Ginther’s comedic chops to those of Jim Carrey.

“She’s so funny,” Winsler says. “She makes these amazing facial expressions. She totally has this comedic timing down.”

As Bugs Bunny’s cleverness and insubordinate nature are a close mirror to Figaro’s character, Ginther sees a comparison with this show.

“It’s like if ‘Looney Tunes’ came to life in front of your eyes with real people,” she says. “It is such fun music. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride.”

Virginia Opera’s “The Barber of Seville” plays Nov. 17 and 19 at the Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St., 23219. For more information, visit or call 866-673-7282.

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