What's Opera, Doc?

Twenty bars in, you couldn't help but smirk. Or I couldn't, anyway. The overture to Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), with which Arizona Opera kicked off its season last weekend, was executed with lightness and verve under the baton of Kirk Muspratt. The Tucson audience sat there listening to that pulsing, playfully urgent theme -- one of the most familiar in all classical music -- and none of us could picture anything other than Bugs Bunny, tormenting Elmer Fudd.

Or I couldn't, anyway.

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to opera in any form was Bugs and Elmer's travesty of Rossini in the Warner Bros. short The Rabbit of Seville, and it remains the inescapable association that this glorious music holds for me. With which I'm perfectly comfortable, by the way -- at least they're both comedies. What's Opera, Doc?, in which the same two stars demolish Wagner, has permanently and more ruinously tainted the Ring Cycle for me. (You know, "Kill the wabbit/Kill the waaabbit/Kill the WAAAABBIT"?)

Much to its credit, nothing about the Arizona Opera production, which moves to Symphony Hall this weekend, suggests that there would be any huffiness about these associations, anyway. It's a charmingly simple, unpretentious, entertainment-minded production. Indeed, director Robert McQueen's staging is not above the occasional bit of fourth-wall shtickery itself, such as when a character sits down at the piano and is impressed to find that the instrument sounds like a whole orchestra.

Rossini was a hotshot kid of 23 when Barber, his comic masterwork, was first staged in Rome in 1816. The première was inauspicious, in large part because of protests from the audience by admirers of an earlier, now-forgotten version of Barber by Giovanni Paisiello. Rossini's version eventually became one of the most beloved operas of all time.

It's a musical mansion built on a trifling foundation of plot. The story has the lovesick Count Almaviva employing the cheery title character, Figaro, to help him gain access to Rosina, the ward of the upper-class Dr. Bartolo. The suspicious doctor wants to marry the poor girl himself, so he keeps her closely guarded, and listens to his slimy crony Don Basilio's advice, which is to slander Almaviva. But Figaro schemes for Almaviva to infiltrate the house in the guise of a drunken soldier in need of billeting. Almaviva also presents himself falsely to Rosina, as a poor student named Lindoro, to be certain she doesn't like him just for his money. Then, in the second act, things get complicated.

For the October 6 cast (two sets of leads alternate evenings during the run), the emphasis was on comic performance over vocal power. Everyone's singing was pleasant, but none of it raised goose bumps, and at times, particularly during passages of rapid-fire patter, the orchestra even swallowed the voices for a bar or two. Yet all of the characters were expertly sketched. The strongest performance was by mezzo-soprano Marianne Bindig, who gets across Rosina's lively spirit, and who brings a nice tinge of irony to her coloratura; there are sly quotation marks around some of her ornamentation. Curt Peterson's Almaviva fills the demands of the role. Steven Condy fills Dr. Bartolo with spluttering, sardonic bile, and Kathryn Cowdrick is winning in her one big scene as Berta the maid. Bradley Garvin has a fine creepiness as the unsavory Don Basilio, and a word should be said for Dale Dreyfoos, who makes much of his nearly mute role as Bartolo's harried servant Ambrogio.

The Figaro of Daniel Mobbs, costumed in the red and white stripes of his profession, gooses the audience to full alert from the moment he swaggers onstage, singing "Largo al factotum," about how he is entirely up to the great demand he's in. With the possible exception of "La Donna e Mobile," it's the most famous male aria in Western opera, and a baritone facing it must feel something like an actor faced with saying "To be or not to be." But Mobbs makes it feel effortless, breezily ebullient.

Watching Mobbs' Figaro, I kept trying to think who the character reminded me of. It finally came to me in Act Two, when, as a diversionary tactic, he shaves the hapless Dr. Bartolo. Figaro's 20th-century descendant is no accident: This endlessly confident, bottomlessly resourceful, boundlessly cheerful, cheek-smooching, self-serenading individualist was already opera's own Bugs Bunny.