The recipe for pulling off Gioachino Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" is a simple one: Combine equal parts virtuoso singing and top-flight comic acting.
Though simple on paper, it's never an easy sell on the opera stage.
"It's a very complex opera and probably comes closest to vocal Olympics, given all of the coloratura that Rossini wrote into the score," said Rod Gideons, general director of the Sacramento Opera.
The two-act work gets an outing next weekend at the Community Center Theater by the Sacramento Opera as its only full opera offering of the 2012-13 season.
Gideons said that every year begins with the company putting together an ideal cast list for each of its productions. Realities of economics and conflicting concert schedules are what typically dictate who gets cast.
For this production, the company closely met its casting goals.
"This year we really lucked out," Gideons said.
Indeed, Gideons has assembled a strong and young cast for "Barber" including tenor Thomas Glenn in the role of Count Almaviva. Glenn is a graduate of the San Francisco Adler Fellow program and has done turns with the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Also a noteworthy catch for this production is the appearance of up-and-comer mezzo-soprano Leah Wool, who will perform the role of Rosina. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, a company favorite, performs the role of Figaro, and bass Ashraf Sewailam performs as Don Basilio.
This production, directed by David Bartholomew, will see conductor Thomas Conlin make his company debut with the Sacramento Opera. Conlin appears in lieu of conductor Michael Morgan, who had a scheduling conflict.
Conlin does the bulk of his conducting in Europe and South America and has chosen a recently issued edition of "Barber" for the Sacramento run. The 600-page edition stays true to Rossini's original intentions for the music by restoring the composer's original ideas. This version will be close to how Rossini would have heard it performed, said Conlin.
"This opera has become corrupted over the years," he said. "One often hears very bloated versions that sound more like tragic opera."
It's hard to believe it now, but when Rossini's comic opera "The Barber of Seville" premiered in 1816, it suffered a disastrous opening performance. The temporary fate had less to do with the merits of the opera than it did with political infighting of the time.
Rossini was all of 24 years old when he wrote it. Even more impressive is that he wrote the opera in a mind-boggling span of just two weeks.
Fortunately, the work was well received thereafter and soon earned its place as an undisputed operatic masterpiece. Today the work, which was the first opera performed in Italian in the U.S., remains ageless for its breezy comic style and crystalline music.
The opera operates on the drive of a clever plot that is married to music infused with intense doses of coloratura arias and ensemble singing.
"Barber" singers are charged with long vocal lines as is the case when Count Almaviva sings the aria "Ecco ridente." Speed and tongue-twisting "patter songs" also are called for, and each singer must pay heed to the challenging conventions of comic acting in which satire and slapstick are combined.
The challenges also include cohesive ensemble singing.
"Rossini not only wrote great music for the singers, he wrote brilliantly for the orchestra pit," said Conlin.
Of all operas, "Barber of Seville" will sound most familiar to the opera newbie, said Conlin.
"It's amazing how much of this opera people have already heard before having attended it," Conlin said. "I don't know how they could have made those Saturday-morning cartoons without the 'Barber of Seville.' "
"Excepting the old Broadway shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein I think this opera has more actual tunes that you can leave the concert hall whistling or singing than any Broadway show in modern times."
And unlike many other operas, the characters in "Barber" will also be familiar to the opera neophyte, said Gideons.
"These were characters that Italians grew up with through the commedia dell'arte tradition where you have the two lovers and the befuddled older man, and where you have the academic-cleric know-it-all who gets everything slightly not right," Gideons said.
"The music has been beloved ever since its premiere, since it deals with these recognizable characters," he said. "These were characters people loved and bought into, and we enjoy these characters even today.
"Watch any situation comedy, and you can pick out these long-established characters from the commedia tradition and this is what contributes to the opera being so popular today."
The Barber of Seville
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. next Sunday
WHERE: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
INFORMATION: (916) 737-1000; www.sacopera.org