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The gauntlet was thrown.
At the first rehearsal of Utah Opera's upcoming production of "The Barber of Seville," Will Liverman was singing the title role of Figaro at dazzling speed.
"I'd never heard a baritone take that music at the tempo he did," said Robert MacPherson, who will sing the role of Count Almaviva, Figaro's client and sometime friend. "I thought, 'That's the gauntlet.' It's like a tennis match, keeping up with each other. It's nice to have someone who, from the very first, surprises you. We up each other's game."
Liverman's recollection is different. "I was probably just nervous!" he said, laughing, when told what MacPherson had said.
In any case, cast chemistry is one reason to perform and see popular operas such as "The Barber of Seville" again and again, MacPherson said.
"I remember hearing [another singer] say he was tired of certain repertoire, certain works," said the tenor, who estimates this is his 15th go-round as Almaviva. "I don't understand that. If I get bored [in a role], I think I'm being boring."
Stage director Tara Faircloth and conductor Jerry Steichen agreed that "The Barber of Seville" has aged well.
"It premiered in 1816 and it's still hysterical," Faircloth said. "There is not a snoozy moment in the show."
Besides the comic situations in Cesare Sterbini's libretto (based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais), Gioachino Rossini's music delights her. "I would be happy to see a concert version of this opera because the music is so sparkling," she said.
"The melodies are so infectious," said Steichen, the Utah Symphony's principal pops conductor, who will lead this opera from the harpsichord. "How can you listen to " he dashed to a nearby piano and began to play "that tune without feeling great?
"It's fresh every time," he said. "There is conflict and real humanity. [The music] follows an exact form, but within that, there's so much invention and character-driven music."
Utah Opera's production will feature at least one twist. The role of Rosina, written for a mezzo-soprano, will be sung by a soprano instead. Celena Shafer is taking on the role for the first time, though she sang Rosina's signature aria in a competition as a teen.
"I hadn't really thought about it for years and years I was a soprano, and a high one at that," she said. "It's been fun to come back to it. … There are some things vocally that are changed when a soprano does it, but it doesn't detract from what Rossini wrote."
In many ways, she said, the aria is the key to the character of Rosina, a young woman who has been promised in marriage to her grumpy old guardian Dr. Bartolo but is determined to marry young, charming Almaviva instead.
"She likes to joke and have fun, but she is going to get her way, and she is going to use tricks," Shafer said. "She's not a mean character, but she's definitely spicy."
Shafer, a lifelong Utahn, has sung in major opera houses around the world. She cut back her singing career to spend more time with her husband and their four sons, including a 6-month-old. "I'm keeping my foot in the door of the business," said Shafer, noting that the baby is still small enough to accompany her to some gigs.
Liverman, like Shafer, is taking on his role for the first time, though he has been singing Figaro's signature aria for years. He enjoys playing the smartest character onstage.
"He always has a strategy for just about everything," Liverman said. "He's a local celebrity, and there's not a thing in the city he doesn't know about. He's cocky and all these things, but he has a good heart."
Utah Opera closes its season with Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
When • Opens Saturday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m.; evening performances continue May 13, 15 and 17, with a 2 p.m. matinee May 19.
Tickets • $13 to $83 ($5 more on performance day) at 801-355-ARTS, http://www.utahopera.com or the box office.
In a nutshell • A young couple and a resourceful barber plot to outwit the older man who wishes to marry the young woman.
Learn more • Utah Opera principal coach Carol Anderson will give free lectures at the back of the theater an hour before curtain, and artistic director Christopher McBeth will lead a Q&A at the front of the house after each performance.