We love to see the future of opera in action, so we embarked onto the Noah's Ark of the Merola program's Il Barbiere of Siviglia last week-end: we saw two performances, two casts, two overall successes, and too much comedy.

The Merola program auditions 800 singers at the start of their careers, to pick the two dozen or so who will participate in the prestigious summer opera boot camp. Big names of opera come and work with them. Tonight, Patrick Summers, the conductor who will premiere Heart of a Soldier with SF Opera next month, gives a master class; and Thomas Hampson, the main character in Heart of a Soldier, went through the ranks of the Merola.

To squeeze more of the Merola participants onto the stage, they divided them into two casts, each performing twice the familiar Barber over four days. It's a real production, fully staged, with an orchestra in the pit of Herbst Theater, but the bare-bone approach of the minimal single set testifies to the budgetary limitations. The stage direction, by Roy Rallo, works best when there is an added space constraint as well: the first act serenade under the balcony of Rosina, whom the count Almaviva attempts to woo, and his encounter with the barber Figaro, all happen on a narrow stretch in front of a curtain made of green Christmas garland decorations, and are quietly effective in their staging.