The Met’s nicely coiffed ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ a vocal delight, but the laughs don’t ‘cut it’
The comedic elements take a haircut in this revival of Rossini’s beloved opera buffa
Bartlett Sher’s 2006 Metropolitan Opera production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia has been acclaimed for its wit, effervescence and a distinctive feature of the set: a passerelle. This is a rectangular ramp built around the orchestra pit permitting the singers to walk right above the front row of orchestra seats and practically touch the audience. In one of Sher’s clever bits of stage business, the Figaro in this Barbiere actually passes out his business cards to audience members who might be in need of his services as a fixer.
In this revival, seen in its live HD relay, the passerelle is still there, framing the Met Orchestra as if the musicians were playing at the bottom of a rectangular swimming pool. The singers often engage the audience from the passerelle, with conductor Michele Mariotti situated behind and below them. Alas, most of the wit in this production has vanished in the last eight years.
This was a long afternoon, with the audience sitting on its hands until the end of the opera — when tenor Lawrence Brownlee, singing the role of Count Almaviva, bravely offered the aria Cessa di piu resistere in which he berates Doctor Bartolo for holding his ward Rosina as a virtual prisoner. As the critic Charles Osborne has written, this aria is almost never performed because it is “very long, heavily decorated, and beyond the grasp of most Almavivas.”
It is most assuredly not beyond Brownlee’s grasp. Standing on the passerelle, Brownlee spun out the florid vocal line with ease. His voice is not powerful but it’s agile, and he has astounding breath control. The top of his voice is honeyed and warm, without any of the pinched squawking that used to mark many Rossini tenors in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s.
Brownlee is not, however, a natural comedian. Nor are the other members of this straight-laced cast: mezzo Isabel Leonard as Rosina, baritone Christopher Maltman as Figaro, bass baritone Maurizio Muraro as Bartolo and bass Paata Burchaladze as Don Basilio. Fernando Corena, the greatest Bartolo of the last 60 years, could produce laughs just by waddling onto the stage to play the pompous buffoon. No one in this cast has that comic touch. Not many in the current generation of opera singers do.
In defense of the cast, it must be noted that this production saddles them with stage business that would not have been funny even at the Old Metropolitan Opera House. If Met General Manager Peter Gelb thinks this is comedy that will appeal to the youthful audience he seeks, he is living in the 1950s. This production is profoundly, embarrassingly, tediously unfunny.
The problems start with a male servant to Bartolo whose chief function is to take pratfalls, fall asleep drunk and serve as a piñata. He is predictably costumed in drooping hose, a filthy jacket and greasy wig. I knew we were in trouble when in a pantomime during the overture, this servant lifts a shroud covering what turns out to be Bartolo (surprise!), drunk and asleep.
The end of Act One is admittedly tough to stage. There is too much music and not enough action to occupy all the principals and chorus of soldiers who have come to investigate all the confusion Rossini whips up in his typical finale. But here, the soldiers simply cluster stage left, and the principals are grouped stage right — pretending to dance but lacking any choreography to help them. The act ends, inexplicably, with the servant watching as an anvil descends from the flies to smash a wagon full of pumpkins that mysteriously appears.
Don Basilio’s slander aria (La Calunnia) should bring laughs, but Paata Burchuladze is more lawyer than dizzy singing teacher. He could have been arguing a defamation case rather than plotting how to bring down Count Almaviva. Burchuladze’s bass voice lacks the depth and resonance required to provide the aria its necessary sinister quality. His blank expression didn’t help. Basilio must be oily. Burchuladze is synthetic.
As Bartolo, Maurizio Muraro handled the buffo patter well in A un dottor della mia sorte, but he lacks the bluster and fussiness required to make the character endearing.
Figaro should light up the stage with energy and good cheer. But he was introduced to the audience riding atop his wagon/shop — being pulled by four women instead of horses. What sort of “barber” is this? Other directorial touches (some lesbian kissing in Figaro’s shop) suggest he is as much pimp and procurer as he is barber. Christopher Maltman could never yank this Figaro back from Sher’s dark conception. His singing demonstrated wide international experience in this role, but his voice lacks a distinctive color. He rarely seemed to be at the center of the action.
So that leaves the Rosina of Isabel Leonard, who just completed a run of delightful performances as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. She is a handsome woman with a magnetic stage presence. Her powerful mezzo voice encompasses a wide range, and the coloratura and ornamentation posed no problems. Her calling card aria that opens Scene Two — Una voce poco fa — was a vocal highlight of the afternoon. She was also delightful in the Zitti ziti, piano, piano trio with Figaro and Almaviva.
Leonard has clearly decided, for the time being, that she is primarily a Rossini mezzo — with engagements of more Rosinas ahead followed by a run of La Cenerentola. Cinderella has a dark side that suits her better, and she can succeed without a troupe of comic singers around her. But Leonard’s steely Rosina is in bearing more like the woman she will become: the unhappy Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
As Bartolo’s female servant Berta, Claudia Waite supplied the requisite sneezes (she takes snuff) and wailed pleasantly in her one aria about being an old maid.
Conductor Michele Mariotti offered some exaggerated ritardandos followed by jet-propelled tempos, but overall he led a bouncy, idiomatic performance.
The set is a simple one, essentially a collection of wooden doors that haven’t seen a coat of white paint in 50 years. Sometimes they form a wall as a backdrop or swing singly into different positions to define separate playing spaces. A few props — tables, a divan, a wagon — complete the picture. Setting up and breaking down this set ought not require much overtime from the stagehands.
The HD production once again overdid the close-ups and neglected wide shots of the entire stage. In the shaving scene, for example, two encounters of equal importance occur simultaneously. Figaro is trying to distract Bartolo with a shave while Almaviva and Rosina are plotting their escape. A suspicious Bartolo, meanwhile, is trying to watch them. By constantly cutting back and forth from one pair to the other, the cameras denied us the opportunity to watch the characters’ interaction, which is essential.
So, the afternoon scorecard shows one passerelle, one elegant Rosina, and one rare aria for Almaviva, delivered with panache. That’s one Bartolo, one Basilio and one Figaro short of a full house.
What: Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, broadcast Live in HD
Who: Metropolitan Opera
When: Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014
Time: Approximately three hours and 25 minutes
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
U.S. Encore performance: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 at 6:30 pm
Canadian Encore performance: Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 12 pm and Monday, January 12, 2015 at 6:30 pm