In Review > North America

The Barber of Seville

The Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera continued its marketing innovations with a holiday-season adaptation of Rossini's Barber of Seville for younger audiences, on the model introduced a few years back with its "Family Flute." The company takes a popular production such as Julie Taymor's colorful Zauberflöte, or in this case Bartlett Sher's uproarious 2006 staging of Barbiere, reduces the work to standard movie length, translates it into English and opens in the late-December Nutcracker and Messiah season. This Barber also shaved ticket prices for an extra boost and, if the house remained less than full at the opening on December 18, the show left viewers of all ages laughing and cheering.

It's gratifying that the Met's attempt to expand its audience — to convince kids that this art form is fun — still respects the nature of the product itself. The abridged English text, by Flute adapter J. D. McClatchy, could have pandered by inserting all kinds of slang or pop references. Rosina's lesson scene, in some hands, might have meant crossover indulgences — as in the company's flexible Fledermaus stagings of seasons past — rather than keeping the customary aria "Contro un cor." Some opera companies might replace recitatives altogether with spoken lines. Singers could have stepped out of character or grossly distorted their music for laughs. None of these excesses occurred. Even outlandish gags, like the entirely unmotivated offstage explosion, stem from the original staging.

Despite some vocal deficits, the attractive cast offered nonstop entertainment. John Del Carlo's blustery Dr. Bartolo was almost heroic in its instinctive buffo impact, making comic hay from his unwieldy physique and vocal timbre. The villain in this case just about eclipsed the Figaro, but any reservations this spectator felt concerning Rodion Pogossov's modest portrayal of the barber were clearly not shared by most of the audience. 

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and tenor Alek Shrader brought dazzle to the roles of the young protagonists Rosina and Almaviva — good looks, comic flair, energy and charm. Both sang with agility and sensitive phrasing, if on a small scale. Leonard gave a more rounded performance than her partner, projecting her top notes with flair.

The Don Basilio (Jordan Bisch) and Berta (Claudia Waite) had to forgo their solos in this abbreviated Barber — logical cuts, since neither aria involves much action — but they proved strong supporting players. Altogether, the musical performance, led suavely by Yves Abel, was a model of discipline, especially given the concurrent physical activity. Rob Besserer's miming as the sleepy servant Ambrogio was as inventive, and excessive, as in the original production.

Many of the cuts in the score were inconspicuous, involving repeats or portions of certain pieces, including the overture. Given the casting and the premium on action, it would have made sense to drop the bravura tenor solo near the end (which is better known as the mezzo's "Non più mesta" in La Cenerentola). Barbiere productions have done without this aria for generations.

The English text goes in for playful rhymes and takes a few liberties: Rosina comments on the boredom of opera — echoing a similar line in Corigliano and Hoffman's Ghosts of Versailles — and there's a contrived reference at the end to Rossini's and Beaumarchais's original subtitle, "The Useless Precaution." Opera in English, in any case, is no guarantee of clarity, especially in Rossini's fast, elaborate ensembles, in which Met titles remain a useful precaution. It's the recitatives that benefited most from sung English in this Barber, and here the translation came through with real immediacy. spacer 


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