Metropolitan Opera – Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Il barbiere di Siviglia – Opera in two acts [Libretto by Cesare Sterbini, based on the play by Beaumarchais, sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Sonya Friedman]

Fiorello – Brian Davis
Count Almaviva – Lawrence Brownlee
Figaro – Russell Braun
Dr Bartolo – John Del Carlo
Ambrogio – Rob Besserer
Rosina – Joyce DiDonato
Don Basilio – Samuel Ramey
Berta – Claudia Waite
Officer – Mark Schowalter

Robert Myers (recitative accompanist)
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Maurizio Benini

Bartlett Sher – Production
Michael Yeargan – Set design
Catherine Zuber – Costume design
Christopher Akerlind – Lighting design

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 26 April, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

The Metropolitan Opera inaugurated Bartlett Sher’s new production of Gioachino Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia with six performances last November, gave it four more performances in March with some casting changes, and now has made further changes in the cast – most notably the auspicious Met debut of tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva – for the season’s final four performances. Also joining the all-North American cast at this performance was Canadian baritone Russell Braun, singing his fourteenth Met Figaro, but his first in this production. Rosina was sung by Joyce DiDonato, who had joined the cast in March, Don Basilio by Samuel Ramey and Dr Bartolo by John Del Carlo, both of whom had sung in the production’s premiere.

Michael Yeargan’s simple yet functional set design never distracted the audience’s attention from the singers, the story and the music. The stage was open and airy, the space shaped and reshaped by manipulation of a series of framed doorways, each of which could serve as the entrance to a house, and which collectively could create a façade of row houses, defining a street. The same doors also were used to define and separate interior rooms within Dr Bartolo’s house, and they sometimes concealed an unexpected person or object. When called for by the plot, a section of grilled fencing or a doorway with a balcony above and a stairway behind was provided. The spaces created by the doorways were often adorned with orange trees (a hallmark of Seville) in movable planters.

The most unusual aspect of the set was its use of a passerelle – a runway that surrounded and partially covered the orchestra pit – allowing the singers to come forward of the proscenium, which had the effect of enhancing their vocal and physical presence. The Met Orchestra played well under the spirited conducting of Maurizio Benini, despite being slightly muted by the overhanging structure. Benini also did a fine job of keeping the opera’s many complicated vocal ensemble numbers on course. Catherine Zuber’s costumes were attractive and serviceable, giving the production more of a period look than the elemental sets provide.

Lawrence Brownlee made a feisty Almaviva, his light, flexible tenor well-suited to the demands of Rossini’s score in his initial florid cavatina, “Ecco, ridente in cielo”, and soon afterward in the romantic canzona, “Se il mio nome saper voi bramate”, with which (posing as Lindoro) the Count serenades Rosina. His antics when disguised, first as a drunken soldier, and later as the supposed music teacher Don Alonso, were highly entertaining, with his byplay with Del Carlo’s Dr Bartolo being especially humorous as they made use of their disparity in height to comic effect. In the opera’s concluding scene, Brownlee’s rendition of “Cessa di più resistere”, sung from the passerelle, brought down the house. The audience gave him a prolonged and vociferous curtain call that appeared to overwhelm him emotionally.

Joyce DiDonato portrayed Rosina in accordance with the character’s self-description in her cavatina “Una voce poco fa”: as a refined, but clever young woman who knew what she wanted and was determined to get it. DiDonato’s rich mezzo-soprano voice is ideally suited for this bel canto role, and she navigated the florid twists and turns of Rossini’s score with apparent ease (despite a pre-curtain “indulgence” announcement). She threw herself into her part with abandon, more than holding her own in the comic goings-on of the opera’s hopelessly convoluted plot.

Russell Braun portrayed Figaro as a robust, self-confident businessman who travelled with his shop – a large cart that opened to reveal a generous stock of wigs and tools of the barbering trade. The cart was trailed by a donkey, but the burden of pulling it on stage fell to a complement of beautiful young women who assisted (and doted on) Figaro, even during his opening “Largo al Factotum” cavatina, which Braun sang with a big resonant baritone and a nimble tongue, exuding lots of personality as he rattled off Rossini’s rapid patter. His Figaro was aptly sly and comedic as he schemed to outwit the lecherous Bartolo and win Rosina’s hand for Almaviva.

John Del Carlo was superb as Dr Bartolo, a role he has played often at the Met since 1996. His resonant bass lost none of its vocal quality as he rattled off Rossini’s florid passages and patter at blinding speed in his aria “A un dottor della mia sorte”. His comic acting was on the same superlative level as he portrayed the hapless doctor’s exasperation with Almaviva’s annoying alter egos: the soldier who repeatedly mispronounced Bartolo’s name and the music teacher who refused to desist from his nasal intoning of “Pace e gioia”.

The remainder of the cast was also strong, lending consistent vocal and comedic support to the proceedings. Samuel Ramey gave a fine account of Don Basilio’s great aria “La calunnia è un venticello”, singing from the passerelle, which augmented the cannon-like impact of its climax. Claudia Waite as the snuff-taking housekeeper, Berta, was a fine comedic presence as she sneezed her way through the opera and gave an excellent rendition of her second act aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie”. Also performing well were Met veterans baritone Brian Davis as Fiorello and tenor Mark Schowalter as the officer (one of the March additions to the cast). Rob Besserer, a dancer, was visually (but silently) quite funny as Ambrosio, Bartolo’s perpetually drowsy servant.

Overall, the production created an airy atmosphere that complemented well the opera’s light comedic plot and bright music. Much of the humour was woven seamlessly into the action, only occasionally descending to the level of slapstick comedy. There were, however, a few points at which Sher’s comedic business and effects seemed out of keeping with the unfolding action of the opera. The most senseless of these came in the first act finale. As the entire ensemble complained of a headache like a hammer striking an anvil, a gigantic anvil descended slowly from the flies above the stage toward a produce-laden cart located upstage of the singers. In a reversal of roles, the usually somnolent Ambrogio frantically tried to get the attention of the others who were, of course, “Freddo ed immobile come una statua” – frozen and still as a statue. As the act ended, the cart was crushed by the descending anvil. During this scene, and again in the opera’s finale, the stage was extremely brightly lit, so much so that it became difficult to read the MET Titles. However, these were but minor annoyances that detracted little from the fine singing and comic acting of a strong cast.

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