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Fizzless Figaro

New York
Metropolitan Opera
01/12/2008 -  and January 22, 26 (Matinee), 30, February 2, 7,14, 21, 25, 29
Gioacchino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Elina Garanca (Rosina), José Manuel Zapata (Count Almaviva), Franco Vassallo (Figaro), Bruno Pratico (Dr. Bartolo), Peter Rose (Don Basilo) Jennifer Check (Berta), Mark Schowalter (Sergeant), John Moore (Fiorello), Rob Besserer (Ambroggio)
Bartlett Sher (Production), Michael Yeargan (Set designer), Catherine Zuber (Costume designer), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting designer), Sharon Thomas (Stage director); Dog/donkey supervision: All Tame Animals Inc.
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Frédéric Chaslin (Conductor)

Outside of pure musical genius, The Barber of Seville has survived as its accolade as the world’s greatest opera buffa by the greatest artistic and scientific asset: sheer economy. The time and space sequence is real time, all occurring during two hours in a single house. The cast is uniformly economical, all of them monsters, greedy and as nasty as anything in Gianni Schicchi. The arias, cavatinas, trios and choruses are as inventive as they are inevitable, and never too long or short.

Thus with this Met production of Barber of Seville, when this economy is transformed into excess, the Rossini fizz seems flat. An opera is more than voices; it is staging which enhances voices and story.

True, there were some exceptional voices here, but they seemed to wander haplessly in a universe neither their own nor Rossini’s.

So much of this opera has the feeling of chamber farce, so part of the responsibility lay in using the full breadth of the Grand Opera stage, including the wings of the proscenium, (even the audience for an opening moment). Nothing broke up the area. In Act One the virtual setting of dramatist Ionesco’s play, The Doors, with about a dozen portals constantly moving around. It was rather distracting.
The lighting hardly helped against the beige background. Nor the raising of the back curtain for a particularly odious glaring white screen. Props included scrawny Seville orange trees (and oranges thrown about), a sofa for various characters to roll onto and fall off, one tiny dog who appeared for three seconds, and one pack-animal for two moments. (Its hee-haw probably would have been a rich burro-tone.)
But using the spacious set led to moments of forced humor. The Act One climax, with the principals sidling from side to side, and the endless pantomime on the extremes on the stage simply deadened the music, rather than augmenting its power.

The singers could not be held responsible for this, of course, though only a single singer transcended the problems to make voice and character together: Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca , making her debut, had a voice a few shades darker than the usual bright Rosina, though her pitch was immaculate, her phrasing beautiful. But most important was that she gave this Rosina the kind of “liberated” personality which would have pleased Germaine Greer. From her first movement lolling about, bored on a divan (she reminded one of Faye Dunaway in the first scene of Bonnie and Clyde ) she became tricky (Figaro himself admires her), manipulative, somewhat wicked, impulsive and, yes, a bit of a virago. But always fascinating.

It was a shame that José Manuel Zapata, also making his Met debut as the Count, was suffering from a cold. One could see what a ringing tenor he might have in countless arias (absolutely stunning in the opening Ecco ridente in cielo), but one felt (and sympathized with) the strain as he reached for the high notes, that itself taking away from his multiple disguises.

Both Franco Vassallo as Figaro, Bruno Pratico as Dr. Bartolo were in fine voice, and their two patter songs — the fastest possible music for voice ever written — were performed immaculately. Vassallo was suitably athletic, and Pratico hobbled about the stage as old as possible. Singing master Peter Rose was delightful and almost vicious in La Calumnia and Jennifer Check gave a nice performance in Berta’s one cavatina.

Yet somehow, the stage rarely had that sizzle which makes the opera go. When the choruses appeared, they gave the volume — in both space and time — to lift up the music. Other than this, The Barber of Seville, the first Italian opera ever presented in New York, may need a rebirth sometime soon.

Harry Rolnick



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