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12 March, 2010

Barber of Seville at the Met Thurs 4th March 2010

Barber of Seville - Metropolitan Opera Thurs 4th March 2010

This performance reminded me that Barber is a comic masterpiece - a fact which had almost eluded me after some recent second rate performances. This Met performance was like any human endeavour at its highest level: being based on a good formula, it should be exciting, appear easy and have elements of the Olympic Games and Guinness Book of Records all rolled into one. And that is what the capacity audience got at this performance, the last in a run beset by illness and replacements. It may have been the first performance when everything (well, almost everything) went according to plan.

This production by Bartlett Sher breaks with many prevailing traditions. He utilised a wooden plank stage extension going right around the orchestra. The stage itself was bare apart from sporting numerous mobile double doors, each in its own architrave. One was surmounted with a balcony with rear ladder as required by the story, like Romeo and Juliet.

This production premiered a couple of years ago with Juan Diego Florez as a sensational Almaviva … but Lawrence Brownlee was a fine artistic force in the current production (Barry Banks did the previous performance due to illness). Brownlee's Ecco ridente was marvellous, ending on the high tonic to rousing applause. This was just one of many, many optional extras put in by almost all of the principal singers in the true original spirit of bel canto. Even Berta’s aria was ornamented by Claudia Waite. It is a great shame that this was not a scheduled national radio broadcast.

Diana Damrau is a glorious ‘high octane’ soprano with a few extended high notes which she can make sound like a glass harmonica. She is beautiful and a fine comic actress to boot. Her ‘Una voce poco fa’ came without a break as she simply walked through one of the many doors for her entrance.

Franco Vassallo is also singing Figaro this season at La Scala and it is obvious why. He took complete control with his ‘Largo al factotum’ and ensuing famous duet with the tenor.

The patter song of the guardian Dr Bartolo (Maurizio Muraro) admonishing Rosina for her excuses was little short of amazing, ending as it did in front of the conductor. Many ensembles and duets took place, at least in part, on this platform, changing the acoustics significantly - and for the better. Obviously, the closer one is to a singer the more powerful the voice will sound. In addition, the orchestra was partially obscured and it seems somewhat reduced in size as well.

In the same way, as Don Basilio, Samuel Ramey demonstrated everything that it is to be a professional (and many decades at that!). He must be one of the few singers left standing from the last “golden age” which included Marilyn Horne, Sherrill Milnes, Beverley Sills, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and the rest.

There was careful appreciation of the libretto throughout the performance. We were presented with numerous major stage ‘gags’, some straight out of the text like the crash in Dr Bartolo’s larder as the shaving equipment is being sought - indeed it became an explosion with sparks, noise and smoke to prove it. Inevitably Ambroglio, played by actor Rob Besserer, was the butt of the joke. Other gags, large and small, seemed to come from both the text but some from the vivid imagination of the production team. An oddity ended Act I in which the rear scrim slowly rose to reveal a blinding white backdrop and an ever-so-slowly descending enormous anvil above the rear of the stage. As our protagonists sang the complex concluding piece at the front of the stage, Ambroglio tries to deal with a cart of giant pumpkin gourds which was dragged on by a donkey. With the animal and driver departing, we saw a dishevelled and panicking Ambrogio trying to warn of the impending doom which finally occurred on the last note of the act as the enormous weight above dropped and crushed the entire cart with bits of pumpkin, spoked wheels, etc flung asunder. Weird! It did not add to the drama to my mind.

Another gag involved Mr Brownlee seriously drunk in the second act wielding a large soldier’s sword which chopped the trunk of a large ornamental orange tree. After a little encouragement the tree fell, pinning a screaming Ambroglio to the floor. Not to be outdone by Juan Diego Florez, Mr Brownlee sang the “Cessa di piu resistere” scene which is familiar from the end of La Cenerentola. He ended on a sustained B flat according to a man sitting next to me, a concertmaster who had his own tuning fork. It was a sensational end to a glorious scena leading to the happy finale.

All in all a very, very satisfying night at the opera. Maurizio Benini conducted. Sets by Michael Yeargan.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

All casts can be found on the Metropolitan Opera web site

Boheme with Netrebko on this Saturday night in Zeffirelli’s gigantean Met production.