Delightful Barbiere with an impeccable ensemble

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 2/29/2008
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

Twenty-four-year-old Rossini set the artistic world laughing in 1816 with Il Barbiere di Seviglia, based on Beaumarchais’ Age of Enlightenment farce which was first produced in 1775. The play delivered in a light hearted manner the very serious message that the days of the aristocracy were numbered, and that the well-born and the common are equally capable of nobility, treachery, and foolishness. Although “Enlightenment” has progressed by fits and starts, as evidenced by the reestablishment of the Inquisition by Pope Pius VII, and the restoration of the French monarchy by Louis XVIII, both in 1814, Rossini’s Barbiere, despite a disastrous first performance, quickly assumed an unshakable position in our operatic world. One can see why when witnessing as near a perfect production as this: vocally formidable, virtuoso, visually charming, and utterly hilarious.  The cast, for this season’s final performance seemed to be having a very good time, feeling comfortable with each other, and allowing impromptu nuances of music and staging to breathe freshness into their collaboration.                               

As this is primarily an ensemble opera, the greatest pleasure was derived from the impeccable ensemble singing, notwithstanding an abundance of brilliant arias. The individual voices, superbly focused and in tune, collectively spun a succession of sonorous phrases in the trios and quartets with graceful accents and articulation, producing music reminiscent of a newly polished chandelier with all its lights ablaze. It seemed that nothing could go wrong that evening, and things that would generally appear to be liabilities proved to be assets in the event. For example, the romantic lead, Count Almaviva, had the same pudgy body and double chins as Dr. Bartolo, but the radiant and beautiful Rosina’s adoration of such a creature only added to the evening’s merriment.  José Manuel Zapata has a voice quality of glaring brightness similar to Juan Diego Flores, the Almaviva of earlier performances this season, but unlike Flores he has the ability to execute fioratura passages with exactness, and at a velocity that would seem to approach the sound barrier. His stage deportment brought to mind the mannerisms of other champions of florid singing, such as Cecelia Bartoli and David Daniels who, at the appropriate moment, firmly position themselves as if they were machine gun pedestals, aim their heads (usually tilted) in the direction of the audience and fire off volley after volley of sixteenth notes, with astonishing precision.               

A second potential liability turned asset was the cat walk which partially roofed the orchestra pit, from the center of which the conductor thrust his head, energetically leaping and waving his arms, creating the effect of a huge jack-in–the- box set in perpetual motion. Nevertheless the musical results were splendid indeed. Tempos were solid, textures were well defined, and Maestro Chaslin used the singers’ ability to move forward in the bravura syllabic passages to full advantage. During these vocal fireworks, the characters often walked out on the cat walk, virtually standing on top of the audience, bringing an intimacy to the performance and providing a spotlight for the singers’ consummate technical skills. The only resulting drawback lay in the orchestral sound’s being somewhat muffled, and the tympani for some reason being overly resonant. One other acoustical distraction was the over amplification of the guitar in the first act serenade, which competed with the tenor and even the entire orchestra.                      

Especially wonderful in this especially wonderful cast was the Dr. Bartolo of Maurizio Mauro, who was heard earlier this season as the same character in Le Nozze di Figaro. His strutting about the cat walk while chattering his lines in the first act aria had the audience rocking with laughter. Muraro’s comic timing and gestures were riveting. While listening to Don Basilio sing La Calunnia one’s eyes could not help but wander back to him. Notwithstanding his comic flair as a singer and actor, one is reminded of Fernando Corena who could sing the funny roles, but never let us forget that he had a beautiful voice as well.

The barber, Franco Vassallo, was indeed un barbier’ di qualita. All of the devices Rossini employs from slapstick acting to vocal agility to stunning high notes were poured out in abundance, and his famous first act aria brought cheers, my own included. Perhaps it was the best overall performance of the role I have ever heard. Although a native of Latvia, Elina Garanča brought a sunny Latin temperament and charm to the stage, displaying a beautiful voice, a command of legato, and fine coloratura.                                                                                                                            
The sets, reminiscent of Dali, and Magritte, were at once evocative and practical. A collection of doors, skillfully shuffled back and forth by secondary cast members, moved the viewer from inside to outside with ease and swiftness. A sofa or a boxed orange tree sufficed to give us our bearing.

Readers who are especially fond of the finale will be happy to know of Rossini’s trio, Aurora, for mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone with piano accompaniment. It is dedicated to the widow of General Mikhail Kutuzov, leader of the Russian forces against Napoleon, and demands very accomplished singers. The theme, identical to that of the finale is based on the Russian folksong Tend your own Garden. If anyone asks nicely, I will happily send him/her a copy.