Music Review – Barreling Through Rossini With a ‘Noises Off’ Rhythm

The New York Times
Bernard Holland January 14, 2008

Every opera company needs its “Barber of Seville,” and the Metropolitan Opera has one that does quite nicely. The heavy, often murderous gloom that sits over so much of the repertory requires comic fiber in its diet. Unlike Mozart’s operas, Rossini’s are what they are — no undertones of social upheaval or “Parsifal”-like mysticism. Face value is full value. Patrons and performers alike are allowed to be silly and glorious at the same time.

“Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” to give this 3-hour-10-minute piece its proper name, returned to the Met on Saturday night, beginning 40 minutes later than its customary 8 p.m. curtain because, I was told, of complications from a matinee broadcast. No one seemed to mind. Bartlett Sher’s production is frugal but not cheap, depending for its effects not on luxurious décor but on his cast’s sense of timing.

Multiple double doors, manhandled into different configurations, are the basic materials. Players burst through and disappear behind them, always in a kind of “Noises Off” rhythm. The comedy is physical, but it wisely steps back when slapstick threatens.

The storm scene has a lovely power of suggestion, and to bring characters into conversation with this big house, Michael Yeargan’s set design constructs a walkway around the orchestra pit and lines it with the modern equivalent of old-fashioned footlights. Their stark upward glare and the meticulous rococo costumes on which they shine make clear that history is being remembered, not made.

Saturday’s cast offered one star, one member of the walking wounded and elsewhere some very honorable performers. Elina Garanca, the Latvian mezzo-soprano, created a Rosina that towered over her colleagues musically, just as she towered, physically and improbably, over her adoring Almaviva, José Manuel Zapata. It would be nice to hear Mr. Zapata in better health. Behind the fog of indisposition, one could make out a tenor voice of decent refinement and with presence enough to fill large spaces.

Ms. Garanca is the real thing. Svelte, graceful and with a sense of humor, she flits around her decidedly portlier colleagues. Modern singing techniques adapt with difficulty to Rossini’s early-19th-century emphasis on speed, lightness and athletic articulation, and Ms. Garanca was the only one onstage sounding completely comfortable. The lyric passages sang out; the episodes of racecourse delivery were fully in hand.

Franco Vassallo, the evening’s Figaro, has a handsome baritone and, after some musical untidiness early on, did very well. Bruno Pratic? was a made-to-order Bartolo; Peter Rose’s Basilio used physical height and careful musicianship to persuade us that his bass voice is bigger and more commanding than it actually is. Jennifer Check (Berta) and John Michael Moore (Fiorello) were both first rate. Rob Besserer doddered silently as Ambrogio.

The walkway didn’t do any favors to the orchestra sound behind and below it, yet Frédéric Chaslin seemed to be conducting a bright and well-organized ensemble. Robert Morrison was the elegant harpsichordist for the recitatives.

“Il Barbiere di Siviglia” continues Jan. 22, 26 and 30 and Feb. 2, 7, 14, 21, 25 and 29 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; (212) 362-600,