My cheeks still hurt from grinning. This Barber of Seville is giddy, witty fun throughout.
Fresh as a Broadway-worthy musical comedy, it’s powered by infectious melodies, dazzling arias and delirious groupings. Rossini’s famously raucous crescendos are still crashing and surging in my mind and lifting my spirits. And this is not an intellectual experience where we reflect “Ah, yes, this was meant to be humorous in its day.” This audience was laughing steadily—in our day. Rossini the showman would have been delighted to have collaborated with the bold Bartlett Sher when this production was first hatched in 2006.
The story benefits from all the classic attributes of the comedy genre–especially the annoying, restrictive old people who must be gotten out of the way by the end so that the young, fertile lovers can get together and, to the bride’s surprise, also have high social station and be showered with spondulix. The show is cast to a tee, with magnificent singers all, who totally look their parts. The hijinks revolve around the Count Almaviva (the winning and flexible David Portillo), lovestruck with fair, canny Rosina (the virtuosic, radiant mezzo Isabel Leonard), who is under the jealous control of her elder guardian, Doctor Bartolo (the comically spot-on, round-faced bass Valeriano Lanchas) who plans to keep Rosina under lock and key until he can marry her himself. Count Almaviva seeks the aid of the wiliest member of the serving class, the immortal trickster Figaro (handsome, powerful baritone Elliot Madore). Along the way we get all the delights of satirical skewering–sneaky stratagems, vanity, over-eagerness, and pompous pedants grasping for gold.
Sher uses the full expanse of the Met stage and then some for his madcap picture making. There’s a “passerelle,” a walkway around the orchestra pit, where characters can come right out and practically consult with the audience about the plot’s delicious twists. We are also treated to a dozen imposing doorways dizzily rearranging themselves, a giant sky scroll being unfurled across the heavens to narrate a precipitous change in the weather, a mobile wig factory, even an explosion.
Anarchic flourishes include a gigantic anvil slowly lowering out of the sky over a very fragile wagon, and a live, brown-eyed donkey passing nonchalantly through a busy street scene. This is Sher winking at us “Okay Met lovers, delighted by your animals on stage. How about THIS? Yes, I will do almost anything to make you happy.” And it works, it works.
J. D. McClatchy’s lucid English libretto never feels anachronistic or gets in the way. The jokes feel organic, and actually land. “I want to make you happy,” Rosine tells her guardian, “but not right away.” Costumed by Catherine Zuber for a Europe on the eve of the French Revolution, we get a full platoon of bewigged military and a matched pair of professors with improbably wide hats.
Trimmed to a brisk two hours, the Met pitches this as a holiday tradition, promotionally priced for the children or grandchildren of opera fans. This “children” premise, laudable as a way to build future opera audiences, may also be a way to deflect the sniffs and harrumphs of purists. Fortunately, as an adventurous theater-goer more than an opera aficionado, I am blissfully unaware of what sacrileges may have been committed here. Rossini wanted his audiences to be totally delighted, and I was.