By David Salazar (for 10/22/11 performance)
Saturday's matinee performance of Rossini's famed "Barber" was nothing short of splendid in every possible way. The production, by Met's veteran director Bartlett Sher has continuously made it's return since its triumphant debut in 2006 and has cemented itself as one of the most successful productions to make its debut under the management of Peter Gelb. Sher's approach to his opera productions is vibrant and energetic (with a touch of the mystical and magical), regardless of the source material (dopplegangers in Offenbach's "Hoffmann," an endless bed in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," etc.). The "Barber" production was no exception. The staging's dominant feature is a series of doorways that constantly move about the stage to create a vast array of environments and locations. The staging is mainly minimalist in concept, but the coordination and positioning of the doorways enables the audience enough depth to be able to recreate the environment in his or her head. Sher litters the environment with enough furniture to strengthen his concept and it is clear that his actors know exactly where they are in each given set up and environment. The only problem that I have with Sher's production is the extended walkway that that wraps around the orchestra all the way to the audience. The problem with this walkway is not necessarily aesthetic (though people tend to lean forward to see it, causing difficulty for those seated behind). It does have some intriguing moments and tends to bring the singers closer to the audience. However, it tends to drown out/muffle the orchestra's sound.
The other plus of Sher's productions is that it tends to bring out the best from his cast. Nowhere was this better displayed than in this "Barber" performance. Over the last few years, this production has been a calling card for the leading Rosinas in the world. At it's debut, soprano Diana Damrau had a breakout run of performances to establish herself as a rising Met star. The following spring, Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato did the same. A few seasons later, Latvian mezzo soprano Elina Garanca made her Met debut in this role and continues to be one of the Met's most promising stars. This year, the task came to young mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard, who is a different kind of singer. It has become custom for Rosina to be sung either by a light soprano or a mezzo soprano with an extended range despite that Rossini did not write this role for any of the three. Isabel Leonard's performance is likely the closest one can find to the original intentions of Rossini, still filled with tremendous coloratura flourishes, but without the stratospheric high notes that have become tradition. The beauty of the performance was that it proved that this role has so much texture and complexity with or without the high notes. Leonard's voice, which specializes (at the moment) in Mozart, Handel, and Rossini, seemed completely at home with the difficult coloratura passages that the role tasks its leading lady with. But it wasn't all about the rapid flourishes, as Leonard's voice added elegance and delicacy to the rare intimate moments of the opera. A prime example would be the trio at the end of the opera in which Rosina and Almaviva declare their love for one another. It also did not hurt that Leonard is a tremendous actress filled with versatility and energy. Her Rosina could be the flirtatious, adventurous, scheming Viper that she describes in her first aria "Una Voce Poco Fa"and still be the young girl clinging to the dream of love.
Tenor Javier Camarena had huge shoes to fill for me. I don't generally like to compare singers, but it is difficult to overlook the fact that Tenor Juan Diego Florez has essentially owned not only this role, but this repertoire for the last few years and has done it not only with his great voice, but also his tremendous acting ability. Few tenors have the two qualities able to match him. It was great to see a tenor who has that potential in Camarena who not only has the great (and young) voice, but strong control over character and acting. Camarena's Almaviva seems to hint more at the character that Count eventually becomes in Beaumarchais sequel "The Marriage of Figaro" (famously made into an earlier opera by Mozart) rather than the ideal hero that is usually played on stage. He was aggressive and impatient toward the townspeople in the opening scene, he was manipulative with Figaro and Basilio at the necessary moments. There seemed to be hints that this man could be violent, which made him all the more interesting. Camarena's agile, nuanced voice only added to the thrill of the performance. The final aria "Cessa Di Piu Resistere" had been left out of the repertoire for a long time, but has since been reinstated. It remains too difficult for many tenors today, but Camarena was more than up to the task, bringing every passage to life of this extended aria with depth and refinement. Rossini's coloratura demands for the tenor are unrivaled in the entire repertoire. They are long, fast, push the singer's range, and at times seem never ending. Camarena didn't seem the least bit troubled by their demands on breath control and tessitura.
Rodion Pogossov was a solid Figaro. He seemed a bit tentative vocally as he started his afternoon. Of course, he had to start with the massive task that is "Largo al Factotum" the opera's most famous aria. After that however, he swept through the performance with security, strength, and tremendous comic timing. His Figaro was an overconfident, greedy schemer, but still tremendously likable at the same time. Maurizio Muraro was a solid Dr. Bartolo tackling the difficult "A un dottor della mia sorte" with ease and agility. Samuel Ramey, here as Don Basilio, has already passed his best years and his voice has taken a wobbly nature that is not pleasant for some repertoire. However, Ramey was an imposing prescence as Basilio and despite the wobbly nature of his voice, its volume and strength remain incomparable. It is also essential to mention, that nobody is more familiar with the acting demands of Rossini's repetoire and Ramey reminds us why he was a major Rossini bass for so long. Jennifer Check was a also solid as Berta in her brief appearances. For this production Sher has added a silent character Ambrogio (played here by Rob Besserer) for comic relief. Besserer was simply splendid throughout, giving the audience some formidable gags (getting hit by trees, oranges, trying uselessly to stop and anvil, etc.).
Conductor Maurizio Benini had a strong performance. However, as aforementioned, the orchestra (a reduced one at that) lacked the potency and vibrancy that one is accustomed to, presumably because of the production itself.
Nonetheless, this "Barber" was exactly what one expects from a night at the Met. A creative production, great singing, great acting, lots of fun.