The Barber of Seville, Metropolitan Opera

As a young opera
lover under the age of ten, my awe at the occasion requires no explanation.
Needless to say, as I took my seat with the rest of my family in the Grand
Tier, I felt like the ever-elusive “big kid” that young boys aspire
to be. However, as soon as the conductor commenced the overture, to my
consternation, I felt an overpowering urge to laugh. Therefore, what began as a
potentially magical evening when a kid gets his first taste of adulthood was
threatened by the possibility of immediately degenerating into a travesty. I
was sure that if I had dared to laugh, some bejeweled grand dame would
have given an inscrutable nod, leading directly to my removal from the

My reason for laughing is quite simple: from the first bars of the overture,
my brain immediately equated the music coming from the pit with the soundtrack
of The Rabbit of Seville, the Looney Tunes cartoon starring Bugs Bunny
and Elmer Fudd. Looking back on my first night at the Metropolitan Opera, I
realize I must not be the only person that made that connection. Indeed, it is
the very fact of the overture’s frenetic pacing, so characteristic of
both Looney Tunes and Rossini, that allows the opera to speak so vividly to our
modern times, just short of 200 years since the opera’s composition.

BARBIEREDamrauDelCarlo598a.gifDiana Damrau as Rosina and John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]

According to Benjamin Walton, author of the book Rossini in Restoration
, Rossini can be classified as a Romantic composer, not because he
offers grand philosophical statements on human nature like Wagner does, but
rather because his music inhabits a domain that is utterly sensuous. The
sensuousness of his music combined with its ebullient pace makes the
composer’s work the embodiment of rushed modernity. Walton’s book,
however, only utilizes this framework to analyze musical political developments
in 1820’s Paris. I believe, however, that in this light, Rossini’s
sense of modernity is perennial. His indulgent musical language describes the
hyperactive 21st century just as easily as it described a world trying to make
sense of the French Revolution and its consequences.

With this in mind, it makes sense that Peter Gelb would contract acclaimed
Broadway director Bartlett Sher, of The Light in the Piazza and
South Pacific fame, to direct a new production of The Barber of
. This production, which was revived again earlier this season, was
recently brought back for its Spring run. In the cast, Diana Damrau and John
Del Carlo reprised their respective roles as Rosina and Dr. Bartolo. Figaro was
played by Rodion Pogossov, while Colin Lee sang the Count. The team was led by
acclaimed Rossini interpreter Maurizio Benini.

Mr. Benini has proven himself adept in Rossini operas. In recent years, he
has conducted both Barber and La Cerentola. He has even led
the company’s recent debut of Le Conte Ory. In every case, he
has shown he is quite adept at Rossini’s fast-paced orchestration. Here,
however, he also demonstrated his ability to match speed with lyricism. He
aptly demonstrated the composer’s facility with creating instrumental
blends. However, once or twice, most notably during Don Basilio’s
“La Calunia” and the Count’s “Cessa di piu
resistere,” he seemed to lose his stamina, but that in no way diminished
his reading.

As the Count, Colin Lee was the definition of Bel Canto singing. He
showcased a delightfully streamlined vibrato as well as stunning legato. It was
a joy to experience a coloratura tenor who actually availed himself of every
opportunity to demonstrate every facet of his vocal technique. He also depicted
a sharper side of the traditionally lovestruck Count. This allowed the Count
and not just Bartolo and Basilio to be the noble objects of satire in this
opera buffa. He demonstrated this by plucking a guitar from the hands of one of
the musicians accompanying him in his opening serenade to Rosina, as well as
smacking Figaro with a guitar later on in Act I.

In the hands of Diana Damrau, Rosina is not another role, she is a
phenomenon. As a critic, familiarizing oneself with various interpretations of
the same role is part of the job description. However, when Damrau exploded
onto the stage for “Una voce poco fa,” she managed to sprint out of
the gates, leaving Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Lily Pons, and Roberta Peters
breathless in her wake. Opera fans are no doubt well acquainted with the text
of “Voce.” In a section lauded for technical prowess, Rosina states
that although she can be docile, loving, and obedient, if her affections should
be abused, she can bite with the sting of a viper and before admitting defeat,
she can play one hundred tricks.

BARBIERE-Pogossov-Damrau.gifRodion Pogossov as Figaro, Diana Damrau as Rosina, and Colin Lee as Almaviva [Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera]

In the hands of any other soprano, these are just words, and no matter how
well they are interpreted, they are confined to that one aria. In
Damrau’s hands, she physically and vocally turned that text into a
credo, something her Rosina didn’t state but rather lived for
the entirety of the role. Her attention to text was breathtaking. She bounced
onto the word “vipera” (viper). Her runs at the end of
“Voce” had a slow build. This was a very audible demonstration that
she could turn anyone, perhaps even the audience, into mincemeat. Additionally,
her trills in “Dunque io son,” reflected a whole new light on the

In Damrau’s hands, these runs were less an expression of joy at
requited love and more an affirmation of determination to win the day. It was
plain to see that now that she knew her love was reciprocated, she would
redouble her attacks on Bartolo. Despite her brilliance at portraying Rosina as
a vindictive ward, the true mastery of her interpretation showed through in the
character’s intrinsic humanity. There were moments, such as the
recitative immediately following “Voce,” as well as the Act II aria
“Contro un cor,” which illustrated that despite the tough veneer,
she was perhaps an innocent girl who was seriously afraid of getting hurt by
the men around her. During “Contro un cor,” her statements of
“Darling, I’m begging you to save me” were true pleas for

John Del Carlo was an appropriately self-important Bartolo. His adroit
Rossinian patter was a joy to hear. Ferruccio Furlanetto was a marvelously
theatrical Don Basilio. As Figaro, Rodion Pogossov was a true team player in an
opera predicated on ensembles. Unfortunately, while his amazing physicality was
an asset in this bubbling comedy, his rendition of the famous “Largo al
factotum” was a little weak. While other baritones such as Sherrill
Milnes avail themselves of the musical comedy of this opera through such
techniques as falsetto, Pogossov was a decidedly physical comedian. Despite his
stentorian voice, the musical comedy of this aria went largely untouched.

Since The Barber of Seville, Bartlett Sher has come back to the Met
to revive Les Contes d’Hoffman and to debut Le Conte
. Barber remains a decent harbinger of what was to come. The comedy of
this production is largely predicated on elementary tricks of theater, which
use their obvious nature to increase the comic effect. He also incorporated
images from the text. The set is dominated by doors, representing
Rosina’s trapped lifestyle. Also, from his very first appearance sleeping
under a sheet in an armchair while the overture is still being played, Dr.
Bartolo receives his full treatment as the satirized nobleman that is such a
hallmark of opera buffa. However, this production has one major flaw: the
lighting design, done by Christopher Akerlind, was a bit off. It was clear he
was going for the look of a sun-drenched Andalusian atmosphere; however, most
notably in the opening scene, the lights, consisting primarily of overpowering
yellows and greens, were harsh and off the mark.

Despite a few blemishes, the Met’s Barber of Seville has
demonstrated the staying power of this opera by disclosing certain aspects that
have previously been hidden. When I left the opera house, I had new respect for
the piece. I was reminded of why audiences return to this beloved opera again
and again, while at the same time, I discovered new depth to the work. In
short, I left with the respect for the work’s humanity, as well as its
effervescent joy.

Greg Moomjy

image_description=Diana Damrau as Rosina [Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
product_by=Rosina: Diana Damrau; Count Almaviva: Colin Lee; Figaro: Rodion Pogossov; Dr. Bartolo: John Del Carlo; Don Basilio: Ferruccio Furlanetto. Production: Bartlett Sher. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind. Conductor: Maurizio Benini.
product_id=Above: Diana Damrau as Rosina [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]