Monday, 12 January 2015

Shave and a Haircut -- High Notes!!!

Many of you will have guessed already from the title that I've been to a performance of The Barber of Seville, Rossini's perennially congenial comic opera.

And I have -- by visiting the Cineplex and attending the Met Live in HD series of telecasts.  This one was actually a rebroadcast of a production seen earlier in the year.

This evergreen staple of the comic opera repertoire was originally performed in 1816.  This puts it into the curious position of becoming what is now known as a "prequel" -- that is, a sequel in time of composition to Mozart's equally memorable The Marriage of Figaro, but a preamble in point of the time frame in which the story takes place -- before the events depicted in Figaro

The story is a classic opera buffa, and the roots of the action clearly trace back (by way of the source play by Beaumarchais) to the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte.  Thus, you have the grumpy old man, the handsome young man, the girl who is wooed by both of them, the doddery servants, and the clown figure who manipulates the destinies of the others, and simultaneously comments on the action.

The staging in this production clearly supported the commedia dell'arte style without resorting to a literal series of interiors and exteriors.  The set consisted of a series of double doors, each independently mounted on wheels, which could be moved to various positions.  One door carried above it the balcony which is essential to the action.  The doors were all stylized Classical in design, covered with dirt and wear from generations of use.  With the help of some easily-moved furniture and simple set pieces, including the necessary harpsichord for the music lesson, this flexible set more than met the needs of the piece.

The most remarkable part of the staging was the creation of a passerelle or walkway running along both sides and the front of the orchestra pit.  This allowed the singers in key moments to come right down to the forefront of the audience, adding depth and dimension to the stage pictures.  It also raised the interesting issue that the singers would then be performing with the conductor behind them, but this in no way affected the quality of the music.

The quality of course was considerable, as is only to be expected with the Metropolitan Opera.  This opera is written in Rossini's ripest bel canto style, full of elaborate scales and ornaments, and replete with long-sustained high notes.  It's not my favourite type of music by any means, but I can forgive the stylistic excesses when the melodic material underlying it all is so delightful -- and The Barber of Seville is definitely all of that, both as music and as theatre.

The singing cast all met the demands of the music extremely well, with no weak links.  The title role of the barber Figaro was taken with verve and energy to burn by Christopher Maltman.  His characteristically ironic facial expression totally suited his role as the man who is the facilitator and commentator of much of the comic fun.  His flexible, nimble voice vividly projected the high-speed text of the famous aria Largo al factotum, so clearly an inspiration for the later patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Isabel Leonard was delightful as the heroine, Rosina.  Unusually in the operatic canon, this heroine is an alto, but the part is often taken by a mezzo-soprano and that was the case here.  Leonard gave a sparkling, fiery performance as the young woman who is subdued but by no means beaten by her overbearing guardian.  Vocally she was superb, and visually she produced some of the best acting of the show with her variety of facial expressions all clearly projected.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang the romantic lead role of Count Almaviva.  When well done, this role draws all the loudest cheers since he has no soprano rival for the high notes!  His high notes were certainly impressive, but even more so was the use of all registers of the voice and all levels of volume.  "Stand and deliver" singing this definitely was not!

Bass Maurizio Muraro sang the role of the guardian, Dr. Bartolo.  His voice had the necessary weight and emphasis, while still negotiating his patter arias with precision and clarity.  His acting clearly conveyed all the varied emotions of the man, from the lover to the stern pater familias and the baffled conspirator undone by conspiracy.  Much of the comedy of the piece depends on the pompous Bartolo, and Muraro absolutely delivered the goods.

Paata Burchuladze made the most of his more limited scenes as the music teacher, Don Basilio.  His costume was impossible to miss (people kept colliding with his hat, for instance), and his somewhat vacant expression lent an interesting appearance to the role.  Vocally, his deep bass contrasted well with the similar ranges of Bartolo and Figaro.

Due to the Cineplex's annoying habit of giving only a partial cast listing, I can't get the names of the two servants in Dr. Bartolo's house.  More's the pity, because the elderly manservant, Ambrogio, provided plenty of good laughs with his facial expressions -- classic "sad clown" without the clown makeup -- and his numerous pratfalls.  The old nurse, Berta, gave a fine account of her one aria in Act II.  Also commendable was the performance in the first scene only of Almaviva's servant, Fiorello.

Conductor Michele Mariotti led the Met orchestra in a fiery, nicely detailed account of the famous overture (which, by the way, was drawn in part from two earlier Rossini overtures and therefore contains none of the music to be heard in the opera itself!).  He then moved the proceedings onwards with zest and vigour throughout, the orchestra characterful in Rossini's best vintage champagne.  There was plenty of fizz and sparkle in the patter arias and the storm interlude in Act II was powerful without being overpowering.

All in all, a wonderful account of one of the staples of the operatic repertoire, breathing freshness into every moment of the score!

The camera work was very commendable too, with less of the extreme close-ups sometimes used and a nice variety of angles and distances.  While one really should attend the opera live, the Met in HD series provides a fine alternative for those of us who can't afford to drop $1000 ever so casually for a weekend in New York City multiple times a year.