16 Feb 2012
The Barber of Seville, Metropolitan Opera
It was a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the late 90’s that marked my first visit to the Met.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
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Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
It was a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the late 90’s that marked my first visit to the Met.
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 auditorium.
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.
Diana 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 Paris, 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 Seville. 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.
Rodion 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 character.
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 help.
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 Ory. 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.