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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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.