Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Barber of Seville: Tricks and Games To Sing About

In the center is Doctor Bartolo and his ward, Rosina, whom he hopes to marry.
At the harpsichord on the left is Count Almaviva, disguised as a music teacher.
On the right, dressed in barber-pole stripes, is Figaro, the Barber of Seville.
This photo is an internet grab.
What's to like about Rossini's comic opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), as performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 22, and broadcast Live in HD at our local theater?

The soprano at the center of the action, Isabel Leonard, is strikingly beautiful, slim and feisty—well worth fighting for. And her voice is a wonder; she executes her role's dazzling runs and ornaments precisely while seeming as relaxed as if she were in her own home. Her character, Rosina, has been forced to learn duplicity because she is the ward, and reluctant love object, of a despotic 'doctor'; on the surface she is demure, but she declares herself ready to play any trick to get her way, and proves it in the course of the action.

The character of the barber, Figaro, is a marvelous invention. The idea is that as an itinerant barber, pulling his shop around town on a wagon, he has developed a secondary career as a "factotem,"  or handyman of the city, meaning that he delivers messages, arranges meetings, and facilitates affairs, for a price. He presents himself as supremely successful and self-confident in his famous opening aria, which is a rhythmic, tongue-twisting patter., and he proclaims himself an expert at trickery. Christopher Maltman, who sang the role, was genuinely charismatic, and his voice was rich and joyful.

But the story is not about Figaro; it's about the romance between the lovely Rosina and Count Almaviva, which is complicated by the fact the Count doesn't want his aristocratic station known, and frustrated by the fact that Bartolo keeps his ward confined to the house. The Count hires Figaro to facilitate their meetings.

Doctor Bartolo has his own facilitator, in the character of Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher. He sings an aria that is an amazing analysis of the way rumor, scandal, and innuendo can ruin an innocent man's reputation; this could stand alone as a warning about power and politics.

In fact, several of the opera's best "songs" have only indirect bearing on the romantic story. For instance, in order to gain access to Rosina, Count Almaviva disguises himself as a drunken soldier. He causes a whole lot of chaos in the doctor's household, which brings the Night Watch in to restore order. When they go to arrest the soldier, he reveals his true identity, and they release him immediately. Except for Figaro, everyone on stage, which is quite a large group by now, is shocked, and they sing a sort of round about being immobilized by surprise; the whole group claims their heads are banging like anvils, in music that recreates that ear-ringing sensation.

What's not to like about The Barber of Seville?

The tenor who played Count Almaviva, Lawrence Brownlee, is an expert in frilly, 'coloratura' singing, and when he gets the chance to belt out an aria, he puts his all into it. However, he was working under the twin disadvantages of being black and being short. This is the first time I've ever seen a black singer in a lead role; that was refreshing, and I quickly accepted it. But the fact that he had to look up at his fair maiden, and she had to look down adoringly at him, never felt right to me, and Brownlee seemed to be straining to hide his embarrassment. His disguises made him look smaller, and he had a hard time projecting witty dialog.

One of the characters has a non-singing role that is supposed to add a bit of comic business to almost every scene: Ambrogio, Doctor Bartolo's butler, spends most of his time sleeping ostentatiously, waking only rarely to carry out orders. I don't know whether this is tradition or the interpretation of the current director, Bartlett Sher, but the effect of seeing a character in grotesquely drooping postures is to bring down the energy of what is supposed to be a zany farce.

In general there was too much comic "business" going on—gestures and winks and such; it was a three-ring circus in which everyone was hamming it up at the same time.

Likewise the staging wasn't helpful. An innovation was a walkway around the orchestra pit that served as a fore-stage, occasionally putting the singers very close to the first row, but its narrowness worried both the singers and the audience. And the way the director used this innovation didn't especially enhance the plot or the mood. In general, the staging was stiff. When a big group sang together, they made no pretense at a natural arrangement; they just lined up in a row and sang.

The middle seemed muddled. The first few scenes of the two-act opera were show-stoppers, ringing and clear; the set-up for the story is engaging. The opening scenes of the second act—when the conflict and deceit play out in witty dialogs—felt a little flat and confusing to me. It's hard to know whether the fault was in the performance, the story, or my unsophisticated listening. When romance finally triumphed, the cast pulled off a rousing finale, and left us feeling satisfied.

Do these flaws matter? Not so much. This opera has been popular for 200 years; it's good to share this piece of musical history. The plot is light-hearted fun, showing a pompous ass being outwitted by youthful romance. Composed to show off beautiful voices and florid singing, the score flows like the laughter at a good party. This is big-time entertainment. At a small-time price, at local theaters. My favorite way to spend a Saturday morning.