A Barbiere of Middling Qualità

United StatesUnited States Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Michele Mariotti (conductor), “The Met, Live in HD” screening, Godrej Dance Academy Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. 22.12.2014 (JSM).

Fiorello: Yungpeng Wang
Count Almaviva: Lawrence Brownlee
Figaro: Christopher Maltman
Rosina: Isabel Leonard
Dr Bartolo: Maurizio Muraro
Don Basilio: Paata Burchuladze
Berta: Claudia Waite
An Officer: Dennis Petersen
Ambrogio: Rob Besserer


Director: Bartlett Sher
Set Designer: Michel Yeargan
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Stage Director :Kathleen Smith Belcher
Live in HD Director: Matthew Diamond
Live in HD Host: Deborah Voigt


Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, playwright, revolutionary and spy, would surely have been surprised to learn that two plays from his Figaro trilogy were destined to become mainstays of opera, that most aristocratic of art-forms. The first of these, Le Barbier de Séville, was set to music by several composers, of which Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is the most enduring; and the second was to become Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The third play, La Mère Coupable, was also adapted into opera by Darius Milhaud and by John Corigliano in The Ghosts of Versailles; but these could hardly be considered mainstream.

Figaro is one of the most endearing yet subversive characters in operatic repertoire; but, in Bartlett Sher’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera, he is reduced to a sex-symbol. He first appears atop a cart drawn by fawning women, who also make another appearance (unannounced and unnecessary) out of closed doors in the duet that follows, with two of them caught in a lesbian clinch within the cart. One questions the reasoning behind this dramaturgy, which seems prompted merely by a desire to be cute and sensational.

To his credit, Mr. Sher’s staging pays tribute to both Commedia dell’Arte and French farce in several ways; the most noticeable of which is the presence of over-sized, old-fashioned footlights across the front of the stage, taking one immediately back to an earlier theatrical tradition. And his use of an extended apron (or passerelle) all around the orchestra allows a welcome immediacy between singers and audience.

One wishes the singing itself in this “Live in HD” recording were something to write home about. Sadly, with one or two exceptions, it isn’t.

The greatest disappointment is Christopher Maltman’s Figaro. With little or no semblance of bel canto technique, all that’s left is a pleasant, lyric baritone matched to a good-looking, boyish stage-presence, not enough to do full justice to this vocally demanding part for which he evidently lacks the requisite skill.

The Rosina too, played by the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, is marred by approximations in coloratura passagework and often-smudged roulades, making one wonder at the wisdom of adding extra fioriture when those that were actually written can just about be managed. Even so, her well-produced, warm timbre and intelligent acting contributes to a performance that is nicely rounded but lacking, perhaps, in what is called star quality.

The tenor Lawrence Brownlee, on the other hand, is very much the star of this show. Possessing a formidable technique and a small but accurately “placed” voice, he executes all of his florid singing with élan, from the opening serenade to the fiendishly-difficult Cessa di più resistere (omitted by many tenors) near the end of the opera, intriguingly adding an extra aria whose first half is borrowed directly from Non più mesta in La Cenerentola. However, all this is not achieved without visible effort; and compromised by very intrusive aspiration in much of his passagework.

Of the two bassos, Maurizio Muraro’s patter-singing as Dr. Bartolo is superbly nimble; but the rest is hampered by uncertainty in pitch. And Paata Burchuladze’s Don Basilio has only a remnant of what used to be his awe-inspiring vocal lushness.

Rob Besserer, in the non-singing and barely-speaking part of the somnolent servant Ambrogio, virtually steals the show.

The performance is held together admirably by the young conductor Michele Mariotti, who draws playing of great vivacity from the Met orchestra, which displays commendable articulation and coordination in even the fastest, busiest passages. The sheer rhythmic verve and lyrical sensibility of the conducting make this a maestro to watch, with an undoubtedly brilliant future.

It was a relief to note that the sound in the Godrej Theatre at the NCPA is now free of the anomalies and severe dynamic compression heard until recently, which caused many regulars to stop attending the screenings altogether. Hopefully, the sound will be maintained consistently, giving these screenings the platform they deserve.

Speaking of which, the Met has in its archives a huge collection of unforgettable performances from the past, many of them preserved on video. Why not showcase this heritage around the world?

Jiten S. Merchant