This review is for the performance on Monday Jan. 10, 2017.
Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” is one of the most famous works in the operatic repertoire as well as one of the funniest. It contains some of the most memorable melodies and space for singers to fool around and provide vocal fireworks.
In recent years, the Metropolitan Opera has used the opera as a vehicle to showcase some of its young rising stars. And this season is no different.
The result is a cast filled with energy and joy in a tired production.
Bartlett Sher’s production is now 10-years-old, a relatively short time period in the world of opera when one considers that some productions live for decades. But you wouldn’t think that Sher’s work, his best by far at the Met, was still a refreshing take on the fun opera. In fact, the set design looks stale as ever. The revolving doors are still in place but they are clunky and at times one notices the difficulty in moving them about. This was most noticeable during the transition before Rosina’s first aria. Both the Count and Figaro are asked to move down stage to the walkway in front of the orchestra during their duet while supers are changing the set. Because the best acoustics are on the stage, one ends up hearing more of the set changes than the actual singers.
And some ideas, which felt refreshing 10 years ago, suddenly feel unfinished. During the overture audiences are introduced to chaos as the doors start to move in a frenzied way but it quickly dissipates as both Don Bartolo and Ambrosia leave the stage in the middle of the overture, prompting the doors stop moving. Suddenly, after being introduced to so much visual energy to set the tone for the evening, the audience is forced to look at a bunch of doors just sitting there as if Sher and company did not know what else to do with the doors at this point early in the opera.
But the most disappointing feature at this juncture is the walkway, which has always been a sore spot for its tendency to eats up singers’ voices. The Metropolitan Opera’s acoustics were constructed for singers to perform on stage and allow for their big voices to project onto the audience. This addition is frustrating particularly because the actors have no room to really move on it and the result is just a display of walking around with not much to add to the proceedings.
Pretty Yende and her high flying coloratura
Thankfully the cast that the Metropolitan Opera has lined up is filled with energy and freshness. Pretty Yende is the standout without any doubt.
If audiences were interested in seeing vocal fireworks, there is no soprano in recent times who has opted to interpolate E Flats at the end of both “Contro un Cor” and “Una Voce poco fa.” And Yende’s florid work is also surprising given she doesn’t do any of the customary ornamentation and adds several thrills and high notes that one would least expect.
But it is not surprising that Yende can do these marvels. Her voice, big and sweet, has a fresh tone and a flexibility that allows her to not only climb the octave scale so easily but to move around the stage. But if you think this is just for pure effect, each florid run was carefully timed for the drama. In the lesson scene, the show-stopper in every literal sense of the word (the ovation she received was thunderous), Yende’s use of florid work emphasized her trickery of Bartolo as she worked through an aria assigned by Don Alonso, the disguised Count Almaviva. While it was hilarious and it created wild laughs out of the audience, it was astounding how easily Yende could pull out her high flying notes without any difficulty.
Another instance where Yende played with high notes for dramatic purposes was in the duet with Figaro “Dunque io son.” When she revealed that she had already written a letter, Yende broke into coloratura runs and added extra roulades that Rossini didn’t write. These extra notes gave the idea of a Rosina laughing at Figaro but also reveling in her happiness.
One of the other revealing parts of her performance was her diction. It was impeccable and that was demonstrated as she rolled her R’s with such such nimbleness and easiness. She also emphasized them for humorous effect, allowing audiences who don’t speak Italian to understand when there was a joke being made.
The Two Pillars – Camarena and Mattei
Javier Camarena is no stranger to Count Almaviva. He made his Met debut in this production and this was a chance to once again show his agility and his bright high notes. While a flubbed high note during “Ecco il Ridente” got his performance off to a shockingly rocky start, the Mexican tenor recovered immediately in his serenade “Sei il Mio Nome.” His lyrical lines floated with such ease and lightness in the high register, his piannissimo singing simultaneously passionate and relaxing.
But it was in the comical moments that Camarena showed the possibilities of his voice. When he entered disguised as a drunken soldier, Camarena modulated his voice to give a nasal quality and sounded like a buffo tenor. This allowed him to make the distinction between the Count and the Drunken soldier. And what was even more impressive was his use of high notes to imitate screaming and make a ruckus.
In the second act his Don Alfonso took on a sweet childlike voice. Once again Camarena knew how to switch back and forth from the sweet but nasally “Pace, Gioa” to the weightier voice of Almaviva. And when he was with Rosina there was a more suave and delicate color.
In the lesson scene Camarena even copied some of Yende’s virtuosic high notes and used them for comic timing as Don Bartolo woke up and separated the two.
The tenor also had a moment to shine and that was in his final aria “Cessa di piu resistere.” Known for its length and difficult passages, Camarena began the aria with a fortissimo making a statement at Don Bartolo before softening and moving toward his Rosina and caressing her with his vocal line, their bodies joining together. During the second aria, Camarena effortlessly sang the variations and the coloratura line before dispatching his final high note and holding it out until the orchestra finished. It was the perfect redemption to his rocky beginning of the opera, reasserting the tenor’s domination of this role and repertoire.
Like Camarena, there was a rocky start to Mattei, who ended the famous “Largo al Factotum” with a very pressured final note. The start, which included a lot of breathy moments, quickly disappeared. Mattei is a highly versatile actor who easily moves about the stage dominating each scene. His voice has grown in its weight since he first sang the production at its premiere in 2006 and on account of this performance, the flexibility required for this repertoire is not what it once was. Still Mattei can still sing the patter required for the role with ease and effectiveness.
And on the acting side he held his own with comic timing. He would run around the stage, sit and watch as Don Basilio sang his “Calumnia” aria, his body language subtly commenting on the proceedings. He even improvised at the end of the “Zitti Zitti” trio. At one point, he raised his hands and told the audience to quiet down for the recitative. It was a moment that not only incited laughter but was genuine to the smooth Figaro Mattei created. Another memorable moment was during in the Act two ensemble as he shaved Don Bartolo. The cat and mouse game with Bartolo was refreshing as the two continuously attempted to outsmart one another.
The Rest of the Cast
As Don Basilio Mihkail Petrenko was quite refreshing. His was a greedy voice teacher who would do anything for money. In the second act when the Count hands him money to pretend he is sick, Petrenko’s confused look suddenly changed and he became part of the plan to fool Don Bartolo. And when one of the coins the Count gave him fell during the “Buona Sera” ensemble, this Basilio ran around the stage trying to recover it. When everyone finally thought he was gone, he still squeezed though the fence and ran to get the coin.
Another moment where one could see the greediness was after the trio “Zitti Zitti.” Basilio arrived to be the witness for Rosina and Bartolo’s wedding. But when the Count offered him some more money, this Bartolo skipped to the judge and signed the documents quickly.
Petrenko’s voice reveled in this over the top character. Not only did he sing with a much lighter tone during the first part of his famous “Calumnia” aria but once the patters began, he delivered it with an airy quality that counterpointed nicely with the boom voice at the climaxes.
Maurizio Muraro’s Bartolo was solid as he ran around like a crazy man trying to catch up to everyone’s plans. Even during his “A un dottor della mia sorte…,” he thinks he has Rosina in his hands and attempts to make her sit on top of him. But when she wouldn’t, he ran about the stage shutting each door with the help of Berta and Don Ambrogio. It was silly but effective.
Muraro’s voice resonated throughout the auditorium and the result was a performance with lots of nuance and impeccable patter. Each line is heard with such clarity that even when he dispatching the incredibly difficult lines, his diction was comprehensible.
As Berta, the Met audience was in for a treat. Karolina Pilou, who was making her Met debut, has a voice with an attractive color that could easily cover the rest of the cast. However, she made sure to blend well with the rest of the cast in the large ensemble. But it was in her short aria that one could see that this mezzo has a big future and will be given more than these smaller roles in seasons to come.
In the pit, Maurizio Benini provided some energy to the orchestra with his vibrant playing even though the walkway drowned out some sound.
Regardless of any production issues or rocky starts this is a cast that needs to be seen. Yende and Camarena are the top of their powers and two artists who create an energy needed in this Bel canto repertoire. Moreover, Camarena is giving his farewell run in this role, making his final two shows the final ones in a role that has given the tenor so much.