The Barber of Seville, Metropolitan Opera, New York

The big Met celebrated the holiday season this year with a little – OK, puny – version of The Barber of Seville. Peter Gelb, the über-impresario, apparently concocted this dumbed-down presentation for an audience that might be intimidated by the real thing.

Programme puffery heralded a two-hour abridgement of Rossini’s “rollicking comedy”, something that “the whole family can enjoy”. Prices were appropriately reduced, and a new, often incomprehensible English translation was provided by J.D. McClatchy.

One could follow McClatchy’s awkward rhymes and clumsy structures easily if one read the titles projected on those tiny screens in front of every seat. When a text is sung in a foreign language, English translations are always useful. Here they should have seemed redundant. Unfortunately, they did not.

Still, verbal obfuscation could have remained a secondary consideration if musical matters had made primary sense. What was offered, however, suggested callous butchering of the great score, with dynamic structures blunted, ensemble build-ups ignored and transitions telegraphed. Oddly, poor Don Basilio was reduced to a virtual comprimario (no aria!), yet Almaviva was allowed his expendable rondo-finale. Although no one received official credit, or blame, for altering the score, Dennis Giauque was listed as “libretto music advisor”. Ask not what that means.

Bartlett Sher’s gaggy production, first seen in 2006, looked even gaggier than normal in this context, with an attractive ensemble pratfalling, mugging, clowning and slapsticking all over the cluttered stage. Everyone tried valiantly to make McClatchy’s vernacular patter fit Rossini’s Italianate cantilena, but success proved haphazard.

The cast was easily dominated by John Del Carlo’s blustery, classic-buffo Bartolo. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sounded and looked pretty, if stressed, as a rather arch Rosina. Though vocally deft, Alek Shrader’s tenorino-bianco retained a nasal twang even when Count Almaviva wasn’t doing caricature impersonations. Rodion Pogossov produced a formula-bouncy Figaro – actually a Figarino. Jordan Bisch struck a few stock-pompous poses as Basilio.

Yves Abel conducted conscientiously. Under the circumstances, one could hardly expect more.

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