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The new Met of Peter Gelb mustered “a ground- breaking new production”. of Il barbiere on Friday. At least, that is what the press release heralded.
Bartlett Sher, the Broadway director, asked his designer, Michael Yeargan, to build a runway around the orchestra pit, bringing some of the action closer to the audience – and distorting sonic balances in the process. The sparse quasi-surrealist set framed a series of ever-moving doors, presumably connoting claustrophobia, and portable orange trees, presumably connoting echt-Spanish fertility. Figaro arrived atop a barbershop carriage pulled by admiring wenches, with a donkey tethered at the rear. Ask not why.
Unlike many theatrical strangers in operatic paradise, Sher managed to resist anachronistic updating. He did toy, however, with endless sight gags and pratfalls, frenzied tricks and routine shticks. His barbiere focused on fussy-business masquerading as funny- business.
Stationed within the stage extension, the conductor Maurizio Benini did his best to sustain contact with the itinerant singers. He managed to keep tempos brisk, textures thin and, alas, dynamics timid.
The ensemble was strong. Peter Mattei swaggered and staggered con brio, both vocally and dramatically, as Figaro. Diana Damrau as Rosina explored the stratosphere with almost enough razzle-dazzle to justify the casting a tweety coloratura in music intended for an earthy mezzo-soprano. Too bad she couldn’t avoid striking banal flamenco poses to convey the heroine’s spitfire temperament. John del Carlo bumbled sonorously, almost poignantly, as Bartolo, and Samuel Ramey managed to avert caricature as a dark, wily, somewhat wobbly Basilio. Wendy White sneezed sweetly as Berta, and Rob Besserer mimed the decrepitude of Ambrogio deftly.
When all was said, sung and pranced, however, the evening belonged to Juan Diego Flórez. He shaded Almaviva’s lyrical flights with finesse, embellished the line with elegance, enacted the charades with charm. And, once again, he ventured the elaborate rondo-finale that Rossini recycled for his heroine in La Cenerentola. Most tenors omit this preposterously ornate aria. Flórez breezed through it. He alone broke ground.
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