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Friday, December 28, 2012

Opera Review: A Short Scissor Cut

The Met's trimmed-down Barber of Seville.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

"He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."--J. R. R. Tolkien
Opera is a drag! The cast (l.r.: Rodion Pogossov, Alek Shrader, Isabel Leonard, John del Carlo) in Act II of
Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
In 1969, the Italian musicologist Alberto Zedda stewarded a critical edition of Rossini's 1816 masterpiece, The Barber of Seville. This edition clarified and codified the composer's original intentions, putting lost arias back in their right and proper place and ensuring the future of this beloved comic opera for years to come.

Given the Metropolitan Opera's penchant for textual accuracy under the reign of music director James Levine, it was surprising that the company chose Barber as this year's "family-friendly" holiday presentation.  This new edition of the score (by J. D. McClatchy) translates the show into English and cuts it by an hour. The cuts are occasionally seamless, but more often brutal.

Mr. McClatchy axes two-thirds of the famous Overture and halves most of the arias, omitting repeats or having singers start numbers at the cabaletta. Gone: Don Basilio's bass aria "La calunnia", Berta's "Il vecchioto" and whole chunks of Figaro's "Largo al factotum." Musically speaking, the effect is like a skilled amputation--you're not supposed to look too closely. The translation of Cesare Sterbini's original text is generally well done and sing-able, although the patter songs are awkward.

The mad comic energy of Bart Sher's production has been preserved. Rob Besserer's mute clown Ambrogio is still the center of the show, surviving falling anvils, collapsing trees and other Bugs Bunny-inspired mayhem. It should be noted that some of the best "cartoon physics" moments of the show were also cut for time, including the iron-bending climax of "Buona sera." For those, you'll need to see the whole show.

The soloists were led by the sparkling and sturdy mezzo of Isabel Leonard. She sang prettily in both acts even as she battled an unspecified (but announced) illness. John Del Carlo's reliable Bartolo anchored the show. His best comic numbers ("Un dottor della mia sorta" and "Pace gioia") were left mostly intact.

Vocally, the big deal here is Alek Shrader, the latest in a line of light tenors to make Almaviva a role to remember at the Met. He displayed a pleasant, smallish bel canto voice that capered nimbly above the orchestra. He even gets to sing a bit of "Cessa di pìu resistire" the tenor's final Act II aria. Ironically, this number is usually the first thing cut from any performance of Barber--it later became the rondo in Rossini's later La cenerentola.

Less impressive: Rodion Pogossov in the title role. This touted "barihunk" had good comic timing but his light voice seemed ill-suited to the role. (Maybe it was the stage cuts.) Jordan Bisch and Luthando Qave are fine choices for Don Basilio and Fiorello, but most of their music is missing. Yves Abel conducted an orchestra that sounded curiously damped down, but then again how is he expected to play a proper Rossini crescendo if the starting point has been removed? (The stage design, with a passarelle over the orchestra also muffles the sound of the ensemble.)

To the company's credit, the Met has sold more tickets for this short-shorn Barber than in recent years. Thursday night's crowd seemed to consist of out-of-town tourists and their bored children, more interested in photographing the Swarovski chandeliers than the show onstage. What they got was a Cliff Notes version of Rossini, and not the comedy which has held the stage for two centuries. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.