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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Opera Review: One Last Chance at Rosina

Javier Camarena closes the book on Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The cast of Il barbiere di Siviglia clown it up in Act II of Rossini's masterpiece.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
There's a reason some operas never go away. Take Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which   is on the verge of celebrating 201 in the standard repertory this year. This month, the Metropolitan Opera's revival boasts an extraordinary cast, with Peter Maffei in the title role, soprano Pretty Yende as Rosina and tenor Javier Camarena, singing his final run as Count Almaviva before moving on to other repertory. All three stars shone at Wednesday night's performance, occupying their roles seamlessly in the company's flimsy but entertaining production by director Bartlett Sher.



Mr. Camarena is an extraordinary tenor, part of a crop of singers who discovered a sweet spot reviving the bel canto repertory of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. As Almaviva, he was both sweet and nervy, with dulcet tones and careful application of ornamentation to the two Act I arias. He can do the funny stuff too, inhabiting the skins of a drunken soldier and a bogus music teacher with a refreshing lack of inhibition. He delivered on both fronts, offering comic fireworks and musical treats in equal and generous proportion.

Ms. Yende sang Rosina with an abundance of vocal ornamentation, recalling the "songbird" approach to the part that was popular a century ago. She embroidered upon "Una voce poco fa" adding impressive flourishes and curlicues above the stave, and indulged in a lengthy cadenza at the conductor's discretion. Like Mr. Camarena, she made those difficult high notes sound easy, although the effect was sometimes as if Rosina had briefly developed a case of 18th century operatic rage. (In the operas of Handel and his ilk, higher notes always indicate anger or insanity.) She abated the madness to play the character to good effect, although she added ornamentation liberally in the Act II "lesson scene."

In Mr. Sher's conception, Figaro operates out of a huge rolling cart attended by a flock of pretty assistants and a less enthusiastic donkey. On top of this cart rode Mr. Mattei, singing a quick-paced "Largo al factotum" that blurred some of its diction but compensated with enthusiasm and warmth. The versatile baritone shone in "All'idea di quel metallo" duet with Mr. Camarena and was a perfectly suited partner for Ms. Yende in their Act I duet. He acted as a ringleader for all the comic business that followed in Act II, zipping through the part with propulsive aid from Maurizio Benini in the pit.

The two bass villains were in good hands. Maurizio Muraro is a funny and sumptuous Dr. Bartolo who can pull out a falsetto that almost matches Mr. Cammarena's note-for-note. The high-energy "Un dottor della mia sorte" was sung with machine-gun speed, as was his confrontation with the disguised Count that sets off the Act I finale. Mikhail Petrenko (who is also singing Friar Laurence in Roméo et Juliette this week, was an indefatigable Don Basilio, and made a special treat out of the famous "La calunnia" aria.

Mr. Sher's production has held up well, despite being built from a few flimsy doors, rolling props and some old-fashioned theater effects. It is helped by Rob Besserer. In the silent role of Ambrogio, Dr. Bartolo's hapless servant, he got some of the biggest laughs of the night. This was Mr. Sher's first production for Peter Gelb's Met, and it remains inventive and entertaining, with mobile sets and props, unpredictable explosions, a gigantic, threatening anvil and at one point, unaccountably a flying rubber chicken. However, on this night the audience's interest was squarely on the singers.

At the end of the opera, Mr. Camarena opted to restore the optional aria "Cessa di più resistere," a number that is often cut because of its length and considerable technical difficulty. (In fact, Rossini later recycled this rondo for a female singer, making it the sound of Angelina's triumph in the final pages of La Cenerentola . Here, the florid aria sounded effortless, with Mr. Camarena skating smoothly up and down the scales. Nobody seemed to mind that it made the evening a little longer. 

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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.