Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus (production from The Metropolitan Opera, New York)

Baden-Baden, 7 October 2008 4 stars

Il barbiere di Siviliga in Baden-Baden/The MetIt was an odd coincidence that the 21st anniversary revival of Jonathan Miller's legendary production of The Barber of Seville , was presented in the ENO , virtually on the same day as Il barbiere di Siviglia, produced by a leading US director, arrived in Baden-Baden.

There are worlds between these two concepts. Jonathan Miller, ferreting between the staves of a score of an opera, with his unique understanding of human nature, can find depth, subtle meanings, political and social associations, and bring them to the surface, far beyond what may have motivated the composers themselves.

Bartlett Sher, fresh from having won the 2008 Tony Award for his rapturously received production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, with many dozens of important theatre productions under his belt - he was the first American director whose Cymbeline was taken over by the RSC - has felt increasingly drawn into the world of musicals and opera. This year he directed Gounod's Romeo et Juliette at the Salzburg Festival.

His production of Barbiere at the Metropolitan, in 2006, with a superb cast and the debut of Elina Garanca as Rosina, burst the walls of the traditionally claustrophobic presentation of this opera, and turned it into a spectacle fit for the giant stage of the Metropolitan, yet introducing many new versions of the stage business that has grown in almost 200 years, like barnacles on the hulk of a sunken boat.

By having a passarella built for the performance, Sher revived a feature of Italian theatre architecture. The passarella is a catwalk, extending from both ends of the stage over the orchestra pit and arching over the auditorium, allowing the action taken forward into an intimate closeness with the audience. A passarella was always the crowning finale of that very old Italian artform, the rivista, a lighthearted and often sleazy musical
farrago, when the stars and the chorus girls paraded up and down the passarella allowing patrons sitting in more expensive stalls a privileged view of what was hidden to the average theatregoer. I myself experienced the magic of the passarella in war-torn Italy, where in the wake of destruction the many rivista companies brought the first signs of life starting again.

Il barbiere di Siviliga in Baden-Baden/The MetEverything in that production was aimed at using the acres of stage space. There were no house facades, no interiors, no painted backcloths. The empty stage was dominated by a group of identically painted doorframes, having their own life, silently slid about by costumed stagehands, and often even by the singers themselves, to
define the acting area. When lined side by side, they were the wall of Bartolo's house, when ranged in a semicircle, they were the inside of his house, and in a scene the doorframes were moved wildly around to
represent a stormy nightmare, where in a traditional production the stage is empty and for a few miraculous minutes one can only hear the patter of rain growing into a domestic storm - an early indication of Rossini's powers of turning visions of nature into music, reminding one of the Pastoral Symphony. All entries and exits were made through these doors, closing sometimes with a bang, and such is the power of theatrical illusion that one was no longer aware of the wide empty spaces between the doors.

Parallel with the spectacle, and moving unusually large numbers all over the stage - there were over 250 costumes made for this production, making up for the lack of a conventionally furnished stage - there was a full orchestra in the Metropolitan pit. There is no scenery, and apart from an armchair, two chairs, a settee for Rosina coquettishly to languish on, a cembalo and a desk to write her love letter on, there are only rollerskating orange trees on the otherwise empty stage. One of them is so prepared that in one of the many chase scenes, it collapses and buries Ambrogio. I was told that when Sher arrived in Baden-Baden to revive his production, he was dismayed and upset to discover that instead of a full orchestra in the pit, there was Thomas Hengelbrock, a leading expert researcher of baroque music and founder of the Balthasar Neumann Chorus and Orchestra, who was to demonstrate how Barbiere must have sounded and performed in Rossini's lifetime.

It was mutual respect for each other's conspicuous talents that these two contrasting views could be reconciled in weeks of hard work, into a sparkling and altogether delightful performance.

The extraordinary stage construction of the Festspielhaus allows by a unique hydraulic machinery to raise or sink deep the entire orchestra pit, so that a passarella could be built between the pit and the stalls. Hengelbrock, with obsessional thoroughness, went so far as to make the string players perform standing up. He felt that eye contact between his players and the singers would contribute to what he believes was one of the distinguishing features of contemporary performances. The instruments used are either genuine baroque specimens, or faithfully reconstructed. The solo cellist plays without a pin, holding the instrument between her knees. I looked at some of the wind and brass instruments and was amazed to find that there were virtually no metal keys, no ventils on any of them, and when I asked how they manage to play the intricate and sprightly passages so vital in Rossini's scores, without the metallic, glossy superstructure of modern instruments, they answered: endless hard work. The trombone, with a tiny bell, looked as if it had been put together from a few slim pieces of yellowish tubes. The same applied to the horns, and yet what a wealth of beauty was composed for these primitive instruments.

Il barbiere di Siviliga in Baden-Baden/The MetHengelbrock believes that the volume produced in the pit being as much as 50% less than that by the now conventional manning, and the greater individuality demanded from the players who have to produce sounds unaided by the technological advances in instrument bulding, will re-establish the balance and co-operation between stage and pit and also allows the singers not having to strain to be heard over the inflated volume from the pit. The new critical edition of the score used, without any cuts, is not yet in print, and this performance is also used to clear any misprints. The final version will be published by Ricordi next year.

One of the greatest interpreters of Bach, Dinu Lipatti, refused to play on clavichords, cembalos or even Hammerklaviers. Shortly before his untimely death he wrote in an article that to use these instruments is like dressing an adult in a child's sailorsuit. He wanted to reproduce the spirit of the compositions, and he felt that in this effort he was aided by modern developments in instrument building.

The recent debate about the use of vibrato in playing string instruments, engendered by Sir Roger Norrington's insistence that his string players follow what is supposed to be the way string players used their fingers in the early days of orchestral practice, still goes on.

On the strength of having attended within four days three performances of Barbiere, I welcomed the wonderful balance between stage and pit. If I had not known that ancient instruments were used, I would have been impressed by a delicacy of phrasing, a striking individuality in the sounds produced by solos by the winds, and with the mellow yet firm bass the brass and only two double basses provided, and would have praised a conductor who tamed his orchestra so that the singers felt free to be themselves.

Bartlett Sher brought with him his Almaviva (Lawrence Brownlee), Figaro (Franco Vassallo), Doctor Bartolo (Maurizio Muraro) and six actors playing admirers and customers of Figaro. Rosina was sung by Anna Bonitatibus and Don Basilio by Reinhard Dorn. Ambrogio, the somnolescent servant, was acted by Rob Besserer, an experienced dancer and choreographer. He managed to be on the stage virtually all the time and even if he was not part of the action, he just dozed away in an armchair, whilst having firmly established a character, somehow making himself an integral part of the stage business.

Il barbiere di Siviliga in Baden-Baden/The MetI was not persuaded by the casting of the other smaller roles. While all singing their roles adequately, they seemed to lack the rich possibilities that even in the smallest roles a comic talent can contribute. Berta, supposed to be a cantankerous old maid, was played by a young singer, probably having already successfully sung Micaela in Carmen, while desperately trying to act like a cantankerous old maid. The interplay with Ambrogio could have given many opportunities to little, engaging comic touches. Her aria, where she gives up pretending to be an old maid, lost entirely its significance in the scheme Rossini so well inserted in the character of that grim household.

The ufficale - also singing the few bars allowed to Fiorello in the first scene - failed completely to capture the scene, when pompously trying to arrest Almaviva, and collapsing in humble obsequiousness when realising that it is a Count he tried to arrest. I remembered some marvellous , blockheaded Police officers in the last act of Rosenkavalier, who at the first whiff of the Marschallin in their noses, become like putty in her hands.

During the overture, immediately delighting me with its fluffy elegance, the curtain rises, and Ambrogio, the incompetent dotard, still retained as a servant in the house, discovers Dr Bartolo snoring in an armchair under a white cover, and wakes him. In the process, he has his first, very artistic pratfall, to be followed by many more in the course of the evening. The stage is still empty, but for the doorframes, which start to slide about, making a bewildered Bartolo try to keep his balance. I would have been happier if the overture had not been interrupted, but Mr Sher must have known best.

The doorframes line up to present the outside of Bartolo's house and Almaviva arrives with a large grou of musicians. There is already a lot of business going on the stage - one musician stumbles, another drops a box. They are joined by onlookers - anything to cover the vast areas of an empty stage with action. Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva impressed me from the first sound he sang. He is personable, acts confidently and has a voice that seems to fit his personality. It is a voice without sharp edges, with a slightly baritonal perfume in the lower positions, and reaching into the very highest register without that steely comptence some acrobatic
tenors produce. His bel canto is heartwarming and he masters easily and correctly the dangerous fioriture that virtually all his arias contain. He had to be on the stage almost permanently and he never lagged either in energy or sincere passion . I was not suprised to hear that he recently sang Tonio in La Fille du regiment for the second time in Hamburg, a role which has become almost the exclusive trademark of Florez with its repeated shattering high Cs, and which few tenors dare to take on.

Figaro's entrance was solved in a novel and ingenious way. A large cart, which when its sides are opened displays Figaro's mobile barbershop, is dragged on the stage by a group of six girls and a young man in various stages of inebriation. Figaro lounges on the top of the cart, dallying with another groupie drinking wine and behaving in a very unbecoming manner - even for a square in Seville. Franco Vassallo, a dramatic baritone who has already sung all the major roles in virtually all the great opera houses, is only in his late thirties. He is athletic, mobile, cheerful, well built and has an infectious grin. Bartlett Sher managed to get away from the conventional, and by now rather motheaten Factotum aria. He can really address Donnine and Cavaliere, because the group around him loudly demands attention. Two girls standing behind him somewhat indecently grope around his trousers, others scream for an appointment or want to have their hair done. It is all great fun and Vassallo has a powerful and beautiful voice to end his aria on the longest and loudest applause-getter I can remember.

Il barbiere di Siviliga in Baden-Baden/The MetAfter the second serenade, when Figaro suggests that Almaviva enters the House of Bartolo disguised as a drunken soldier, the six doors open and the group of Figaro's groupies come forward to take measurement of Almaviva for a uniform. This, of course, gives an opportunity for two girls to take his inside leg measurements as well, with the appropriate meaningfully conspiratorial glances between them. From my seat, very near the stage, I may have seen more than the rest of an audience of 2500 and I mused for a few moments on how many microscopic details a conscientious director must amass until a production finds its final shape.

The entrance of Don Basilio used to give many famous bass singers an opportunity to steal the show. Chaliapin established this figure as the Don Basilio par excellence. His towering, haggard frame, his powerful profile, the semi-clerical garb, and the almost three-feet-long hat, worn from back to forward, and not, like in this production, sideways, created a threatening, ominous and overpoweringly evil figure. His majestic bass matched his appearance. His Don Basilio created the template ever since for this role.

The entrance of Don Basilio in this production seems to have not been given the potential I expected from such an ingenious and brilliant man of the theatre as Sher. Reinhard Dorn is a much admired and very busy bass, ranging over the entire bass repertoire, but his Don Basilio, while admirably sung, lacks the vitriolic nastiness of the template Basilio. He is just too nice a person, and his entrance is not used by Sher to make the impact I was looking forward to. In the Calumnia scene the passarella is used to introduce unusual freedom of interplay between the guile of Basilio and the inept Bartolo, who is being dragooned around the stage and on to the passarella, to stand in the very middle of the audience.

Maurizio Muraro as Doctor Bartolo is not the old and doddering foil of Figaro's guile. He is, through a well-used and powerful voice, establishing himself as a not totally unikely suitor for Rosina's hand. There are one or two scenes, in which he even tries to lay amorous hands on Rosina, and succeeds in making her sitting on his lap before she escapes his unwelcome efforts. His acting throughout is comic, but not selfdegradingly ridiculous. The occasions when he is allowed to sing a more coherent section of the part, instead of just having to carry forward the action, show that he is at home in virtually all the major bass-bariton roles in the leading houses all over Europe. His technique and clarity in the many rapid tongtwisting scenes was very impressive. His exchanges with Lindoro were genuinely funny and I had a feeling that a lot of the delicate interplay between them was not necessarily all Mr Sher's work. It is one of the advantages of the passarella that the person behind the costume, the make-up, the role, is brought so near that one can feel the heart of the singer beating, as it were. This physical closeness helped me to feel the atmosphere pervading the performance.

Anna Bonitatibus was a youthful and quirky Rosina. That she mastered the difficulties of the role could be taken for granted. She is also at home in virtually all the major roles and at many major opera houses and Festivals.

She is poised and elegant - altogether the costumes in this production, all 250 of them, are colourful, albeit playing too much on variations of an autumnal brown. Seville sunshine is only reflected in some attractive slouch hats that dominate the many crowd scenes.

She has no underlit phases in her mezzo, which easily rings up to the highest level. There is no shrill overvibrato in exposed points and climaxes. In her encounters with Bartolo, she even resorts to attempting to stab him with the very pen with which Bartolo wants to prove that she wrote secret love letters.

The scenes between her and Almaviva followed the usual established pattern. There are only that many variations of trying to delude a Bartolo, waking up always at the wrong moment. She is coquettish enough to show some slight inclination to respond to Figaro's underhand efforts to grope a bit here and there, and when
Figaro leaves the scene, she even gives him a suden little kiss. Perhaps it was only a sponteneous reaction, and not ordered by Mr. Sher.

The singing lesson scene used to be in old, less disciplined days, a platform to display the acrobatics of the reigning coloratura diva. I heard the then Diva Assoluta, Galli Curci, singing , accompanied on the piano on the stage- for a good halfhour one coloratura bravura aria after the other, while the rest of the cast had to stand around. The tempesta used to be in my recollection always played while the stage was empty, and one could pause and muse on the skill of Rossini to stop all the excitement for a moment and insert one of his casual masterpieces, even when it has nothing to do with the action. In Sher's production, all hell breaks loose. The backdrop is altered into a dark, clouded surface, on which to project flickering lightning effects, the windmachine works at a high pitch, on the dark stage dozens of extras rush about madly sliding around all those doorframes, lots of orange trees in sliding pots are hurled around the stage, objects fly about in the air, while Rosina stands petrified in a corner, with a spotlight on her. All this must have been effective stagecraft, although I still fail to realize why so much energy and rehearsaltime must have been spent on the scene, lasting no longer than three minutes, nor can I fathom out what this feverish activity was meant to imply. The first act ends, somewhat incongrously, by the backdrop slowly lifting and displaying a blindingly radiant white surface occupying the entire backwall, against which the action in the front of the stage appears like an oriental cutout show.

For some reason Ambrogio, never off the stage, now stands next to a trolley of fruit on the empty stage and handles large melons, while suddenly, he observes in a panic, that from high above the stage a giant anvil is slowly let down suspended on ropes and chains. He desperately tries to warn the others still at the front of the stage, but the anvil crashes down, upsets the trolley with the melons and Ambrogio throws his umpteenth, very persuasive pratfall.

Il barbiere di Siviliga in Baden-Baden/The MetThe last act moved along briskly on the well trodden path. Brownlee's two final arias were placing him at the head of my private classification for merit. There was not a trace of tiredness or sign of being short of breath after three hours on the stage. There are moments, when one feels that a packed house is almost manifestly grateful for an emotionally moving experience, and he stood virtually at the centre of it, because the passarella allowed him to isolate himself from the crowd on the stage behind him.

At the end, the entire cast - and there may have been as many as a 100 singers, choristers and extras - could gather upstage and parade along the passarella and enjoy the affection of the audience. At the very end, Figaro, left alone on the passarella to face the audience, rather charmingly, distributed his business cards to the patrons sitting near him.

To sum up, a Barbiere never with a dull moment, mostly beautifully sung, always beautifully played in the pit, and as if Siegmund Freud had never existed.

By Francis Shelton

PHOTOS: Andrea Kremper