Even with a close trim, Met’s family “Barber” makes an ideal opera intro
Tailoring an opera to serve as family entertainment isn’t easy, but the Metropolitan Opera has had success in that regard. The Magic Flute, in the puppeteering conception by Julie Taymor, is enchanting, and still leaves plenty of superb music after a healthy trim.
This year’s holiday special at the Met is Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the charming classic of household hijinx and wooing in disguise. Bartlett Sher’s production isn’t exactly heavy on spectacle, though a kitchen explosion, a donkey, and a bizarre gag with a gigantic anvil provide plenty of laughs. J. D. McClatchy’s translation of Cesare Sterbini’s libretto is one of the strongest points of the adaptation, never trying too hard to be witty, but paying close attention to the contours of the music.
An adaptation like this, of course, also requires a cut, and the Met’s is a hefty one, shaving the opera down to two hours (with half-hour intermission). Don Basilio’s and Berta’s arias are of course the first items to go, and many of the highlights are shortened considerably. The overture takes one of the biggest hits of all, losing about 75 percent of its material—which seems like a mistake, considering that the venerable missionary work of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd made this perhaps the most familiar excerpt of the entire piece.
In the vocal department, at least, the kids aren’t shorted at all. Isabel Leonard is one of the leading mezzo-sopranos on the Met’s stage, and the feisty maiden Rosina is her signature role. Her voice might be starting to outgrow the part ever so slightly, overpowering the top notes just a hair, but it was such a natural fit to begin with that her interpretation remains a joy to hear, even in this pared-down version. Leonard’s “Una voce poco fa” (“In my heart I hear his voice”) was simply lovely, showing a blooming tone with plenty of cushion but still precisely focused, complemented by a tittering coloratura.
The cast around her was strong as well, beginning with David Portillo, making his housedebut as the love-stricken Count Almaviva. He has a bright, creamy leggiero tenor with more than enough power to blaze out the top notes; his coloratura was quite nimble, too, once he got going in the second act. Also debuting was Valeriano Lanchas, who boomed magnificently as a crass Doctor Bartolo, questionable patter notwithstanding. Elliot Madore was charismatic as Figaro, the sly barber of the title, his tone robust and woolen, and his acting hammy enough to steal any scene.
It wasn’t quite a perfect night in the pit, and a few of the ensemble numbers, such as the Act I finale, teetered near catastrophe. But for the most part, Antony Walker did yeoman’s work in conducting a creditable, charming performance. The real genius in the pit on Wednesday was Robert Morrison, whose continuo playing was inspired, lending cheerful bounce to the recitatives.
Adult operagoers looking to hear Rossini’s masterpiece will probably be disappointed by this presentation, as too much of the score is gone for it to be recognizable as the perfectly crafted gem that it is. But as a first brush with opera, this Barber does the job: a quick, charming piece that introduces children to some—if not quite enough—of the greatest music ever written for the stage.
The Barber of Seville runs through January 2 at the Metropolitan Opera. Ginger Costa-Jackson sings the role of Rosina and David Pershall plays Figaro on December 29 and January 1. metopera.org