Led by a charismatic Isabel Leonard, Met’s “Barber” makes the cut

Wed Nov 19, 2014 at 12:42 pm
Isabel Leonard and Maurizio Muraro in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” at the Metropolitan Opera.  Photo: Ken Howard

Isabel Leonard and Maurizio Muraro in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: Ken Howard

Between Aida, The Death of Klinghoffer, La Bohème, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the last two weeks at the Met have been anything but upbeat. Tuesday night’s season premiere of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini’s relentlessly tuneful masterpiece, broke through the gloom with a performance that, while requiring little in the way of emotional investment from the audience, provided a delightful display of vocal athletics.

Isabel Leonard, reprising Rosina, whom she portrayed in the English-language holiday presentation a few seasons ago, has come into her own as a leading star of the Met’s stage (and many others, for that matter). The beauty of her voice is well-documented, and she proved it again in a lovely performance of the touchstone cavatina “Una voce poco fa,” fluttering beautifully down on the line “Si, Lindoro mio sarà,” blooming in her high voice and unrolling flowing coloratura.

Leonard is a captivating actress, bringing a natural, charming playfulness to the stage. Her voice, nimble and colorful, is wonderfully suited to this rep, but her artistry, makes you ache to hear her in something a little heavier.

Christopher Maltman made a charismatic Figaro, showing off a generous, meaty voice, and bringing joyful character into his singing. He sang with tremendous ease, at least so far as his tone was concerned—he struggled somewhat in patter, tripping slightly over the Italian text in his big entrance aria, “Largo al factotum” (but then, who doesn’t?).

Maurizio Muraro, by contrast, put on a veritable patter clinic. A quintessential buffo bass, he has a round, cavernous tone, but still plenty of spring to his voice. His Bartolo was a lecherous buffoon, slimy but never threatening.

There are bound to be vocal fireworks any time Lawrence Brownlee takes the stage, and the tenor did not disappoint as the amorous Count Almaviva. His firm, golden tone was in top form, his coloratura flawless. His top notes were gleaming, and he reached them with room to spare.

Brownlee’s voice still sounds a little small for the house, and at times his vibrato approached a machine-gun rattle, but otherwise his singing was unimpeachable. Moreover, he’s grown tremendously as an actor. Brownlee has been criticized in the past for being stiff, but his infatuation with Rosina was entirely believable, and wonderfully endearing.

As an appropriately clueless Don Basilio, Paata Burchuladze sang with a powerful, woody voice, though he got a little breathy when singing softly. Claudia Waite sounded shrill as the housekeeper Berta, though she was a delightfully surly presence on stage. Rob Besserer was a major comic force as the senile servant Ambrogio, stealing entire scenes with his silent antics.

The cast’s work seems all the more admirable, considering the staging did not give them much help. Bartlett Sher’s 2006 production is alternately charming and puzzling, and not particularly adventurous. The sets are formed mostly of large wooden doors in wheeled frames, which are reconfigured (often hurriedly and haphazardly) to present different scenes.

When the plan works, it works quite nicely—in the second act, these doors, with the help of a harpsichord and a few other accoutrements, modestly but cozily define the parlor of Dr. Bartolo’s house. At other times, though, Catherine Zuber’s period costumes make the stage seem wincingly bare, especially when the backdrop inexplicably rises to reveal a blinding white light across the rear of the stage.

Kathleen Smith Belcher’s unimaginative stage direction keeps physical comedy to a minimum and makes scant use of the passerelle in front of the orchestra, save for a handful of recitatives and park-and-bark ensemble numbers.

Michele Mariotti had his own set of frustrations in the pit. Large ensemble numbers consistently got away from him, and he struggled to follow the patter songs. Here and there, the grace and splendor of the score came through—notably in the flowing stretches of the overture—but on the whole, the Met orchestra sounded well shy of their usual standard. The muffled brass may have had something to do with the passerelle, which places an extra barrier between audience and orchestra. The dryness of the strings was more difficult to excuse.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia runs through December 6 at the Metropolitan Opera. metoperafamily.org

2 Responses to “Led by a charismatic Isabel Leonard, Met’s “Barber” makes the cut”

  1. Posted Nov 22, 2014 at 6:08 pm by Diana D

    I have been watching the Met’s HD productions for 4 years now.
    The one on November 22 is the most disappointing one. This goes true for the set, the stage direction, the costumes, the orchestra. Most of all I disliked the cast, all except Isabel Leonard, who was brilliant.

  2. Posted Nov 24, 2014 at 11:27 am by Chemician

    I second to that. In addition to the voice (Don Basilio, Don Bartolo) and sound (passerelle) problems, I did not like the combination of Leonard and Brownlee. There is no chemistry between the two! Very unimaginative stage set – couldn’t they just borrowed one from “Le Nozze”? The singers should be able to focus on singing and acting, and not thinking about potentially falling down into the pit. On the upside, Isabel Leonard fits the role of Rosina like none other.

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