Like many a company that comes under new management, the Metropolitan Opera has gone into hard-sell overdrive. Good. After cultivating an image of exclusivity and icy hauteur for more than a century, the Met could do worse than push the product for a change. There was even a brief preview of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville on the Letterman show just two nights before the new production opened—shades of Ed Sullivan, whose legendary TV extravaganzas on that same stage almost always included some opera excerpts. The next day, of course, opera fans sputtered on the Internet that the five-minute sequence was badly chosen, shockingly ill-prepared, and sloppily presented, surely more of a turnoff than a come-on for the unwashed. Perhaps so. But at least give new general manager Peter Gelb credit for trying.
That said, the Met might think about calming things down just a wee bit—the opening-night performance of this new Barber definitely seemed to be on steroids. That was partly inevitable, since Juan Diego Flórez as Count Almaviva and Diana Damrau as Rosina are both such high-energy performers. Even if the two stars do become less hyper during the run of the show, I can’t imagine Flórez will be in danger of losing a scintilla of his 40-carat sparkle. Although still in his early thirties, this tenor is just about flawless in whatever he sings, easily tossing off the flashy coloratura runs and melting lyrical phrases that so perfectly mesh with his dashingly heartthrob stage persona. With Flórez on hand to sing the role, there is no question of omitting his long aria, which ends the evening—a standard cut until recently—and one can now understand why Rossini originally titled the opera Almaviva.
Damrau is hardly upstaged by this eager crowd-pleaser, and she matches her partner note for note in vocal razzle-dazzle. She also adds more than a touch of the vixen to her characterization, along with occasional flamenco foot stomps and twisty hand gestures to remind us that Rosina is very much a sevillana, more than able to look after her own interests. Purists will no doubt tut-tut that a high soprano has once again commandeered a role originally written for a lower voice, but even Rossini gave up protesting that time-honored practice. He would very likely have been disarmed by this lively minx.
Peter Mattei’s Figaro sometimes seems overwhelmed by his exuberant colleagues as he quietly manages the intrigues that ultimately bring the lovers together and out of Dr. Bartolo’s clutches. There’s still much rich humor to be savored here, and Mattei’s discretionary approach can only get more effective as the production settles and comes into sharper focus. Beyond that, his creamy baritone and pointed articulation of text are always on target. Both John Del Carlo (Bartolo) and Samuel Ramey (Basilio) are seasoned interpreters of these classic buffo roles, and conductor Maurizio Benini has a firm grip on the pace and rhythmic flow of the score while giving the singers all the leeway they need.
If the stage often looks overbusy, one suspects that the choices are being made more by the singers than the director. Bartlett Sher comes from the theater world and has so far had little opera experience, but he respects the opera’s traditions, and his conventional staging does little to unsettle them. A bit more theatrical imagination, in fact, would have been welcome, although the passerelle that discreetly brings the singers down into the audience was a happy idea. Otherwise, Michael Yeargan’s drab sets are dominated by a backdrop of movable doors that are apparently meant to suggest Rosina’s confinement, an abstract stylization that has no place in this earthy comedy—but it hardly brings down a Barber of much musical distinction and plenty of vocal fizz.