You saw the preview Nov. 8 on “The Late Show With David Letterman”; now see Rossini’s entire opera at the Metropolitan. That seems to be the populist approach the new general manager, Peter Gelb, has taken to getting auds into Bartlett Sher’s debut production with the company, “The Barber of Seville.”
Gelb is definitely on a PR roll after kicking off the season with Anthony Minghella’s super-popular “Madama Butterfly” staging, which scored with the media and public but essentially offered a mediocre night, vocally, at the opera. Sher, fortunately, gets it right on both counts. His “Barber” is one for opera aficionados who, first and foremost, want Rossini’s notes delivered with rat-a-tat-tat precision. On that score, Sher’s cast never fails to hit the bull’s-eye.
It’s an added delight that these singer-actors are comic masters who physically fit their roles and are effectively supported by a low-tech, if not exactly high-concept, production. To say the “Barber” ensemble is Broadway-worthy is to underestimate its achievement and overpraise the current Rialto season.
Sher has reassembled the same design team he used for last season’s Broadway revival of “Awake and Sing!” and that two years ago swept the Tonys with its evocative, melancholic staging of “The Light in the Piazza.”
Here, they rightly eschew the romantic naturalism of the Adam Guettel musical for something a bit closer to the Keystone Kops. Yes, Christopher Akerlind bathes the stage in tones of sienna and bronze, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes appear to be trying to bring back the 18th century in men’s fashion. (Almaviva’s ankle-length leather coat would look stunning on any contempo runway.)
This production, however, is defined by a simple set of 10 doors on runners moved manually around the stage to create interior spaces and garden walls.
It is a helmer masterstroke that Sher caps the evening by bringing his Almaviva, the great Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, down in front of the conductor to finish the reinstated endurance test of an aria “Cessa di piu resistere.” Rossini himself would have cheered.
In one respect, Rossini’s florid vocal showcases are more about showing off than about telling the tale of the barber Figaro (Peter Mattei), who must act as go-between for the local count (Florez) and his beloved Rosina (Diana Damrau) in order to thwart the lecherous designs of Dr. Bartolo (John Del Carlo).
To Sher’s credit, his staging often stresses the overall perfs over the individual vocal moments: From beginning to end, Del Carlo is every inch the satin-encrusted capon that Zuber’s costumes indicate him to be, while the German-born Damrau offers a spot-on parody of Bernadette Peters, down to her mop of caramel curls.
If there’s any fault with this production, it’s a missed opportunity. Doors are to comedy what guns are to drama. If a revolver is placed on the mantle in the first act, it better go off in the last. Likewise, with 10 doors onstage, at some point all 10 doors should be opening or closing to great comic effect. That coup de theatre never arrives with this “Barber of Seville” — but there’s always next season.