I have to confess I was first unimpressed by Bartlett Sher’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for the Met – I thought that there was too much cuteness going on and that the sceneries did not work very well for those who were seated in the upper levels of the theatre. Maybe because my seat was very close to the stage this time, I finally warmed up to its all-for-laughs charm, especially when the level of acting was as good as seen today. The music values were better preserved this time. After a rather unclear overture, Frédéric Chaslin showed excellent control over the complex ensembles and led his soloists with helpful and attentive conducting. However, the 1,000,000.00 dollar-question will always be – how tonight’s singers compare with a cast that I myself called to be of “golden age”-quality last year?
I won’t lie – Elina Garanca cannot compete with Joyce DiDonato’s extraordinary flexibility and technical abandon, but she proves to be a worthy successor in any other aspect. Her warm and creamy (and fuller) mezzo-soprano is always pleasant in the ear, she has a solid technique for the passagework, extraordinary ease with high notes, very good Italian and is also capable of producing exquisite piano singing when necessary, not to mention that she phrases stylishly. She also possesses excellent comedy timing and a most graceful stage presence. Although DiDonato was an engaging Rosina, I believe Garanca understood that her character is a Spanish girl and offered the kind of natural sexiness typical of Mediterranean women that has nothing to do with vulgarity .
The comparison between José Manual Zapata and Juan Diego Flórez is even more unfavourable in what regards technical finish. While the Peruvian is impressively accurate in passagework (let’s not forget he would sing Cessa di più resistere without any hint of difficulty) and commands in alts as few tenors these days, the Spaniard does only justice to his runs and often lacks support both in extreme low and top notes. His trump card is the natural beauty of his voice and his good taste. While Flórez cut a more Romantic figure last year, Zapata finally convinced the audience with his irresistible sense of humor and vitality in spite of his absence of physique du rôle.
There is no doubt about Franco Vassallo’s exceptional vocalism. His baritone sails through the tessitura from bottom to top notes with impressive confidence and his adeptness with fioriture is truly impressive. He is also a funny guy entirely at ease in such a showman’s part. However, I can’t help missing Peter Mattei’s intelligent and hilarious performance, far richer in detail than Vassallo’s. If the Italian baritone displays more flamboyant vocalism, Mattei’s singing was similarly accomplished and satisfying.
Replacing an ailing Maurizio Muraro, Paul Plishka proved he still has the energy of a man half his age. I was particularly impressed by the way he mingled in such finely knit teamwork, which is the hallmark of this production, and interacted with his stage partners. His voice is still firm and spacious (actually, he was in very good voice), but the patter of his big aria will always be a test for anyone born outside Italy. Ruggero Raimondi also showed some rusty edges in the part of Don Basilio, but this singer’s amazing presence, forceful voice and dramatic intelligence never lets the audience down. I finally must point out that Jennifer Check’s exquisitely crafted account of Berta’s aria would be a serious threat to the sale of ice-cream in any opera house in the days of Rossini.