Friday, January 27, 2017

A Benchwarmer’s Barber

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia
Metropolitan Opera
January 21, 2017

The Barber forever lurks in the Rossini repertory
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
In terms of expanding our Rossini horizons, this last year or so in opera has been a boon. Bare Opera brought us one of his earliest youthful works, La cambiale di matrimonio. The Met simultaneously presented his first big breakout success, L’italiana in Algeri, and his final masterwork, Guillaume Tell. Bel Canto at Caramoor bestowed Aureliano in Palmira upon us over the summer. La gazza ladra landed alongside the lake at Glimmerglass; and a most memorable Turco in Italia at Juilliard not too awfully long ago. Opera Philadelphia has Tancredi in store for us next month. After lavishing its racy take on Le Comte Ory on us last June, LoftOpera is about to tackle Otello, another masterful rarity.

So much of Rossini’s back catalog has been ransacked of late that the uber-canonical joys of Il barbiere di Siviglia begins to feel less like the monolithic central altarpiece in the temple of bel canto worship and more like a quaint relic, easily overlooked, far from the main stage languishing as a sideshow somewhere. However, when the likes of Peter Mattei is slated to sing it… now that’s an opportunity that’s hard to pass up. What else are we going to hear the golden-tones of the great Peter Mattei in this year at the Met if not this?

Mattei's absence unsettles us in our seats
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Promptly taking our seats well in advance of the curtain, we were flummoxed to find that Peter Mattei had taken ill. What a bummer that little slip of paper in the program was! Our spirits sunk so low that we almost gathered our things and hit the road. But yet, something kept us there. We made a pact to sit through the first act and give the benchwarmers a chance. We vowed to decide whether to stay for the rest or not at intermission. So we settled back in. And, boy, are we glad we did.

Figaro's mobile bottega arrives bearing a surprise
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The biggest disappointment of the evening turned into one of the greatest surprises. The sun began to shine again through our clouds of doom and gloom from the moment Edward Parks, Mattei’s substitute, was wheeled out on the roof of Figaro’s mobile bottega by his bevy of damigelle. To say Parks came out strong in his opening number, Largo al factotum, is an understatement. His round manly sound, reminiscent not of Mattei but of a more virile Erwin Schrott, instantly redeemed the evening. 

Edward Parks covers for Mattei
Parks has a handsome instrument and great stage presence. He is naturally playful and hunky. In fact he would make a perfect Don Giovanni. He’s more brutal in his attack on the notes than Mattei. He’s not as lyrical as the man we came to see and doesn’t savor the words in Mattei’s inimitable way, but it is, nevertheless, great to see a benchwarmer rise to the occasion and shine like this, considering the shoes he had to fill. Parks isn’t your average panchinaro. He is obviously a formidable talent in his own right. That’s why it’s always worth giving the back up a day in court. You never know what’s in store.

Soprano Pretty Yende is lighter and flightier than your typical Rosina. She has a way of eating up her musical line with killer agility and piercingly beautiful high notes. She expanded famous numbers like Io sono docile in her own unique virtuosic way, imbuing her tempos with more space and lengthening the time between her notes. It’s a treat to get a singer who really relishes the opportunities afforded by Rossini’s bel canto compositional style. Making the part her own, slowing certain passages down, taking extra rubato high notes, dishing out moments of pure vocal genius. She is one of the great singers at the Met at the moment. And tonight she was on fire.

Pretty Yende owned the orchestra as Rosina
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Dottor Bartolo was replaced with panache by Maurizio Muraro. His booming bass-baritone resounded through the Met with forceful self-assurance. But he is old hat in this role at the Met, so we were less worried about his ability to so fully channel, body and soul, the spirit of the dirty old tutor. As ever, Muraro was a pleasure to watch in this role.

Often sung by an older mezzo, Karolina Pilou played a youthful Berta and really showed off her acting chops. She was always in character. I kept my eye on her through my binoculars every time she was on stage. She filled the space with her big voice, which is naturally graced with fluidity and agility. She also made her vocal presence forcefully felt in the ensembles, in which she really delivered.

Muraro is Bartolo, body and soul
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The tenor, however, was the weak link. Dmitry Korchak came out a bit cold and only finally warmed up in the second half of the first act. He just wasn’t bright or sparkly or bubbly enough for this kind of repertoire, particularly if you’re sad to have missed a Camarena night of the run. He’s not unpleasant but he’s not exciting enough, which is what this kind of Rossini demands of its singers, at the intersection of bel canto and opera buffa.

Though we had both seen this production numerous times in the past, it was a pleasure to revisit it. It is full of clever touches from the ballet of doors to the giant anvil that drops in the Act I finale as the sextet drones on about an incudine sonora. Bartlett Sher’s direction is clear, imaginative, faithful to the mood of the piece and fluid.

When done right like this with great singers Rossini’s Barbiere is a sparkling opera. The kind of night out that leaves you feeling refreshed with your spirits lifted. And the score achieved its maximal frizzante flair under the baton of Maurizio Benini. The Met orchestra sounded tight, popping out Rossini’s staccato rhythms, classical guitar, harpsichord and all, and yet remained flexible enough to allow a stellar diva like Pretty Yende to spread her wings and take her own sweet time, from time to time. Despite the sorry absence of our much beloved Mattei, what’s not to love!

Lui & Lei

The wool goes over the eyes of the unsuspecting victim
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

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