Theatricality abounds in Rossini’s operas. The composer trades in devices such as mistaken identity and hyperbole nearly as often as he does with coloratura riffs and grand ensemble numbers. So when Peter Gelb assumed directorship of the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, he couldn’t have made a better choice with pegging Broadway director Bartlett Sher to helm a new production of Rossini’s most famous work, Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Sher, a relative neophyte to the genre, made magic out of the classic score and story. The production has since served as a vindication for some of the company’s recent artistic missteps.
After a so-so Les Contes d’Hoffmann created for the company last year, Sher returns to the Met and to the composer that generated some of the director’s most inspired work across all genres. It would be a story befitting a Rossini opera, then, to say that last night’s production of Le Comte Ory was a triumph, a moment of Sher unmasking his true identity not as a Kafka-meets-Fellini existentialist but as a comic alchemist, mining new gems from old favorites. Yet while there were some flashes of Sher brilliance in this production, it lacks the cohesive sparkle that dazzled audiences five years ago.
Rossini’s Gallic tale, about a Don Giovanni-esque rake who remains in France during the Crusades (presumably to woo every woman left behind), is both updated and unchanged in Sher’s hands. While sumptuous costumes courtesy of Catherine Zuber evoke the medieval style of the 13th century, sets by Michael Yeargan take inspiration from a theater in Parma more in keeping with Rossini’s own early 19th-century era.
Like Mary Zimmerman’s controversial production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula from 2009, Sher opts to give Le Comte Ory a play-within-a-play setting. The idea certainly has merit: Rossini’s titular Count, like Figaro, is a theatrical director in his own right, orchestrating the opera’s course of action under several guises. However, there was a lack of follow-through that left the conceit at best unobtrusively arbitrary and at worst distractingly superfluous. A macaron-like assortment of colors onstage made it all pretty to look at, but would that we could have manipulated the Met’s HD zoom feature to ignore the literal theatrical frame on stage.
Quibbles with the staging aside, this was truly a singer’s production. For bel canto purposes, it doesn’t get much better than having Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez (pictured) all onstage at the same time—that in the opera’s climax they all end up in bed at the same time is gravy. Damrau’s diamantine soprano lent an artful flair to the Countess Adèle, the object of both Flórez’s and DiDonato’s affections. Mezzo-soprano and Rossinian expert Joyce DiDonato was easily the brightest star of the production, shining in the sadly underwritten role of the page Isolier.
As the scoundrel count, Juan Diego Flórez showed signs of wear and tear at the top but created a pleasant sound for the most part and wooed audiences with his swanky looks and comic timing. With further strong contenders in smaller roles—most notably the soprano Susanne Resmark in her Met debut as Ragonde, the Countess’s faithful housekeeper—audiences seemed relieved to bask in a vocal caliber befitting the Met (one that has seemed conspicuously absent in recent productions). Yet one wonders if the production would hold up as well with any less than this gold standard.
Watch this scene from the production and please share your thoughts in the comments box below.