The schedule of operas being streamed by the New York Metropolitan Opera company for the coming two weeks has been published. Yesterday I saw the 2007 production of The Barber of Seville. In the story of this opera, the title role is not that of the male romantic lead but rather of his wing man Figaro, who helps Count Almaviva win the heart of Rosina and help her escape the clutches of her much older guardian Dr. Bartolo who seeks to marry her.
Since this is a comedy, I thought that I would enjoy it even more than the tragedies that I had watched in the first week of shows but I did not. There was some nice music, some of which I was already familiar with, but the whole performance just did not grab me. The problem was more with the comedic elements than the music. There was quite a bit of mugging by the performers and some slapstick in order to generate laughs but to me it seemed jarring and not funny. Slapstick and mugging can be hilarious when done by the likes of the Marx brothers or Laurel and Hardy but it seemed out of place in the context of opera. Comedy is hard. You can get away with less-than-perfect dramatic acting but with comedy, you have to get it just right.
The stage set also seemed to me to be pretentious. As one example, they would have minor characters move things around while others were performing. As another example, they had extended the stage to go around the orchestra pit and the performers would often go around the perimeter of that circle while they sang. This brought them very close to the audience, so close that they could even touch the people in the first row if they wanted to but there did not seem to be any purpose served by this. I found all this distracting and taking me out of the moment. The designed less to provide a backdrop to the action and more to draw attention to itself and its designer with its avant garde nature. And it worked. If I were planning on producing an opera, I would definitely look up who was the set designer here to make sure I did not hire them.
I was also mystified by the fact at the very end of the performance, a real live donkey appeared on the stage with the chorus. It stayed there during the curtain call. I could not see any reason for it to be there.
Once again, I noted the odd choice of setting, something I commented about in Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata. Rossini is Italian, the opera is sung in Italian, the names are Italian, and yet the story is set in Seville, which is in Spain. The opera is based on a French play so that may explain it but I am still puzzled by the strong sense of fidelity that opera composers seem to have concerning the location of the source material while being willing to change pretty much every thing else.
The next operas I plan to watch are Verdi’s Don Carlo on Thursday and Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (which happens to be set in ancient Sri Lanka) on Friday.