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  • Resisting Rossini, or Marlon Brando plays Figaro
  • Mary Ann Smart (bio)

When you find yourself faced with the task of producing some work by an illustrious author, flee from the terrorism of the classics . . . If you wish to display the slightest regard for the ideas which classic works contain, treat them without respect.

—Dario Fo, introduction to L'opera dello sghignazzo (1982)

Freeze Frame

When Peter Gelb engaged Bartlett Sher to mount a new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, opera fans who had seen or heard about Sher's blockbuster production of The Light in the Piazza the year before might have expected a radical—or at least radically populist—approach to the Rossini chestnut. The transition from that particular Broadway hit to doing Rossini at the Met made sense at some gut level. Not only does The Light in the Piazza put a positive (if clichéd) spin on the American encounter with Italy; but a couple of the show's songs are sung entirely in Italian, and one comic ensemble inescapably evokes Italian opera in its rapid patter and chaotically layered vocal entries.

What Met audiences actually got with Sher's Barbiere was a respectful treatment of Rossini that contained few surprises of either visual style or interpretation. Characters costumed in loose approximations of eighteenth-century dress conduct themselves (mostly) with dignity, and the romantic leads Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez wring as much sentimental intensity as possible out of Rossini's inherently ironic raw material.1 Rosina's "Una voce poco fa," for example, is sung from just a few static locations onstage and is conventionally blocked to shift from an intimate setting for the slow movement to a more businesslike position at a writing desk for the cabaletta. Besides the Seville oranges that turn up as understated props in nearly every scene, the production's innovations mostly stem from Michael Yeargan's set design, which is oriented around a [End Page 153] platform built out over the orchestra pit and a row of doors on runners that reconfigure themselves with farcical frequency. At several moments characters move on to the walkway, often overtly breaking through the fourth wall as they do. Most flamboyantly, the second act is launched with a mimed prelude to the duet "Pace e gioia sia con voi," in which Don Bartolo (John Del Carlo) feigns surprise at seeing an audience in attendance, then tries to depict himself as a victim to enlist the audience's sympathy for his supposed mistreatment by the other characters, through extravagant dumb show.

The most compelling moment in the production is Sher's staging of the largo concertato from the first-act finale, the well-known ensemble in which the principal characters express their astonishment at plot events by comparing themselves to statues ("Fredda ed immobile"). As Rosina intones the first few phrases, the gold-wallpapered backdrop that has served as the rear wall of Don Bartolo's drawing room begins to rise slowly, revealing an expanse of brightly lit space and a blank white wall at the back of the stage. The sudden, seamless expansion of the stage space runs counter to the claustrophobia and helplessness conveyed in music and words, a contradiction that is heightened if the viewer happens to carry any visual memory of the prison-like vertical bars and weighty stone pillars that framed Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's famous 1972 realization of this scene. The empty white space connotes dizziness, but it also imbues the scene with a sense of possibility—as a rigidly posed line of singers stiffly arrayed on a shallow stage is suddenly recontextualized as something grander and more exciting. The stage business enacted within this new virgin space is as conventional as the blocking in the rest of the production. Attentive to the stark distinction between Figaro's words and music and those of the rest of the company, Sher has Peter Mattei as Figaro caper about, the sole character not paralyzed by confusion. He plays games with the stiff, unseeing Bartolo—waving a hand in front of the old man's glassy eyes, pushing him down into...


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pp. 153-178
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