NEW YORK—Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 comic opera “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (“The Barber of Seville”) has returned to the Metropolitan Opera with a starry cast in Bartlett Sher’s production. It still meets Giuseppe Verdi’s opinion that the opera is “the finest opera buffa in existence.”
In 1825, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” was the first opera sung in Italian in the United States, at the Park Theater in New York City. The opera, written when the composer was only 23 years old, was performed for the Metropolitan Opera’s very first season (1883–84).
The story, adapted from the French play by Pierre Beaumarchais, deals with a beautiful young woman, Rosina, who is under the control of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo. The pompous old man wants to marry his ward.
Meanwhile, she is being romanced by Count Almaviva, who appears in a series of disguises. Rosina thinks he is a poor student named Lindoro. He had already won her heart with his singing and good looks when she spotted him from her balcony.
Rosina’s music master, Don Basilio, warns Bartolo that Almaviva is in town and has set his sights on Rosina. Basilio plans to use slander to destroy Almaviva’s reputation.
Figaro, the title character, assists Almaviva in his efforts to win Rosina, suggesting Almaviva take another disguise. Almaviva arrives at Bartolo’s house pretending to be an inebriated soldier with orders to be billeted there. Bartolo tries to claim he is exempt from the requirement that he house soldiers, but during the commotion that results when the civil guard shows up, Almaviva manages to pass a note to Rosina.
In the second act, Almaviva pretends to be Don Alonso, a music teacher and student of Basilio. He claims that Basilio is sick and offers to give Rosina her music lesson. He uses the letter from Rosina to Lindoro to prove his bona fides to Bartolo.
When Almaviva and Rosina are alone together, they express their mutual love. Figaro arrives to shave Bartolo and manages to steal the key to Rosina’s balcony for Almaviva. Basilio, who appears in good health, is convinced to go along with the ruse that he has scarlet fever when he is bribed by Almaviva.
Bartolo, fearing romantic competition, plans to marry Rosina that evening. When he shows his ward her letter to Lindoro, she feels that the young man has betrayed her. She then admits that she had arranged to elope with the student.
When Bartolo leaves to obtain help from a group of soldiers, Almaviva mollifies Rosina by revealing his true identity. By the time Bartolo returns, Rosina and Almaviva are married, and the old man admits defeat.
Sher has come up with some delicious comic bits, beginning with stage business during the overture by Bartolo and his dour servant Ambrogio. Figaro arrives on a wagon pulled by a bevy of beauties. (While Figaro is the womanizer and Almaviva loyal to one woman in “The Barber of Seville,” in the follow-up work, “The Marriage of Figaro,” the situation is reversed. Figaro is in love with his fiancée Susanna, while Almaviva, now married to Rosina, is an inveterate skirt-chaser.)
Figaro was portrayed by versatile Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who played the wily barber with the panache of a rock star. He makes a dramatic entrance, delivering the famous tongue-twisting aria “Largo al factotum,” in which the barber boasts of his many talents. (Mattei will appear later in the season in a completely different part: the contemplative title character in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”).
South African soprano Pretty Yende is a pert Rosina, with a beautiful voice, a charming stage manner, and superb technique (as demonstrated in the aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice a little while ago”). She should be enchanting in “Roméo et Juliette” at the Met in March.
Mexican tenor Javier Camarena has established himself as one of the leading bel canto tenors in the world. He has the comic flair required for the role of Almaviva (who appears in various disguises) and his singing is graceful, with spectacular high notes. His delivery of the florid “Ecco, ridente in cielo” (“Here, laughing in heaven”) in Act 1 got the evening off to a stylish start. He will return to the Met in February in “I puritani.”
Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro was well cast as Bartolo, and Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko made a strong impression as the corrupt music teacher Basilio. His singing of “La Calunnia,” in which Basilio recommends slander as a way of ending the blossoming romance between Rosina and Almaviva, was one of the high points of the performance.
As Berta (Bartolo’s housekeeper), Greek mezzo-soprano Karolina Pilou made the most of her aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” where she comments on the peculiar behavior of the lovelorn characters and expresses regret that her time for such entanglements has passed.
The non-singing, dour-faced Ambrogio is played by dancer Rob Besserer, who basically owns the role at the Met.
Conductor Maurizio Benini led a lively performance.
After two centuries, Rossini’s “Barber” still entertains audiences.
‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Closes: Feb. 11
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.