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Champagne and Pomade

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
12/31/2004 -  
Gioachino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Katarina Karneus (Rosina)
Matthew Polenzani (Almaviva)
Dwayne Croft (Figaro)
John Relyea (Don Basilio)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Maurizio Benini (conductor)

Although every story related by Orson Welles about his own life needs to be taken with an entire pillar of salt, he does tell the tale of how, as a child prodigy violinist, he stopped practicing forever when his mother died. Something deep-seeded certainly seems to have influenced him in matters musical, as every music student who has ever seen Citizen Kane remembers vividly the scene wherein Susan Alexander tries rather unsuccessfully to please her monstrous Italian singing teacher with many attempts at “una voce poco fa”.

Why The Barber of Seville? Most probably because it contains the famous “lesson scene”, a glorious opportunity for improvisation and direct connection with a hometown crowd. Welles may have envisioned such an experience as horrific, but Rossini offers it as a splendid patisserie and this New Year’s Eve, the Metropolitan Opera took this improvisatory mood as its inspiration for adding many layers of sweet confection to the cake, saving the very best for last.

Historically, this tableau has allowed its female protagonist to perform repertoire of her own choosing, often arias from other operas and the popular arena as well. In fact, the entire experience can seem to be a parody of standard 19th century operatic practice, wherein passages were substituted on a regular basis in Rossini’s time. Even Mahler, at the beginning of the 20th century, was allowing aria changes in Mozart productions at the Staatsoper when they more favorably featured his soloists (and mixing the order of “Ring” operas to highlight certain voices). Rossini, who sent up brilliantly the world of the castrato and the cross-dresser in Le Comte d’Ory, was perfectly capable of making a sophisticated point about performance practice by simply scrawling the words “ad libitum” as the entire score for this particular section of a scene.

This Barber was notable for the sunny singing of Matthew Polenzani, whose “Ecco ridente in cielo” was brilliant in a coloristic sense and correctly ornamented in an historical one. Dwayne Croft was a nimble Figaro and John Relyea a focused and somewhat frightening Don Basilio. Katarina Karneus’ mezzo was right for the Rosina role from the point of view of original tessitura (most forget that the role was written for contralto), but was simply unable to keep up with the snappy patter and unbearable lightness required for comical enunciation. My companion found the conducting of Maurizio Benini rather stodgy and a good case can be made for this criticism. I preferred to admire his Classical scholarship: There was nary a Romantic gesture emanating from the pit the entire evening.

But all of this turned out to be but a prelude to the real entertainment, as Polenzani stepped out of character just a few dozen measures before the final curtain was set to fall to become the toastmaster for a musicale of uncommon richness. The parade of guests for the wedding of the Count and Rosina began with James Morris, who intoned majestically a medley from Man of La Mancha. Then Johan Botha, who tonight will be featured in the season premiere of Turandot, thrilled us all with a powerful and extraordinarily well-projected Nessun dorma. You could hear this man unmiked in the back row of the Arena di Verona. Morris Robinson followed with a sensitive version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Ramon Vargas left much heart and soul on that stage in an emotional Granada. The only fly in the ointment was the Summertime of Andrea Gruber. This is a bit of a pet peeve with me, but people who sing Gershwin as if it were Wagner need immediate retraining in musical idiom.

That greatest Australian female lead since Joan Sutherland, Dame Edna Everage, was on hand for a concluding star turn. The bastard child of Anna Russell and Morey Amsterdam, she kept us all in stitches as she brought her own accompanist – dressed as a toreador for his Metropolitan Opera debut – and her personal conductor for an extended visit to her unique universe. Her idea of ornamentation may be very different from that of Rossini, but somehow deep down they share a sense of the comedic and an expansive love of life for its own sake. 2004 certainly went out on a high note.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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