Saturday, November 25, 2006

Puppet Shows

The Barber of Seville
composed by Gioachino Rossini
directed by Bartlett Sher
starring Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, Peter Mattei, Samuel Ramey
Nov. 10-27, 2006 and Mar. 14-May 11, 2007

Madama Butterfly
composed by Giacomo Puccini
directed by Anthony Minghella
starring Cristina Gallardo-Dom√Ęs, Marcello Giordani, Dwayne Croft
Sept. 25-Nov. 18, 2006

The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Aves.

Gallardo-Domas as Cio-Cio-San in Butterfly
The Met’s Opening Night production, Madama Butterfly, was directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), while its new The Barber of Seville is helmed by Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony Award for directing The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center Theater.

Of course, The Barber of Seville is overly familiar even to those who’ve never attended an opera, thanks to music that’s been endlessly parodied in commercials, on TV shows and in Bugs Bunny cartoons (“Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!”).

Sher’s staging of Rossini’s inimitable comic opera is boisterous and colorful, allowing the humor to grow organically out of the situations, instead of making it simply slapstick, which is usually the easy way out. With the help of his talented team—set designer Michael Yearfan, costumer Catherine Zuber and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind—Sher has given The Barber of Seville a clean, uncluttered look, lovely to look at but never overwhelming the musical highlights which, after all, is the primary reason for seeing The Barber of Seville in the first place.

The stage platform jutting out from the orchestra pit might not exactly provide the intimacy of a smaller house, but it allows Sher to bring the performers closer to the audience for several showstopping numbers, including the wonderful ensemble ending Act I.

The cast is in good vocal and comic form, starting with Swedish baritone Peter Mattei--a delight as Figaro the barber--tossing off his famous Act I aria with ease, and also showing superior physical comedy skills.

German soprano Diana Damrau might not be the first name brought up for the role of the lovelorn but spunky Rosina, but she is a top-flight comedic actress, never overdoing the broader aspects of her character; she can also trill with the best of them. (The first-rate American soprano Joyce DiDonato takes over the role for its Met run in the spring.)

As Count Almaviva, who will do anything to get Rosina’s hand, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez works hard and efficiently, although the effortlessness needed for the role seems to elude him. Nonetheless, his agile voice soars easily throughout.

In supporting roles, Samuel Ramey, John del Carlo and Wendy White are amusingly harried, and conductor Marizio Benini leads the Met Orchestra and Chorus in a bubbly account of this sparkling score.

When Anthony Minghella was announced as director of the new staging of Puccini’s perennial, the tragic Madama Butterfly,”it was a given that it would look as shimmering as his films do. That it surely does; in fact, it could be argued that Minghella’s staging is too stunning-looking.

The exquisite sets (by Michael Levine), costumes (by Han Feng) and lighting (by Peter Mumford)—which evoke, in their modernist touches, the Japan of the turn of the last century—are utilized by Minghella in a way that supersedes the actual story and, at times, even the music.

It’s unfortunate, because if Minghella had toned down his visuals to make them more dramatic but less showy, he would serve the opera far better. (The use of an overhead mirror during one scene is particularly beautiful but essentially superfluous.) That includes his controversial decision to have the young son of the American sailor Pinkerton and the young heroine, Cio-Cio-San, played by a puppet. Many have commented favorably on this innovation of sorts, but to these eyes, the three-year-old boy as a puppet is more gimmicky than dramatically vital.

Of course, actual child actors are no sure things either, but when two puppeteers clad in black walk on with the tiny puppet and begin its strangely inhuman gestures, this reviewer was taken completely out of the intensely sad moment that Puccini’s glorious music conjures.

The human performers do the best they can under exceedingly strange circumstances. Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas might have a small voice, but she has an arresting presence and gets across Cio-Cio-San’s emotions with the greatest of ease. Italian tenor Marcello Giordani (as Butterfly’s husband, Pinkerton) and American baritone Dwayne Croft (as Sharpless, Pinkerton’s associate) give smartly articulated vocal performances. Asher Finch conducts with appropriate sincerity.

While far from a total success, this Butterfly at least fearlessly strikes out in new directions. Future Met productions are eagerly awaited.

originally posted on

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