Saturday, November 11, 2006

I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. Sher

The real surprise of last night's Barber of Seville premiere was how much a tasteful, inoffensive, even mostly pretty production could sap the vigor from Rossini's evergreen comedy. Bartlett Sher's Met debut production isn't abominable, but it gets in the way more than it helps. He's failed to improve on the previous John Cox staging, which wasn't that great to begin with.

Leading up to the show, much was made of the one bit of novelty that Sher did add: the walkway ("passerelle", they called it) around the pit, which extends the stage forward a bit. The Met-staff-penned Playbill piece on Sher suggests that it (with "the careful placement of the doors") "work[s] together to subvert audiences' psychological relationship to the Met's performance area." Eh? In truth -- not so much. The walkway is almost exclusively used to simulate a very conventional cinematic effect: the close-up. That is, it's Sher's way of fading out the very literal and unsprightly scene he's set in the rest of the Met space.

Which is not to say that Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan have come up with an overly static physical backdrop. Actually, it's the opposite: particularly in Act I, the flying, swirling door frames and other mobile props (most notably a giant Figaro trailer towed inexplicably hither and thither by admiring women) swallow the characters -- and action -- whole. It's almost impossible to imagine anything significant being done amidst that bustle, and it's to Peter Mattei's great credit that he made his Largo tell nonetheless. It is no space for dramatic interaction.

So Sher's virtual close-ups are a try at compensation. But while the scene-change-for-solo is a useful and occasionally brilliant trick (the stars coming out for Tatyana's letter scene was a Robert Carsen masterstroke), as a production's bread-and-butter technique it's a cheat. Characters and their emotions are thereby repeatedly isolated from context, which may make sense in the semi-solipsism of hyperromantic art but in Rossini -- which is all about finding the most hilarious and free absurdity exactly within strict confines -- is just deflating.

*     *     *

Thoughts on the actual performance tomorrow.


  1. A quesstion--do the doors plus the passerelle act as acoustic enhancements? If so, they are more than stylistic caprices.

  2. Being out front helped somewhat, but no more than standing in the sweet spot usually does. Steve Smith wrote he thought the walkway muffled the orchestra, but I didn't notice a difference. Actually, the double-sloped Butterfly set was even more singer-friendly, and looked better to boot.

    Sorry for the slow response.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.