There’s nothing like a trip to The Barber to refresh you. This season, the Metropolitan Opera revives Bartlett Sher’s 2006 production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece, The Barber of Seville. Isabel Leonard, who appeared in an abridged, English language version of the same production in 2012-13, returns as Rosina, and is supported by a well-rounded ensemble that includes Christopher Maltman, Lawrence Brownlee, and Maurizio Muraro.

Maurizio Muraro (Dr Bartolo) and Isabel Leonard (Rosina) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Maurizio Muraro (Dr Bartolo) and Isabel Leonard (Rosina)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

While Rossini’s operas are loaded with camp, some stage directors play up the comedy and forget the raison d'être of bel canto operas – beautiful singing. Bartlerr Sher’s production has just the right amount of comedy to keep audiences laughing without degenerating into too much silliness and slapstick. Any production of Barber contains a few predictable elements: the singers will always park and bark at the edge of the stage during the Act I finale, and someone is bound to dart across the stage with a broken umbrella in the Act II storm. But, Sher includes a few surprises sure to make anyone smile.

Set in Seville just before the French Revolution, Michael Yeargan’s set designs do less to put us in that time and place than they do to suggest a simulacrum of the same. Architectural structures were, of course, new at one time. So, why is it that designers feel the need to “antique” their sets? The main elements of the production are a series of “distressed” looking doors and “faux-stucco” backdrops. But the set looked best at the ends of each act, when the faux-stucco background was raised to reveal a solid white backdrop. During these moments, the characters glowed. During the rest of the production, the drab, pseudo-Mediterranean sets made the cast appear as if they were all waiting for a table at the Olive Garden.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a delightful Rosina. Since so many great singers have tackled this role, singers are often under pressure to add something new in their interpretations. While Leonard was not afforded many opportunities to leave her own mark on the music with ornaments and cadenzas, she played a spirited Rosina. Some singers play Rosina a bit coy at the beginning of Act I, even though the character remarks, “sarò una vipera” (“I’ll be a viper”) if I am crossed. With Leonard, we know that Rosina’s fresh face certainly has fangs!

Isabel Leonard (Rosina), Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva) and Christopher Maltman (Figaro) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Isabel Leonard (Rosina), Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva) and Christopher Maltman (Figaro)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Often, companies pick a Figaro who can commit to over-the-top stage direction, but may leave something to be desired vocally. Christopher Maltman sang with a reverberant yet lithe baritone, never sacrificing vocal beauty for buffoonery. In fact, during his cavatina, the famous “Largo al factotum”, I was surprised that he was able to keep the focus so decidedly on himself, despite the busy blocking in this scene – Maltman must style wigs, pull teeth, and do a hundred other things. What’s more, Maltman had wonderful chemistry with Leonard, particularly during their duet, “Dunque io son...tu non m'inganni?”

Bass Maurizio Muraro, as Dr Bartolo, was resonant and round in “Un dottor della mia sorte”. In “Quando mi sei vicina,” a short cavatina purposely composed in a more antique style for comic effect, Muraro sang with a robust bass – even notes usually sang in falsetto by other singers.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Count Almaviva, was touching at the end of his canzone, “Se il mio nome saper voi bramate”. Though Brownlee’s coloratura is secure, his instrument was less powerful than some of his colleagues on stage. Hearing him was easiest when he was blocked on a platform erected to extend the playing space in front of the orchestra pit.

Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Rounding out the ensemble, soprano Claudia Waite was a wonderful Berta. Her a due with Leonard in the Act I Finale was a joy – you could tell the two had a lot of fun together in the rehearsal room.

Young conductor Michele Mariotti led ably from the pit. Though during the slow introductions to a few arias, he did not follow his singers quite as closely as he could. For example, in Rosina’s cavatina, “Una voce poco fa”, the pizzicato chords that accompany the vocal entrance were not perfectly placed. Although there was not much slipping and sliding throughout the performance, there could be just a bit more co-ordination between the pit and the stage. If a singer wants to bend the tempo, that is her prerogative. After all, bel canto is all about the singing.