Bartlett Sher at an event organized by the International Peace Institute (photograph provided by the International Peace Institute, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)
To the best of my knowledge, my “first contact” with stage director Bartlett Sher was the Public Television broadcast of his 2006 staging of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Metropolitan (Met) Opera. To be fair, by now I have lost count of the number of stagings of this opera I have experienced, almost all of them the in a performance setting rather than from a broadcast; and I am somewhat surprised to admit that I have yet to encounter one that left me totally disappointed. This provides a somewhat challenging context for my having just viewed a recording of the PBS broadcast of Sher’s most recent project at the Met, Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love), recorded during a performance this past February 10.
There is an old joke in the theater profession that “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” This tends to be just as true of opera as it is of drama, and I realize how much satisfaction can be drawn from my having experienced successful interpretations of comic scenarios in operas from the eighteenth century to the present. However, when we consider settings of Italian librettos, it is hard to avoid the sense that, as with other genres of music, the comic operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set a very high bar for subsequent efforts to confront.
Where Rossini is concerned, it is hard to ignore that bar when both composers undertook to make operas based on the plays of the same French author, Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro, with its Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, continues to establish a height to which even contemporary opera efforts aspire. The text is an intricate web of amorous intrigues within barely conceived political overtones, whose intricacy is matched, if not surpassed, by Mozart’s stunningly imaginative command of polyphony, meaning that the “web of the plot” is consistently reinforced by the “web of the music.”
The first performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville took place about 30 years after the premiere of K. 492. However, while K. 492 enjoyed considerable and sustained attention in Vienna, even during the composer’s lifetime, Rossini’s opening night was a disaster. Fortunately, the opera overcame the misfortunes of opening night and quickly rose in popularity. Nevertheless, there was a change in approach that could not go unnoticed.
Rossini’s librettist Cesare Sterbini was less interested in “webs of intrigues” and more interested in developing a cast of vivid personalities, each of which unfolded with the development of the overall plot. As a result the music tended to focus more on accompanied melody, rather than polyphony; and development was more a matter of gradually building up the level of dynamics, instead of superimposing the voices of conflicting characters, each with its own thematic signatures. Fortunately, Rossini was more than simply capable of realizing Sterbini’s texts through music, which is one reason why so many of the tunes from Barber are so memorable and immediately recognizable.
From a point of view of craft, on the other hand, it was clear that, while Rossini may have admired and respected Mozart, Barber never managed to capture the elegant (but still accessible) complexity of K. 492. On the other hand the characters of Barber are so vividly defined that stage directors have been consistently inventive in coming up with new ways to present them to their respective contemporary audiences. However, when it comes to L’elisir, both music and text (by Felice Romani) have been reduced to the simplest of terms. Romani’s text presents stock characters in stock situations; and Donizetti provides “musical backup” for each of those situations. There is a familiarity about everything; and it is a familiarity that only barely endures through the entire duration of the opera, even in the hands of a truly inventive stage director.
This brings us to how Sher fits into the picture. His staging of Barber pulls a prodigious number of rabbits out of any number of hats, even coming up with a particularly clever way to break through the fourth wall. The rabbits just aren’t there in the new L’elisir. This may be because neither the music nor the text provides very much by way of a “breeding ground;” or it may be because Sher chose not to go against the stock infrastructure.
One factor may have been the attention directed toward South African soprano Pretty Yende, who was making her role debut as Adina. This would hardly have been the first time that a performer took priority over both the music and the underlying narrative. However, to be fair, when all the characters are based on familiar stock, attention turns to how the performers breathe life into those characters. In the better situations, that life emerges through the successful collaboration of performer and stage director; but sometimes the performer prevails with ideas of her/his own.
Another possibility is that, while there is enough to mine from Barber that will sustain watching a video document more than once, an opera like L’elisir thrives best in the “immediate present.” (To lay my own cards on the table, this is the first time I have seen this opera on video, rather than in performance.) Nevertheless, having enjoyed Sher’s approach to Rossini so much with video as my only opportunity for experience, I have to confess that my hopes for L’elisir were high; and, perhaps, I have just succumbed to an unrealistic expectation.