Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Does anybody remember laughter?

I've said it before but there's new evidence that we're in the middle of a rather good season for comedy. The new production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Seviglia at the Met is a heap of giddy fun, though this has little to do with director Bartlett Sher: The man should count his blessings for scoring a dream cast that's like a bunch of homing pigeons with an unerring sense of their comedic (and vocal) home. The three leads, in particular—Peter Mattei (Figaro), Juan Diego Flor├ęz (Count Almaviva) and Diana Damrau (Rosina)—could not have been better suited to their roles; in fact, they could have been planted on a traffic island in the middle of Broadway at rush hour and they'd still would have killed.

Sher's own contributions to the comedy unfurling on stage were modest: extending the stage to a runaway going around and in front of the orchestra pit; the hapless silent servant; the giant anvil that falls down and squashes a cart at the end of Act I—a bit of literal illustration of the lyrics that was so OTT that it worked for me. Funny biz, but really, how do you improve on genius cartoon director Tex Avery when it comes to dropping anvils? As for the rest, Sher ably moved the cast about the stage and wisely stayed out of its way: Barbiere is naturally packed with action and it'd take someone with actual ideas—like Chuck Jones, the director of Rabbit of Seville—to make it even zippier. (For a director who actually makes a funny show funnier, try to catch Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado, set in the 1920s, at City Opera.)

Even the business with the several free-standing, movable doors dot the set seemed to function in spite of Sher's intentions. When I first saw them, I thought he was making a visual reference to the comedy of slammed doors of Feydeau, but reading his notes in the program at intermission, I discovered he intended them to suggest a sense of claustrophobia. Right, the dark, edgy stuff that must be injected in comedies lest the audience think it's paying $275 for fluff! At least he completely failed in that respect.

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