It sounded like a terrific idea, when the Met announced that it would promote its new Barber of Seville production last night (November 8) on Letterman. Since I’ve been a big fan of their new promotions, I made sure I watched the show. But the opera didn’t come off very well, and the Met may have made a mistake.
The first problem, which of course wasn’t the Met’s fault, was that the show last night was especially goofy. Letterman’s first guest was Dustin Hoffman, who seemed to be playing the “I’m such a big star that it doesn’t matter what I do or say” game. And Letterman joined right in. Hoffman started out talking about a recipe he’d learned from a Sicilian prostitute. Later he told a story (allegedly true) about two opera singers (both fat, both women) who were making love in a bathtub and got stuck. When it came time to show a clip from the movie Hoffman was on the show to promote (Stranger Than Fiction), Letterman asked what scene from the movie was on the clip, and Hoffman, in a bored voice, said, “I don’t know.”
Next came a celebrity chef, who tried to prepare linguine alla carbonara while Letterman asked (in exactly these words) if he’d learned the recipe from a whore. Then he seemed to want to distract the guy from his cooking. Finally Paul Shaffer walked over, took a bottle of wine the chef had opened to cook with, and started chugging it.
By the time the Met came onstage — to speed through the end of the Barber‘s first act finale in last few minutes of the show — it was hard to take anything seriously. Letterman did introduce the opera with the slightly overdone respect he often shows for classical music (“This is as good as it gets, folks,” or words to that effect. “You’re not going to hear this on a street corner somewhere.”) But he didn’t talk to anyone from the company, apart from a rushed thank-you after the performance — and so the performance, coming at the end of a really crazy night, seemed like a half-forgotten throwaway.
But then there were problems that really were the Met’s fault. They brought a lot of people, to perform live — star soloists, their chorus, a conductor, and 22 members of their orchestra, who played a skilful reduction of Rossini’s score. I’m sure this looked impressive to the studio audience, but on TV, it didn’t look like a live performance at all. It was shot with so little sense of place that what we saw could just as well have been a film.
And why choose the end of the first-act finale? Nothing happens. Here we had a production that the company is promoting — in ads in the New York Times and Playbill (and surely elsewhere) — as music theater. But what we saw was not just static, but silly, people dressed for no apparent reason in military uniforms, standing still and singing. (If you know the opera, you know the reason for the uniforms, but most of the TV audience wouldn’t know it.) The performers looked like tin soldiers doing a really boring half-time show.
And all the stars were wasted. Caught in the middle of the screen, once or twice, was none less than Juan Diego Florez, who would have knocked the audience dead both vocally and visually if he’d had any chance to sing a solo. And then sure, the others in the cast might have been miffed that they didn’t get their own chance to star, but isn’t the point of the promotion to make people want to see the opera? Maybe using Florez alone wouldn’t be the answer (though, quite honestly, it’s what I would have wanted to do), but surely the lead singers would make a far better effect singing solo.
And there’s more. The performance wasn’t very good. The orchestra played thrillingly, as could be plainly heard in the few bars they had alone at the very end. But the singers — doing rapidfire patter — got out of sync, and for one bad moment the whole thing seemed to be heading for a train wreck. (If you want to know what it was like, listen to the old Decca recording of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, the one with Teresa Berganza in the title role, where the singers aren’t quite together in the pattern parts of the first act finale. Then multiply that by 20.) Maybe picking one of the trickiest spots in the score, and expecting it to go like clockwork with no warmup wasn’t such a great idea.
Finally, the text was translated in subtitles, and this, I fear, made the opera seem very tired. The text has everybody — in what’s meant to be a state of great confusion — singing about the noises banging in their heads. This wasn’t original even in Rossini’s time; it’s what everybody sings also in the L’italiana first act finale, though there at least the words are crazy enough to be worth a giggle. In Barber they’re just trite, and repetitious.
This didn’t matter much in Rossini’s time, because nobody would focus on the words. To find out what the opera was about, people in the audience would buy little booklets with the text, and quickly skim them. Then, while the opera was performed, they’d talk. So when the first act finale came along, they’d know in a general way what everyone was singing, but wouldn’t — and couldn’t; they were talking — focus line by line on every word. Which, unfortunately, was what the TV audience was forced to do, with results that, I fear, were hardly very gripping.
And here we come to one big problem, if you’re an opera house that mostly does old operas, and wants to find a new audience, and — especially — tries to find that new audience by announcing that these old operas are really music theater. By doing that, the company sets up expectations that the works can be compared to the theater we have today. And in the case of this Barber first act finale — with far too close a focus on uninteresting words — those expectations may not have been met. Similarly, someone I know was coming out of a Tosca performance at the Met, and encountered some people who looked like they were in their 20s. “I could see that coming,” one of them said, talking about the climax of the final act, where the bullets used in the supposedly fake execution turn out to be real. My friend reports that this person didn’t sound pleased. In Aspen two or three summers ago, there was a concert performance of Strauss’s Intermezzo in the music tent. Someone on the staff, in his 30s, thought that — for what’s essentially a sitcom — the opera moved with leaden feet, so much so that no amount of masterful music could save it.
These are honest reactions, not surprising when old and sometimes creaky melodramas are trotted out in our modern world. How can an opera company perform these pieces (which, by the way, I myself mostly love), and still attract a modern audience? That’s a question that I don’t think the Met answered very well on Letterman. (At least they might have tried what was done with great success in the Baz Luhrman production of La bohème on Broadway, and made the translation in the titles lively rather than accurate.)