To start with, Barbiere boasts a dream cast. In the role of Almaviva, Juan Diego Flórez confirms his status as a superstar Rossini tenor; he's equally brilliant in the coloratura roulades and the more lyrical, long-lined passages of the score. His matinee idol looks make him all the more perfect for the role, and Flórez is hilarious when, in order to gain access to his beloved Rosina, the Count appears in the guise of a soused soldier (in Act I) and a fawning music teacher (in Act II).
Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine any other trio of leading players with as much to offer in terms of sex appeal, comic acting, and vocal brilliance than this one. Diana Damrau is quite the bombshell as Rosina, reclining languidly on a chaise before and after her brilliant performance of the showcase aria "Una voce poco fa." And Peter Mattei exudes virility as Figaro, the barber and general factotum; on opening night, he had the audience in the palm of his hand almost as soon as he began his famous aria.
The featured roles have been cast with equal felicity. John Del Carlo is so funny as Bartolo that he might well have a second career ahead of him as a comic actor in films, television, and theater. Wendy White is amusing but not fussy as the maid Berta. And though the veteran Samuel Ramey sounds a bit wooly as Don Basilio, he offers a typically sharp characterization.
Sher's fiendishly clever staging begins when the curtain rises halfway through the overture and Dr. Bartolo's ancient servant Ambrogio removes a sheet covering the inert figure of his master, sleeping in a chair and looking for all the world like a long-unused piece of furniture. (The non-singing role of the servant, played by Rob Besserer, is the source of much merriment in this production.) Figaro arrives on a barber's wagon pulled by attendants, mostly female; there is a donkey on hand, but he follows behind. During Figaro's aria and Rosina's "Una voce poco fa," Sher deploys extras or chorus people to comic effect without distracting from the magnificent singing of the soloists.
Set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind -- the team that worked with Sher on both The Light in the Piazza and Awake and Sing! -- create a lovely setting for this comic love story, a Seville that's sunny and colorful without seeming overly cartoonish. Speaking of cartoons: The classic Bugs Bunny vehicle The Rabbit of Seville made unforgettable use of the Barbiere overture, but it's an even more sublime experience to hear that piece and the rest of this immortal score played live by the Met orchestra, conducted with great verve by Maurizio Bernini.
And now for some news that's not completely good. The production makes use of a "passerelle," a sort of runway that encloses the orchestra. At several points during the proceedings, including the finales of both acts, the soloists walk onto the runway and sing. This brings them closer to the audience than ever before in Met history; unfortunately, because of the sightlines, the entire runway is not visible to some audience members unless they lean forward. Even then, they may not be able to catch all of the action because their vision will likely be blocked by the heads of those seated in front of them, who are also leaning forward to try to see what's going on.
It's admirable that the Met's new general manager, Peter Gelb, and the artists he has brought to the company are doing everything possible to invigorate opera. The vast majority of their initiatives in this regard are truly brilliant. Still, certain limitations cannot be ignored, including the design of the auditorium itself. A visit to the Barber is recommended, but be aware that you may often find yourself on the edge of your seat -- and not only during the most exciting and suspenseful portions of the piece.