Barber Gets a Makeover

By
December 17, 2012

Razor-sharp and just two hours long, the Met’s English-language holiday presentation of The Barber of Seville is a rollicking comedy the whole family can enjoy. J. D. McClatchy, the man who did the adaptation- translation, explains the process of transforming Rossini’s Italian classic into a special holiday treat.

**

This year marks the first time The Barber of Seville has been performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, the Rossini favorite has been a part of the Met’s repertoire since the opera house opened in 1883, but it has always been performed in its original Italian. Well, that’s not quite true. Within ten years of the opera’s premiere here, the great diva Adelina Patti was interpolating renditions of “Home, Sweet Home” and “The Last Rose of Summer” into her Act II lesson scene. (When the opera ended, she would re-appear and offer “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” as an encore.) But this season is the first time the opera itself has been given in English.

Bartlett Sher’s riotous new production premiered in 2006, and two years later the idea was born to transform it into a holiday presentation. With Rossini’s score so instantly recognizable, and Sher’s production so colorful and genuinely funny, it seemed like a logical progression from the company’s previous holiday offerings, The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel.

The Met has certainly presented other operas in English versions over the years—from Mozart to Johann Strauss—but the practice of using a country’s native language for performances is still far more common in European houses. And in any case, the advent of supertitles deflated the momentum toward operas in translation.

But these performances of Barber have been specifically designed for families. Many, especially younger audience members, will be attending their first opera. Unused to reading supertitles and unable to understand Italian, they will, we hope, be brought closer to the intrigues and upsets, the bluster and romance of Rossini’s sublime comedy. Comic operas work better in translation. In tragic operas, the music carries the drama and creates its emotional force. Comedy is more dependent on wordplay and sight gags, on surprise arrivals and hilarious exits. Listening to things as they happen allows the audience to be a part of the fun.

In the opera world, ideas take time to gestate—productions are planned and contracts are signed years in advance. And this one was no different. It wasn’t until a year after Peter Gelb first had the idea that the Met asked if I would both adapt and translate the opera for a family audience at holiday time. Another year passed before a team was assembled and work actually began.

Two people from the Met were essential in this project—the house’s dramaturg, Paul Cremo, with his keen dramatic instincts and intelligent ear, and Dennis Giauque, a veteran member of the Met’s music staff, who guided the musical setting of the new English text every note of the way. The three of us worked for another year to prepare a score to show the singers.

We had been asked to shorten the opera to 90 minutes—about the length of just Act I in the opera’s original version. But there is a difference between a “cut” opera, where whole sections are simply lopped off, and a “condensed” version, where the twists and turns of the plot and the emotional nuances of the characters are kept but poured into smaller containers. We did have to sacrifice some familiar moments—from pages of the overture to all of Don Basilio’s celebrated aria “La calunnia.” We carefully studied the videotapes of Sher’s production to make sure that, with cuts, there was still enough time to move scenery around, enough time for characters to get on and off stage.

The process of making this English Barber involved countless second thoughts and further revisions. The director signed off on it a year ago, then the singers checked to make sure the new words suited their voices. More revisions. Considering that in 1816 it took Cesare Sterbini just 12 days to write the libretto and Rossini another 13 days to set it, our version was certainly slow in coming. But that was because we wanted to be sure to capture all the brilliance of the original in language that Met audiences will understand, laugh with, and cherish.