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Larmore Brightens 'Barbiere'

February 06, 1996|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — The city that loves a star is agog with anticipation. On Thursday, Cecilia Bartoli, latest darling of the operatic universe, will finally make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

There are certain ironies here. Bartoli is best-known and best-loved as a coloratura mezzo-soprano par excellence, and thus as a specialist in the florid, low-lying heroines of Rossini. Yet, for her introductory vehicle here, she has chosen the secondary chirping-soubrette duties of Despina in Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte." Meanwhile, Jennifer Larmore, Bartoli's most imposing rival in the bel-canto sweepstakes, is singing Rosina in Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia."

Diva partisans are lining up to take sides. Obviously, this is serious business.

Larmore, who enjoyed a considerable success with the Music Center Opera last month portraying Isabella--Rossini's itinerant "Italiana" in make-believe Algiers--isn't exactly a standard fixture at Lincoln Center. She first appeared here last season in the same shopworn "Barbiere" production, which dates back to 1982. Her engagement this season consisted of two performances at the end of the run, in which she took over pert Sevillian service from Ruth Ann Swenson.

As Rosina Saturday night, Larmore performed with the same saucy flair, the same virtuosity and the same extrovert charm that had distinguished her Isabella. Her costumes were different, of course; her characterization was not.

One had the feeling that the pretty singer had been left pretty much to her own pretty devices. Under the circumstances, one had to settle for hand-me-down solutions to familiar problems. Although Larmore may smile, pout and flutter her lashes without suggesting histrionic inspiration, she does smile, pout and flutter with undeniable savoir-faire. One has to be grateful for professional favors.

She went through her ornate vocal paces on this occasion with wonted ease and speedy elegance, with plenty of agility and gratifying accuracy. Her dusky mezzo-soprano sounded a bit small in this 4,000-seat cavern, but not too small. Occasionally, her tone thinned out and lost focus in descending passages, but she always mustered plenty of luster at the top. She served notice of major artistry in "Una voce poco fa," and went on to win all hearts in the lesson scene.

The Met surrounded her with an ensemble of pleasant lightweights. Raul Gimenez brought much finesse and little voice to the blandishments of a Count Almaviva who could actually play his own guitar but, like most tenors, omitted the rondo finale. Mark Oswald--very youthful and very talented--introduced a self-effacing Figaro, which must be something of an oxymoron.

In a house where the funny-basso duties used to be shared by such giants as Ezio Pinza and Salvatore Baccaloni, not to mention Cesare Siepi and Fernando Corena, buffo standards seem to be sinking audibly as well as visually. John Del Carlo offered a solid, hulking Bartolo who defined his tricks in terms of cliche. Simone Alaimo complemented him as a mini-Basilio afflicted with chronic pitch problems.

The comprimario contingent included Jane Shaulis as an amiable Berta, Christopher Schaldenbrand as an uncommonly mellifluous Fiorello and Charles Anthony as a sweetly seedy old Sergeant--the only survivor of the cast of '82.

Adam Fischer, Hungarian despite the German name, conducted crisply, with welcome poise and propulsion. He didn't allow his singers much flexibility, however, when it came to expanding a phrase or exulting in a climax.

John Cox's old-fashioned production, now cranked out by Paul Mills, does not deal in revelations. Nor, thank goodness, does it stretch for extraneous jokes. It doesn't even stoop to illustrate the overture with pantomime. Under the tasteful circumstances, one wanted to overlook the utterly superfluous white nag dragged on to literally trample the "Piano, pianissimo" chorus.

Robin Wagner's fancy revolving set still looks picturesque. In its proudly conservative way, it makes a quaint virtue of let's-pretend realism.

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