"If you're going to make something funny, you need to go to the obstacle," Sher explains of his point of entry into Rossini's comic masterpiece. "Who is the central force against whom everyone must fight? Bartolo is the old man in crisis, because he feels like he's losing his vitality. He's going to trap a woman and force her to marry him so that he can regenerate his sexual power. He is everybody's nemesis."
Bartolo, played by bass-baritone John Del Carlo, may be the other characters' bê_te noire, but the lecherous doctor is Sher's dramaturgical focal point. Choosing a secondary (albeit essential) character as the lynchpin for Rossini's opera may be an unconventional directorial choice, but it's only one of a number of routes that Sher, along with his creative team from Lincoln Center Theater's The Light in the Piazza, has taken to upend the audience's pre-conceived ideas about this familiar and beloved work.
Other new touches include designer Michael Yeargan's visual motif of multiple doors scattered across the stage (to convey claustrophobia and imprisonment); a heightened sexualization of the characters, seen especially in Catherine Zuber's Gallianoesque costumes for Figaro, played by Peter Mattei; and oranges all over the place (they're a signature of Seville). Perhaps the most surprising element is the construction of a passerelle, a walkway, which extends over the orchestra pit and around conductor Maurizio Benini, enabling the singers to get closer to the audience than ever before in Met history.
"It pulls the whole experience forward," Sher says of the passerelle. "And it wasn't done because I wanted to mess around with the architecture. We have these really long, miraculous finales, and it does this beautiful thing where it pulls the piece down into the audience. These finales keep unfolding and unfolding and unfolding, deepening and deepening the panic. The performers need to get away from the panic, and the only place to go is downstage." Sher compares this alteration of the Met's physical space to "a site-specific art installation," and points out, "If you love Juan Diego Fl‹rez, he will be about a foot-and-a-half away from you, singing full blast."
It's all very, well, theatrical. And that's the point, as the Met strives to keep pace with the stagecraft innovations of the theater world as a whole. "It's a fascinating time at the Met now," Sher says. "You have one of the best production staffs in the world, and you have a lot of fresh new artists coming in." He can count himself among that crew. The artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theater, Sher is the man behind the recent Tony Award-winning productions of Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza and Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! His direction of these pieces attracted the attention of Frank Rich, the former chief theater critic (and current Op-Ed columnist) for The New York Times, who mentioned to Met General Manager Peter Gelb that he should consider the man for future productions.
It wasn't long before Sher got the call with Gelb's offer to direct Barbiere. His reaction? "The same reaction that everybody has to Barber — they think they've just been asked to do Mozart!" he jokes. "In fact, Beaumarchais is where I enter it," he continues, referring to the playwright behind the source material for Rossini's and Mozart's much-loved works. "I know the Barber plays extremely well, and it's always been in the back of my mind as something to work on as a play. So I was really interested and excited by it."
A reconfiguration of the stage, sexy costumes, and young star singers like Fl‹rez, Mattei and Diana Damrau — all this may hint at a progressive production, but Sher is a director with a strong respect for theatrical tradition. ("Light in the Piazza is a musical with one foot in the 1950s and one foot in the 21st century," he explains.) With his new Barbiere, he was particularly inspired by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the revered opera director whose close collaboration with James Levine was well known. "I'm a person who believes in the ancestors," Sher says. "I was very impressed with Ponnelle and had a long conversation with Levine about our production and the fact that Ponnelle was a big influence on it. The Ponnelle/Claudio Abbado production from the '70s made me understand why this is such a brilliant piece."
Maestro Levine was helpful to Sher, not just for his insight into Ponnelle, but also for his informed take on the director's proposed spatial innovations. The passerelle, the careful placement of the doors — these elements work together to subvert audiences' psychological relationship to the Met's performance area. But there are practical matters to consider as well, and Levine's knowledge came in handy. "No human being alive knows that room better than he does," Sher says of the maestro. "He made a huge impact on the design. His worry was that the upstage area was too deep, that for an opera as light as this is, the passerelle would not be as satisfying with such a deep space. And he was right. His notes were very helpful in making my work better." He also confirmed that the new construction would not interfere with the Met's superior acoustics.
That's good news, because imaginative stage work like Sher's is important at the Met, particularly as the company aims to offer a wide range of production styles to best convey the essence of each opera it stages, whether historical, dramatic, contemporary, or, as in the case of Barbiere, comic. "Comedy is a complicated thing because it means a happy ending — it doesn't necessarily mean, yuck, yuck, yuck," Sher says. "For me, comedy is based on potential tragedy, horror, malady. It's the same thing that makes everything funny: panic, possible destruction, and pain. Barbiere is a masterpiece because of what Rossini has found in the voice that makes you giggle and full of glee as you listen and discover yourself inside this world. Comedy is like a hum, a sizzle, like a kind of sensual vibration that comes off of a piece to create these moments of total joy. That's what's so delightful about Barbiere. That's why it's a masterpiece."