Caught Lyric’s new production of Barber of Seville starring the hunky Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, and Alek Shrader.
In a nutshell, I had fun! And a lot of laughs. I really liked the simplicity and elegance of the set design, and thought the director Rob Ashford put in a lot of comic touches without being too slapstick. M and I had a most
merry time. The cast was very strong too – solid performances all around, from the leads to the character roles.
Lyric’s new ‘Barber’ brings strong cast to old classic
OPERA REVIEW: ‘Barber of Seville’ at the Lyric Opera of Chicago ★★★★
Of all the great operatic comedies, “The Barber of Seville” has led a particularly charmed life at Lyric Opera, beginning with the company’s very first season. Now the bel canto favorite that at various times in the early years was populated here by such major artists as Tito Gobbi, Giulietta Simionato, Alfredo Kraus and Teresa Berganza is regaling Lyric audiences with a new and impressive generation of Rossini singers.
The delightful new production of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” that opened Saturday night at the Civic Opera House was replacing the Magritte-inspired, John Conklin-designed staging that had been in the local repertory for nearly 25 years. This time around, Lyric brought in Broadway director-choreographer Rob Ashford to put Seville’s most famous factotum and friends through their comedic paces.
“Barber” marks Ashford’s dual Lyric and operatic debuts. An outsider’s perspective may have been just the ticket to freshen an early-19th-century sitcom that so often is allowed to fall back on lazy shtick and tired gags. Indeed, the Tony Award-winning director’s dance and musical theater background serves him well when it comes to keeping the familiar plot contrivances moving and making the laughs flow naturally out of the score. His fluid action scheme is greatly enhanced by the bright, Spanish-style designs of Scott Pask (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Howard Harrison (lighting).
Lyric has given its “Carousel” director-to-be a marvelous ensemble of singing actors to work with, headed by the vocally and physically entrancing American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, in a memorable Lyric debut as the wily Rosina. Nathan Gunn as the titular factotum, Figaro; Alek Shrader as the ardent Count Almaviva; and old pro Alessandro Corbelli as Rosina’s guardian, the pompous Dr. Bartolo, all add greatly to the success of this show.
Putting it all together in the pit is the fast-rising Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, also a house debut, who captures the effervescence of Rossini’s music with idiomatic verve and assurance. He knows what makes Rossini’s inspired score tick and knows how to support singers without being too deferential. The orchestra for the most part comes through for him like the superior pit band it now is.
Leonard’s darkly lustrous mezzo-soprano is ideal for the plum role of Rosina. The American singer commands the wide range, the coloratura agility and the striking physical beauty, charm and stage presence to make an audience take the heroine to its heart. Some singers overdo the character’s calculation, but Leonard balanced sweet and saucy nicely. You really believed this Rosina when she explained, in her touchstone aria, “Una voce poco fa,” that while she appears to be gentle and obedient, she will turn into a viper if necessary to get her way.
Shrader, with his matinee-idol good looks, had the most challenging music to sing and he negotiated the long, florid vocal lines with disarming ease, agility and a sweet, open sound. He has rapidly become one of the best of today’s Rossini tenors. He was, in addition, very funny in the count’s disguises as a tipsy soldier and a smarmy music master. Given how much demanding music Shrader had to sing all evening, one could only marvel at how well he nailed the count’s long, difficult showpiece, “Cessa di piu resistere,” often omitted because it delays the happily-ever-after ending.
Gunn’s Figaro is a familiar presence in this theater, and his firm, focused singing was all of a piece with the athletic swagger he brought to the title role. The American baritone rattled off winningly the barber’s famous patter number, “Largo al factotum,” attended by an adoring bevy of Spanish senoritas. He and Shrader were a fine match for each other in physical grace and energy.
Master of the apoplectic take, Corbelli made something curiously endearing of Bartolo’s hapless attempts to foil Figaro’s plot to remove his ward Rosina from his clutches so that she might wed Almaviva. The distinguished Italian baritone delivered his rapid patter like the buffo veteran he is, rolling the words around his mouth like a fine Sangiovese.
As the music master Basilio, Kyle Ketelsen sported a solid bass-baritone, more youthful-sounding than the voices one usually hears in this role. He adhered to the custom of transposing the old pedant’s slander aria, “La calunnia,” down a tone, making the treacherous high note at the end easier to achieve.
Ryan Opera Center sophomore Tracy Cantin brought a shining soprano to the brief contributions of Berta, Bartolo’s housekeeper, including a ringing high C at the end of the first-act finale. Her fellow Lyric apprentices Will Liverman (as Fiorello) and John Irvin (Sergeant) carried out their supporting assignments just as admirably.
Matthew Piatt of Lyric’s music staff accompanied the recitatives stylishly at the harpsichord.
Pask’s handsome unit set paid modern homage to the Spanish colonial style with a semi-circular construction of gates, archways and steep staircase framed in wrought iron and revolving on a turntable so as to take one both outside and inside Bartolo’s spacious villa. Supernumeraries dressed as footmen moved potted plants and other props to effect scene changes. Zuber’s elegant costumes laced period style with contemporary whimsy. Harrison dressed the show in bright Iberian colors.
In sum, Lyric is giving us a thoroughly engaging new “Barber of Seville” that should serve the company honorably for years to come, provided the company can continue to stock its performances with singing and conducting of the high quality in evidence here.