Review: “The Barber of Seville”

Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: through Feb. 28
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of “The Barber of Seville” is suffused with gaiety, sparkle and laughs. Its sets and costumes effectively transport you to another time and place. The singing is entrancing.

But what makes this “Barber” very special are all the touches brought to it by first-time opera director Bob Ashford. His previous work, both directing and in choreography, has usually put him behind the scenes on Broadway or television programs like the Academy Awards. He brings glitz to opera, and in the best way. The entire stage is his canvas and he paints beautifully in every corner. Ashford even knows how to take a complicated scene change in the middle of Act I and turn it not into a mini-recess for those who need to cough, but instead an intricate dance of props and machinery. There’s circular movement of objects juxtaposed with supernumeraries moving in the other direction, managing to make a witty little point about how the machinations of the characters in the story often move in opposite directions and to counter purposes.

The end of Act I is an incredible achievement which combines detailed movement of six principals, several supernumeraries and a large male chorus all helping the story to unfold. It is slick, it is entertaining and it is marvelous.

It is a joy to have such an expressive approach coupled with some mighty fine singing. Illinois baritone Nathan Gunn as Figaro scampers this way and that as he helps the course of true love. His voice is full and dashing, and he stuffs his performance with just the right amount of silliness. He’s a joy to behold.

Equally splendid is soprano Isabel Leonard as Rosina. Her portrayal and her singing are both full of life.

Tenor Alek Shrader as Count Almaviva is often rather good, but his voice tends to be pale. By the end of the opera he’s lost his power and he even struggles to maintain his rhythm.

As Dr. Bartolo, Alessandro Corbelli displays pronounced comic gifts. This Italian baritone consistently nails the amusing patter passages.

Kyle Ketelsen as Don Basilio and Tracy Cantin as Berta were both excellent.

The young conductor Michele Mariotti makes the most of his Lyric Opera debut, leading the orchestra in a perky and bright performance. Chorus master Michael Black must surely have been proud of his singers’ flawless performance.

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The University of Chicago Presents hosted the Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein trio the last day of January at Mandel Hall and my only real complaint is that this very talented ensemble ought to have a more memorable, less cumbersome name!

Alon Goldstein (piano), Amit Peled (cello) and Alex Fiterstein (clarinet) gave a glorious performance of the Beethoven Piano Trio in B-flat Major. The allegro was pert and snappy, with the clarinet remarkably adept in the rapid passages and the piano feathery light. The adagio was both engaging and pretty. The conclusion, some wonderful variations, was rendered with perfect ensemble coordination. The sound was invigorating and the trio’s light touches seemed perfect. The building of intensity led to an exciting conclusion.

Pianist Goldstein took the stage alone for Liszt’s Paraphrase on Verdi’s “Aida” (Sacred Dance and Finale Duet). His playing was luminescent and direct. His easiness when rattling off rapid passages with clarity was impressive, as was his raw power.

The “Premiére Rhapsodie” by Debussy saw clarinetist Fiterstein move readily through some complex music, adeptly aided by Goldstein.

After the intermission, cellist Peled had the hot seat with Kopytman’s Kaddish for cello and piano. His introductory remarks helped the listener understand the piece and its interesting structure. The music evoked the anger, love and admiration of a son for his father, with Peled giving full expression to all these emotions.

The concert closed with all three musicians once again on stage for a perfectly fine reading of the Brahms Trio for piano, clarinet and cello in A minor. It was the least interesting music on the program, but the three men gave it lots of passion.