What: “The Barber of Seville”
Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Oct. 27
By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
The Lyric Opera of Chicago 2019–20 season is underway after Saturday’s jubilant opening night. The Civic Opera House was packed with opera lovers in sparkling duds, including a wealth of evening gowns, a sprinkling of tiaras, as well as the occasional top hat and even a mink coat or two.
Many stopped on the red carpet to have their picture taken by Lyric staff, while those who preferred selfies had backdrops both inside and outside the house in order to memorialize the occasion.
Champagne and smiles were present in abundance and when curtain time arrived, in a highly unusual state of affairs, Lyric had to begin a minute or two late as the main floor still had dozens of folks inside the theater but not yet in their seats. But it was worth the wait. The production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” (“Il barbiere di Siviglia”) was a musical and comedic success from start to finish.
The story is one of the simplest ones in opera. Old Dr. Bartolo wants to marry his ward Rosina in order to get his hands on her dowry. But Rosina is fascinated with a poor young student she knows as Lindoro, but who is really Count Almaviva in disguise. He serenades her as she stands love-struck on her balcony. Bartolo enlists the help of Don Basilio, a clever schemer who also serves as Rosina’s music instructor. He urges the doctor to spread rumors about his rival.
Almaviva turns to Figaro, Seville’s jack-of-all-trades, a man who has an uncanny knack (for the right price) of getting things done. Figaro suggests that Almaviva pose as a military officer with an order to be billeted in Bartolo’s house, thus giving him direct access to woo Rosina.
But youth and love win the day. Almaviva and Rosina marry, Figaro is paid handsomely for his assistance, Don Basilio takes a bribe to serve as a marriage witness, and Bartolo reluctantly accepts the consolation prize of Rosina’s dowry.
The opera is based on the 1775 French comedy “Le Barbier de Séville” by Beaumarchais, with Cesare Sterbini penning the libretto for Rossini. It premiered in Rome in 1816.
Lyric has assembled a marvelous cast, leading with Polish bass-baritone Adam Plachetka in the title role. His antics are genuinely amusing and always amiable, and he incorporates a decidedly lower-class mentality to the character, helping to make clear the class differences present in the opera. He whips off Figaro’s entrance aria (“Largo al factotum”), with the famous calls of “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro,” with both ease and a goofy charm. He sings with confidence and knows when to be serious with the music and when to be gloriously silly.
American Lawrence Brownlee is a dream as Almaviva. His sweet ringing tenor is romantic and powerful in turns. This master of bel canto dispatches the complex coloratura with precision and flair, with poised singing throughout the evening. He has the comedic goods as well, at times making an asset of the fact that he is shorter than average. He puts forth a Count whose decency urges him to win Rosina’s love for him as a man, not as a rich and titled noble.
Marianne Crebassa, the French mezzo-soprano last seen as Dorabella in Lyric’s “Cosi fan Tutte” two years ago, is a splendid Rosina. She offers a young woman with girlish romantic idealism but one with a strong will, as well. Her quicksilver descent into anger, when her character believes Almaviva has deceived her, is convincing, as is her ability to rapidly forgive him when she learns the truth. Mezzos often are written as women of voluptuous sexuality (Carmen) or mature passion (Azucena), but Crebassa sings with youthful clarity and luscious tone.
Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a riot as Dr. Bartolo, replete with a wig that looks like bunny ears. His comedy is perfect, his singing precise, and his characterization sheer joy. His virtuosic “A un dottor della mia sorte” (“To a doctor of my class”) was a speed train of excitement and hilarity.
Don Basilio is portrayed with great humor by the Polish bass Krzysztof Baczyk. He uses his tall and lanky frame for laughs, but his full, resonant bottom notes are the most enthralling element of his performance. His slander aria, “La calunnia è un venticello” (“Calumny is a little breeze”) is a hoot, and he offers a marvelous flourish with his cape-like coat.
Soprano Mathilda Edge, an Illinois native, makes a splendid Lyric Opera debut as Berta. The first-year member of Lyric’s Ryan Center sings with maturity and proves she is one to watch.
The men of the Lyric Opera Chorus (prepared by chorus master Michael Black) are in fine fettle, doing rousing work as soldiers and street musicians.
Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director, conducts. The overture is light and bright, and Davis maintains this mood throughout. While there might have been a bit more wit from the pit, the overall effect is excellent.
This production was first seen at Lyric in the 2013–14 season and is one that is beautiful and is always in aid of the story. Set designer Scott Pask has created generous rounded arches and a romantic balcony as the main points. The big scene change outside the intermission is itself a part of the entertainment as the pieces of the set revolve while quietly dressed extras move in attractive choreography to put elements in their new places. Even the potted plants are marvelous, first blowing in stormy winds and then carried off to accentuate the blustery weather.
Tara Faircloth is the revival director, improving on the original direction of Rob Ashford. The action moves along with natural pacing with lots of laughs in all the right places. The original premiere of the opera is reported to have featured several on-stage accidents and opening night at Lyric seems to have replicated that in small fashion with an unsteady staircase.
For great music, great storytelling, and great fun, don’t miss this “Barber of Seville.”