Lyric Opera opens season with a bright and delightful “Barber of Seville”

Sun Sep 29, 2019 at 4:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Marianne Crebassa (Rosina) and Lawrence Brownlee (Count Almaviva) cavort in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which opened Lyric Opera’s season Saturday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There have not been many new productions created at Lyric Opera over the past decade that one would like to see more than once. Indeed, just getting through the first (and often last) performance of some of the company’s more bizarre stagings sometimes required all one’s powers of perseverance.

But Lyric Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, unveiled in 2014 is a real keeper. Revived Saturday night with an inspired cast of singers who proved equally gifted at comedy, this wholly delightful Barber gets the company’s season off on a leaping high note.

Once again, Scott Pask’s sets are traditional but nicely revitalize a cornerstone work with clean lines and Castilian elegance. His gently curved unit set encompasses the outside facade and plaza of Bartolo’s Seville abode, rotated by silhouetted figures to reveal the house’s fern-bedecked interior. Howard Harrison’s artful lighting charts the 24-hour span just as gracefully, from Spanish-orange morning sunshine to afternoon and the climactic late-night thunderstorm. 

The one question mark about this Il barbiere di Siviglia related to the single weak link in the show’s 2014 debut: Rob Ashford’s missing-in-action stage direction. That Ashford was listed as director again this year in the season announcement was mind-boggling—not only due to his amateurish Barber debut, but, especially, because he was also responsible for the company’s infamous 2017 Carmen, generally regarded as the worst staging of Bizet’s opera in Lyric history.

Fortunately, someone had a better idea and Tara Faircloth was brought in as director for this season’s revival. Not everything worked opening night—especially the walking-in-circles business for the closing ensemble of Act I, which was lazy and visually boring. But for the most part Faircloth’s direction made a vast improvement over the premiere and was professional, resourceful and often clever, seemingly allowing the trio of leads to work out much of their own bits of business, which paid off superbly.

Adam Plachetka starred in the title role of Figaro, the wily barber who hatches a series of plots to hook up his friend Count Almaviva with his beloved Rosina, who is sequestered in her guardian’s household as a virtual prisoner.

Plachetka’s burly baritone is not especially well-suited for the role—un-Italianate, tending to spread, and lacking in focus and elegance. Still, he managed to get his big voice around the corners of most of the music with a nimble, admirably dispatched “Largo al factotum” (albeit accompanied by a bit too much self-conscious swagger). Plachetka brought consistent comic energy and a hearty personality to Figaro, which in this pivotal role is nearly as important as the singing.

Marianne Crebassa and Adam Plachetka as Figaro in The Barber of Seville. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Marianne Crebassa proved an ideally vixenish Rosina. Rarely will one find a singer so equally assured in the role’s bel canto vocalism as in the comedy. In her celebrated entrance aria, “Una voce poco fa,”  the willowy French mezzo blended both elements superbly, throwing off Rossini’s coloratura and roulades with polished dusky tone and easy agility while wittily conveying the young girl’s willful qualities. Crebassa gave some indication of her comedy bona fides in Lyric’s memorable 2018 Così fan tutte, but with this Rosina she emerges as a natural stage comedienne. In her rapid-fire reactions to her costars’ antics and her graceful physicality—using her long, slender form to fine comic effect—Crebassa morphs into a kind of operatic Lucille Ball. 

Last year Lawrence Brownlee appeared at Lyric in Bellini’s I puritani in the role of Arturo, the rather cardboard hero to the intermittently insane heroine. It was therefore something of a revelation to experience the high-voiced tenor in the role of Count Almaviva Saturday night and discover what an accomplished comedian he could be in Rossini farce. In the Count’s masquerades to gain entrance to Bartolo’s house—as inebriated soldier and foppish music teacher—Brownlee was genuinely funny, even making comic hay out of his shortish stature.

Vocally Brownlee brought the same vibrant tenor tone, flexibility and assured bel canto style as on previous occasions. He led off  the evening with an ardent rendering of “Ecco, ridente,” though one would have liked a bit more tenderness and inward expression in “Se il mio nome,” his serenade to Rosina.

While Brownlee handled the vocal challenges fluently, top notes were few, cadenzas cautious and the role’s brilliance felt somewhat muted opening night. I’m not sure what the point is of restoring Almaviva’s protracted final aria “Cessa di piu resistere”—which does delay the end of the opera unduly—without delivering all of its high-flying fireworks.

It was wonderful to have Alessandro Corbelli reprise his role as Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s “guardian” with his own romantic designs on her. While giving vent to all the character’s angry frustration and bluster, Corbelli also gave him a sense of humanity that almost made one feel sorry for him when the old reprobate gets his comeuppance. The veteran singer’s baritone has lost some of its ballast, but Corbelli—the only native Italian in the cast—can still deliver a seminar in Rossini buffo style. Indeed, he provided the most virtuosic sparks of the evening by throwing off the patter finale of “A un dottor” at a dizzying breakneck speed.

Krzysztof Bączyk made a mostly admirable Lyric bow as Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher and Bartolo’s co-conspirator. The towering Pole proved adept at the comedy and it was refreshing to have a youthful true bass in the role for once, and not a pushed-down baritone. Bączyk possesses a deep, dark and firmly focused instrument, his bass nicely anchoring the ensembles at the low end. While Basilio’s ode to slander “La calunnia” was richly sung, Bączyk’s cavernous voice lacked something in agility, missing the requisite bravura for the aria’s payoff.

Mathilda Edge made an impressive company debut as Berta. The first-year Ryan Center soprano delivered the sneezy maid’s skeptical aria with youthful confidence and her bright, ringing tone soared over the closing ensemble of Act I. 

Christopher Kenney as Fiorello, Eric Ferring as the Sergeant and Jon Beal as Ambrogio filled their comprimario roles in sturdy fashion. The men of the Lyric Opera Chorus robustly tackled their ensemble assignment as soldiers.

The only obvious opening-night glitch was the interior staircase wavering precariously in Act I with Plachetka and Crebassa on it. One was relieved to hear loud, insistent hammering behind the curtain at intermission, clearly attempting to more securely fasten things in place.

Unusually, the most variable element of the evening was Andrew Davis’s conducting. Lyric’s music director does a wide range of opera repertoire very well but Rossini comedy isn’t among them. While his leadership was secure and attentive to the singers as usual, tempos were consistently on the slow side and, with string-heavy balances, there was an overall lack of verve and brilliance, in Act I especially.

While it would have been preferable to have Davis’s recently announced successor Enrique Mazzola—a proven bel canto stylist—handling these Rossini performances, Chicago audiences will be able to see what the Italian music director designate can do with Verdi when Luisa Miller opens in two weeks.

The Barber of Seville runs through October 27.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Lyric Opera opens season with a bright and delightful “Barber of Seville””

  1. Posted Oct 06, 2019 at 12:03 pm by jizungu

    Brownlee was on fire in “Cessa di piu resistere” last night (Saturday Oct. 5), an absolute thrill. Fully agree with you re: “Sio il mio nome,” but could the fault have lain with Davis, who rushed Brownlee thru it, and the director, who chose to play the scene for laughs?

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