The Barber of Seville
At the Lyric Opera
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – It will be helpful for audiences for Gioachino Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville” to bring a generous tolerance for silly and improbable stories to the theater. The Lyric Opera production makes it easy on attendees, providing them with a beautifully staged and superbly sung revival that papers over the vast assemblage of improbabilities in the narrative and even harnesses many of them to enrich the show’s comic presence.
The basic plot is the centuries old comic chestnut about a tyrannical old man who holds his beautiful ward or niece in social captivity, saving her for himself. After two or three acts, the female is freed from the grasp of the lustful and greedy old man and joins her true love in marriage, the elderly codger thwarted. This is the sort of inane plot that Moliere could toss off with one quill pen tied behind his back. “The Barber of Seville” is no Moliere masterpiece of comic writing, but with Rossini’s great score, who cares?
The original “Barber of Seville” was written by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais and first staged in 1775, with a significant political veneer. Rossini’s adaptation, minus any political overtones, was first presented in 1816. Rossini and his librettist Cesare Sterbini followed the basic outlines of the Beaumarchais original, with the distasteful Dr. Bartolo tyrannizing over his ward, the beautiful young Rosina. Enter Count Almaviva, who is passionately in love with Rosina and desperately seeks a way to pry her loose from Bartolo.
The answer to the count’s prayers is Figaro, the title character in the story, a kind of facilitator for hire who supplements his income as a barber by assisting clients with their romantic problems. Figaro is the only character in the story who acts with a semblance of realism, his very human cunning and smug egomania always on view. He introduces himself to the audience upon his first appearance, singing the famous “Largo al factotum,” a tongue twister of a number in which Figaro itemizes with great speed and satisfaction all his merits as a general benefactor to his community.
The storyline may be a mishmash of compromising letters and mistaken identities, but Figaro brings the tale to its happy ending, vanquishing Dr. Bartolo and uniting Count Almaviva and Rosina, to the surprise of nobody in the audience.
The opera’s libretto may have some merits and even a few shards of wit, but it’s the music that makes the show a classic. The evening begins with the popular overture, a fast paced and melodic composition that immediately establishes what will follow will be spirited and fun-filled. As soon as the curtain goes up we are immediately plunged into the Almaviva-Bartolo-Rosina triangle. Indeed, there are only five important characters in the opera, Figaro and a music teacher named Don Basilio filling out the roster of essentials.
These five characters soak up almost the entire score. There are no chorus numbers after the first few moments of the opera, but an abundance of terrific arias, duets, trios, and a quartet and quintet. The performers sing their arias on an otherwise empty stage, which demands plenty of singing and acting artistry.
Adam Plachetka is a commanding Figaro, built like a tight end and possessed of a powerful voice to embellish his charisma. Unfortunately, Figaro is off stage too often, especially in the first act. His wry, solid persona buttresses the inanities of the people he tries to help (Rosina and Almaviva) or defeat (Bartolo and in a way, Don Basilio, who is Bartolo’s henchman) and it would be fun to see more of him.
The other characters may be thin gruel as believable characters but as two-dimensional comic figures they do very nicely, and can they ever sing. For me, the first among equals among the major characters is Marianne Crebassa for her Rosina. To the people around her, Rosina may be submissive and pliant, but she is one sharp female with a flair for manipulation. Crebassa’s Rosina has an agenda, linking up romantically with Almaviva, and she gives as good as she gets. Almaviva has captured a charmer for a future wife who also might be a handful.
Lawrence Brownlee is lumbered by Almaviva’s lapses into silly behavior, much of it on Rossini rather than the production. But Brownlee has a stunning flexible tenor voice and a nice comic flair. Special props go to Alessandro Corbelli, who makes a living, breathing human being out of Bartolo, as obtuse a character as you will find anywhere in comic opera, a very crowded field. And like everyone else in the ensemble’s front line, he has a marvelous voice.
Don Basilio is played by the lanky Krysztof Bqczk, surely the most unpronounceable name on the opera scene today. But he has a potent voice and a gaunt look that grabs audience attention whenever he’s on stage. And Basilio’s long aria in which he describes how he and Bartolo can destroy Almaviva’s reputation through subtle slanders is one of the great set pieces in a show loaded with great set pieces. And attention should be paid to Mathilda Edge as Berta, a maid in Bartolo’s house. The character’s single contribution is an aria in which Berta ruefully examines many of the perplexities of love. The opera concentrates so heavily on a handful of characters that I was startled to see so many performers in the curtain call. They did cumulatively add flavor to the production plus occasional scenery shifting, without doing much singing or acting.
Much credit for the success of the production goes to director Tara Faircloth’s direction, based on Rob Ashford original staging from the 2013-2014 season. Faircloth added or retained the many physical bits of comedy that lift the narrative from low farce to chuckle- creating legitimate humor. The original opera was set in the 1600’s. The Lyric sets the time in the late 1700’s, but the production retains its historical pageant look, thanks to Catherine Zuber’s costume designs, Scott Pask’s functional all purpose set, and Howard Harrison’s atmospheric lighting.
This “Barber of Seville would be a fine introduction to anyone with a musical ear who still is leery of opera going. The English titles projected above the stage are a godsend to non-Italian spectators, which is nearly all of us. And even when the projection screen is blank viewers should have no problem following the emotions of the characters through their expressive singing and body language. The last part of the first act runs a little long for its minuscule amount of plot and Count Almaviva’s declarations of love for Rosina get a little repetitive through the production, but Brownlee is worth hearing every time he opens his mouth, so that isn’t much of a criticism. Overall, the Lyric has come up with another winner in a string of handsomely mounted and gloriously sung operas.
‘The Barber of Seville’ gets a rating of
“The Barber of Seville” runs through October 27 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets are $49 to $279. For information on specific performances, call 312 827 5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com October 2019
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