Lyric’s new ‘Barber’ celebrates power of love

Written By By WYNNE DELACOMA For Sun-Times Media Posted: 03/04/2014, 06:12am
Array Nathan Gunn stars in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "The Barber of Seville." | PHOTO BY DAN REST

Lyric Opera’s new version of Rossini’s comic “The Barber of Seville” moved into the Civic Opera House on Saturday night. At times I missed the old one, introduced in 1989 and last seen in 2008, with its slyly cartoonish Magritte-style sets, hilarious approximation of an umbrella-destroying rainstorm and breakneck pace. But the new production, set in elegant Old Spain and propelled by a cast that’s strong from top to bottom, has its charms as well.

Making both his Lyric and operatic debut, American director Rob Ashford comes from the world of straight drama and musical theater. In a program note, he emphasized “Barber” as a love story, and Saturday’s performance supported that vision.

Throughout the evening Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, also a newcomer to Lyric, highlighted the transparent texture and lyrical flow of Rossini’s sparkling score. Sets by Scott Pask surrounded the singers with tall, airy, wrought-iron gates and soaring stone arches, the entire space set against vivid blue skies or golden sun from lighting designer Howard Harrison. This production also marks Lyric debuts for Pask and Harrison.

For his thwarted lovers, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s Rosina and tenor Alek Shrader’s Count Almaviva, Ashford had the quintessential attractive young couple. Making her Lyric debut, Leonard used her astonishing vocal range to convey youthful fire and womanly intelligence. Her velvety voice turned darkly smoky in the lowest register, but she flew through Rossini’s streams of coloratura flights with clarity and verve. A dark-haired beauty wrapped in delicate empire gowns by costume designer Catherine Zuber, she was clearly ready to take charge of her own fate but also sweetly vulnerable to Almaviva’s considerable charms.

Shrader was a noble Tamino in Lyric’s “The Magic Flute” two seasons ago, and his Almaviva blended that noble bearing with frat-boy high spirits. Especially in his final aria with its nonstop virtuoso displays, his warm, youthful voice took on commanding authority.

But goaded on by baritone Nathan Gunn’s irresistible barber, Figaro, Almaviva turned into a something of an operatic George Clooney, a bad boy who can’t help but make you smile. With his powerful, flexible voice, Gunn was in his element as the indispensable fixer. His Figaro was unabashedly proud of his wily ways but always genial and ready to lend a hand — for the right price, of course.

If anyone could have stolen the show from Lyric’s lovebirds and Figaro, it was the Dr. Bartolo of Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli. No doddering old fool he, Corbelli played Rosina’s amorous old guardian as a man used to getting his own way.

Yes, he looked ridiculous with his twin towers of cotton-candy white hair, but he spat out Rossini’s patter-song stretches with easy vehemence. Kyle Ketelsen’s mordantly comic Don Basilio, Tracy Cantin’s gorgeously sung Berta and Lyric’s zesty male chorus helped round out the gifted cast.

Some of the staging seemed unnecessarily fussy. A lengthy pause, filled with servants coming and going as the set revolved from outdoors to indoors, was awkward. Figaro’s shtick, hiding behind plants as he eavesdropped, had little point.

Despite a few slow patches, however, this is an appealing “Barber” — more love story, less comic romp.

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