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Count Almaviva (John Osborn, l.) serenades Rosina (Joyce DiDonato) as Figaro (Nathan Gunn, r.) plays the guitar in The Barber of Seville, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2007-08 season. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
02 Mar 2008

Short on the sides and Full On Top

Perhaps the most beloved comic opera, Rossini’s Il barbière di Siviglia has never left the repertoire.

Gioachino Rossini: The Barber of Seville

Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House
February 22, 2008

Above: Count Almaviva (John Osborn, l.) serenades Rosina (Joyce DiDonato) as Figaro (Nathan Gunn, r.) plays the guitar.
All photos by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.


With its struggle between love and greed, youth and age, its general joie de vivre, along with gem after gem of “hummable” musical numbers, it is an audience favorite. Myriad opportunities for sheer technical dazzle give connoisseurs an opportunity to savor the more refined vocal moments of the evening. Lyric Opera’s current run of Barbiere, seemingly like Opera itself at the turn of the Millennium strives to please all of the people all of the time, succeeding both as high art and as showpiece. The opera’s elements seem traditional enough, and yet, even a perfunctory glance beneath the surface yields deeper levels of meaning. John Conklin’s sets, which were inspired by the work of Magritte are representational, with surrealist elements. Likewise, Michael Stennets’ costumes were both traditional and whimsical.

A Barbiere resounds or thuds because of style, comic insight, and vocal ingenuity. Lyric’s Barbiere managed to sparkle mostly because of the immense talent of Joyce DiDonato, who, in her house debut as Rosina, was both vocally and dramatically a perfect fit for the role. It must be said that DiDonato is a revelation. Her cavatina, “Una voce poco fa” was a lesson in bel canto tradition. DiDonato’s ornaments were rapid-fire and athletic, inspired, appropriate. The voice was exciting in the top with warmth to spare in the lower and middle registers. It must also be said that DiDonato is an engaging actress; her Rosina was sympathetic and charming. During “Una voce poco fa”, when the text returns, “Io son docile”, in an inspired moment, DiDonato threw a mini-tantrum, juxtaposing Rosina’s outward subservience with her inward rebellion. “Contra un cor”, Rosina’s second act aria, was staged as a “voice lesson” and DiDonato was uproariously funny in her impersonation of an amateur singer, placing her hands on various parts of the body to simulate physicalized learning. When DiDonato’s Rosina looks to Bartolo for approval, Bartolo furthers the joke by making hand gestures that suggested voice placement and grace. DiDonato’s triumph was complete when, immediately before the cadenza, she mimed exaggeratedly deep breathing.

Opposite DiDonato is John Osborn, who replaced Juan Diego Florez, the scheduled Almaviva, at the 11th hour. Florez’s return had been much anticipated by Chicago operagoers, and so Osborn’s bravery in assuming the star mantle should be commended. Osborn does not suffer greatly by comparison to the singer he replaces. His leggero voice coasts easily through the score, which is notoriously difficult for singers who are less equipped for this specialty role. In fact, the finale “Cessa di più resitere” is often cut because of its fiendish difficulty. The tenor wins the audience with his agility and stratosphereic finale. If criticism must be given, it is that Osborn’s voice takes a moment to warm up; his “Ecco ridente in cielo” is perhaps a little heavier than the rest of his singing in the evening, but he sails through the cabaletta with only a little effort and by the second scene, sighs through the recit with a lyricism not often heard from singers in major houses.

Sung by American pin-up baritone Nathan Gunn, the production’s Figaro is a treat, not only for the sporty physique, which the actor proudly displays during his “Largo al factotum” (staged as a dressing scene), but also for his generous singing. Contrary to some critical opinion, this listener finds Gunn’s voice to be adequate of weight for such a large venue as the Civic Opera House. Gunn had no trouble projecting over full orchestra for his arias and duets, but, surprisingly, he drops several syllables of his recitatives, with only a harpsichord to balance. A little more careful detail to vocal energy may be in order, but the singer’s execution is enjoyable, and Gunn’s relaxed air on stage is very welcome.

Barber_Chicago_09.pngJoyce DiDonato as Rosina and John Osborn as Count Almaviva

Baritone Philip Krauss gives a serviceable Doctor Bartolo. His reading paled in comparison to the lovers; however, his diction is crisp, and his aria “La calunnia è un venticello” was richer for it. Also of note is his lovely falsetto that we enjoyed in the opening bars of “Quando mi sei vicina”. In spite of his best efforts, Maestro Donato Renzetti fails in his attempt to encourage the orchestra to play so loud as to cover the singers during the quintet, and the overture, surprisingly slow, was out of tune.

Still, this Barbière is a must see for anyone who loves this comic work, and anyone who treasures the bel canto tradition is foolish to ignore the opportunity to hear Ms. DiDonato teach us how Rossini must be sung.

Gregory Peebles © 2008

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