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Alek Shrader and Isabel Leonard in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Dan Rest
19 Mar 2014

Chicago’s New Barber of Seville

New productions of repertoire staples such as Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia bear much anticipation for both performers and staging.

Chicago’s New Barber of Seville

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Alek Shrader and Isabel Leonard in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at Lyric Opera. [Photo by Dan Rest]


Happily, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s delightful new Barber fulfills both vocal and technical expectations with a bright and lively conception. Figaro is sung by Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard makes her house debut as Rosina, and Alek Shrader performs Count Almaviva, a role for which he is justly celebrated on operatic stages throughout the United States and Europe. Further artists featured in this notable cast include Alessandro Corbelli as Dr. Bartolo, the guardian of Rosina, Kyle Ketelsen as Don Basilio the music master, and Tracy Cantin as the maid Berta; Will Liverman sings Fiorello and John Irvin performs the part of the sergeant. Michele Mariotti makes his Chicago conducting debut leading these performances. Director of this new production is Rob Ashford, with sets and costumes by Scott Pask and Catherine Zuber respectively. Michael Black prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.

During the overture to the opera a scrim covers the stage with sketches of three coifed heads representing the Count, Rosina, and presumably the resourceful and ever-present Barber. Mr. Mariotti had the overture played with a light touch so that the strings were a subtle lead to the other forces in the orchestra. One could also hear clearly the plucking of individual string chords at appropriate moments, just as levels of volume rose and sank in anticipation of modulations in forthcoming scenes of the opera. During the second part of the overture repeats were played with variations and justified emphases. As the first scene of the opera begins, the chorus of musicians moves from one side of Dr. Bartolo’s house to the other, their team-like comical gestures matching the swell of the music in this production. While their leader Fiorello has tried to rally both discipline and quiet the Count clutches at the wall of the building in which his beloved Rosina lives under the tutelage of Bartolo. Mr. Shrader’s Almaviva repeats the calls for quiet with a truly soft emphasis on “Piano!” His movements and facial expressions indicate an anticipation scarcely kept in check. In Almaviva’s song at daybreak performed beneath Rosina’s balcony, “Ecco ridente in cielo” [“Look on the smiling sky”], Shrader expresses his ardor with an exuberant trill on “la bella aurora” [“the beautiful dawn”]. The tenor’s range was shown effectively with a full descent at “Sorgi ancora” [“still not arisen”], rising decorations on “vieni bell’ idol mio” [“Come, my treasured one”], and a cry of anguish at “Oh, Dio” to express the futile pain of waiting. As tempos and emotional commitment accelerated Shrader incorporated distinctive and well-chosen embellishments into the second part of his serenade. The tenor draws on a full range of technique and vocal color, just as his acting matched communicative gesture to his chosen vocal expression. As such, Almaviva’s palpable frustration at not knowing whether he has been heard by Rosina is displayed by Shrader in athletic poses and believable grimaces. Although forced to conceal himself at the arrival of the barber Figaro, this Almaviva’s presence is undiminished. Mr. Gunn’s Figaro has the requisite mobility and vocal energy to entertain and to suggest a resourceful fellow for those in need of his help. Gunn’s practiced declamation was equivalent to his character Figaro’s vocal runs in the “Largo al factotum” [“Make way for the factotum”]. At times in this famous aria the vocal projection was subject to an overly enthusiastic orchestral volume. The following interaction between Almaviva and Figaro was staged cleverly and with ample movement proceeding toward the ensuing musical numbers. Rosina appears on the balcony and drops her note to Almaviva; Bartolo warns his charge against suspicious contact and departs on an errand. At this point the Count sings his next serenade and identifies himself falsely as Lindoro, so that he might attract Rosina’s love on his own account and not because of wealth and title [“Si il mio nome saper voi bramate” (“If you wish to know my name”)]. During the first part of Almaviva’s song Shrader’s assured legato and fluid vocal runs prompt the expected encouragement of Rosina from her balcony that he should continue. Almaviva’s excitement at this response included here decorative top notes inserted at “fida e costante” [“faithful and true”] and a further trill toward the close. Only a sudden distraction inside the house prevents the young couple from further communication. Count Almaviva depends on Figaro’s resourceful scheme, that he take on the disguise of a soldier, in order to gain entry to the house and to see Rosina. The duet between Shrader and Gunn concluding this scene is vocally exciting and physically entertaining as they dance together while celebrating the pact.

The second substantial part of Act One features Rosina as a committed participant in any future attempt to meet her “Lindoro.” Ms. Leonard’s “Una voce poco fa” [“A voice I just heard”] is skillfully sung with decorations taken on rising lines, excellent runs, and application of rubato at textually appropriate moments toward the close. The start of her collusion with Figaro is matched now by Dr. Bartolo’s conspiratorial dealings with Basilio. The latter recommends defamation of the Count, whom he identifies as Rosina’s suitor. Mr. Ketelsen’s performance in the role of Basilio is notable for his vocal accomplishments while staying within character in the aria “La calumnia.,” directed toward Count Almaviva. Ketelsen’s physical gestures suggest a doddering teacher yet his voice blooms in enthusiastic might with rich bass notes on “Leggermente” and truly explosive pitches on “colpo di cannone” [“Outbursts from a cannon”]. Accomplished decoration concluded the piece by an artist whom one hopes to hear in additional bel canto roles. Once the doctor and music teacher depart, Rosina and Figaro are able to continue their mutual revelations. In their duet “Dunque io son” [“Then it is I”] both characters reflect on Lindoro’s emotional promise and the need for caution because of Bartolo’s own plans. In this duet Leonard and Gunn sing with even greater invention than earlier as though illustrating their crafty approach with vocal embellishments. When Mr. Corbelli as Bartolo enumerates his suspicions to Rosina, the aria “A un dottor della mia sorte” [“For a doctor of my standing”] is performed as more than a simple character piece. Corbelli truly inhabits the role of Dr. Bartolo, his sense of vocal line and sustained pitches giving emphasis to the fulminating ire expressed in the text. When the housemaid Berta enters to respond to pounding at the door, Ms. Cantin stumbles about with her laundry-basket while uttering believable cries of impatience. Her role as performed in the finale of Act One is crucial as a vocal anchor bringing to a crescendo the disparate arguments and colors. Almaviva is admitted as disguised, his feigned inebriation causing disagreement with Bartolo and relief for Rosina. Just as the household characters and guest are joined by Basilio and Figaro, the resulting ensemble sparkles with full yet disciplined Rossinian frenzy. In response to Shrader’s impressive high pitch on “In arresto? Io?” [“Arrested ? I?”], and his revelation to the official in charge, the police recognize the identity of the drunken soldier and refuse to detain him. All the principals participate in, with Ms. Cantin’s forte notes propelling forward, a commentary on the mental confusion in which they are trapped as the act concludes. (“Mi par d’esser con la testa in un’orrida fucina” [“My head seems to be in a fiery smithy”].

In the house of Bartolo at the start of Act Two the doctor has scarcely recovered from the confusing interruption of the inebriated soldier when Count Almaviva arrives in his second disguise, Don Alonso, professor of music and alleged pupil of Basilio. He purports to take the place of his ill teacher and proceeds with a music lesson for Rosina. Leornard performs the noted aria, “Contro un cor che accende amore” [“Against a heart inflamed with love”] as a clever response to the advances of her eager suitor, while also preserving its opportunities for vocal embellishments as a set piece. At the entrance of a seemingly healthy Basilio, a quick ruse must be invented to dispose of the real music master. When the conspirators attempt to convince Basilio of his dreadful appearance, Mr. Ketelsen asks, “Sono giallo come un morto?” [“I am yellow as a corpse?”] with deep sustained pitches making “un morto” shudderingly possible. Once he has left after a spirited performance of the “Buona sera” ensemble and agreement by Rosina to meet her lover at midnight, Berta is left alone to comment on the unabated frenzy of this household. Cantin’s performance of Berta’s solo “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” [“The old man seeks a wife”] shows an assured and comic approach including effective chest tones, a superb diminuendo in the repeat, and inventive decorations taken at the close.

The ultimate appearance of Rosina’s “Lindoro” and Figaro at midnight prompts the blissful admission that Lindoro and Almaviva are indeed one and the same individual. Rosina’s relief at not having been deceived in her devotions as well as Almaviva’s boundless joy at winning his suit result in the extended duet in which Leonard and Shrader complement each other delightfully. At one last attempt by Dr. Bartolo to apprehend the presumed scoundrel Almaviva’s proclaimed identity and revelatory aria, “Cessa di più resistere” [“Cease any further resisance”] put an end to such challenging opposition. Mr. Shrader’s ornamentation and sheer vocal facility in this piece are flawless, matched in excitement by the following, more rapid “Ah il più lieto, il più felice” [“The blithest, the happiest”] describing his ardor for the love now granted. Almaviva’s final word “felicità” accentuates the happy spirit which invests this model new production of Rossini’s masterpiece.

Salvatore Calomino

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