Leonard’s radiant debut a highlight in Lyric Opera’s bright new “Barber”

February 03, 2014
Alek Shrader and Isabel Leonard in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Dan Rest

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

With yet another major snowfall this past weekend in Chicago, a trip to Spain sounded like a very inviting proposition.

For most of us, that will mean heading over to the Civic Opera House where the Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its new production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Saturday night.

With a debut by a charismatic young singer and an attractive new production, this Lyric performance largely delivered the Rossinian goods by the end of the night, even though some uneven musical and stage direction made the show feel like a work in progress.

Lyric Opera has not enjoyed great success with new productions in recent seasons—the unforgettable 2008 Lulu apart—but scenically this Barber of Seville staging was all gain. Scott Pask’s sets provide a model of how to revitalize a cornerstone repertory work with an eye-catching design that manages to uphold tradition. His atmospheric set encompasses the outside Spanish facade and balcony of Bartolo’s house and the street below, the set gracefully rotating with silhouetted figures to become the fern-bedecked interior. Beginning with a warm Castilian orange, Howard Harrison’s artful lighting nicely delineated the passage of the day’s time. In her belated debut, Catherine Zuber’s costumes were witty and stunning, from the two elegant gowns for Rosina to the dashing Zorro-like getup for Almaviva.

Less consistent once again was the stage direction, this time by Rob Ashford in his first opera assignment (he recently helmed the live Sound of Music telecast for NBC). While Ashford largely avoided the routine hoary slapstick, he didn’t really find a workable alternative. There was plenty of action and running around—with too much sashaying about the stage in Act 1 by Almaviva and Figaro—but constant frenetic movement doesn’t necessarily mean funny. All three principals are experienced in these roles and one felt they were capable of putting across more of the comedy than was apparent. Perhaps that will come as the run continues, but opening night the essential humor of the opera was hit and miss at best.

Isabel Leonard made a superb—if too belated–Lyric Opera debut as Rosina. The American mezzo-soprano is enjoying a major career, and it’s easy to see why. Leonard proved the ideal Rosina, beautiful, minxish, and vocally faultless with a lovely voice. Her “Una voce poco fa” was a model of clarity and bel canto grace and she was equally spirited and flexible in the fast passages and ensembles.

As Count Almaviva, Rosina’s disguised and persistent admirer, Alek Shrader largely built upon his admirable Lyric Opera debut in The Magic Flute in 2012. His “Ecco ridente” was elegantly sung yet too heavily underlined, the handsome young tenor lacking the high floated sweet notes on top. “Se il mio nome” went better with more assurance and a greater legato ease, if not quite convincing one that Rossini is the singer’s true fach.

Shrader was an energetic and game enough hero, though others have made more out of the role’s comic opportunities with Almaviva’s various masquerades to get into Bartolo’s house. As a textual matter, I’m not sure giving him both parts of the Count’s final Rondo was a wise idea. Shrader is not such a supreme bel canto stylist that including the extra music makes a case for slowing up the action at the opera’s conclusion and the end of a long night.

The wily barber Figaro has been a signature role for Nathan Gunn and one he clearly feels comfortable in. Perhaps a bit too comfortable opening night with the baritone failing to project audibly at times in his Act 1 duet with Almaviva and elsewhere. Gunn’s warm baritone has lost some of its power in recent seasons, yet he can still throw off “Largo al factotum” with big personality and nimble vocalism. He also proved the most adept at the comedy and showed a generous rapport with his costars.

As Rosina’s guardian with malign designs, Alessandro Corbelli was a worthy foil for the romantic protagonists. The veteran Italian baritone brought the requisite exasperation to the role of Bartolo, and blazed through the rapid tongue-twisting fireworks in idiomatic style.

As Basilio the versatile bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen showed he can do the buffo thing as well as more dramatic roles, dispatching”La calunnia” with robust tone and agility, and etching a rounded comic character as the pretentious prig while eschewing mere silliness. Tracy Cantin sang the maid Berta’s aria as well and as stylishly as one will ever hear it.

Conductor Michele Mariotti’s Chicago debut was a frustrating one. The young Italian led an alert and conscientious performance but one that too often seemed more in synch with the letter of Rossini’s score than the spirit. It’s admirable to attend to dynamic marking so scrupulously but we do need to hear the music too. Far too much of the singing and orchestra was so underprojected one was leaning forward in one’s seat to catch it.

More crucially, for a conductor who grew up in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace, Mariotti’s literal approach failed to put across the essential wit and ingenuity of the music. The closing ensemble of Act I, in particular, fell flat with little fizz or mounting excitement to the crescendo. Can we please get Renato Palumbo back in charge of Italian repertory at Lyric?

Apart from a disastrous oboe crash and burn in the overture, the Lyric Opera Orchestra members played through Rossini’s bubbling score with polish, rhythmic vivacity and finesse.

Il barbiere di Siviglia runs through February 28. lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.

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