By Bryson David Hoff
It’s not a secret that opera has an accessibility issue:
Almost always in a foreign language
And the youngest work in a given opera house’s season is pretty much always going to be at least 70 years old and written by a dead white man.
Gioachino Rossini’s masterpiece The Barber of Seville would, on paper, is right in line with these problems—it was written in the early 19th century by a white man in Italian and its current production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago clocks in at just over three hours in length. That said, if anyone reading this review has found themselves curious about opera, but held off on buying a ticket for any or all of the reasons above—now is your time. You are unlikely to have a better chance at a first opera than this production.
The plot, drawn from a popular play from the same time period, is quintessential romantic comedy: Count Almaviva (tenor Lawrence Brownlee) is in love with a young woman named Rosina (mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa), but cannot see her because her guardian Dr. Bartolo (baritone Alessandro Corbelli) has caught wise to the Count’s intentions and is himself planning to marry her. To help woo the maiden and dodge Bartolo’s machinations, Almaviva hires Figaro (baritone Adam Plachetka), the titular barber and professional wingman. What ensues is a series of increasingly outlandish hijinks, eventually culminating in a happy ending.
All of the standard hallmarks of a Lyric production are here: the sets and costumes are lavish and well-designed, the vocal talent is world-class, and the famous score is beautifully realized by the orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis. What really sets this production apart, however, is the staging, originally directed by Rob Ashford with Tara Faircloth overseeing this remount. Efforts to “update” classic operas with sight gags and acting choices can often be a mixed bag, in the worst-case scenarios actively undermining the text. However, the choices here are well integrated, well-acted, and just plain funny.
The atmosphere throughout is reminiscent of a late-60s/early-70s screwball comedy, helped undoubtedly by the fact that Plachetka’s Figaro has more than a touch of Zero Mostel about him. Brownlee, too, on top of a fantastically light and flexible vocal performance brings a youthful energy and exuberance (and a surprising skill with physical comedy) to Almaviva that is absolutely infectious. Crebassa’s savvy, cunning take on the role of Rosina is so winning that it actually draws attention to the contrived nature of the stock plot when her character is caught in a misunderstanding about two-thirds of the way through the play, as her interpretation so effectively elevates the character that it seems to an observer unrealistic that at this stage of the game she could be so easily fooled.
If the cast and production are what make this an outstanding evening of opera, the fact that all of it is being done around such a downright hummable score is what makes this the ideal introduction to the art form for first timers. There is a reason why so many portions of the score have become ubiquitous in film and television and the effect of sitting through the opera for the first time or the first time in awhile is a bit akin to listening to the White Album in its entirety and at every other tune grinning and going “Oh yeah, that’s from this too.”
In short, Lyric’s Barber of Seville is a triumph and an absolute must-see. Opera buffs will be thrilled by the masterful interpretation of a seminal classic, while newcomers will be struck by the artistry, warmth, and humor of the proceedings. If the rest of the Lyric Opera’s season is on the same level as this production, Chicago is in for a fantastic year for opera.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “The Barber of Seville” through October 27. More information and tickets are available here.