The Lyric Opera of Chicago will have plenty for those who like their operas dark and deep and full of danger. The season that opened Saturday night (September 28) will include Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and even an operatic interpretation of the anti-death penalty film Dead Man Walking.
But the Lyric kept it light for Opening Night with The Barber of Seville, the enduring comic opera completed by Gioachino Rossini in 1816 that is still delighting audiences. Benefiting from an outstanding cast of international vocalists, the stalwart backing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, and some gags still fresh 203 years after its premiere in Rome, the Lyric’s performance was a winner to kick off the new season.
Even if you are not an opera aficionado, you are likely to experience a wave of recognition when the orchestra plays the opening overture. It contains one of the most familiar themes in opera music and has been used in numerous soundtracks for movies, TV shows, commercials, and the odd Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Early in the first act, Figaro — the titular barber of Seville renowned as a fixer and matchmaker — makes his entry. His song is formally titled Largo al factotum della citta (Make way for the factotum of the city), but it is much better known as the Figaro Song, as the character boasts that everyone in town is calling for the services of Figaro…Figaro Figaro Figaro.
The two-act opera takes place entirely in the courtyard and interior of the home of Dr. Bartolo in the Spanish city of Seville. The elderly Bartolo has designs to marry his beautiful ward Rosina as soon as she comes of age in order to claim her considerable dowry. But Rosina is in love with a serenading suitor she believes is a poor student named Lindoro, but is actually the wealthy Count Almaviva disguising his identity.
Figaro, who once worked for Almaviva, is hired to come up with a clever ruse to gain the count admission to the house so he can get closer to Rosina, and Figaro agrees while emphasizing that his creative energies are fueled by payments in gold. Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, tries to persuade Bartolo to run a smear campaign to ruin Almaviva’s name, making him sort of a prototype of a modern political campaign manager. A series of silly comic turns, including passed notes, mistaken identities and an entire uniformed regiment, threatens but fails to ruin a rare operatic happy ending.
Figaro is performed by Adam Plachetka, who is also performing The Barber of Seville this year with the Vienna State Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Opera (and played the title role in the Lyric’s 2015-16 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which was first performed 30 years before Rossini’s prequel). A physically imposing figure, Plachetka towers over Lawrence Brownlee in his role as Almaviva, but the energetic and versatile Brownlee is never overshadowed.
Marianne Crebassa sings the role of Rosina with a crystalline mezzo-soprano while showing her comic chops as she sings her love for the man she knows as Lindoro, declaring that she is docile and obedient, but there will be hell to pay unless Bartolo allows her to have her way.
According to the program notes, Alessandro Corbelli has made a virtual career of playing Bartolo “in many major houses,” including a performance of The Barber of Seville during the Lyric’s 2013-14 season. He enjoys some of the opera’s best laugh lines, including an inside joke about how opera is boring, and a get-off-my-lawn complaint about how music was much better in his day. Rossini also ribbed an already-established operatic pretense near the end, as Figaro tries, without much success, to get the undisguised Almaviva and Rosina to cut short their love duet to flee and make good their plan to elope before Bartolo returns home.
The successful casting is crucial in this opera because the only significant singing roles are these principals (including Krzystof Baczyk as Don Basilio), and housemaid Berta, portrayed by Mathilda Edge, who gets a star turn with a second-act solo.
The performance was four-star worthy, with the following caveat: not everyone is in love with opera buffo. If you are one of those people who prefers operas featuring mythic German women in helmets and breastplates, or a legendary rake being dragged to Hell, don’t worry: By the end of this Lyric season, you’ll get yours.
But if you want to watch incredibly talented singers performing pure operatic escapism, The Barber of Seville is worth three hours of your time. Remaining performances take place the evenings of October 2, 5, 18 and 21, with matinees on October 10, 13 and 27. The Lyric Opera House is located at 20 N. Wacker Dr., and ticket information can be found here.