By ?James L. Zychowicz
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Donato Renzetti(conductor) Lyric Opera Center, Chicago 16.2.2008 (JLZ)
Director: John Copley?Set Design: John Conklin?Costumes: Michael Stennett?Lighting: Duane Schuler?Chorus Master: Donald Nally
Figaro: Nathan Gunn?Rosina: Joyce DiDonato?Count Almaviva: John Osborn?Dr. Bartolo: Philip Kraus?Don Basilio: Wayne Tigges?Berta: Lauren Curnow?Fiorello: Daniel Billings ?Sergeant: David Portillo?Ambrogio: David Zarbock
When art inspires music, the results can be intriguing. From Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition through to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a number of memorable works have emerged over the years. In fact the 2006-7 season of Lyric Opera of Chicago included a production of Verdi’s Il trovatore that took some paintings by Goya as the points of departure for a riveting presentation. With the revival of Lyric’s latest production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, the set designer John Conklin was commissioned by the late Ardis Kranik and Bill Mason for a new staging of that venerable comedy. According to the programme notes, he found Rossini’s Il barbiere to involve “an amazing mixture of commedia dell’arte and surreal happenings” which turned his attention to the art of René Magritte. Magritte’s influence makes this production weigh cleverness and artifice against the musical elements in a staging that sometimes challenges the usual conventions associated with the work.
Conklin’s conception of Il barbiere juxtaposes Rossini’s score with images from Magritte’s oeuvre. From the outset, a portrait of Rossini is part of a collage that involves a voluptuous Magritte-rose. Various scenes are framed by cloud images which descend from the sky to earth, true to the style the painter used. An entire scene makes use of various familiar busts, but for the opera, the figures are limited to Jomelli, Cimarosa and, of course, Paisiello, who composed the first operatic version of this play by Beaumarchais. The influence of Magritte is not limited to the visual dimension either, but in the treatment of various elements throughout the work, like the entrance of the police in the Finale of the first act, a truly surrealistic conception when compared to more conventional stagings of this opera. With these ideas supporting the production, the musical content is not always in the forefront, and it requires fine performers to succeed in a challenging production that resembles musical theater at times because of the prominence of the stagecraft.
The stage work supports various elements of comedy, and sometimes at the expense of the music. In this quintessential bel canto work however, comedy and music must balance each other, with the bel canto element anchoring the sometimes manic behavior of the characters. This dichotomous relationship makes Il barbiere continually appealing, since it can (and indeed should) work on several levels simultaneously.
The cast includes some of the finest singers available currently. The American tenor John Osborn brought his international experience in the role of Almaviva to Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Juan Diego Florez had been scheduled to sing Almaviva, but canceled because of illness.) Osborn’s facility served him well throughout the two acts of the work, from the serenade “Ecco ridente in cielo” to the second-act dénoument “Cessa di più resistere,” which precedes the Finale. His range and flexibility were clearly apparent, and his use of ornamentation was cautious but still effective. The vocal disguise in the music lesson was more convincing than the costume, as skillful vocal acting brought out the desired effects.
Osborn worked paticularly well with Nathan Gunn, who is familiar to Lyric audiences for his fine recent performances in Billy Budd and Così fan tutte. This production gave a new context for Figaro’s opening aria, “Largo al factotum,” as the scene opens with Gunn in his briefs, and then dressing as the action progresses. Aspects of the pervading surrealism took the shape of individuals actually calling for the character as part of the repeated cries of “Figaro” that have become an opera cliché. Once fully clothed, though, Gunn’s physical and vocal presence was constantly beguiling, with his rich tones serving the production very well. The first-act duet with Almaviva “All’ idea” worked splendidly, as the timbres of the two performers blended and contrasted at various points. Yet in the parallel duet with Rosina, Gunn was perhaps more dominant than necessary as he literally spelled out Lindoro’s love for the woman. Here Rosina seemed clueless, something that was not apparent earlier in the opera, when Joyce seemed fully aware of her situation as the ward of Bartolo and committed to taking action herself in “Una voce poco fa.” The somewhat inconsistent characterization certainly suited the staging, but not the operatic integrity even though Ms DiDonato’s voice rose easily to all the challenges. If her interpretation of “Una voce poco fa” differed from others she has done, it was certainly not at the expense of her vocalizing. She brought a polish to the familiar aria that evoked performances by other fine singers, lsuch as Marilyn Horne for example.
The dramatic tension in this opera emerges though, from the relationship between Rosina and Dr. Bartolo, who is responsible for raising her in circumstances never explained. Bartolo, of course, has overstepped his duties by intending to wed Rosina in order to acquire her fortune, which poses problems for Rosina who is in love of course, with Almaviva – now disguised as Lindoro. Determined to marry Rosina, Bartolo’s emotional pitch must lie between the benign neglect of Horace Vandergelder of Thornton Wilder’s Matchmaker and the lechery of Judge Turpin in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Within that broad range of emotion, Bartolo serves at times as a stock character in the melodramatic sense, yet also must have a sense of understanding when he realizes Rosina’s true feelings and ultimately respects them. In approaching the role, Philip Kraus demonstrated both elements of the character nicely on opening night and will do so through the first part of the run, later to be replaced by the British baritone Andrew Shore later. (Shore is currently finishing the run of Falstaff at Lyric.) In this departure from his role as Douphols in this season’s Traviata, Kraus is comfortable with the comic aspects of Bartolo, but his efforts in the demanding scenes that involved patter-song techniques were sometimes lost in the seemingly sound-absorbing sets. Unlike other productions this season, the sets caused the voices to be slightly muffled so that they mehow disappeared in a hall which is otherwise warm and rich for opera.
In solo pieces, some of the voices did stand out without problems. Wayne Tigges, for example, contributed a warm and engaging sound in Basilio’s “La calumnia.” This was a solid performance in a comic number by the very performer who gave such a menacing portrayal of Achilla in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Tigges brought some fine vocal characterization to the production in a role that is sometimes played with less ardor. Likewise, Lauren Curnow added depth to the role of Berta, whose solo aria “Il vecchiotto” was memorable for its engaging presentation. Curnow lamented the foolishness she was witnessing without ridiculing it, a distinction that occurs as a result of phrasing that plays to the nuances of the text. Taken together, both of these sometimes secondary roles stood out in this production because they were made more prominent and became appealing for this very reason.
All in all, it is difficult not to make comparisons this season, but the overall ensemble for Il barbiere seems to be less cohesive than that for Verdi’s Falstaff, which is running concurrently. It may be that the sometimes sprawling production which plays to the work’s visual impact, affects the performers because of its spatial requirements. Nevertheless, this is a commendable production that should draw audiences to hear its fine cast.