Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Soon we will marry and our woes will vanish"

Isabel Leonard
     In desperate need of warmer climes, like most Chicagoans in this arctic February, or even a simulation of warmer climes, I slipped out of work Thursday afternoon and shivered my way over to the Civic Opera House, to plunge into Iberian sultriness for a few hours and, while I was at it, hear some music too. 
     The Lyric's new production of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" takes place—and don't feel bad if you didn't see this coming—in Seville, Spain, and before a note is sung, set designer Scott Pask's arching doorways, wrought iron flourishes, Spanish tile fountain and orange and yellow light help the audience escape our icy confinement, the frozen grey-white mounds piled like prison walls outside. 
    Perhaps because "Seville" contains some of the most familiar operatic tunes that an American of my generation can hear—the soundtrack from Warner Brother's classic 1949 Bugs Bunny short, Rabbit of Seville, which we practically listened to in the womb, absorbing repeatedly for years while sprawled on the living room floor in our jammies before Saturday morning television—the music seemed exactly right. That overture, and Figaro's first aria, racing and joyous, almost an aural cartoon, is why we start going to opera. As much as I thrilled to it—the overture, composed when Rossini was in his early 20s, sounds like something written by Mozart on amphetamines—because it was so familiar, what really caught my attention were the secondary aspects of the production: the set, the lighting and, particularly, the acting, which is not always a strong suit in opera productions. Often the performers do little more than just stand there, stiffly, and sing, which can be more than enough, but here the music is delivered with considerable comedic deftness and dramatic finesse. It isn't quite a musical number from The Carol Burnett Show, but that did come to mind.
     Right off the bat, director Rob Ashford serves up an earnest, shuffling motley of hired musicians—Count Almaviva's threadbare orchestra, here to woo the lovely Rosina (played by New York mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, a woman of considerable beauty.  She is actually the first character we see, from the back, standing on her guardian's balcony and the thought — perhaps better left unsaid — occurred to me that this alone would be enough to provide an afternoon's entertainment, and the fact that people would soon sing and move around and a performance would be put on was a lagniappe, a mere added bonus).
     She ducks back inside, alas, and the count, played by Alek Shrader, sets the tone with a truly funny comic preening, as he is torn between showing off his best profile—he's no slouch in the looks department either—to the aforementioned balcony, now empty, and twisting his head to see if his beloved is on it. The count's disappointment is our own.
Nathan Gunn
   The winter-numbed Chicago audience must have been as primed to enjoy itself as I was, because this is the first time in my memory that a scene change at the Lyric received applause—though admittedly it was quite a scene change, from the arched exterior of the home of Dr. Bartolo, Rosina's tyrannical guardian, to the inside, a smooth transformation of shifting wrought iron screens and ferns and silhouetted characters and orange light, which unfolded like a mechanical egg and was delightful. There was another great moment in silhouette—the entrance of Figaro, the "luckiest man alive," a resourceful ladies man and general fixer, trailed by five adoring misses, to sing his famous ode 
(click here to hear it and see the Lyric trailer)  to himself and his life ("Work is easy and fun"), a fast-paced patter song which reminded me that the swagger of rap music is only the braggadocio of Italian opera, updated.  Nathan Gunn is a likable rogue as Figaro—he had a Huey Lewis quality, for those up on their '80s pop, with the same hairstyle, the same smug, yes-I-am-good-looking twinkle of self-satisfaction.

     Though I generally prefer dark entertainments — give me "Faust" over "Cosi fan Tutte" any day — there was enough edge to keep the show from slipping into treacle, from an aria la calunnia — in praise of slander, one noting the silliness of old men who marry, and a discourse on the limitations of opera, by the aforementioned coot, Dr. Bartolo, played with a pleasing mix of leaping randy menace and nodding flustered senility by Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli. 
Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader
     The happy ending goes on too long for my tastes — sort of a Wagnerian death scene, only joyous. Here people do stand around singing a tad too much, as if this ornate music box of a show were winding down a little early, and maybe a few turns of dramatic business, some additional directing, could have helped. That said, Act II contained two great moments that I will remember for the rest of my life.
     One was Rossini's storm, which takes place just before the count and the ever-useful Figaro arrive with a ladder to spirit Rosina away. There is no singing, no characters onstage at all, just billowing sheet-like curtains, the surging orchestra and furtive figures hurrying around at the back of the stage, flashes of lightning, a general sense of foreboding and drama, like a half-remembered storm from youth, swirling portend that peaked for a moment of unexpected ... well, something verging on terror, a quick intake of breath and then it was over, but a deeply affecting bit of stagecraft. That five seconds alone made me glad I came.
    The other moment came toward the finale, when Rosina realizes that the poor man she fell in love with is actually the wealthy and powerful count. She steps toward the audience and her face does the slightest of twists. Not quite a lifted eyebrow, but a tiny flutter of delight, a Scarlett O'Hara flash of congealed sauciness —a count! — that drew applause just for its sly perfection.
      That's how well-crafted the Lyric's production of "The Barber of Seville" is—the audience applauded a set change and a facial twitch. The music is pretty good too. 

Photographs courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago


  1. Right on about the bragging of rap having deeper cultural roots. Listen to old blues lyrics too: when Muddy Waters entitles one of his come back albums "Hard Again," he's not talking about suddenly finding his chords difficult to hit.

  2. Good point. And before Muddy Waters, Furry Lewis was doing it.

  3. Human song is just like birdsong. Birds basically sing two things: "Hey baby, wanna do it?" and "Hey you, fuck off, this is my territory." I suspect 90% of human songs can be sorted, broadly, into these two categories.


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