One of opera history's most notorious nights — the 200th anniversary was three weeks ago — must have sounded something like a Donald Trump rally. The premiere of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" barely got underway at a Rome theater before the protests started, with catcalls and whistles drowning out the music.
The troublemakers, fans of another composer who had written a then-admired "Barber of Seville" years earlier, thought they had humiliated the upstart 23-year-old Rossini so badly that they stayed home the next night. Once people had a chance to hear the new "Barber" uninterrupted, this comic masterpiece was a hit, of course. Its enduring quality is reiterated in a buoyant production from Lyric Opera Baltimore.
Financial uncertainty has kept the company on hiatus since November 2014. Its return Friday night to the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric was most welcome and had much going for it, not the least being the history-making appearance of Sara Jobin in the pit — the first woman to conduct an opera production in the Lyric's 122 years.
Jobin offered a solid account of the score that combined rhythmic snap with an appreciation for Rossini's most elegant and atmospheric turns of phrase. You could hear that at the start in the overture, when she had the violins doing a little echo effect in one of their big tunes, a charming possibility not every conductor notices.
A few intonation or articulation slips aside, the orchestra from Concert Artists of Baltimore played effectively all night.
Onstage, sets from Minnesota Opera provided a charming, colorful atmosphere for the unfolding of this durable plot about a nobleman's schemes, aided by a trusty barber/all-around factotum named Figaro, to woo the ward of an unpleasant old coot.
Director Jeffrey Buchman often took the broad or belabored route for getting laughs (same for the surtitles, which made some provincial stabs at humor without regard to the actual libretto). But, for the most part, things clicked into place engagingly, thanks to a well-matched cast that plunged into the antics with all cylinders firing. More importantly, the singers offered vocal flair to match.
Steven LaBrie made a lithe, handsome Figaro, bringing out the character's uncommon mix of wit and grit with considerable ease. The baritone sang robustly, adding many a subtle nuance along the way. As Count Almaviva, tenor Alek Shrader showed a flair for physical comedy and, for the most part, delivered technically sure, vividly expressive vocalism.
As Rosina, the object of Almaviva's affections, Emily Fons used her light, velvety mezzo to keen effect. Although she missed some of the wit in her Act 1 aria (a lot can be done with that little word "ma" -- Italian for "but'), her phrasing all evening was a great pleasure.
Steven Condy hit the spot delightfully as Rosina's puffed-up guardian, Dr. Bartolo. The baritone sounded a little dry at times, but still gave a fine demonstration of the classic art of buffo singing, confident and colorful at any speed. An amusing actor, too. As the slimy, gossip-fueled music teacher Don Basilio, Jeremy Milner also delivered the goods, vocally and theatrically.
All in all, this staging of "Barber of Seville" moved at a good clip, gave the brilliant score a hearty workout, and affirmed the potential — the need — for Lyric Opera Baltimore.