A packed house turned out for the National Theater’s first big opera premiere of the new season, Il barbiere di Siviglia, which featured two of the Czech Republic’s most prominent vocal exports: tenor Petr Nekoranec and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka. With successful careers abroad, the two men are rarely in Prague for more than an occasional recital or solo appearance with an orchestra. Given full roles, they drew a keen audience and showed the fine styles that have propelled them to world stages. Unfortunately, they had to labor through a lackluster showcase.

Jiří Sulženko (Bartolo), Adam Plachetka (Figaro) and Petr Nekoranec (Almaviva)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Was it the bare-bones set, with a row of prickly cacti the most prominent ornamentation? Rosina’s bedroom, which looked more like a tenement than a boudoir? The amorphous costumes that seemed to come straight from a thrift store? Or the dim lighting that cast so much of the production in shadow? Actually, all of the above. But the biggest handicap was Magdalena Švecová’s leaden direction. Rather than the antic energy of a farce, her version of Barbiere offered static delivery, very little and very unimaginative choreography, and sparse, strained attempts at humor. The first act was particularly stiff, with singers wandering the stage like they weren’t sure where to go. Plachetka demonstrated that it’s possible to sing a spirited Figaro with your feet rooted to the ground, if not especially engaging. The second act was more animated, but if not for a lively performance in the pit, it would have been a long, plodding evening.

That left the fun largely in the hands of the singers, who responded with gusto. Prague audiences are already familiar with Nekoranec’s warm, richly mature voice, and as Count Almaviva he demonstrated that he can also bring nuance and emotional depth to characters. From the opening “Ecco, ridente in cielo” he was a lovestruck puppy, ardent and desperate, a perfect foil for Figaro’s schemes. Plachetka seems more in command of the stage every time he visits Prague, and as Figaro he struck both an authoritative and mischievous figure. “Largo al factotum” left no doubt about who was running the show. And as he played matchmaker, a good-natured style of crafty persuasion – along with a well-played touch of avarice – made for an entertaining portrayal of an iconic character.

Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir (Rosina)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Icelandic mezzo-soprano Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir seems better-suited for dramatic roles – she will be returning later in the season in productions of Kátya Kabanová and Carmen. But as a fiery Rosina she added some much-needed heft to this production, as well as a brilliantly clear, strong voice. Several mid-scene costume changes seemed designed mostly for titillation, and in lesser hands could have reduced the character to a frustrated floozy. Eiríksdóttir handled them with dignity and grace, embodying her self-description as a woman who acts subservient to hide the smart, determined person behind the façade.

Special mention should be made of Jiří Sulženko, a longtime National Theater stalwart who brings versatile vocal gifts and a subtle sense of humor to everything he does. He made an ideal Doctor Bartolo, conniving, bumbling, literally tripping over his feet at times. Some of the few laughs of the evening came from him responding to annoying questions by repeating them in falsetto, like a petulant child. It’s hard to imagine anyone else at the National Theater pulling off a combination of cluelessness and menace with such aplomb.

Petr Nekoranec, Adam Plachetka, Roman Vocel (Basilio) and Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir (Rosina)
© Zdeněk Sokol

With Jaroslav Kyzlink on the podium, the orchestra set the pace for the evening. The overture was not promising – appropriately light and buoyant, though short of froth and thin on dynamics. But once the curtain opened the support for the arias was superb, and as the action unfolded the momentum came from the music, creating some of the excitement missing onstage. The woodwinds were a standout, providing vivid colors even in the closing ensemble piece, amid the din of the singers and a full chorus.

Though this was in many ways a disappointing start on a new season, it held good news for local audiences. After finishing a three-year stint at the Stuttgart Opera, Nekoranec is now a member of the National Theater company. Plachetka, after nearly a decade at the Vienna State Opera, has the time to appear on prestigious stages like the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden – and make regular visits to Prague. If the opening night of this Barbiere was any indication, no matter what the quality of the production, the National Theater will have no problem filling seats with eager fans when they’re singing.