If there is always something mysterious about great works of art, about how a human mind and hands could have made such a thing, surely the mystery is compounded for great productions of opera, especially in the modern era. The broth is no match for a battalion of cooks. So it was a rare joy to sit down to the new Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, brought to life by director Rob Ashford, set designer Scott Pask, and conductor Michele Mariotti, which is not only intelligent and imaginative but also strings successions of images, gestures, and sung moments into truly satisfying large-scale forms.

I remember being hesitant as the curtain opened. In the very first scene, Fiorello leads a hushed band of musicians around a courtyard. The musicians are squeezed together and move across the stage like a clump of caramel corn. It’s a broad play that colonized the entire stage floor with farce. Then I remember being confused when Alek Shrader came out to sing his opening cavatina as Count Almaviva, “Ecco, ridente in cielo”. Was he trying to play it straight or for a laugh? He couldn’t seem to decide. And his voice threw me: it wasn’t a hyper-smooth tenor bronzing the upper balcony, but rather had the intimacy and shading of chamber music. I wasn’t so much put off as curious – this show had piqued my interest.

The rest of the scene played out with some astute physical comedy, and then the first real shock of the night came. It was a scenery change. The lights went out; only a glow from the back of the stage lit a circling procession of figures who rotated out the arched gates of the opening to make way for Rosina’s sitting room. The hall was silent. Only the gentle clanking of the machinery was heard. One audience member produced a single clap, then stopped. Because the curtain was left up, this change was meant to be a spectacle, and yet its gorgeousness was so unexpected and arresting that it produced the opposite effect of all the opera’s arias and pratfalls: not applause or laughter, but complete silence.

The first act went from strength to strength, building together incredible character performances with whip-smart directing. Consider Nathan Gunn’s entrance as Figaro. He is a liminal figure in this opera, tied to the romantic intrigue only as a hired hand; this is his freedom and power. Rather than have him stride on from the wings, the default operatic entrance, Gunn appears first as a silhouette, flitting across the backdrop like some spirit not yet made substantial. It is an entrance that gives the barber’s famous aria a mythic weight.

Gunn and Shrader were utterly delightful in duet, sensitively balanced out by Mariotti in the pit. (I found his overture a touch on the safe side; as it turned out, he was just gearing up for a long sprint.) Kyle Ketelsen and Alessandro Corbelli, as Basilio and Bartolo, are masterful physical actors; they would have been worth watching even if they didn’t also possess the ability to deftly interleave action and phrase to produce scintillatingly entertaining numbers. Isabel Leonard is a Rosina who remains dignified even amidst the greatest indignities.

This is the rare comic production that understands that singing and acting don’t simply go along with the music, but are activated by it. Its personages are not literal but light, carried along in the euphoria and playfulness of comic patter. If the second half is a more straightforward telling of the tale, it could hardly do better than the first act’s superb visual and rhythmic structures. This is a Barber to admire and savour.