Since she arrived in 2008, Boston Lyric Opera’s general and artistic director Esther Nelson has faced the delicate task of revitalizing the company and refreshing its repertoire without alienating its core subscribership. Every season becomes, to various degrees, an act of shuttle diplomacy between different constituencies with divergent visions of what this company might become. (And there is of course even more interest in this question now that the city has just one major company.)
This year, a full one-half of the operas on offer are by living composers, a figure that would have once seemed unimaginable. But the old BLO still exists alongside the new. Just weeks after its site-specific production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s bracing chamber opera “The Lighthouse,’’ the company has returned to the familiar, with an amiably traditional staging of Rossini’s much-loved “Barber of Seville.’’
Unlike more experimentally inclined BLO productions of “Carmen’’ and “Macbeth,’’ this one - directed by Doug Varone, with scenery from Minnesota Opera and costumes from Washington National Opera - has no interpretive agenda for Rossini’s timelessly effervescent comedy. Its broader goal seems to be reassurance, essentially to say: “Don’t worry, we can still be this kind of company too.’’ A large audience was in attendance on Friday night at the Shubert Theatre and seemed to walk out on cloud nine.
In Act II of “Barber,’’ Count Almaviva shows up disguised as a music master, claiming that Don Basilio is too sick to give Rosina her music lesson. In this case, life imitated art, and before a note was sung, Nelson told the crowd that BLO’s own Don Basilio, the fine young bass-baritone David Cushing, was in fact battling a cold. Cushing sang anyway - and sounded little worse for the wear - but the performance omitted his “La Calunnia’’ aria, whose absence was felt.
The vocal performances overall were strong, if a shade two-dimensional. The biggest cheers at the other end of the night went to Sarah Coburn as Rosina, an alluring and nimble soprano with big ringing top notes. John Tessier, who recently sang in Mendelssohn’s “Lobgesang’’ with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, deployed a robust and well-controlled tenor as Almaviva, and Jonathan Beyer had both the vocal heft and physical vigor to make a likable if slightly generic Figaro. Steven Condy stood out with a more multivalent Bartolo, suffocating his ward but also pitiable as he was outwitted at every turn. Much work was done with ornate backdrops. Varone brought plenty of physical comedy to the famous ensemble scenes.
One happy development at BLO has been the audible pulling together of the orchestra under music director David Angus. On Friday there were a few moments of disconnect between stage and pit during the choral singing early in Act I, but overall the orchestra sounded notably secure in some of the more treacherously exposed portions of Rossini’s score, and Angus’s pacing had an elegance that, without seeming breathless, projected the vitality of this remarkably buoyant score.