Robert’s Notes: The Barber of Seville

Next Saturday, January 29th, NWLA will be taking a group to enjoy the wonders and humor of Seattle Opera’s The Barber of Seville. Our discounted group tickets have been going fast, but a few are still available! (Call 360-321-2101 or email [email protected]) NWLA supporter, Robert Crawford, kindly gave us his expert opinion and inside look into Rossini’s classic comedy.

barber of seville

The Barber of Seville(1816)
by Gioachino Rossini (February 29, 1792 – November 13, 1868)

The Barber of Seville is one of the core war horses of the opera standard repertoire and is the most often performed of Rossini’s 38 operas, though some others are just as good and important. These include The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813), La Cenerentola (1817), Semiramide (1823), La Gazza Ladra, Tancrède (based on Voltaire) and William Tell (1829). These last two contrast as heroic dramas to the former which are medium light comedies. For 15 years Rossini was the dominant voice of Italian opera at the heart of the Bel Canto era in the early 19th century.

The most curious aspect of Rossini’s later years is that he wrote no operas after 1829. The catch saying is that in his first 38 years he wrote 38 operas followed by 38 more years of life in which he wrote no operas. The undersigned fancies this early retirement was likely influenced the failure of what was probably his most important, ambitious and final stage effort William Tell (1829) to have the impact he expected and had reaped in earlier works. Even today, with composer its much admired, most opera aficionados, such as myself, have never had an opportunity to catch a production of William Tell. The most likely place to see it, and others of those 38, would be at the annual summer festival in the town of the composer’s birth, Pesaro, which is on the Adriatic coast about half way up the Italian peninsula.

It is not really necessary to know much background to enjoy The Barber of Seville. Legend has it that Rossini wrote it in 23 days. It is a fun romp throughout and does not directly have a whole lot of message. However, for anyone at all historically minded, note must be taken that it echoes the loaded political reverberations of the original three work series from around 1780 of the crucial Frenchman at the crux of various developments impinging on the soon to be demise of the ancient regime in France and social upheaval throughout Europe, namely Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).

I must now digress to point out these dates also fit George Washington who connects to Beaumarchais because this key figure helped convince his watch-making pupil-hobbyist, King Louis XVI, to send the French fleet to Yorktown, Va. in 1781 under de Grasse. That fleet bottled up the British under Cornwallis from escape by sea thus enabling Washington’s quick pinch by land heights to force the British surrender and win the revolution. Maybe, or maybe not, knowing this nugget will enhance your enjoyment of Figaro doing Largo Factotum and the rest of the opera.

But to return to the main political import of the series by Beaumarchais. Such is more central in the second work of the series Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro – Italian libretto version for W.A. Mozart) by Lorenzo DaPonte. This opera is every bit as popular as The Barber and, in fact, is the greater and more important of the two operas, partially because the social implications of Beaumarchais is far more in evidence than it is in The Barber. So Mozart’s masterpiece was done in Vienna within very few years of the original and a quarter century before the Rossini piece, it is best to see the first of the series (Barber) first, and have it in mind when you see Marriage. But one must see and understand both works to have it all properly. Both evolve around fast fading aristocratic privileges of the Count ultimately shown to be of small consequence compared to the triumphant maneuvers of the wily commoner Figaro. In The Barber, those ploys benefit the Count’s objective to win the winsome Rosina (also wily), whereas in The Marriage they serve to frustrate the Counts extra-curricular amorous objectives for Susanna (yet another wily one). I forgo a reprise of the plots because I feel that their lively unfolding, with the aid of titles, is the proper way to receive the best experience. My Arts Converge approach of showing both Italian AND English texts, line by line, unfortunately is not yet accepted by Seattle Opera.

Of course other composers also made adaptations. I actually saw one such in Dresden in 1993 with exactly the same scene by scene sequence as Rossini’s version. It worked well and the music was pretty good. I don’t remember the name of the composer, but it was not Paisiello (whose version was much earlier). The date of this piece was just a tad before Rossini’s (1816), which leads me to suspect that book-wise piracy was involved. In the case of Mozart it is out of the question that an alternate version could compete, but there apparently was a musical production in the Rhineland of The Marriage just a year before Wolfgang and Lorenzo put theirs together. My Italian musicologist friend, Luca Bianchini, offers evidence that there are musical as well as dramatic relationships between this now quite forgotten effort and the much cherished masterpiece.

From the latter half of Rossini’s life, about the only compositions of his now played are the Stabit Mater and the much different comic cat duet (an encore favorite). Of course there may or may not be minor gems out there. During these decades he cuts a distinctive figure as a gourmand food expert and bon-vivant. The famous woman in life was his super-star prima donna of a number of his works and wife of 15 years, Isabella Colbran.

When attending a production of The Barber note the famous long developing accelerando-crescendo in the overture (a signature device of most of Rossini’s overtures). This same device is also utilized in the aria La Calunia, which describes how a rumor starts off very tiny and grows and grows and grows. Other favorites include the aforementioned Largo Factum – the ultimate servant – and Una Voce Poco Fa by Rosina, usually sung by a mezzo, which is a rare voice assignment for soubrette character. The ensemble scenes are unfailingly lively and funny.

There are a couple of pieces from this Opera on my website.

-Robert Ellis Crawford
President, REC Music Foundation