185. Il barbiere di Siviglia / The Barber of Seville (Rossini)

IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, OSSIA L’INUTILE PRECAUZIONE (THE BARBER OF SEVILLE)

  • Opera buffa in 2 acts
  • Composer: Gioachino Rossini
  • Libretto: Cesare Sterbini, after Beaumarchais
  • First performed: Teatro Argentina, Rome, 20 February 1816

SETTING: Seville, Spain, the 18th century

CHARACTERS: COUNT ALMAVIVA (tenor); DR. BARTOLO (bass); ROSINA, his ward (contralto); FIGARO, a barber (baritone); DON BASILIO, Rosina’s music teacher (bass); BERTA, Rosina’s governess (soprano); FIORILLO, Almaviva’s servant (bass); AMBROGIO, Bartolo’s servant (bass)

ORIGINAL CAST: Manuel Garcia as Count Almaviva); Bartolomeo Botticelli as Dr. Bartolo; Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi as Rosina; Luigi Zamboni as Figaro; Zenobio Vitarelli as Don Basilio; Elisabetta Loyselet as Berta; Paolo Biagelli as Fiorello


The Barber of Seville is Rossini’s most famous and popular opera – the ninth most performed opera in the world, according to Operabase. Verdi considered it the most beautiful opera buffa ever written, with its abundance of real music ideas, its comic verve, and its truthful declamation.

Popular though it is, the Barber is neither Rossini’s best nor his most interesting opera. It’s an amusing, sometimes brilliant, farce; I’ve seen it live a few times, and enjoyed it, but it doesn’t reach the heights of the Naples operas or Matilde di Shabran. Some of the music is simplistic or trivial, and too many numbers begin with the same two attention-grabbing chords. The action, too, is slow; the opera doesn’t really get going until it moves inside Bartolo’s house.

The Teatro Argentina, Rome, commissioned the opera for the start of the 1816 Carnival season. Rossini wrote the opera in 13 days – cribbing from his earlier works. Paisiello’s (boring) version was still a favourite work, particularly with older opera-goers. The 23-year-old took the precaution of writing to the old man to get his approval. He and his librettist even called their opera Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione, to avoid competition. Paisiello was jealous of Rossini after the triumph of Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra in Naples, but smiled, gave his approval – and wrote to his friends to see that the opera didn’t succeed.

The first performance was an utter disaster. The Romans found the start of the opera boring and inferior to Paisiello, Stendhal notes; “they looked in vain for his naïve, inimitable grace and simplicity”. Rosina’s aria seemed out of character; Rossini had made a virago out of an ingénue. They were bored with the commonplace things in Act II, and shouted for the curtain to be lowered.

We turn to the account Clément gives in his Dictionnaire des opéras (1869). Paisiello’s lackeys were posted throughout the opera house, while Rossini’s friends, intimidated by the failure of Torvaldo e Dorliska, were not brave enough to support the new work wholeheartedly.

The tenor Manuel Garcia, singing Almaviva, replaced “Ecco ridente in cielo”, the air he sang under Rosina’s balcony, with a Spanish melody he had arranged himself, thinking it would give local colour – but the guitar was untuned, a string broke, and the tenor was hooted and whistled, while the pit ironically imitated the song. Then came Figaro’s cavatina, the famous “Largo al factotum”. The prelude could be heard; but when Luigi Zamboni entered carrying another guitar, the audience dissolved into fits of laughter, and the cabal made so much noise not a single note could be heard. Rosina appeared on the balcony; and the public, who loved the singer, were ready to applaud the cavatina they expected. Unfortunately, she had to say: Segui, o caro, de’ segui cosi: “Continue, my darling, continue like that.” The audience collapsed with mirth. The jeers continued throughout Almaviva and Figaro’s duet; the work therefore seemed doomed. Finally, Rosina appeared, and sang the impatiently awaited cavatina. Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi’s youth, her popularity, the beauty of her voice earned her an ovation. Three bursts of prolonged applause raised hopes the work would be popular. Rossini, seated at the piano, rose, bowed, then whispered to the singer: “O nature!” The storm resumed immediately; Figaro and Rosina’s duet was whistled. The Don Basilio fell over a trapdoor and almost broke his nose; he sang his calumny aria with a handkerchief pressed to his face, trying to staunch the blood. The audience thought this was stage business in bad taste, and hissed again. A cat ran across the stage at the start of the Act I finale; chased by Figaro and Bartolo, it ran up Rosina’s skirts. As the noise increased, it was impossible to hear a single phrase of the finale. All the whistlers in Italy, Castil-Blaze said, seemed to have assembled in the theatre. When the curtain fell, Rossini turned to the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and clapped his hands. The spectators were, it is said, deeply wounded by his contempt for public opinion; but gave no sign of disapproval. They reserved their revenge for the second act; it was as cruel as possible, for not one note could be heard. “Never,” exclaimed one writer, “never did such an outrageous outburst dishonor the performance of a dramatic work.” Rossini, however, appeared perfectly calm, and left the theatre with the same tranquility as if it had been the opera of one of his colleagues. After undressing, the lead singers rushed to his home to console him for the misadventure. They found him fast asleep.

The next night, Rossini stayed away from the theatre, pleading illness. This time, the Romans decided to listen to the opera. The work was a total success. The public recognized, Stendhal wrote, that if Rossini didn’t have Paisiello’s merits – his naïve, inimitable grace and simplicity – at least he didn’t have his languor. Rossini later described the reception:

“I was sleeping peacefully when I was awakened by a deafening uproar out in the street, accompanied by a brilliant glow of torches. As soon as I got up, I saw that they were coming in my direction. Still half asleep, and remembering the scene of the preceding night, I thought that they were coming to set fire to the building, and I saved myself by going to a stable at the back of the courtyard. But lo, after a few moments, I heard Garcia calling me at the top of his voice. He finally located me. “Get a move on, you. Come on, now. Listen to those shouts of ‘Bravo, bravissimo Figaro.’ An unprecedented success. The street is full of people. They want to see you.” But still heartbroken over my new jacket gone to the devil, I answered, “Fuck them and their bravos and all the rest. I’m not coming out of here.” I don’t know how poor Garcia phrased my refusal to that turbulent throng. In fact, he was hit in the eye by an orange, which gave him a black eye for several days. Meanwhile, the uproar in the street increased more and more.”

The Barber of Seville was launched; within a decade, it had conquered the world.

The famous Overture, with its helter-skelter finish, was first used in Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d’ Inghilterra. While those operas’ Act I finales quote from the overture, its wit and brio are better suited to this comedy.

Count Almaviva has fallen in love with Rosina, ward of peevish old Dr. Bartolo, who plans to marry her himself. The Count woos Rosina disguised as a poor student, Lindoro; he wants to be loved for himself, not for his title.

Act I opens in an open square in Seville, near dawn. Musicians assemble outside Dr. Bartolo’s window to serenade the girl; the Introduzione (No. 1: ‘Piano, pianissimo’) comes from Sigismondo, a flop. The Count’s cavatina (No. 2: ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’) consists of a dreamy largo (recycled from Aureliano in Palmira), and an ornately decorated allegro for the tenor to show off his coloratura. Vocalism in bel canto is the equivalent of a bird’s mating plumage; the successful male is the one who makes the most brilliant display. In a rather conventional allegro vivace (No. 3: ‘Eh! Fiorello!’), the musicians thank the Count for his largesse as he tries to shoo them away. Figaro’s entrance aria (No. 4: Cavatina: ‘Largo al factotum’) is one of the most famous tunes in opera: a lively bravura piece calling for fleet patter and vocal agility.

Accompanying himself on a guitar, the Count sings to Rosina (No. 5: Canzone: ‘Se il mio nome saper’); she responds, but is interrupted by Dr. Bartolo. The first audiences felt cheated of a proper entrance aria for the prima donna. Figaro hatches a scheme to get the Count into the house: disguise himself as a drunk soldier, pass a message to Rosina, and elope with her that night. Their duet (No. 6: ‘All’idea di quel metallo’) is one of the lesser numbers in the opera. The opening plotting sequence is rather dull and obvious; it goes on far too long, especially the Count’s ‘Che si fa? … Ma perchè?’ and Figaro’s ‘Che invenzione’. The stretta (‘Ah che d’amore la fiamma o sento’) is better. Stendhal thought part of the duet was Rossini’s masterpiece in this style.

The second half of Act I moves into Dr. Bartolo’s house. Rosina’s cavatina (No. 7: ‘Una voce poco fa’) is one of the better pieces in the score, tunefully characterizing the willful heroine. It is a two-part aria: andante (I love Lindoro, and will have him) and moderato (I’m sweet and obedient – BUT if anyone thwarts me: watch out!). The moderato comes from Aureliano.

The scheming music master Don Basilio’s aria (No. 8: ‘La calumnia è un venticello’) is as much crescendo effect with picturesque accompaniment as it is a tune; the Romans thought it magnificent and original. While effective, it’s hardly original; the start comes from Aureliano, and the crescendo from Sigismondo. Figaro passes Lindoro’s message to Rosina – and is taken aback to find she’s already written her lover a note. Stendhal called their allegro duet (No. 9: ‘Dunque io son’) the triumph of Rossini’s style; it’s a lively, tuneful piece: she delighted, he  half in love with her slyness. One section comes from La cambiale di matrimonio. When I first heard the Barber almost 20 years ago, Dr. Bartolo’s patter aria (No. 10: ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’) was my favourite piece in the act; in a pompous andante maestoso and tetchy allegro vivace, the tutor accuses his ward of lying, and threatens to lock her away. One orchestral motif comes from Il signor Bruschino.

In the finale (No. 11: ‘Eh, di casa!’), the Count, disguised as a drunken soldier, insults the old man, makes love to Rosina under his nose, and loses his temper. A quarrel breaks out between the three; Figaro and Don Basilio try to calm them down; and the guard arrive to arrest the Count – but he reveals his identity to them. The sextet (No. 11a: ‘Fredda ed immobile’) is a splendid largo concertato of stupefaction, and the opera ends in a tremendous stretta (No. 11b: ‘Ma Signor … Mi par d’esser colla testa’). Rossini borrowed part of it from the Act II finale of Spontini’s Vestale.

Act II is musically and dramatically slighter. The Count enters Dr. Bartolo’s house disguised as Don Basilio’s assistant, come to give Rosina her singing lesson; Stendhal found the duettino (No. 12: ‘Pace e gioia sia con voi’) as tiresome as the tutor does. Prime donne often replaced Rosina’s formal aria (No. 13: ‘Contro un cor che accende amore’) with one of their choice. Dr. Bartolo waxes nostalgic for the old style of singing in a mincing, antiquated arietta (No. 14: ‘Quando mi sei vicina’). The best piece in the act is the quintet (No. 15: ‘Don Basilio! – Cosa veggo!’); it includes an unwelcome visit from Don Basilio (‘Buona sera!’), while Bartolo’s discovery of the lovers’ tryst launches a stretta.

The housekeeper Berta’s aria (No. 16: ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’) was often a sign for the audience to buy icecreams; her aria di sorbetto – based on a Russian folk song – is a tuneful allegro, deserving better. Dr. Bartolo tells Rosina that her ‘Lindoro’ is really a procurer in the Count’s service; horrified, she agrees to marry her guardian.

The scene changes to Rosina’s bedroom; one of Rossini’s best storms (No. 17: Temporale, recycled from La pietra del paragone) breaks over the house. Rosina and Figaro steal into her room to elope; she confronts ‘Lindoro’, then melts when he reveals that he is really the Count. In an attractive, lively trio (No. 18: ‘Ah, quel colpo inaspettato’), the three prepare to flee – only to find that the ladder is gone. One tune was reused from an earlier cantata. Dr. Bartolo tries to face them down, whereupon the Count discards his plebeian mien, and turns his aristocratic contempt on the unfortunate tutor. The elaborate aria (No. 18: ‘Cessa di più resistere’) is a coloratura challenge to make all but the most versatile of Rossinian tenors baulk. (Luigi Alva, for instance, didn’t sing it in the benchmark Abbado recording.) Rossini reused the piece as the aria finale of La Cenerentola. The opera ends with a jolly vaudeville sextet and chorus (No. 20: ‘Amore e fede eterna’).


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
  • Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
  • Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
  • Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824

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