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Gioachino Rossini: The Barber of Seville
Opera—the word means ‘the works’—is a synthesis of all the other arts: drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light, design; consequently, when it works it delivers an emotional impact none of the other arts can match. The only one of the arts whose origins can be precisely dated, it was ‘invented’ in Italy in 1597 as part of the Renaissance—the re-birth of interest in classical values. The name is Latin but the art form is truly international and crosses all linguistic and cultural barriers. It is probably the one art form whose audience continues to expand, not in spite of, but because of developments in entertainment technology.
From its early origins in Italy, opera spread across Europe establishing individual and distinctive schools in a number of countries. France had an early and long-standing love affair with the art—indeed the term grand opera is French and refers to the massive five-act creations which graced the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century. Germany had a marvellous school from as early as Mozart and the art form perhaps reached its highest achievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner. Russia, Great Britain and the Americas have made their contributions.
But in the popular imagination opera remains an Italian concept—and no wonder. From its earliest years Italians dominated the art: Monteverdi and Cavalli were early to establish its forms; there was a golden age, called the bel canto, at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti ruled supreme; Giuseppe Verdi was probably the most revered artist in history and, for many, Puccini represents, in every sense, the last word in a beloved art form.
If the twentieth century has not been as lavishly endowed with opera composers, it can still boast Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky and dozens more—and maybe, in the long run most significantly, those errant stepchildren of opera, the Broadway musical and the Lloyd Webber spectacular.
The Barber of Seville
For those in the know—which fortunately can include everyone—the very name of Rossini can bring a smile of pleasure to the lips. There is something infinitely satisfying about a composer who had a spectacularly successful career writing brilliant comedies and stirring tragedies, and who retired at the age of forty to a life of luxury, entertaining his friends and inventing such artery-clogging masterpieces as tournedos Rossini—a filet mignon with pate de foie gras melted over it.
There is something admirable about a composer who, late for a deadline, simply lifted the overture from one of his tragedies and pasted it to the front of his
most successful comedy (this present work). And something that appeals to us all is a composer who wrote arias while seated up in bed surrounded by over-stuffed pillows. One day a tenor aria fell off the bed, and he was too lazy to get out of bed to fetch it—so he wrote another.
But, of course, that was later on. The early life of such an artist would be bound to be difficult, even if Rossini had to conspire at times to make it so. He chose as the subject of his spring 1816 offering, the play Le Barbier de Seville, a work which, in its pre-French Revolutionary time, was regarded as subversive.
Furthermore several—some say as many as 36—operatic versions of the play already existed, including one by a then-popular composer, Paisiello, whose name is now forgotten.
So Rossini was asking for trouble—and he got it. The first night at the Teatro Argentina, (the theatre is still there, just across from the bus terminal in
downtown Rome), was a famous fiasco. The performance was virtually drowned out by the cat-calls and whistles of a vociferous Roman mob. Heart-broken but undaunted, Rossini returned to the podium for the next performance, which went well—and the opera has never been out of the repertory since. It is likely that it has been performed somewhere every night of its life since the spring of 1816.
The characters—the witless aristocrat, the scheming servant, the guileful maiden and the bullying old guardian—are the stock characters of commedia dell’ arte but are elevated by Rossini’s brilliantly witty and tuneful score to high and hilarious art.
Count Almaviva wants to wed the lovely Rosina, who is fiercely protected by her guardian Doctor Bartolo. Figaro is barber, and factotum, to the household and he will help bring the lovers together. An oily clergyman and a plain but lascivious housekeeper complete the small cast. The result is one of the most completely enjoyable works ever created for the theatre of any nation.
But we should not let the humour and the delight of the piece cloud us either to its skill or to the skills needed to perform it. Rossini brilliantly dresses each of
the characters in his or her own musical clothing: the mercurial Figaro, the blustering Bartolo, the tender but knowing Rosina—and so on. In addition he departs from the um chum-chum accompaniments of the day to provide some scintillating orchestral work, including one or two outings for the eponymous and exhilarating Rossini crescendo.
And, perhaps most important, if you wanted to go on working in the wonderful world of Italian Opera, he provided dazzling vocal opportunities for the vain primi of both sexes, those gorgeous exponents of the arts of bel canto who were the combination classical superstars, rock stars and show biz celebrities of the day. He gave them superb opportunities to display their wonderful vocal techniques; runs, trills, breathtaking ensembles, exhilarating patter songs and, where appropriate lovely melodies.
His roles continue to attract the very best singers of every age; or at least those who have the youth, flexibility of voice and, preferably, physical charm to carry
off such a demanding combination of musicianship and stage craft.