Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker


Il Barbiere di Siviglia chat by Léonard Rosmarin

Posted by leonardrosmarin on May 4, 2015 at 9:30 AM

It’s hard to believe that Giaochino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, one of the most popular comic operas of all time, was an abysmal failure at its first performance in Rome in 1816. A combination of circumstances can explain this. Fans of a rival composer, Paisiello, who himself had written a highly successful Barber of Seville, were determined to see it flop. Then the performance was plagued by all kinds of hitches that represent every singer’s nightmare: Manuel Garcia, the tenor playing Count Almaviva, used a guitar that was badly out of tune; Zenobio Vitarelli, singing the slimy music master, Basilio, fell and bloodied himself; then a stray cat bounded on the stage, causing mayhem and provoking gales of laughter in the audience when it got entangled in the prima donna’s skirts. Rossini did not blow his cool. He did not respond with outraged contempt to his public’s gross conduct. He reworked his score carefully, and six months later mounted the opera again in Bologna. With a stupefying immediacy it was hailed by audiences there and everywhere else as a summit of comic and lyrical theatre.

It does not often happen that a literary text and the opera inspired by it are completely worthy of one another. For example, Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca would have sunk into oblivion were it not for the crackling electricity of Puccini’s opera by the same name. Even a high quality piece of literature like the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée owes a good part of its fame today to Georges Bizet’s celebrated opera about the wanton Gypsy. Without the French composer’s glorious music, Carmen would probably be little more than the story of a one-night stand gone wrong rather than a confrontation between two elemental forces programmed by a malevolent fate to destroy one another. We have no such reservations as concerns the original subversive play by Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais, Le Barbier de Séville, produced in 1775, that is, four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and its operatic equivalent, Il barbiere. Here we have a perfect fit. In his own inimitable way, Rossini, with the help of his astute librettist, Cesare Sterbini, succeeded in conveying through music the effervescent, infectious spirit of the original comedy. And so, I would like to demonstrate to you why Le Barbier de Séville and Il barbiere di Siviglia complement one another beautifully.

Let’s look first of all at the principal characters. In both the play and the opera, they have the same vividness and individuality. Rossini brilliantly effects their reincarnation in musical terms, starting with the undisputed hero, Figaro. His inexhaustible energy, exuberant love of life, quick-wittedness, talent for plotting, wheedling, wheeling and dealing fairly clamour for a musical treatment. In the French play, Figaro is Beaumarchais’ transparent spokesman denouncing an unjust social and political order. He voices the same kind of subversive revolutionary ideas that would lead to the eventual collapse of the Old Regime. Since music unfolds more slowly than the spoken word, Rossini and his librettist simply did not have the time at their disposal to allow their hero to express these views. But this isn’t necessary. Through his actions Figaro proves that he deserves to be at the top rather than near the bottom of the existing social hierarchy.

Figaro is clearly superior in resourcefulness to his former master, Count Almaviva. Without his assistance, the ardent young Count would never have been able to penetrate the otherwise unassailable fortress in which the paranoid Dr. Bartolo has imprisoned his ward, the lovely Rosina, and marry her in less than 24 hours. It is Figaro who urges Almaviva to dress up as a drunken soldier in the first act and get himself billeted in Bartolo’s home in order to declare his love to the lady of his heart. It is Figaro, as Bartolo’s barber, who insists on shaving the suspicious guardian in the second act while Almaviva, disguised this time as a fake, obsequious music master, is giving a singing lesson to his beloved. Thanks to his ingeniousness, Figaro provokes pandemonium in order to distract Bartolo and allow the lovers to plot their escape. Finally, it is Figaro who saves the day in extremis when it seems as though the lovers’ dream of a happy married life is doomed.

Rossini draws a stunning musical portrait of his high-octane hero in one of the most famous arias ever written, “Largo al factotum,” that I translate freely as “Make way for the fixer!” Here one cannot help but be astounded by the skill with which Rossini mixes farcical accents and the expression of a complex and deep humanity. With its prancing musical accompaniment, its witty imitative effects, the clarity of its harmonic texture, its brilliant ornamentation and inexhaustible melodic invention, it’s not surprising that “Largo al factotum” has become the very emblem of Rossini’s genius.

Rosina is the only other character in the opera who can compete with Figaro as far as plotting is concerned. In fact, in the first act he is astounded to discover that she is several steps ahead of him when she hands him the letter of encouragement he was going to ask her to write to the Count. Just like Figaro, Rosina derives an intellectual pleasure from causing mischief. She will not willingly allow herself to be trampled on. In our 21st century, we consider it perfectly normal and natural for women to combat male tyranny in all its forms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, adolescent girls like Rosina (she is only 16) were expected to be docile, demur and submissive. It was not uncommon for them to be married off against their will to unattractive rich men old enough to be their grandfathers, in which case if they were spunky like Rosina, they could only hope that their elderly husbands would drop dead shortly afterwards from obvious causes, and leave them with lots of money and the freedom to finally lead the life they wanted. Even a man as enlightened as the 19th century French novelist, Stendahl, stated à propos of the duet “Dunque io son?” that Rosina sings with Figaro: ‘I will never believe that a girl’s love, even in Rome, could be devoid of melancholy and, I dare to say it, of a certain bloom of delicacy and shyness…’. He likened Rosina to a “lively widow” rather than a young girl. Clearly, just like the arrogant and disrespectful Figaro, Rosina had awakened sleeping fears and deep-rooted anxieties in so-called “public opinion” of the time. Her famous aria, “Una voce poco fa,” (A voice resonates in my heart) reveals a vivacious girl who is also a cunning piece of baggage. The rather sharp flavour of the E major Andante instrumental introduction, with its trills and runs, puts to rest any misgivings we might have about Rosina being naïve. The flashing coloratura passages with which her aria is laced evoke a very self-assured, even cocky young lady who would not hesitate to act like a viper if provoked.

Count Almaviva is worthy of the unconditional love Rosina feels for him, at least in this particular opera. In the sequel, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), we will see how his predilection for adventure leads to philandering on an unbridled scale. But in Il barbiere di Siviglia, we perceive in him a purity and nobility of heart that are truly admirable. He passes himself off as a poor student by the name of Lindoro precisely because he wants to be loved for himself rather than for his aristocratic stature, power, and fortune. In fact he does not reveal his identity to Rosina until he feels compelled to do so in order to negate the false accusation, levelled by Bartolo, that he has betrayed her. The Count is irresistibly attracted to Rosina because of the mystery that surrounds her and the drama involved in winning her hand. He is excited by the prospect of penetrating into the building where she is sequestered, liberating her from her tyrannical guardian, and conquering her love. His courtship unfolds like a roller-coaster novel of chivalry, and he sees himself as the knight designated by Providence to rescue a beautiful damsel in distress. The two arias he sings in the first act, inspired by his love for Rosina, reflect the sentiments dominating his heart: ardent longing and jubilation.

To achieve their ends, however, Figaro, Rosina and the Count must contend with two redoubtable enemies: the oily, smarmy priest, Basilio, who is Rosina’s music master, and the lecherous old curmudgeon Bartolo, who is determined to marry her with Basilio’s help. Of the two, Basilio is the less despicable. Like Figaro and Rosina, he derives an intellectual pleasure from engaging in intrigue. But whereas Figaro and Rosina are fighting for a noble cause, Basilio would sell himself to the devil (or anyone else for that matter) if there were lots of money to be made during the transaction. His famous aria, La calunia (Slander), depicts his sleeplessly scheming nature. In it he describes to Bartolo how he can utterly ruin the Count’s reputation by spreading false rumours about him. Basilio seems to imply that slander acts like an insidious poison, leeching its way through the collective consciousness, acquiring more and more strength and virulence as it spreads. The music in this aria evokes endlessly expanding concentric circles of fallacies that feed on one another until the perfect storm of hatred is created. It then irrupts with a cyclonic violence: “Come colpo di canone” (Like a canon blast), he exclaims triumphantly. In the final analysis, what saves Basilio from being utterly contemptible is his pragmatism. He knows when the game is over. When the Count orders him to be a witness to the signing of the marriage contract and gives him the choice of a purse of gold or two bullets through his head, Basilio doesn’t hesitate for a second.

Bartolo would be a merely laughable figure if he weren’t so intelligent. It is very difficult for Figaro and the two lovers to outwit him because he is so very perspicacious. Being paranoid simply heightens this perspicacity. In his aria, a long-winded, self-righteous rant, “Un dottore della mia sorte” (A doctor of my vintage), he warns Rosina that he will take whatever action he deems necessary in order to safeguard her virtue, including locking her up in her room in such a way that not even air will be able to filter in. As I deciphered his statement, I discovered in it a very revealing subtext: Bartolo finds his ward all the more fascinating because she does not conform to his ideal of the docile, submissive female that he can completely dominate. He is really hung up between the kind of woman he thinks he wants and the brazen little hussy he accuses Rosina of being but who alone can still, at his advanced age, excite him sexually.

These two opposing camps, Basilio and Bartolo on one side, Figaro, Rosina and the Count on the other, are constantly striving to outwit one another. It is inevitable, then that the action in Il barbiere, just like in the play that inspired it, resembles a revved up racing car skidding wildly across the roadway and coming perilously close to careening into the ditch. The situations in which the characters find themselves appear quite implausible when judged by the standard of ordinary reality. But opera does not depict ordinary reality. Opera thrives on poetic fantasy and we find it here in bountiful abundance. Taking his cue from Beaumarchais, Rossini and his librettist create rapports de force between the various personages in their opera that reveal the potential for anarchy, chaos and even insanity in human existence. In the first scene of the first act we see the musicians unleashing an infernal racket in their desire to express their gratitude to the Count. Later on in this act, when the militia enters Bartolo’s house to quell what they think is a riot, the characters burst into near-cacophonous chatter, followed by stunned silence as soon as Almaviva reveals his identity to the police, then, utterly bewildered, are drawn into a musical vortex as the act ends. In Act II, Rosina, Figaro, Almaviva and Bartolo all want to get rid of Basilio for different reasons. For once in complete agreement, and all lying brazenly, they tell him he has the symptoms of scarlet fever and practically push him out of the house. In this quintet, a most cynically delicious piece, the phrase “Buona sera, mio signore (“Good night, Sir), recurs again and again to side splitting effect. No wonder Berta, Bartolo.s servant, complains bitterly that she is living in a madhouse!

To conjure up this atmosphere of whimsy bordering on madness, director Joan Font, choreographer Xevi Dorca and lighting designer, Albert Faura, give the opera a mind-boggling cartoonish interpretation. In the opening scene, the men’s chorus has a large assortment of multicoloured guitars, with an oversized pink-and-green one that doubles as a platform for Count Almaviva to serenade Rosina. Later on, the singers climb aboard a massive pink piano that doubles as a writing desk, banquet table, and boudoir for the young lovers. All through the opera, the designs are unstable, that is, you never know what they are going to turn into next. And just outside Bartolo’s house stands an archetypal tree, symbolizing the irrepressible force of life and youth. It is often framed in vivid, warm colours. If this were not enough, as though to underscore the power of money in achieving happiness, 100 dollar bills rain down on the audience at the end of the performance.

As the good-humoured turbulence of Il barbiere di Siviglia comes to an end, Rosina and the Count are wed, and the whole entourage showers blessings upon them. But will their relationship endure? Those of you who are familiar with the French literary sequel, Le Mariage de Figaro and its operatic version, Le Nozze di Figaro, know that it will be severely tested. As I emphasized earlier, the Count’s penchant for amorous adventures will lead to non-stop skirt chasing. Even though Rosina will eventually forgive him, one senses that she will need the patience of a saint to put up with her roving husband. But why worry about what will happen to the lovers once the curtain falls? Let’s stay in the euphoric mood this opera generates and let’s believe that Rosina and her adoring Count will indeed live happily ever after.

Thank you for joining me for another chat on opera!

Leonard Rosmarin





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1 Comment

Reply Opera Lover
9:09 AM on May 13, 2015 
You've done it again, Leonard! This is a splendid analysis of Rossini's comic masterpiece, showing the connections to its literary sources, taking in the social and political background, and letting us glimpse what will happen in the sequel. I liked especially your appraisal of the characters and the way you showed how the music reflects them Bravissimo!