The Barber of Seville

Rossini and Barber

Gioachino Rossini was born in Pesaro, in 1792, to an impoverished couple who made their living as musicians on the fringe of musical life as it was known then. His father was the town trumpeter, a position which for the most part involved appearances at various civic and church ceremonies. His mother was a seamstress and a singer who appeared in productions at various provincial opera houses near Pesaro. For a time during Rossini’s childhood, both parents traveled around North Central Italy performing in opera, he in the orchestra, she onstage in minor roles, and it was from these experiences that the young composer had his first exposure to the art form. Recognizing his precocious talent, his parents arranged for piano lessons and instruction in basic composition. He entered the music academy in Bologna at the tender age of 14 and, once on his own, was writing short, one-act operatic farces for the Teatro San Moisé in Venice by the time he was eighteen. His first great success was La pietra del paragone which was given at La Scala in Milan in 1812. It was hailed by the author Stendhal as a work of comic genius. What distinguishes Rossini during this period is the seeming comfort he had with both comic and serious opera and the success bestowed upon him by his public in both genres. Between 1812 and 1816 he wrote the comedies Il Signor Bruschino, L’italiana in Algeri, Il turco in Italia and Barber. During the same period he produced an equal number of serious operas: Tancredi, Elisabetta, Aureliano in Palmira and Otello.

On December 26, 1815, Rossini was presented with a contract to produce a comic opera for the carnival season of the Teatro di Torre Argentina in Rome, just a few months later. Although it seems a short time to produce an opera from our standpoint, it was the custom in Italy for theatres to commission composers for upcoming seasons, even if they were only a few months away. But this contract was quite unique: signed at the end of December, the finished score was expected by the middle of January, with a full production of the opera to follow in February. That means that Rossini had little over a month to choose a libretto, write the score, orchestrate it and produce the recitatives. Even by early 19th century standards, this was an unusually rapid pace for production of an opera.

It was Cesare Sterbini, the librettist of Rossini’s most recent opera Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815), who suggested that he look at a libretto prepared for the composer Paisiello based on Beaumarchais’ Barber of Seville. Since it already existed and was a well-known entity, it would not take Rossini and Sterbini long to fashion it into a useable piece. After gaining the elder Paisiello’s permission to embark upon the same material that he had so successfully navigated before, Rossini and Sterbini set to work. The librettist produced the drama in twelve days and it’s been deduced from various contemporary sources that Rossini could not have written Barber in more than 19 or 20 days at most. This is incredibly fast work, particularly when you consider that Il barbiere di Siviglia is arguably the greatest opera buffa ever written. Rossini did, however, steal passages and motives from his own earlier works in order to hasten the process, but only a tune here, a melody there, and the complete reworking of earlier material in order to make it work in a new context. As was the custom at the time, the composer directed all of the staging rehearsals, coached all of the singers as well as the chorus and agreed to be present at the keyboard to conduct the first three performances (again, this was the custom in Italian opera houses at the time for new works). The first performance was on February 20, 1816 and despite Paisiello’s agreement that the young composer could write his own version of Barber, the older composer’s claque (a group of paid supporters) was in attendance, ready to pounce on the first sign of weakness.

Their first opportunity came with the entrance of the young Rossini into the pit before the performance of the overture. He had chosen to wear a foppish, Spanish style coat with large gold buttons, something the audience found amusingly pretentious, and so the catcalls and the laughter began. Then Manuel Garcia, the great tenor who was the first Count Almaviva, decided to accompany himself on the guitar in the serenade that opens his scene. While tuning the guitar onstage, a string broke, bringing more hissing and laughter. When Figaro bounded onstage a few minutes later, carrying yet another guitar, the audience’s reaction got worse. The singer portraying Basilio tripped over some badly placed scenery on his entrance and sang his entire aria with a handkerchief placed in front of his bloodied nose. Finally, a stray cat wandered onto the set in the finale of Act I, provoking Almaviva, Figaro, Rosina and Bartolo to chase it all over the stage. The poor creature finally took refuge under Rosina’s skirts, to the great amusement of the crowd.

During this entire fiasco, Rossini calmly led the orchestra and cast in their performance, rendered his bow after the final cadence, and went home. The next evening he feigned illness and stayed in bed, hoping to avoid the theatre at all costs. But the second performance must have gone much better; late that night he was awakened from a deep sleep by shouts of ‘bravo, bravissimo Figaro’ from the street in front of his apartment. The audience had come to shower praise on him for what he called “an unprecedented success”. From that performance on, The Barber of Seville was assured its place in opera history.

The Source of Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de Séville

Born in 1732, Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais was, like his character Figaro, a person who enjoyed many different professions during his life. He was a watchmaker, an instructor of harp, a judge, a diplomat and even, at one point, a spy. He was also a man of contradiction, having at one time purchased a noble title but at another time aligning himself with rebels involved in both the American and French revolutions and furnishing arms to them. Above all, however, he was a writer for the stage, his first theatrical efforts being produced when he was 25 years old.

The Barber of Seville (Le barbier de Séville) was the first in a cycle of three plays, all featuring the same characters whom we watch grow older and deal with different situations in their lives. These characters are Count Almaviva, the lovely Rosina who is the object of his affections, and his servant Figaro. In the first play Almaviva outwits the old doctor Bartolo in order to marry the doctor’s ward, Rosina, all the while helped by the machinations of his barber Figaro. In the second play, The Marriage of Figaro (Le mariage de Figaro), they’re a few years older. It is now the servant Figaro who outwits his aristocratic master. Figaro has to protect his new young bride Susanna from the Count who desires her. At the same time he tries to preserve the Count’s marriage to Rosina, who is now, of course, the Countess Almaviva. The third play, rarely revived these days, is called The Guilty Mother (La mere coupable). It takes place twenty years after the previous play, and involves the illegitimate children of the Count and Countess, the potential loss of their fortune and, again, the last minute redemption of his employers by Figaro’s wit and wisdom. (French composer Darius Milhaud’s La mere coupable, based on this last play in the trilogy, premiered in Geneva in 1966).

While Barber is pure comedy with roots in the works of Moliére, the second play (which later became Mozart’s great masterpiece Le nozze di Figaro) was heavily barbed and dangerously flirted with breaking down the barrier between master and servant. The Guilty Mother, however, has a darkness and cynicism that reflects the Revolutionary period during which it was produced and first staged in 1792.

It’s interesting to note that Beaumarchais wrote both Barber and Figaro with music in mind. The original Marriage of Figaro was one of the lengthiest plays written up to that point simply because there were so many musical numbers demanded by the author. And Barber was conceived as an opéra comique from its inception and was only rewritten as a straight stage play after it was rejected for production by the Theatre Italienne. And so it was eventually staged by the Comédie Française and has been a part of their repertoire ever since. Beaumarchais led a fascinating life filled with political intrigue and even imprisonment on more than one occasion, but to opera lovers he will be best known as having provided the source material for two of the greatest operas ever written.

The Music of The Barber of Seville

Rossini is readily accepted as the ‘inventor’ or creator of the Italian opera buffa or comic style. Even though he was as successful in his day in the opera seria or tragic operatic style, audiences today are much more comfortable with the musical language of Barbiere, L’Italiana and Cenerentola than they are with Tancredi, Semiramide or Guillaume Tell. One simple reason for that is the fact that elements of Rossini’s comic style ‘bled over’ into the standard Italian operatic style of the late 19th century. Even in the more serious operas of mid- to late-period Verdi and all of the Puccini operas, we hear melodies, orchestral techniques and musical ‘architecture’ that descended directly from the work of Rossini.

What are those elements of Rossini’s comic style? Let’s start with the orchestra. Overall, the tonal quality or color one hears in Barber can be described as bright, even brilliant. One can account for this by noticing Rossini’s favoring of the higher wind instruments of the orchestra. There are characteristic wind solos in all of the comedies that comment on the dramatic action, sometimes underlining their farcical nature. Brilliance is also added through the use of infectious rhythmic ideas, rhythmic ‘motifs’ or ‘cells’ that the composer will use to unify an aria, duet or other ensemble. These are most often given over to the violin section in the orchestra: they are short, highly energetic and immediately grab the attention of the listener. These ebullient ideas lend a sense of fun to the proceedings that is irresistible.

A more obvious element of the Rossini style is the characteristic crescendo which begins with a quietly stated rhythmic motif that is repeated over and over with the addition of instruments, voices and increased dynamics every couple of bars. This creates a sense of growing agitation and tension until it explodes in a blazing climax of instruments and soloists, all vying for simultaneous attention. This effect, so identified with Rossini, is used most successfully in the comedies’ first act finales where, typically, confusion reigns and the characters all run offstage to figure out how to solve their various dilemmas…hence a reason for all of us to return to our seats for a second act!

In terms of melodic style, Rossini learned much from Neapolitan folk music, its typical contours and characteristic ornaments. Tunes feature short phrases with repetitive rhythmic ideas that give unity to the line. Added to that, however, is the composer’s penchant for coloratura and fioriture, passages of sometimes extreme ornamentation that carry the emotional content of the text (and demand great virtuosity from the singer). In Rosina’s aria, “Una voce poco fa” the florid vocal line is meant to communicate her independence and forceful personality. In Almaviva’s “Ecco ridente in cielo”, similar passages denote the character’s joyful expectations of love.

Rossini composed for specific singers, tailoring his musical ideas to fit the color, texture and individual abilities of these artists. But a pattern emerges: tenor roles lie high and are more suited to lighter voices; comic heroines are often written as contralto or mezzo-soprano roles, the color of the voice lending a certain musical ‘truth’ to these characters’ strength and resourcefulness. Basses are given the more overtly comic roles or portray older characters that are often the brunt of the opera’s ‘joke’. These ‘doctors’, ‘guardians’ and ‘clerks’, obvious descendents of the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte tradition, are assigned patter songs which emphasize the more ridiculous nature of their characters’ positions in the operas.

In sum, all of Rossini’s compositional choices are at the service of the drama, and in Barber the choices are perfect!

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