The Barber of Seville‘s Disastrous Debut (1816)
The Barber of Seville
The Barber of Seville, or The Futile Precaution (Italian: Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzione) is an opera buffa in two acts by Gioachino Rossini with an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The libretto was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s French comedy Le Barbier de Séville (1775). The première of Rossini’s opera (under the title Almaviva, o sia L’inutile precauzione) took place on 20 February 1816 at the Teatro Argentina, Rome.
Rossini’s Barber has proven to be one of the greatest masterpieces of comedy within music, and has been described as the opera buffa of all “opere buffe”. Even after two hundred years, its popularity on the modern opera stage attests to that greatness.
Rossini’s opera recounts the first of the plays from the Figaro trilogy, by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, while Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro, composed 30 years earlier in 1786, is based on the second part of the Beaumarchais trilogy. The first Beaumarchais play was originally conceived as an opéra comique, but was rejected as such by the Comédie-Italienne. The play as it is now known was premiered in 1775 by the Comédie-Française at the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
Other operas based on the first play were composed by Giovanni Paisiello (Il barbiere di Siviglia, 1782), by Nicolas Isouard (1796), and by Francesco Morlacchi (1816). Though the work of Paisiello triumphed for a time, only Rossini’s version has stood the test of time and continues to be a mainstay of operatic repertoire. On 11 November 1868, two days before Rossini’s death, the composer Costantino Dall’Argine (1842–1877), premiered an opera based on the same libretto as Rossini’s work, bearing a dedication to Rossini. The premiere was not a failure, but critics condemned the “audacity” of the young composer, and the work is now forgotten.
Rossini was well known for being remarkably productive, completing an average of two operas per year for 19 years, and in some years writing as many as four. Musicologists believe that, true to form, the music for Il Barbiere di Siviglia was composed in just under three weeks, although some of the themes in the famous overture were actually borrowed from two earlier Rossini operas, Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.
The premiere of Rossini’s opera was a disastrous failure: the audience hissed and jeered throughout, and several on-stage accidents occurred. However, many of the audience were supporters of one of Rossini’s rivals, Giovanni Paisiello, who played on mob mentality to provoke the rest of the audience to dislike the opera. Paisiello had already composed The Barber of Seville and took Rossini’s new version to be an affront to his version. In particular, Paisiello and his followers were opposed to the use of basso buffo, which is common in comic opera. The second performance met with quite a different fate, becoming a roaring success. The original French play, Le Barbier de Séville endured a similar story, poorly received at first only to become a favorite within a week.
The opera was first performed in England on 10 March 1818 at the King’s Theatre in London in Italian, soon followed on 13 October at the Covent Garden Theatre by an English version translated by John Fawcett and Daniel Terry. It was first performed in America on 3 May 1819 in English (probably the Covent Garden version) at the Park Theatre in New York. It was given in French at the Théâtre d’Orléans in New Orleans on 4 March 1823, and became the first opera ever to be performed in Italian in New York, when Manuel Garcia (who played Almaviva) and his Italian troupe opened their first season there with Il barbiere on 29 November 1825 at the Park Theatre. The cast of eight had three other members of his family, including the 17-year-old Maria-Felicia, later known as Maria Malibran.
The role of Rosina was originally written for a contralto. Because of its popularity, singers have frequently distorted Rossini’s intentions. The most serious distortion has been transposition of the role to a higher pitch, “turning her from a lustrous alto into a pert soprano.” In addition, the singing lesson in Act 2 has often been turned into “a show-stopping cabaret.” Adelina Patti was known to include Luigi Arditi’s “Il bacio”, the Bolero from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani, the Shadow Song from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, and Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!”. Nellie Melba followed suit, accompanying herself on the piano in the final song. Pauline Viardot began the practice of inserting Alabiev’s “Nightingale”. Maria Callas sang a cut-down version of Rossini’s own “Contro un cor.”
Once after Patti had sung a particularly florid rendition of the opera’s legitimate aria, ‘Una voce poco fa’, Rossini is reported to have asked her: “Very nice, my dear, and who wrote the piece you have just performed?”
As a staple of the operatic repertoire, Barber appears as number nine on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide. Because of the increasing scarcity of good contraltos, the role of Rosina has most frequently been sung by a coloratura mezzo-soprano (with or without pitch alterations, depending on the singer), and has in the past, and occasionally in more recent times, been sung by coloratura sopranos such as Marcella Sembrich, Maria Callas, Roberta Peters, Gianna D’Angelo, Victoria de los Ángeles, Beverly Sills, Lily Pons, Diana Damrau, Kathleen Battle and Luciana Serra. Famous recent mezzo-soprano Rosinas include Marilyn Horne, Teresa Berganza, Lucia Valentini Terrani, Susanne Marsee, Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, Jennifer Larmore, Elīna Garanča, and Vesselina Kasarova. Famous contralto Rosinas include Ewa Podleś.
In a public square outside Bartolo’s house a band of musicians and a poor student named Lindoro are serenading, to no avail, the window of Rosina (“Ecco, ridente in cielo”; “There, laughing in the sky”). Lindoro, who is really the young Count Almaviva in disguise, hopes to make the beautiful Rosina love him for himself—not his money. Almaviva pays off the musicians who then depart, leaving him to brood alone. Rosina is the young ward of the grumpy, elderly Bartolo and she is allowed very little freedom because Bartolo plans to marry her, and her not inconsiderable dowry, himself – once she is of age.
Figaro approaches singing (Aria: “Largo al factotum della città”; “Make way for the factotum of the city”). Since Figaro used to be a servant of the Count, the Count asks him for assistance in helping him meet Rosina, offering him money should he be successful in arranging this. (Duet: “All’idea di quel metallo”; “At the idea of that metal”). Figaro advises the Count to disguise himself as a drunken soldier, ordered to be billeted with Bartolo, so as to gain entrance to the house. For this suggestion, Figaro is richly rewarded.
The scene begins with Rosina’s cavatina, “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice a little while ago”). (This aria was originally written in the key of E major, but it is sometimes transposed a semitone up into F major for coloratura sopranos to perform, giving them the chance to sing extra, almost traditional, cadenzas, sometimes reaching high Ds or even Fs, as is the case of Diana Damrau’s performances.)
Knowing the Count only as Lindoro, Rosina writes to him. As she is leaving the room, Bartolo and Basilio enter. Bartolo is suspicious of the Count, and Basilio advises that he be put out of the way by creating false rumours about him (this aria, “La calunnia è un venticello” – “Calumny is a little breeze” – is almost always sung a tone lower than the original D major).
When the two have gone, Rosina and Figaro enter. The latter asks Rosina to write a few encouraging words to Lindoro, which she has actually already written. (Duet: “Dunque io son…tu non m’inganni?”; “Then I’m the one…you’re not fooling me?”). Although surprised by Bartolo, Rosina manages to fool him, but he remains suspicious. (Aria: “A un dottor della mia sorte”; “To a doctor of my class”).
As Berta, the Bartolo housekeeper, attempts to leave the house, she is met by the Count disguised as an intoxicated soldier. In fear of the drunken man, she rushes to Bartolo for protection and he tries to remove the supposed soldier, but does not succeed. The Count manages to have a quick word with Rosina, whispering that he is Lindoro and passing her a letter. The watching Bartolo is suspicious and demands to know what is in the piece of paper in Rosina’s hands, but she fools him by handing over her laundry list. Bartolo and the Count start arguing and, when Basilio, Figaro and Berta appear, the noise attracts the attention of the Officer of the Watch and his men. Bartolo believes that the Count has been arrested, but Almaviva only has to whisper his name to the officer and is released right away. Bartolo and Basilio are astounded, and Rosina makes sport of them. (Finale: “Fredda ed immobile, comme una statua”; “Cold and still, just like a statue”).
Almaviva again appears at the doctor’s house, this time disguised as a singing tutor and pretending to act as substitute for the supposedly ailing Basilio, Rosina’s regular singing teacher. Initially, Bartolo is suspicious, but does allow Almaviva to enter when the Count gives him Rosina’s letter. He describes his plan to discredit Lindoro whom he believes to be one of the Count’s servants, intent on pursuing women for his master. In order not to leave Lindoro alone with Rosina, the doctor has Figaro shave him. (Quintet: “Don Basilio! – Cosa veggo!”; “Don Basilio! – What do I see?”).
When Basilio suddenly appears, he is bribed to feign sickness by a full purse from Almaviva. Finally Bartolo detects the trick, drives everybody out of the room, and rushes to a notary to draw up the marriage contract between himself and Rosina. He also shows Rosina the letter she wrote to “Lindoro”, and convinces her that Lindoro is merely a flunky of Almaviva.
The stage remains empty while the music creates a thunder storm. The Count and Figaro climb up a ladder to the balcony and enter the room through a window. Rosina shows Almaviva the letter and expresses her feelings of betrayal and heartbreak. Almaviva reveals his identity and the two reconcile. While Almaviva and Rosina are enraptured by one another, Figaro keeps urging them to leave. Two people are heard approaching the front door, and attempting to leave by way of the ladder, they realize it has been removed. The two are Basilio and the notary and Basilio is given the choice of accepting a bribe and being a witness or receiving two bullets in the head (an easy choice, he says). He and Figaro witness the signatures to a marriage contract between the Count and Rosina. Bartolo barges in, but is too late. The befuddled Bartolo (who was the one who had removed the ladder) is pacified by being allowed to retain Rosina’s dowry.
^ Casaglia, Gherardo, “20 Febbraio 1816”, Almanacco Amadeus, 2005
^ Fisher, Burton D., The Barber of Seville (Opera Classics Library Series). Grand Rapids: Opera Journeys, 2005.
^ Weinstock 1968, p. 54; Oborne, Charles 1994, p. 57.
^ Cordier 1883, p. 13.
^ Weinstock 1968,p. 366.
^ a b D’Arcais, F. (1869). “Rassegna Musicale”. Direzione della nuova antologia (in Italian) (Firenze: Direzione della nuova antologia) 10: 404.
^ Gazzetta Piemontese (in Italian). 17 November 1868. p. 2.
^ a b c d Osborne, Richard 2007, pp. 38–41.
^ The Barber of Seville at musicwithease.com
^ Loewenberg 1978, columns 643–646.
^ Kmen 1966, p. 97.
^ Sommer 1992, p. 586.
^ a b c Osborne, Richard 1992, p. 311.
^ Quoted by Richard Osborne, 1992, p. 311.
^ “Opera Statistics”. Operabase. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
^ Myers, Eric, “Sweet and Low: The case of the vanishing contralto, Opera News, December 1996.
^ Roles are listed as given in the 1816 libretto (Rome: Crispino Puccinelli).
^ The voice types given here refer to the original cast as listed in a 2010 program book from Fondazione Teatro La Fenice di Venezia (see Il barbiere di Siviglia, p. 37 [pdf p. 51]), except for Figaro. Although the program book lists Figaro as a bass, all other sources cited here have baritone.
^ Originally written for contralto according to a 2010 program book from La Fenice, as well as Richard Osborne 1992, p. 311. Contemporary printed scores tend to list Rosina as a mezzo-soprano role, and the role is listed as mezzo-soprano by Charles Osborne 1994, p. 52; Gosset & Brauner 2001, p. 776; and Kobbé 1997, p. 667. Actual casting practice of opera houses varies widely. Some mezzo-sopranos can sing it as originally written without alteration, but a popular transposed version is often used when a soprano is cast in the role. Singers of all three voice types have found considerable success with the role (Foil & Berger 2006).
^ Listed as baritone by Richard Osborne 1992, p. 311; Charles Osborne 1994, p. 52; Gosset & Brauner 2001, p. 776; and Kobbé 1997, p. 310.
^ Also listed as soprano by Gossett & Brauner 2001, p. 776; Charles Osborne 1994, p. 52; and Kobbé 1997, p. 667. In modern performance the role of Berta is also sung by mezzo-sopranos, and it is listed as mezzo-soprano by Richard Osborne 1992, p. 311. See also, Il barbiere di Siviglia on the MetOpera Database (performance archives of the Metropolitan Opera)
^ Also listed as bass by Richard Osborne 1992, p. 311; Charles Osborne 1994, p. 52; and Kobbé 1997, p. 667. Listed as baritone by Gossett & Brauner 2001, p. 776.
^ The hard of hearing Ambrogio is limited to asking “Eh?”, notated on middle C.
^ The plot synopsis is partly based on Melitz 1921, pp. 29–31., with updates, clarifications, and modifications to its often out-of-date language.
Cordier, Henri (1883). Bibliographie des oeuvres de Beaumarchais. Paris: A. Quantin. Copy at Google Books.
Foil, David; Berger, William (2006). Text accompanying Rossini: The Barber of Seville. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal. ISBN 978-1-57912-618-6. OCLC 840078233.
Gossett, Philip; Brauner, Patricia B. (2001). “Gioachino Rossini”, pp. 765–796, in The New Penguin Opera Guide, edited by Amanda Holden. New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-029312-4.
Kmen, Henry A. (1966). Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years 1791–1841. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807105481.
Kobbé, Gustav (1997). The New Kobbé’s Opera Book, edited by The Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 978-0-399-14332-8.
Loewenberg, Alfred (1978). Annals of Opera 1597–1940 (third edition, revised). Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-87471-851-5.
Melitz, Leo (1921). The Opera Goer’s Complete Guide, translated by Richard Salinger. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing. Copy at Google Books.
Osborne, Charles (1994). The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-71-3
Osborne, Richard (1992). “Barbiere di Siviglia, Il” in Sadie 1992, vo. 1, pp. 311–314.
Osborne, Richard (2007), Rossini: His Life and Works Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518129-6
Sadie, Stanley, editor (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-228-9.
Sommer, Susan T. (1992). “New York” in Sadie 1992, vol. 3, pp. 585–592.
Sterbini Romano, Cesare (1816). Almaviva o sia L’inutile precauzione … Con Musica del Maestro Gioacchino Rossini, libretto in Italian. Rome: Crispino Puccinelli. Copy at Google Books.
Weinstock, Herbert (1968). Rossini: A Biography. New York: Knopf. OCLC 192614 and 250474431. Reprint (1987): New York: Limelight. ISBN 978-0-87910-071-1.