This is one concert you will not want to miss. First time to an opera? This is a perfect opportunity to hear incredible singing blending with a superb orchestra. You may recognize parts of this program since it was used in popular cartoons such as Bugs Bunny. Do you know the story behind the music? Read on…
By Jerome Kleinsasser
Gioachino Rossini (1815)
When Rossini’s Barber of Seville premiered in Rome in February of 1816 it bore the clumsy title Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution. This was necessitated by the fact that composer Giovanni Paisiello had already in 1782 claimed the more familiar title in his immensely popular version of the Beaumarchais Figaro story. Such was the celebrity of Paisiello’s Barber that Rossini was compelled to assure prospective producers and listeners that his setting was entirely new. It was only a few months later, in June, following the demise of Signor Paisiello that Rossini was free to use the title we know today.
The 24-year old composer’s notoriety was widespread as he already had a catalog of no less than 15 operas and a slew of sacred music to his credit, thus his demands to cast some of the finest singers of the day in his new opera were met. The celebrated Spanish tenor, Manuel Garcia, appeared as the titular Almaviva, while the part of Figaro was fashioned for Luigi Zamboni, a family friend of the composer.
Success came quickly and the opera took flight becoming instantly admired wherever it went. Its enthusiasts were legion, including none other than Beethoven, who, in their solitary meeting, allegedly instructed the composer to “Be sure to write more Barbers.” Within two years major productions appeared in London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg. A few years later it became the first opera to be sung in Italian in New York City. Still later, in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera mounted it in the company’s very first season. The Met has since performed it nearly 500 times, as its popularity has never waned.
The immense popularity of Rossini’s Barber signaled the rise of “Bel Canto” style Italian opera, espoused shortly and carried forward by the likes of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, leading eventually to the Italian master, Giuseppe Verdi. This style of opera is melodically centered and calculated to display the beauty of a well-produced human voice. It demands complete control in all ranges and in long phrases, often including a melodic flourish for emphasis or effect.
Rossini had composed the opera’s famous overture three years earlier, intending it for his largely forgotten opera Aureliano in Palmira. Operatic overtures at that time were frequently substituted indiscriminately from one opera to another, but when presented with the Barber, this one stuck. The overture has since become subjected to many uses in popular culture, most famously in Looney Tunes Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The plot’s origins lie in Pierre Beaumarchais’ popular Figaro stories, one of which, set by Mozart, had entered the canon thirty years earlier. Rossini used a text by the poet Cesare Sterbini, who lived in his home while fashioning the libretto.
The young Count Almaviva, new to the town of Seville, has become beguiled by Rosina, the prettiest and richest girl in town. Disguised as an impoverished student (a character type found in numerous operas) and known to Rosina as her beloved “Lindoro,” we hear him singing an ardent serenade in her honor outside her window. Figaro, a barber and jack of all social trades, happens by and introduces himself. In a duet with Almaviva, Figaro offers his services as a go-between.
Rosina lives in a house as a ward of the aging and decrepit Doctor Bartolo, who plans to marry her. With an eye toward her considerable fortune, Bartolo holds Rosina virtually captive, disallowing any personal relationships.
We meet Don Basilio, a cleric who is also Rosina’s music teacher, but seems more interested in generating gossip and rumors than music. Figaro’s first ploy is to have Almaviva acquire entry to the house in the guise of a military officer, but that idea flops. His next ruse is to have the Count disguise himself as a substitute for the allegedly ill Basilio. This too fails when the real Basilio appears.
The Doctor, hoping to move matters forward with Rosina, shows her a fabricated letter purportedly as evidence of Almaviva’s duplicity. Dejected, Rosina consents to marry Bartolo, and the action is momentarily suspended due to an orchestral storm (another common feature of operas of the time).
Figaro and Almaviva finally gain entry into the house where the Count confesses his love for Rosina and proposes marriage. Misunderstandings are happily resolved and she accepts his proposal. Even Bartolo is convinced to go along with the solution on the condition that he will share her fortune. All concludes with great joy and goodwill.