Spotlight on: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE

The Barber of Seville

At Seattle Opera October 2017

Music by Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini

The Story

Long Story Short

Clever barber helps lovesick nobleman woo and win spunky young woman, defeating her tyrannical guardian and his malevolent sidekick.

Who’s Who?

Figaro and Rosina. Image courtesy of Opera Queensland, © Stephen Henry, Photographer

Count Almaviva, a young nobleman, is madly in love with Rosina.

Rosina is a sweet yet sassy young woman, the ward of Dr. Bartolo.

Dr. Bartolo, Rosina's crabby old guardian, watches her every move and intends to marry her.

Figaro, a self-described "factotum," is (or tries to be) all things to all people.

Don Basilio is a slimy intriguer whose loyalty is for sale.

What's Going On?

Rosina is the ward of horrendous Dr. Bartolo, who hopes to marry her and therefore keeps her under lock and key. But one day, when handsome Count Almaviva is traveling in Seville, he happens to meet Rosina—and instantly falls under her spell.

When the opera begins, Almaviva is unsuccessfully attempting to serenade Rosina. His musicians are uncooperative, Rosina is mistrustful, and Bartolo will do anything to keep her away from the ardent young suitor. So Almaviva takes Figaro on as his servant and charges him with freeing Rosina from Bartolo's clutches and persuading her to marry Almaviva.

Figaro's first attempt involves disguising Almaviva as a soldier who demands to be billeted in Bartolo's house. When Bartolo foils this scheme, Figaro comes up with another: Almaviva will say he's the substitute for Rosina's singing teacher, Don Basilio, who is sick. (Here follows the famous shaving scene, in which Figaro distracts Bartolo by shaving him while "music teacher" Almaviva woos Rosina during her singing lesson.) In the end, young love wins over aged tyranny.

Listen For

Bel Canto Grace and Agility

Rossini pioneered a new era of bel canto opera, all about showy athletic vocalism, superstar singers who demand your attention and your applause. Rossini’s music isn’t about power or stamina (singing loud or long). Rossini must be sung elegantly, effortlessly, with extraordinary grace and good taste, both the dazzling coloratura (one word, or syllable, sung to zillions of quick little notes) and the breathless comical patter (lots of words tumbling out very quickly, usually on the same couple of notes).

Image courtesy of Opera Queensland, © Stephen Henry, Photographer

The Rossini Crescendo

Rossini’s orchestra isn’t huge, and his vocal music isn’t particularly loud. The exception: his favorite musical trick, the crescendo (“increase”), a musical passage lasting a minute or two, beginning very quietly and building up to deafening. Two unforgettable Rossini crescendos are highlights of The Barber of Seville: Don Basilio’s famous “Slander” aria (the cresendo a musical picture of gossip and slander spreading around a community), and the first act finale, depicting a household devolving into complete comical chaos and confusion.

Image courtesy of Opera Queensland, © Stephen Henry, Photographer

The Cast

The Barber of Seville succeeds when five spectacular bel canto singers blend as a great comic ensemble. Figaro, one of the great roles for light lyric baritones, sings a huge amount of music (including his famous entrance aria) and must be adorable and insufferable. Rossini originally called this opera Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution after the Count, who needs a gorgeous high tenor and great comic facility. So long as she brings to the stage enough charismatic female energy to balance out this male-heavy cast, Rosina can be either earthy mezzo or high soprano. The roles of Bartolo and Basilio call for gifted comedians, but both also need rich bass voices (and Bartolo must have a facility with tongue-twisting patter). And don’t forget Berta, the housemaid, who carries the tune in several big ensembles.

Where, When, & Why was this opera written?

Young Rossini

Rome, 1816. According to theatrical legend, the 24-year-old Rossini scribbled out The Barber of Seville in twelve days, wearing his bathrobe and not shaving the entire time. (He recycled an overture written for a serious opera.) The young prodigy had taken the world of Italian opera by storm with early successes such as the gleefully silly Italian Girl in Algiers and the serious, tuneful Tancredi. He’d just been put in charge of two of Italy’s most important opera houses (Naples and Rome), and wrote The Barber for Rome. An anti-Rossini claque sabotaged opening night—a tenor with a nosebleed and an unexplained cat wandering around the stage didn’t help—but the opera quickly became a huge success. The legendary Spanish tenor who created the role of Almaviva, Manuel Garcia, later introduced Italian opera to New York City and Mexico City.

Where'd they get the story?

Rossini updated an earlier Italian opera based on a famous French play from 1775. But most of the jokes have been popular in Italian comedy since the days of ancient Rome. The madcap spirit of Rossini’s music was a huge influence on twentieth-century comedy, particularly Looney Tunes.

Still from Rabbit of Seville

The Real Figaro

Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was a French watchmaker, courtier, plaintiff, lawyer, judge, writer, publisher, composer, playwright, and one of the great geniuses of the eighteenth century. His father was a watchmaker named Caron, and so the dashing teenage apprentice watchmaker—who quickly became watchmaker to the king—was known as “Caron’s son,” or fils Caron. From this nickname comes the name of fils Caron’s most famous literary creation, a wise, self-important barber named Figaro. In three plays that forever altered French theater, Beaumarchais traced the fortunes of this hilarious, brilliant, gentle, occasionally insufferable rascal named Figaro and the important people in his life: his employer, Count Almaviva; Rosina, Almaviva’s long-suffering wife; Figaro’s darling wife, Susanna; and a variety of scoundrels Figaro invariably outwits. In The Barber of Seville, Figaro plays matchmaker to Almaviva and Rosina. In The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais’s masterpiece and possibly the most important play of the eighteenth century, Figaro weds Susanna and helps the Count and his wife through a crisis in their marriage. And in The Guilty Mother, Figaro and Susanna foil the schemes of a villain hoping to crush young love and marry away Almaviva’s money. (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro became beloved operas by Rossini and Mozart, respectively; recently, the American composer Corigliano took The Guilty Mother as a jumping-off point for his grand opera buffa, The Ghosts of Versailles.) While penning these plays and others (and inventing copyright law for playwrights), Beaumarchais ran guns to America during our War of Independence.

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