‘THE BARBER OF SEVILLE’ ESSENTIALS
The first one
February 20, 1816, at the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Performed under the title Almaviva or futile precaution
Bartolo: an elderly doctor, determined to get married
Rosina: his rich young ward
Count Almaviva: in love with Rosina and wooing her disguised as Lindoro, a poor student
Figaro: a jack-of-all-trades, the “Mr. Fix it”
Basilio: Rosina’s music teacher
After her pre-dawn serenade yields no romantic results, Almaviva hires Figaro to help her reach Rosina, who is being held virtually prisoner by the suspect Bartolo. When she drops a message from her balcony at “Lindoro”, Bartolo decides to speed up his marriage plans, especially when he learns that Almaviva, a well-known ladies’ man, is in Seville. Basilio recommends a smear campaign against the Count to keep him away from Rosina. Aided by Figaro, Almaviva enters Bartolo’s house disguised as a drunken soldier. An increasing level of noise and chaos is capped by the arrival of local gendarmes, who attempt to arrest Almaviva.
Lindoro arrives at Bartolo’s again, this time disguised as “Don Alonso”, a substitute teacher sent by the supposedly ill Basilio. In a bit of meta-theatre, “Alonso” and Rosina rehearse an aria from an opera called The vain precaution and proclaim their mutual attraction. Basilio appears unexpectedly but is bribed by the Count to play with their claim that he has scarlet fever. Later that evening, Figaro and Almaviva return to Bartolo’s house via a ladder leading to Rosina’s balcony. When Almaviva and Rosina embark on a long amorous duet, Figaro urges them to hurry, but suddenly the ladder is taken from them, and they are trapped. Fortunately, Basilio arrives with the notary hired by Bartolo. Another bribe convinces Basilio to witness Rosina and Almaviva’s wedding. Bartolo arrives with soldiers in tow, but all he can do now is accept the fact that he has been tricked.
The playwright: Pierre-Augustin Caron De Beaumarchais
An extraordinary character who possessed all the energy, charm, cunning and wit of his fictional Figaro, Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was the leading French playwright of the 1700s, thanks to his Figaro trilogy — The Barber of Seville (1775), Figaro’s wedding (1784), and The guilty mother (1792).
However, drama was just a side hustle for the second most industrious man in French history. Beaumarchais would have followed only Voltaire, whose complete works he published in a set of 70 volumes, buying an entire type foundry and three paper mills to fuel the business. In addition to playwriting and publishing, Beaumarchais was a watchmaker, inventor, diplomat, spy, serial litigant, horticulturist, arms dealer, satirist, and financier.
Twice imprisoned and twice exiled from France, the indefatigable Beaumarchais also taught the four daughters of King Louis XV to play the harp and oversaw the royal parks of France as a hunting lieutenant general. It even played an important role in our Revolutionary War, supplying weapons that the United States Army used to defeat the British in the decisive Battle of Saratoga in 1777.
Librettist: Cesare Sterbini
Cesare Sterbini (1784-1831) was a Vatican employee and poet who wrote some mostly mediocre operatic texts. Fortunately for musical posterity, he made effective use of the tight construction, fast-paced scenes, well-drawn characters, and witty dialogue of Beaumarchais’ piece. Several other composers had already written operas based on it, and parts of Sterbini’s libretto are modeled on that of Giovanni Paisiello’s still popular 1782 version.
To avoid offending Paisiello and his many fans, Rossini and Sterbini asked the former composer’s permission to use the same source material and called their new opera Almaviva or unnecessary precaution. Their gesture turned out to be an unnecessary precaution in itself, as the boisterous Paisiello supporters turned the opening night of Almaviva in a legendary flop. (It was hailed as a triumph after its second performance.)
The composer: Gioachino Rossini
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was born in Pesaro, the only son of a professional horn player father and a mother who began a ten-year career as an opera singer at the age of 6. He was a precocious musician, playing the alto in an opera orchestra at the age of 9 and possessing an excellent soprano boy voice. In 1804 the Rossini family moved to Bologna, where Gioachino began working as a member of the musical staff of opera companies and studied composition at the Liceo Musicale, the city’s conservatory. His first produced opera was the one-act comedy Marriage by promissory note, staged in Venice in 1810. The double success in 1813 of Tancredan opera seria, and The Italian in Algiers, an opera buffa, earned him international acclaim. By age 37 he had written nearly 40 operas, including what turned out to be his last, Guillaume Tellwhich premiered in 1829. Although he lived nearly 40 more years, he wrote relatively little music and no operas during those four decades, for reasons still poorly understood.
The king of recycling
Rossini is infamous for recycling music from his unsuccessful operas, but he was by no means the only one to do so. This is especially understandable in the context of early 19th century Italian opera, when composers were under tremendous time pressure and often wrote two or three complete pieces each year. Why let perfectly good music go to waste, when it may have only been heard once or twice in one city?
What we consider to be the opening of The Barber of Seville actually started in Aurelian in Palmiraa serious opera he wrote in 1813. It was a flop, so Rossini reused it two years later in another serious opera, Elizabeth, Queen of England, with the same result. The third time, in The Barber of Sevillewas the charm.
His all-time recycling record involved a duet from the first opera he composed, aged 14, titled Demetrio and Polibio. He reappeared in no less than five subsequent plays.
When his publisher decides to publish a complete edition of his operas, Rossini is dismayed. “I thought I had the right to withdraw from my fiascos the pieces that seemed to me the best, to save them from shipwreck,” he wrote to a friend. “A fiasco was supposed to be good and dead, and now they’ve brought them all back to life!”
A show within a show
Star singers wielded great power in Rossini’s time. Tenor Manuel Garcia, the first Count Almaviva, earned three times as much for his performances as Rossini for writing the opera, a typical situation at the time. Singers even interpolated their own favorite arias or demanded that existing ones be rewritten to better showcase their skills.
Over the century, composers were able to put an end to this practice, with one exception: the scene of music lessons at The Barber of Seville. For decades, divas took the opportunity to insert an assortment of their own stars, even if they had nothing to do with the plot.
One of the most notorious interpolators was the famous soprano Adelina Patti. His additional tweets included a Neapolitan song called “Le Baiser”, Verdi’s bolero The Sicilian VespersMeyerbeer’s “Shadow Song” Dinorah, and Henry Bishop’s parlor ballad “Home!” Sweet home!”
This additional music became such a draw to audiences that it was often announced before the performance.