Opera: The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
Other popular works by this composer: The Thieving Magpie (la gazza ladra), The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri), Cinderella (La Cenerentola), William Tell
First performed: 1816
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
Setting: 18th century Seville
Plot: A nobleman disguises himself as a student to win the hand of a woman who is unhappily controlled by her overprotective and jealous guardian
Highlights: Overture; Largo al factotum; Una voce poco fa; la calunnia; ma Signor
Recommended audio recording/s: Bartoletti; Chandos Opera in English; Prey/Berganza
Recommended video recording/s: Bayo, Florez; Metropolitan Opera HD live (Florez, DiDonato, Mattei)
Rating (1 to 5):
Surely you’ve all heard of this one. It is Rossini’s best-known opera, and occupies a spot in the top ten of the world’s most popular operas (by number of performances). In fact, it has remained steadily popular for over two hundred years. It was likely this work that was my first real exposure to opera as a child, in the form of “The Rabbit of Seville,” a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured Rossini’s wonderful overture and Figaro’s famous largo al factotum aria. I was captivated and the seed was planted, even if it did take a while to grow (FYI, this video doesn’t start for thirty seconds. Also, I should mention that these lyrics and this scenario are totally the invention of Warner Brothers).
Many people are familiar with the very infectious overture, which showcases Rossini’s talent for building energy and excitement to a feverous pitch. This overture is actually recycled, as it was used in two of Rossini’s earlier operas (this was once common, as people heard these performances so seldom that the duplication went unnoticed). We may think of it now as very “Italian” sounding, which just goes to show how much influence Rossini had on his country’s music. He was a very popular and prolific composer (mainly of opera, writing dozens) who retired early and enjoyed the rest of his life. He is one of the rare ones who was able to enjoy his fame. Here is a stellar rendition of his delicious overture to this opera by the always superb Herbert von Karajan. Listen to it as you continue reading.
The opera is a comedy, a farce (think Three’s Company) with lots of disguise, subterfuge and deceit. It is poorly named, as it has little to do with the barber of the title (Figaro), who instead plays matchmaker (perhaps “Matchmaker of Seville” would be more fitting. The name was not Rossini’s invention – he took it from the play that this opera is based on). Basically, Count Almaviva is smitten with Rosina, the ward of a Doctor Bartolo, who is also smitten with her (not least because she is rich). Problem is, Doctor Bartolo is a grumpy old codger whom Rosina has no interest in. Knowing this, he keeps her confined and sheltered to prevent her from being wooed. Enter Figaro, Bartolo’s barber and general jack of all trades (a “factotum”), who helps the count gain access to Bartolo’s household and, hence, Rosina. However, since the count does not want to be loved for his wealth or title, he disguises himself as a poor student named Lindoro. Rosina and Lindoro’s attempts at communicating with each other amidst the doctor’s (rightfully) suspicious nature, with Figaro’s help, generate much of the comedy. This opera is based on the first play of a trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is based on the second play of the series and features several of the same characters.
I highly recommend that newcomers listen to the excellent version of this opera in English on the Chandos label since the dialogue is so important to understanding what is happening. What’s more, the dialogue is quite funny, and you’ll miss out on much of the plot and humor if you don’t understand Italian (why is Figaro’s name famously yelled out multiple times in largo al factotum, for instance?) This opera is considered the king of opera buffa, or comedic opera, and Rossini supposedly wrote the music in less than a month.
After the overture gives us a hint of the frenzy to come, the curtain opens on a courtyard outside Doctor Bartolo’s house. Count Almaviva has assembled a band of musicians to woo Rosina outside her window, to little effect. Figaro makes his grand entrance into the courtyard with his shaving cart, singing his famous aria (largo al factotum – make way for the jack of all trades) bragging about his skills and how in demand he is – everyone wants his services! Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! There are several great renditions of this available online, and we have room, so let’s look at a few. Here is the aria sung by the recently deceased Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky:
This next one is from the excellent Metropolitan Opera production of a few years ago, with Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as a swashbuckling Figaro:
Here is a very young, energetic Figaro, Bjorn Burger, from the Glyndebourne Festival outside London (this one is just an excerpt):
Lastly, Tae-Joong Yang, who gets drowned out by the orchestra a few times but does a great job nonetheless:
Count Almaviva recognizes Figaro and solicits his help in wooing Rosina. Figaro will do anything for hire, and readily agrees. He sings a comical number about how much he loves money (All’idea di quel metallo; the idea of that metal), and then comes up with a plan. Lindoro (the count) will pretend to be a drunken soldier ordered to be billeted (take up temporary lodging) at the doctor’s residence. The count agrees. Here is another of Lindoro’s attempts at wooing, interrupted by the jealous doctor:
The scene switches to inside the doctor’s house, where Rosina sings her famous aria (una voce poco fa; a voice a little while ago) about how cunning she is and how she will win Lindoro, whom she has taken notice of. Here it is sung with great skill by Latvian soprano Elina Garanca:
Rosina writes a note to Lindoro. The doctor enters, suspicious, and Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, convinces the doctor to spread false rumors about the Count/Lindoro in order to discredit him in Rosina’s eyes. Basilio sings a dramatic aria about slander (la calunnia è un venticello – slander is a little breeze) that slowly builds to a fever pitch, like so many of Rossini’s most thrilling compositions (sorry for the foreign subtitles, but this is a great version!):
After some planning between Figaro and Rosina, and more suspicion from Doctor Bartolo, the count enters disguised as a drunken soldier and demands lodging. He comically mangles Bartolo’s name several times, and manages to reveal to Rosina who he really is (well, that he is “Lindoro”) when the doctor isn’t looking. A commotion ensues when the doctor presses his suspicions, and the ruckus draws the attention of the police. When convinced to arrest Lindoro, he reveals who he really is to them and they immediately back off, much to the astonishment of most everyone present. A delightful Rossini sextet (ma Signor! – but Sir!) follows with his signature, slowly-building crescendo of voice and orchestra that whips itself into a frenetic climax. This is Rossini at his best:
In act two, the frenzy and subterfuge continue, this time with Lindoro posing as Rosina’s substitute music teacher, Don Alonso (it isn’t clear what happened to soldier-Lindoro, but presumably some time has passed since then). His entrance is again comical, as he ingratiates himself to the doctor to the point of annoying him.
While the fake music teacher gives Rosina her lesson (and woos her), Figaro shaves Doctor Bartolo (finally, he gets to be a barber!) The real music teacher inconveniently arrives and is quickly ushered out the door, with the help of a purse-full of money. Bartolo becomes agitated and decides he will marry Rosina that night. He convinces Rosina that others who woo her are unfaithful, and she is temporarily swayed. A musical storm ensues (temporale), another fine example of Rossini orchestration that is reminiscent of the overture:
The Count and Figaro sneak into the house via an upstairs window. The Count reveals his true identity to Rosina to win her back. A marriage contract is signed making use of the notary who was sent for by the doctor for his own nuptials. He arrives too late to stop it, but is mollified when he is allowed to keep Rosina’s dowry (the Count is rich, so they don’t need it), which is the main reason he wanted to marry her anyway. A happy ending! (This does happen on occasion; we saw in a few weeks ago in Fidelio).
I have seen this opera live, twice, by local touring companies, but never in a large opera house. There was a wonderful version done by the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago starring Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, and Peter Mattei that sadly is not yet available on disc (you can rent it on the Met’s streaming website). Florez is particularly amazing in this role. Listen to this excerpt, or just jump to the 8:16 timestamp and witness the tremendous, minute-long ovation Florez gets from the adoring crowd:
For audio recordings of Il Barbiere, I would not hesitate to recommend the one conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, pictured at the top of the page. I am very picky about this opera, and any recording I admire has to have a superb overture, a stunning largo al factotum, and a thrilling ma Signor, at the very least. This one passes those tests with flying colors. I also highly recommend the Chandos English version, which is very funny, well-sung and well-conducted. It’s a great introduction to the opera before moving on to the Italian-language choices.
I am in the process of watching about five different video recordings of The Barber of Seville. I will report back soon with my observations.
This is a fantastic production! I especially liked several things about it. For one, all of the separate elements of the production were excellent. There are many recordings of this opera, and some will be great in one area, not so great in another. This one was even across the board: singing, acting, costumes, conducting, sets, video and audio quality, etc. It also doesn’t hurt that the leads are very young, energetic, and attractive. Not only do they sing well, but their acting abilities and stage movements were top notch, which is essential in this zany, madcap opera. It was a special delight watching Figaro’s (Bjorn Burger’s) energy and facial expressions. Whenever the camera gave a close up of him or any cast member, they were totally in character and expressive, even if in the background. There was always lots to look at on the stage to keep things visually interesting, and whoever choreographed the production did a great job. Everyone looked comfortable moving and acting in their parts.
I loved the clear, lyrical voice of Count Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and enjoyed the stage presence of both Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio. Rosina’s costumes were beautiful (as is she), and though Figaro’s seemed a bit out of place, it did fit his youthful and energetic demeanor. Janis Kelly’s (Berta’s) costume also seemed odd to me (she looked like a school marm more than a housekeeper), but when she had her big number she stole the show and got the loudest applause of the night. Excellent use was made of the small stage, and things were generally very colorful and nice to look at (especially on Blu Ray, which I would recommend splurging on). I initially feared, based on the cover, that this production would be a modernized updating of the opera, which I tend to dislike (I’m a traditionalist). While this performance does have a bit of a modern feel (maybe due to the anachonistic set background and Figaro’s outfit), it does nothing to take away from the overall plot, as modernization often does.
You may find a better-sung production (I’m thinking Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato at the Met, not yet available on video), but I would rank this one very highly on visuals, energy, enthusiasm, and overall fun. Comes with a short interview with the conductor (Enrique Mazzola, who has a wonderful energy and spirit), and also with a commentary track by him and Danielle DeNiese (Rosina).