The Barber of Seville

Gioacchino Rossini

Program notes by Paul Zweifel

Copyright 2003

The Barber of Seville was first produced in 1816 at the same Argentine Theater in Rome where Floria Tosca had been the prima donna until her suicide some 16 years earlier.1 Rossini's opera was preceded, in 1782, by an opera of the same name written by the now almost forgotten composer Giovanni Paisiello. Since Paisiello was still alive at that time of the premier of the second Barber (he died four months later) the title originally chosen for his work by Rossini was Almaviva, or the Vain Precaution; he reverted to today's title only after Paisiello died. The Vain Precaution, whatever that may mean, still appears as the Barber's subtitle.

The opera is based on the first of the trilogy of "Figaro" plays, Le Barbier de Séville, written by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The other two plays, Le Marriage de Figaro and La Mère Coupable, were also made into operas: by Mozart (in 1786) and by the American John Corigliano (as The Ghosts of Versailles, in 1991) respectively. In all of these operas Figaro is an important character and is, in fact, the alter ego of Beaumarchais himself who was born as Pierre-Augustin Caron--he acquired his suffix of nobility via marriage. Little Pierre-Augustin became known as "fils Caron" (Caron, Jr.), a moniker which, when pronounced in 18th-century French, almost sounds like "Figaro."

Beaumarchais was one of the most talented individuals of the18th century. He was the inventor of the escapement, a type of spring which made portable watches a reality and which was still in common use until the introduction of battery-powered watches. On the basis of this achievement he was appointed watch-maker to the King, Louis XV, where he somehow managed to become music teacher to Mesdames, the King's daughters. He invented the pedal harp for the princesses; this instrument is very much in use today (the pedals allow the harpist to play all the notes of the chromatic scale). He was also a composer (Barbier was originally written as an opéra comique); a spy; a diplomat; and a dealer in intrigue who helped finance the American revolution. To learn more about this fascinating man visit figaro_program_notes.pdf.

The opéra comique version of Le Barbier was written in 1772, but it was turned down by the Comédie-Italienne. It was then rewritten as an ordinary play and submitted to the Comédie-Française. But in 1774, when it was ready to be produced, the police forbade the production for political reasons, namely that the model for the slimy music teacher, Don Bazile, (the opera's Don Basilio) was a certain Judge Goezman with whom Beaumarchais was involved in drawn-out litigation. (Originally Beaumachais had named Bazile named "Guzman".) The play was finally produced, in 1775, in five acts, but it failed miserably. Only after it was revised (one of the acts was cut) did it succeed on the Paris stage.

Don Basilio's famous aria "La calunnia" ("Slander") in the opera is a commentary on Judge Goezman's character. This aria has no role in the plot and in fact in the play Bartholo answers the corresponding monologue with the query "What in the blazes is all this drivel you're blathering?"

The opera opens with the Count Almaviva (under the pseudonym Lindoro) preparing to serenade the lovely young Rosina, ward of Dr. Bartolo. Soon Figaro enters singing his celebrated aria "Largo al factotum della città" ("Make room for the factotum of the city"--a factotum is a person who does everything, as Figaro proceeds to explicate in the aria). The Count and Figaro recognize each other, and the Count explains that he had followed Rosina there from Madrid after encountering her one evening on the passegiata. But to understand why he already knew Figaro we have to return to the play.

In Madrid, Figaro was Almaviva's servant and had been recommended for a government job by his master (apparently because he was something of a rascal and a swindler). Figaro got a job as apprentice apothecary in the Andalusian stud farms and soon discovered that he could make money by selling horse medicine to humans. (Some of them died, but he reasoned "There's no universal remedy.")

Figaro was dismissed from this job, and tried to make a living as a dramatist. But having failed in that, he decided to become a traveling barber and factotum ("The useful income from wielding the razor is preferable to the empty honor of wielding the pen.") Eventually Figaro made his way to Seville where his and the Count's paths crossed once again as described above.

The social satire in Barber is mild compared to that of Marriage of Figaro. (The quotation in the previous paragraph is certainly satirical, but nothing to make a nobleman shake in his shoes.) In Barbier, the Count is a pretty decent fellow while in Marriage he's a despot whose one desire in life is to cheat on his wife with the servant girls. In Barber Figaro is a clever fellow, but he cooperates with his master, while in Figaro he manages to make a fool of him, gainsaying the conventional wisdom of the day that the servant class was mentally inferior. For this reason Beaumarchais found it easier to get Barbier produced than Marriage, and Paisiello, who produced Barbiere for the court of Catherine the Great, apparently had no trouble getting the opera approved.2 Mozart, on the other hand, made no progress in getting the Viennese censors to allow the production of the opera Marriage of Figaro until he and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte had removed much of the social satire.

The role of Rosina was originally written for a coloratura mezzo-soprano but up until the last thirty years or so had been assigned, with modest transpositions, to a soprano. The coloratura mezzo made a comeback in the last three decades of the 20th century (led by the incomparable Marilyn Horne) and since that time the part has been done both ways. (The Opera Roanoke production this year is done with a soprano, name name.) Soprano or mezzo soprano, Rosina has some wonderful music: "Una voce poco fa" (I heard a voice not too long ago) in the first act; her music-lesson scene in the second act; and her wonderful act-one duet with Figaro "Dunque io son" (So I'm the one), inter alia. But really, the music is sparkling and delightful all the way through. Il Barbiere di Siviglia rightfully ranks as the greatest comic opera that has ever been written. ____________________

  1. Those of you who missed my program notes on Tosca can read them on the webat http://pzweifel.com/notes/toscaPN.htm. But be advised that the tragedy of Floria Tosca is completely fictional (the notes apparently don't make this clear).
  2. Of course by Rossini's day republicanism had pretty much carried the day and so he there was no official objection to the opera's production. But there was unofficial objection from the disciples of Paisiello who felt the old master had been damaged by the upstart Rossini (who was only 24 years old). The Paisisello camp raised such a brouhaha at the first performance of Rossini's work that it was a miserable failure, but it was warmly received at the second performance as it has been ever since.