If Gioachino Rossini were to revisit today’s opera scene, he’d probably have mixed feelings about the remarkable tenacity of The Barber of Seville in the repertoire. (Rossini loved to joke about the advantage of being born on February 29, which would make him a middle-aged man of 55.25 in leap year terms, not a Methuselah of 221.) Mixed because, though he certainly recognized Barber as a work di qualità—as Figaro asserts of his own profession—its popularity still distorts Rossini’s versatile legacy.
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By now we’ve had the better part of a century of the Rossini renaissance to regale us with one rediscovery after another. The result has been to bring before today’s public this composer’s command of an enormous gamut of operatic genres: farce, melodrama, semi-serious drama, comedy, lyric tragedy, sacred tragedy, and grand opera. (By comparison, the cunning Figaro’s skillful multi-tasking almost seems to parody such an encyclopedic range.) Several of his once-neglected works have since reentered the repertoire, yet the mere mention of Rossini continues to immediately evoke, before anything else, the vital comic style of Barber—the opera whose premiere in 1816, when the composer was still just shy of twenty-four, marked one of the legendary disasters of his career.
When Giuseppe Verdi was being lured out of retirement by the prospect of composing Otello in 1879, his publisher had to tread carefully and assuage bruised feelings triggered by a remark carelessly reprinted in the company’s music journal. The offending statement recalled what Rossini had declared decades earlier (in 1847): that Verdi could “never write a semi-serious opera…much less a comic opera like The Elixir of Love.” For Italy’s operatic elder statesman to crown his career by giving the world Falstaff served as a kind of vindication. On one level, Falstaff represents Verdi’s response to the anxieties he confronted about how his own legacy would be remembered in the unsettling twilight of the nineteenth century.
If Pierre Beaumarchais’s 1778 play The Marriage of Figaro was recognized as prophetic of the French Revolution—“the Revolution already put into action” in Napoleon’s famous phrase—Rossini did a good deal with his treatment of its “prequel,” Barber, to set the tone for a war-weary post-Napoleonic Europe early in that century. (Beaumarchais later published a third play about his Figaro characters—La mère coupable (The Guilty Mother)—but this last part of the trilogy had to wait until the twentieth century before it showed up on the opera stage.) The novelist Stendhal cleverly reversed the French leader’s metaphor of the artist as political prophet: “Napoleon is dead; but a new conqueror has already shown himself to the world,” he writes in the preface to his influential Life of Rossini of 1823.
In the composer’s verdict about Verdi’s putative unsuitability for comedy, which was hardly intended as a putdown, it’s tempting to sense an echo of the type-casting Rossini himself had faced—but with the tables turned. Legend holds that Rossini, very much a conquering musical general who had taken Vienna by storm, requested a meeting with Beethoven after arriving in the Habsburg capital in 1822 to supervise a new production. In his account decades later, Rossini recalled Beethoven’s pronouncement that serious opera was not a good fit for the Italian temperament: “You do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama.” On the other hand, the old master congratulated Rossini on The Barber of Seville, advising him to stick to opera buffa. “Any other style would do violence to your nature…Above all, make more Barbers!”
This alleged meeting, though unverifiable, gained a life of its own as one of the symbolic encounters in nineteenth-century European art. It came to stand for the polarity between two aesthetic icons, between serious music with philosophical profundity and heft and music as fun, lightweight entertainment. A collection of essays just published this fall—The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini: Historiography, Analysis, Criticism—in fact makes this opposition the point of departure to examine the myths surrounding both composers and their reception.
Among the many ironic results of this stark dualism is the way it has shaped and limited perceptions of Beethoven’s own music. If indeed he did advise Rossini to stick to “Barber mode,” couldn’t this have been meant as a sign of admiration? Beethoven must have recognized the affinities between Rossini’s comic subversion of the building blocks of Classical style—think especially of the use of manic repetitions in Barber—and his own brand of humor in works like the Second and Eighth Symphonies, which even today get short shrift when set against the “heroic” idiom of their companions.
Given the sheer brilliance with which Rossini crystallizes the comedic perspective—from moment to moment and over the grand arc of the opera—it’s not surprising that, along with remaining a popular favorite, Barber has earned the praise of fellow professionals from Beethoven up to the present. Verdi called it “the best comic opera ever written” by virtue of its “wealth of real musical ideas, comic verve, and truth of declamation.”
We have no difficulty glorifying music’s power to express deep pathos, so why do we hesitate when it comes to its capacity to evoke comedy? Opera, after all, is a realm that allows for complex, layered mixtures of emotions along with straightforward statements of primal passions. And the range of comic responses Rossini generates in his score for Barber is extensive—from the archetypal patterns of commedia dell’arte (the creepy old bachelor-guardian-suitor Bartolo) to witty double entendres and ironically self-referential gestures (the elaborate ruse of the “music lesson”).
But how can music be funny? In his fascinating investigation into laughter and the meaning of the comic (published in 1900), French philosopher Henri Bergson observed: “Not infrequently do we notice in dreams a particular CRESCENDO, a weird effect that grows more pronounced as we proceed. The first concession extorted from reason introduces a second; and this one, another of a more serious nature; and so on till the crowning absurdity is reached.”
The tidal pull of the unstoppable crescendo is of course a hallmark of Rossini’s comic style: a crescendo not merely in volume but in texture and density as well. His detractors—who, incidentally, accused him of being too “German” (read “eccentric”) in his special effects—liked to refer to him as “Signor Crescendo.” The layout of Barber’s entire first act might be parsed as a massive crescendo, beginning with the command by Count Almaviva’s (soon forgotten) servant Fiorello to proceed “piano, pianissimo.” The act culminates in one of Rossini’s most dazzling extended finales, a freeze-frame of “organized madness”—to borrow the inspired phrase Stendhal applies to another of the composer’s comic operas (L’italiana in Algieri). The contrast between the character’s awareness of what’s happening and their mechanical, puppet-like repetitions has another correlative in Bergson’s study, which explores the incongruity between intelligence and the inflexible reflexes of habit as a generator of humor.
Another way to approach Rossini’s musical humor is by way of the opera’s source. Musicologist Janet Johnson describes the first play in Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy as “a comedy of intrigue and words” as opposed to a “comedy of character.” In other words, what makes the French writer’s comedy so effective is the result of the play’s “rapid pace, its accumulation of imbroglios, and its sustained and virtuosic combination of literary wit and linguistic invention.” If we replace that last pair with playful gestures involving operatic convention and the basic elements of musical discourse, the Rossinian equivalents for these qualities are everywhere evident in his sparkling score.
A significant challenge Rossini faced by tackling Beaumarchais’s play—itself originally conceived for the comic opera stage—was the competition from an earlier operatic setting: Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Giovanni Paisiello (1740–1816). Paisiello, who died shortly after Rossini’s opera was introduced, unequivocally represented an old-fashioned vision of Italian opera. Paisiello was a workhorse who put even the industrious Rossini to shame, producing more than ninety operas over the course of his career and earning a reputation for his melodic gift. (Beethoven, for one, wrote a set of variations on one of his arias.) Paisiello’s version of The Barber of Seville—it premiered in 1782 in St. Petersburg, where he had relocated to work for Catherine the Great—even predates Mozart’s Figaro by several years. Though it was by no means the only operatic take on the Frenchman’s play, Paisiello’s Barber became especially popular and well-traveled; by the time Rossini burst on the scene, it had long since enjoyed status as a repertoire staple.
Yet it was also a tamer Barber. “The whole art of operatic music,” Stendhal archly writes, “has made immense progress since Paisiello’s day…and it has learned the essential secret of mastering the ensemble.” Along with Rossini’s unsurpassable finales, Stendhal singles out the trio near the end of Barber (“Zitti, ziti, piano, piano!” with Almaviva, Rosina, and Figaro—or is it a love duet with Figaro as the impatient stage director?) as containing “the finest music in the whole opera.”
Already in the middle of his meteoric ascent to become Europe’s most celebrated composer, Rossini must have been champing at the bit to prove what he could do with such excellent material. An opportunity presented itself during one of his freelancing ventures in Rome, away from his ongoing position as head of the Teatro di San Carlo, the leading opera house in Naples. Rossini’s impresario, an aristocrat struggling to keep one of Rome’s opera houses afloat in a city that officially frowned on the art—the Teatro Argentina—commissioned the composer to write a fresh comedy for the coming Carnival season. The contract required an even tighter schedule than Rossini was accustomed to.
Since the original contract has survived (December 15, 1815), we know its precise terms: Rossini was obligated to be present at rehearsals “as often as may be necessary” and to conduct the premiere from the harpsichord. Moreover, since the libretto still needed to be prepared, he most likely had less than three weeks to write the score by the stipulated date—even if he did recycle a previously used overture and, as some scholars believe (given his devotion to Mozart), may even have been contemplating the operatic potential of this material beforehand.
All too aware of the perceived hubris of trying to dislodge a popular favorite, Rossini adopted a humble (and politically astute) posture: he made a point of sending the elderly Paisiello a white flag in the form of a letter expressing admiration for what his predecessor had achieved. Rossini also initially used an alternate title—Almaviva, or The Futile Precaution—as an appeasing gesture. Ironically, after his death, Rossini himself endured a similar process of dislodgement by a later rival. Until Verdi’s Otello, Rossini’s setting of a very different libretto based on the Shakespeare play was considered one of his most sublime masterpieces, and out of deference Verdi considered using a different title (Iago). But as with Otello, only one Barbiere di Siviglia has come to dominate the operatic pantheon.
Still, the ploy didn’t work at first: a clique of Paisiello loyalists helped ensure that opening night would be a mess, despite the benefit of a very fine cast of singers. Just what happened is one of the most famous tales in operatic performance lore—though recounted in so many different forms, the details continually change. Some of the constants are the ridiculously garish, ill-fitting jacket supplied by management to the corpulent Rossini, who conducted from the keyboard; the accident that beset one of the singers walking over a loosened stage floorboards; and the cat that “mysteriously” appeared onstage in the middle of a busy scene, refusing to be shooed away.
Rossini had already experienced his share of failures, and the Roman audience was nothing new to him by this stage. Just two months before Barber, he had endured another flop with Torvaldo e Dorliska, a semi-serious rescue opera set in the Middle Ages. It marked the composer’s first collaboration with Cesare Sterbini, a learned figure but a newbie to libretto writing who was immediately reengaged to furnish a new text based on Beaumarchais’s play.
Still, the humiliation of Barber’s opening night rankled, as the letter Rossini wrote to his mother the next day makes clear: “Last night my opera was performed and was solemnly booed; oh, what mad things, what extraordinary things are to be seen in this country…From the beginning to the end there was a constant noise that accompanied the whole performance.” The composer decided to seclude himself in his hotel during the second performance, but he learned that Barber was now considered a spectacular triumph when the street outside his windows went wild with a cheering crowd following the performance. Rossini updated his letter, proudly noting that later in the run he was greeted with “applause of a totally new kind… that made me cry with pleasure.”
Of course Rossini and Sterbini needed to differentiate their Barber from Paisiello by including different aspects of the play. Paisiello’s Barber included a celebrated trio for Bartolo and two servants; Rossini and Sterbini replaced these with a newly invented character, the maidservant Berta, who in the second act is given an aria di sorbetto (a “sherbet aria,” referring to the convention of relaxing the build-up of tension late in the show with a brief solo for a secondary character, thus allowing a kind of “commercial break” for the audience). A more significant example is the emphasis—dramatic and musical—on Count Almaviva showing up in a decidedly drunken state when disguised as a soldier to be billeted. This hews more closely to the French original and is especially appropriate for the mock reversals of order and the revelry that characterized the Carnival season for which the opera was originally conceived.
Janet Johnson contrasts Paisiello’s “decorous celebration” of the Carnival spirit implicit in the story itself with Rossini’s depiction of “the world of early Romantic grotesque realism, where the picaresque meets the parade. His Count lives up to his name, meaning ‘lively soul’…” (She additionally points out a possible origin for Figaro’s name from the Spanish pícaro for “a witty and peripatetic rogue”—or perhaps from “fils Caron,” Caron being the family name with which Beaumarchais was born.) Rossini’s opera teems with mirthful role-playing and feigned identities.
The conning and cunning ultimately turn out to constitute the intrigue that keeps the story going and aren’t even necessary for the desired result; but everything also transpires without negative moral consequences. All the accumulated confusion is swept away as smoothly as the storm Rossini depicts briefly passing across the narrative landscape. Almaviva tricks both Bartolo and Rosina on different levels yet is given the most “heartfelt” music in his two first-act serenades. Rosina’s first solo presents her as a determined character who displays a notably contradictory nature. The role has of course long been a crown jewel for sopranos, but Rossini’s choice to write Rosina as a contralto underlines the character’s ambiguity: Johnson reminds us that this vocal type was traditionally associated “with the travesty roles of opera seria,” adding that, in the context of Rossini’s musical depiction of her aggressive, “masculine” side, Rosina “puts on modesty like a social mask.”
When the Harold Lloyd Comedy DVD Collection was released some years ago, the critic Philip Kennicott—winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for criticism—wrote a perceptive review reflecting on the meaning of comedy that has stood the test of time. “When a real laugh breaks through the fantasy world of Lloyd’s films,” writes Kennicott, “it connects us, via a comedic thread that stretches back through the comic operas of Rossini to the rustics of Shakespeare, to a manic and redemptive creativity—often most pronounced in artists working with a new form, or a form that they are completely remaking.” He goes on to draw a parallel with Rossini, “the composer who injected speed and acceleration into operatic comedy as surely as Lloyd injected it into the movie comedy. Rossini's great comedies are always built to a magnificent stretto, a quickening of the pace, a building of tension, that takes place over ridiculously long arches. He pulls back from the madcap only to gather strength for a new assault on absurdity.” And in the face of that assault, there’s no better course for the audience than to follow the advice Almaviva proffers to the hapless Bartolo (in his wonderful final aria, so often cut in Barber’s performance history but restored in the present production): “Cessa di più resistere”—“stop resisting it.”
Thomas May, a regular contributor to San Francisco Opera’s programs, is an internationally published arts writer. He blogs at memeteria.com.