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The Barber of Seville, or The Futile Precaution (Italian: Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L'inutile precauzione [il barˈbjɛːre di siˈviʎʎa osˈsiːa l iˈnuːtile prekautˈtsjoːne] eel bar-BYAIR-ay dee-see-VEEL-lyah) is an opera buffa in two acts by Gioachino Rossini with an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The libretto was based on Pierre Beaumarchais's French comedy Le Barbier de Séville (1775). The première of Rossini's opera (under the title Almaviva, o sia L'inutile precauzione) took place on 20 February 1816 at the Teatro Argentina, Rome.
Rossini's Barber has proven to be one of the greatest masterpieces of comedy within music, and has been described as the opera buffa of all "opere buffe". Even after two hundred years, it remains a popular work.
Rossini's opera recounts the events of the first of the three plays by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais that revolve around the clever and enterprising character named Figaro. Mozart's opera Le nozze di Figaro, composed 30 years earlier in 1786, is based on the second part of the Beaumarchais trilogy. The first Beaumarchais play was originally conceived as an opéra comique, but was rejected as such by the Comédie-Italienne. The play as it is now known was premiered in 1775 by the Comédie-Française at the Théâtre des Tuileries in Paris.
Other operas based on the first play were composed by Giovanni Paisiello (his Il barbiere di Siviglia premiered in 1782), by Nicolas Isouard in 1796, and then by Francesco Morlacchi in 1816. Though the work of Paisiello triumphed for a time, only Rossini's version has stood the test of time and continues to be a mainstay of operatic repertoire. On 11 November 1868, two days before Rossini's death, the composer Costantino Dall'Argine (1842–1877) premiered an opera based on the same libretto as Rossini's work, bearing a dedication to Rossini. The premiere was not a failure, but critics condemned the "audacity" of the young composer and the work is now forgotten.
Rossini was well known for being remarkably productive, completing an average of two operas per year for 19 years, and in some years writing as many as four. Musicologists believe that, true to form, the music for Il Barbiere di Siviglia was composed in just under three weeks, although the famous overture was actually recycled from two earlier Rossini operas, Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra and thus contains none of the thematic material in Il Barbiere di Siviglia itself.
The premiere of Rossini's opera at the Teatro Argentina in Rome was a disastrous failure: the audience hissed and jeered throughout, and several on-stage accidents occurred. Furthermore, many of the audience were supporters of one of Rossini's rivals, Giovanni Paisiello, who played on mob mentality to provoke the rest of the audience to dislike the opera. Paisiello had already composed The Barber of Seville and took Rossini's new version to be an affront to his version. In particular, Paisiello and his followers were opposed to the use of basso buffo, which is common in comic opera. The second performance met with quite a different fate, becoming a roaring success. The original French play, Le Barbier de Séville, endured a similar story: poorly received at first, only to become a favorite within a week.
The opera was first performed in England on 10 March 1818 at the King's Theatre in London in Italian, soon followed on 13 October at the Covent Garden Theatre by an English version translated by John Fawcett and Daniel Terry. It was first performed in America on 3 May 1819 in English (probably the Covent Garden version) at the Park Theatre in New York. It was given in French at the Théâtre d'Orléans in New Orleans on 4 March 1823, and became the first opera ever to be performed in Italian in New York, when Manuel Garcia (who played Almaviva) and his Italian troupe opened their first season there with Il barbiere on 29 November 1825 at the Park Theatre. The cast of eight had three other members of his family, including the 17-year-old Maria-Felicia, later known as Maria Malibran.
The role of Rosina was originally written for a contralto. According to music critic Richard Osborne, writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, "it is important to record the degree to which singers have sometimes distorted Rossini's intentions. The most serious distortion has been the upward transposition of the role of Rosina, turning her from a lustrous alto into a pert soprano." However, it has also been noted that Rossini, who frequently altered his music for specific singers, wrote a new aria for the second act for Joséphine Fodor-Mainvielle, a soprano who had sung Rosina in the 1818 London premiere, and sang the new aria c. 1820 at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, where it was published.
The singing lesson in act 2 has often been turned into "a show-stopping cabaret." Adelina Patti was known to include Luigi Arditi's "Il bacio", the Bolero from Verdi's I vespri siciliani, the Shadow Song from Meyerbeer's Dinorah, and Henry Bishop's "Home! Sweet Home!". Nellie Melba followed suit, accompanying herself on the piano in the final song. Pauline Viardot began the practice of inserting Alexander Alyabyev's "Nightingale". Maria Callas sang a cut-down version of Rossini's own "Contro un cor."
Once after Patti had sung a particularly florid rendition of the opera's legitimate aria, 'Una voce poco fa', Rossini is reported to have asked her: "Very nice, my dear, and who wrote the piece you have just performed?"
As a staple of the operatic repertoire, Barber appears as number nine on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide. Because of a scarcity of true contraltos, the role of Rosina has most frequently been sung by a coloratura mezzo-soprano (with or without pitch alterations, depending on the singer), and has in the past, and occasionally in more recent times, been sung by coloratura sopranos such as Marcella Sembrich, Maria Callas, Roberta Peters, Gianna D'Angelo, Victoria de los Ángeles, Beverly Sills, Lily Pons, Diana Damrau, Edita Gruberová, Kathleen Battle and Luciana Serra. Famous recent mezzo-soprano Rosinas include Marilyn Horne, Teresa Berganza, Lucia Valentini Terrani, Susanne Marsee, Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, Jennifer Larmore, Elīna Garanča, and Vesselina Kasarova. Famous contralto Rosinas include Ewa Podleś.
Place: Seville, Spain
Time: 18th century
The square in front of Bartolo's house
In a public square outside Bartolo's house a band of musicians and a poor student named Lindoro are serenading, to no avail, the window of Rosina ("Ecco, ridente in cielo"; "There, laughing in the sky"). Lindoro, who is really the young Count Almaviva in disguise, hopes to make the beautiful Rosina love him for himself – not his money. Almaviva pays off the musicians who then depart, leaving him to brood alone. Rosina is the young ward of the grumpy, elderly Bartolo and she is allowed very little freedom because Bartolo plans to marry her, and her not inconsiderable dowry, himself – once she is of age.
Figaro approaches singing (Aria: "Largo al factotum della città"; "Make way for the factotum of the city"). Since Figaro used to be a servant of the Count, the Count asks him for assistance in helping him meet Rosina, offering him money should he be successful in arranging this. (Duet: "All'idea di quel metallo"; "At the idea of that metal"). Figaro advises the Count to disguise himself as a drunken soldier, ordered to be billeted with Bartolo, so as to gain entrance to the house. For this suggestion, Figaro is richly rewarded.
A room in Bartolo's house with four doors
The scene begins with Rosina's cavatina, "Una voce poco fa" ("A voice a little while ago"). (This aria was originally written in the key of E major, but it is sometimes transposed a semitone up into F major for coloratura sopranos to perform, giving them the chance to sing extra, almost traditional, cadenzas, sometimes reaching high Ds or even Fs.)
Knowing the Count only as Lindoro, Rosina writes to him. As she is leaving the room, Bartolo and Basilio enter. Bartolo is suspicious of the Count, and Basilio advises that he be put out of the way by creating false rumours about him (this aria, "La calunnia è un venticello" – "Calumny is a little breeze" – is almost always sung a tone lower than the original D major).
When the two have gone, Rosina and Figaro enter. Figaro asks Rosina to write a few encouraging words to Lindoro, which she has actually already written. (Duet: "Dunque io son...tu non m'inganni?"; "Then I'm the one...you're not fooling me?"). Although surprised by Bartolo, Rosina manages to fool him, but he remains suspicious. (Aria: "A un dottor della mia sorte"; "To a doctor of my class").
As Berta, the Bartolo housekeeper, attempts to leave the house, she is met by the Count disguised as an intoxicated soldier. In fear of the drunken man, she rushes to Bartolo for protection and he tries to remove the supposed soldier, but does not succeed. The Count manages to have a quick word with Rosina, whispering that he is Lindoro and passing her a letter. The watching Bartolo is suspicious and demands to know what is in the piece of paper in Rosina's hands, but she fools him by handing over her laundry list. Bartolo and the Count start arguing and, when Basilio, Figaro and Berta appear, the noise attracts the attention of the Officer of the Watch and his men. Bartolo believes that the Count has been arrested, but Almaviva only has to whisper his name to the officer and is released right away. Bartolo and Basilio are astounded, and Rosina makes fun of them. (Finale: "Fredda ed immobile, come una statua"; "Cold and still, just like a statue").
A room in Bartolo's house with a piano
Almaviva again appears at the doctor's house, this time disguised as a singing tutor and pretending to act as substitute for the supposedly ailing Basilio, Rosina's regular singing teacher. Initially, Bartolo is suspicious, but does allow Almaviva to enter when the Count gives him Rosina's letter. He describes his plan to discredit Lindoro whom he believes to be one of the Count's servants, intent on pursuing women for his master. Figaro arrives to shave Bartolo. Bartolo demurs, but Figaro makes such a scene he agrees, but in order not to leave the supposed music master alone with Rosina, the doctor has Figaro shave him right there in the music room. When Basilio suddenly appears, he is bribed by a full purse from Almaviva and persuaded to leave again, with much discussion of how ill he looks. (Quintet: "Don Basilio! – Cosa veggo!"; "Don Basilio! – What do I see?"). Figaro begins to shave Bartolo, but Bartolo overhears the lovers conspiring. He drives everybody away.
The scene returns to the location of act 1 with a grill looking out onto the square. Bartolo orders Basilio to have the notary ready to marry him to Rosina that evening. He also explains his plot to come between the lovers. Basilio leaves and Rosina arrives. Bartolo shows Rosina the letter she wrote to "Lindoro", and persuades her that this is evidence that Lindoro is merely a flunky of Almaviva. Rosina believes him and agrees to marry him.
The stage remains empty while the music creates a thunder storm to indicate the passage of time. The Count and Figaro climb up a ladder to the balcony and enter the room through a window. Rosina shows Almaviva the letter and expresses her feelings of betrayal and heartbreak. Almaviva reveals his identity and the two reconcile. While Almaviva and Rosina are enraptured by one another, Figaro keeps urging them to leave. Two people are heard approaching the front door, who later turn out to be Basilio and the notary. However, when the Count, Rosina, and Figaro attempt to leave by way of the ladder, they discover it has been removed. The Count quickly gives Basilio the choice of accepting a bribe and being a witness to his marriage or receiving two bullets in the head (an easy choice, Basilio says). He and Figaro witness the signatures to a marriage contract between the Count and Rosina. Bartolo barges in, but is too late. The befuddled Bartolo (who was the one who had removed the ladder) is pacified by being allowed to retain Rosina's dowry.
Cordier, Henri (1883). Bibliographie des oeuvres de Beaumarchais. Paris: A. Quantin. Copy at Google Books.
Foil, David; Berger, William (2006). Text accompanying Rossini: The Barber of Seville. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal. ISBN 978-1-57912-618-6. OCLC 840078233.
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Osborne, Charles (1994). The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-71-3
Osborne, Richard (1992), The Barber of Seville, in Stanley Sadie (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. One. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5. Also at Oxford Music Online.
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Weinstock, Herbert (1968). Rossini: A Biography. New York: Knopf. OCLC 192614, 250474431. Reprint (1987): New York: Limelight. ISBN 978-0-87910-071-1.
Italian libretto (1816 Rome: Crispino Puccinelli) at Google Books
Italian libretto at stanford.edu
English/Italian libretto at murashev.com
The Barber of Seville: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
Der Barbier von Sevilla, Article with photos of a 2009 production at the Zürich Opera House (German)
List of performances of The Barber of Seville on Operabase.
Video of lecture "Ornamenting an Early Nineteenth-Century Opera" given by Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago, Division of the Humanities, on the occasion of the publication of the new critical edition of Il barbiere di Siviglia
Barber Of Seville