Program Notes for The Barber of Seville: Background
By Dramaturg Kelley Rourke
When Gioachino Rossini (pictured) brought forth The Barber of Seville in 1816, a few days shy of his 24th birthday, it was an audacious act, since Giovanni Paisiello’s 1782 setting of the same play by Beaumarchais, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini, still enjoyed widespread popularity. The older work had played in Vienna, Prague, Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, New Orleans, Stockholm, and in cities across Italy through the early years of the 19th century, and even held the distinction of being the first opera performed in Italian in Mexico (1806).
Rossini had been careful to pay homage to the Paisiello opera, making a number of public statements about its excellence even as he described a completely new approach to the story in an opera he originally titled Almaviva. Rossini’s efforts notwithstanding, the premiere was a fiasco, interrupted by noisy hecklers and partisans of Paisiello.
Despite its inauspicious birth, Rossini’s Barber of Seville went on to be one of the most beloved comic operas of all time, quickly overshadowing Paisiello’s rendering. Its American premiere took place in 1819, and by 1820, it had been performed in London, Barcelona, Munich, Lisbon, Graz, Vienna, Paris, and Prague, among other important cities, and it ran for over 500 performances in Berlin. In 1825, Manuel García (the first Almaviva) brought a production to New York—the first opera to be performed in Italian there.
The libretto, by Cesare Sterbini, introduces the story’s major players through a string of arias that offer stunningly complete and delightful portraits—especially when joined to Rossini’s music. (After Rossini, three more composers set Sterbini’s libretto: Costantino Dall’Argine in 1868, Giuseppe Graffigna in 1879, and Alberto Torazza in 1924. Rossini’s version has never been equaled.)
The young Count Almaviva, looking for true love, is ardent and earnest as he serenades Rosina with “Se il mio nome”—elegant with a touch of awkwardness. Figaro’s “Largo al factotum,” which gained even greater fame thanks to Warner Brothers’s Rabbit of Seville, gives us a fast-talking jack-of-all trades in a sort of ecstasy of over-commitment that is all too familiar in the era of “side hustles.” Rosina’s brilliant “Una voce poco fa” shows us a young woman whose charmingly girlish exterior cloaks a steely will and irrepressible spirit. The calculated crescendo of slippery Basilio’s “La calunnia” builds from a sly whisper to an uncontrollable force. And in “Un dottor della mia sorte,” Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s buffoon of a guardian, barely avoids tripping over his own outsize declarations of importance. In the duets and ensembles, Rossini accomplishes the seemingly impossible, taking the score’s essential joie de vivre to another level; we are aware not only of the story’s characters matching wits, but the friendly (one hopes) one-upmanship among dazzling coloratura singers.
More than two centuries after its introduction, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville continues to be one of the most-performed operas in the world. The animated characters, irresistible melodies, and bravura vocal writing are a gift to singers—and audiences.