Il barbiere di Siviglia

The characters

Rosina

Rosina

Voice type: Mezzo-soprano or soprano

Character traits: 

  • Vivacious
  • Clever
  • Determined

Rosina is far from a typical 19th-century operatic heroine. Traditionally passive – a victim or object of affection rather than an instigator – the heroines of Rossini’s forebears were a world away from this decisive, assertive, resourceful girl.

Rosina’s flirtatious, lively demeanour is mirrored in fast-paced, agile music that is technically very demanding. The emphasis is very much on drama and personality, not just the beauty of the voice.

Figaro

Figaro

Voice type: Baritone

Character traits:

  • Quick-thinking
  • Charismatic
  • Persuasive

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is based on the same trilogy of plays by Pierre Beaumarchais as Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. The two operas share their hero – the silver-tongued barber Figaro – but Rossini’s Figaro is much cleverer and more calculating than Mozart’s, the puppet-master of the whole comedy.

Figaro lives by his wits, and his music moves just as fast as his mind. The contrast between the Count’s graceful, laid-back arias and Figaro’s chattering, tongue-twisting numbers couldn’t be greater.

Count Almaviva

Count Almaviva

Voice type: Tenor

Character traits:

  • Romantic
  • Impulsive
  • Idealistic

Count Almaviva is a much more traditional operatic lover than his beloved Rosina. Romantic (he falls in love at first sight) and sensitive, he relies on the streetwise Figaro to be the brains behind his seduction scheme.

Almaviva’s music is some of the most beautiful in the opera. Long, lyrical phrases set his arias apart from Figaro’s bustling chatter, lending weight and sincerity to the passionate emotions he expresses.

Bartolo

Bartolo

Voice type: Bass

Character traits:

  • Suspicious
  • Avaricious
  • Slow-witted

The character of Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s stern, suspicious guardian, comes directly from the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte. Here, the doctor was always a foolish old man, interfering with the two lovers.

Bartolo is a typical ‘buffo’ (comic) bass role. It demands a lot of characterful comedy and tremendous vocal agility to pull off the slightly hysterical, chattering vocal writing.

Berta

Berta

Voice type: Mezzo-soprano

Character traits:

  • Pragmatic
  • Cynical
  • Clear-eyed

Housekeeper Berta keeps well out of the way of the opera’s various schemes and plots. Standing apart from the action, she looks on with amusement (and a little cynicism) as her employer makes a fool of himself.

The story

Act I

A serenade and a plan

Dawn breaks over Seville. Outside the window of the beautiful Rosina, Count Almaviva (disguised as a poor student – Lindoro) sings a serenade. Rosina doesn’t appear, but local barber and schemer Figaro arrives. He tells Almaviva more about Rosina. She is the ward of Dr Bartolo, who keeps her locked away, hoping to marry her himself and gain her dowry.  But Figaro has a plan; Almaviva will disguise himself as a drunken soldier and pretend to be billeted to Bartolo’s house, giving him access to Rosina.

Two plots

Rosina is entranced by the disguised Count. Don Basilio, Rosina’s singing teacher, warns Bartolo that Count Almaviva, Rosina’s would-be lover, has arrived in Seville. They plot to slander him, and Bartolo resolves to marry Rosina immediately as a precaution. When they leave to draw up a marriage contract, Figaro tells Rosina all, embellishing the tale of the penniless “Lindoro”. Rosina entrusts him with a letter to give to him.

Chaos and confusion

Bartolo is suspicious. Rosina has ink on her fingers; has she secretly written to Almaviva? He swears to keep her locked up in future. He is distracted by Almaviva, who arrives disguised as a drunken soldier, billeted to Bartolo’s house. Despite Bartolo’s protestations, he enters and manages to reveal to Rosina that he is really Lindoro. Bartolo insists that he won’t house Almaviva, and the noise brings Figaro and the Civil Guard to the house. Confusion and chaos reign as everyone tries to explain the situation. Soldiers arrest Almaviva, who reveals his identity and is immediately released. Bartolo explodes with anger.

Act II

A lesson in love

Almaviva returns to Bartolo’s house, this time disguised as Don Alonso – a music-master replacing the indisposed Don Basilio. In order to allay Bartolo’s suspicions he pretends to be staying at the same inn as Almaviva, and offers to persuade Rosina that the Count is just toying with her affections. Bartolo agrees, and relaxes into sleep while the music lesson takes place, giving Rosina and her lover time to talk.

A close shave

Figaro arrives to shave Bartolo, and manages to steal a key to the house. A not-at-all-ill Basilio appears, but Figaro is able to bribe him to leave. While Figaro is shaving Bartolo, Rosina and “Lindoro” make a plan: at midnight they will break Rosina out of her prison and run away together. But when Bartolo overhears Almaviva mention a disguise, he realises that he has been tricked again, and once again the scene descends into anger and chaos.

The plot thickens

Left alone, the servant Berta despairs at the foolishness of amorous old men. Basilio returns, confirming Bartolo’s suspicions about “Don Alonso”. Bartolo goes to fetch a notary, vowing to be married that night. Bartolo tricks Rosina into believing that her lover has betrayed her, and she reluctantly agrees to marry him instead.

A wedding – but whose?

Figaro and Almaviva sneak into Bartolo’s house. Rosina is furious until Almaviva explains all and reveals his true identity. Basilio arrives with the notary, and by the use of threats and bribes, Figaro ensures that the notary actually marries Rosina and the Count, with Basilio as witness. Bartolo arrives with soldiers, but it is too late. Faced with a legally married couple, Bartolo has no choice but to accept that he has been beaten and join in the celebrations.

The Music

Il barbiere di Siviglia is one of opera’s greatest romantic comedies (the best ever, according to Verdi) – a perfect blend of memorable melodies, colourful characters and exciting vocal writing. What sets it apart is the dramatic clarity of the music, so vivid and evocative, that even if there were no words you’d still understand what was going on.

Before Rossini, musical style in opera had very little to do with character in 18th-century Italian opera. The great innovation of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Rossini’s other comic operas is the way each character’s personality is reflected in the music they sing: lightning-fast patter for Figaro, feisty showpieces for Rosina, and blustering expostulation for Bartolo.

Each of the opera’s two acts ends with an extended and complex finale involving almost all the characters as well as the chorus. These set-pieces are models of musical skill, segueing seamlessly from duets and trios to ensembles and choruses, ratcheting up confusion and dramatic tension to its breaking point, before bringing it to a neat resolution.

The overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia is some of the best-known and most popular music in the opera – a natural curtain-raiser for the comic hijinks and romantic intrigue that follows. But it wasn’t originally written for the opera at all, and by the time it was used to open Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1816 it had already served as overture to two of Rossini’s earlier operas.

Musical highlights

Una voce poco fa

Captivated by the voice of her suitor “Lindoro”, Rosina resolves to meet him in this, her delightful first aria. Rossini uses the traditional structure of the aria – two sections, the first slow and the second fast – to reflect the two different sides of Rosina’s character. 

The measured, formal orchestral introduction gives little sense of the musical excitement to come. It sets the tone for Rosina’s opening music, in all its elegant, poised prettiness and florid decoration. But as the second section progresses Rosina begins to show her true colours (the mood change pivots, crucially on the word ‘ma’ – ‘but’), setting quiet modesty aside in favour of a much more extrovert, assertive display of feminine determination.

The opening of the second section of the aria (‘Io sono docile’) features a solo flute, whose airy, graceful tone echoes and emphasises Rosina’s light, girlish character. The aria is a typical example of a ‘Rossini crescendo’ in which music repeats the same phrases, gradually getting both faster and louder until it reaches a thrilling climax.

Zitti, zitti, piano, piano

This trio for Almaviva, Figaro and Rosina captures the opera’s cheeky, playful spirit. 

The trio’s sense of suppressed urgency, of excitement bubbling just below the surface, is generated by short notes, hissed out almost like a musical whisper.

Although the pace is slow – sustaining the illusion of control, order – the way the singers’ phrases all crowd in on one another, following quick on each other’s heels, gives the ensemble a real sense of haste and fluster.

The sudden shifts of volume from very quiet to very loud emphasises the exaggerated, pantomime character of the situation.