Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is the perfect comic opera – a giddy musical romp set in sunny Spain, bursting with big tunes and colourful characters. ‘It will be played as long as Italian opera exists,’ predicted Beethoven to the young Rossini, and two centuries later he has yet to be proved wrong. But with no shortage of operatic competition, what is it that sets Il barbiere di Siviglia apart from its many rivals?
For a start, it’s genuinely funny. That should go without saying, but where some comic operas only raise a wry smile or a knowing smirk, Il barbiere di Siviglia goes for the belly-laugh and gets it nearly every time. The plot is a miracle of complicated intrigue, elaborate disguises, deception and slapstick comedy. There are love letters, ladders, quick exits (and even quicker wit) as well as a whole platoon of soldiers.
A charismatic hero
The points of a love triangle have rarely been as sharp as they are here in the characters of the spirited Rosina (no shrinking violet she), her calculating guardian Dr Bartolo and the dashing Count Almaviva. Not forgetting, of course, quick-thinking Figaro – the barber of the title – whose elaborate scheme outwits Bartolo and enables the Count to get the girl.
It’s no coincidence that Rossini took his plot from the same trilogy of plays by Beaumarchais that inspired Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. The same anarchic energy animates both operas, championed by the central figure of Figaro. Charismatic and silver-tongued, he may not be your classic princely hero, but he’s all the better for it. He may play the put-upon servant (just listen to his breathless recitation of his tasks in his famous opening aria ‘Largo al factotum’ ), but his skill and authority are beyond doubt by the end of this virtuoso showpiece.
Whilst there’s a lot of comedic business happening, Il barbiere di Siviglia is, at least, a love story. Verdi described the opera as ‘the most beautiful_ opera buffa_ there is’, and much of this beauty comes in the music sung by the Count (his lovely opening serenade “Se il mio nome” and the even more impassioned ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ would woo the sternest lover) and Rosina. Seduced by the voice of her secret lover, Rosina sings ‘Una voce poco fa’ – an infectiously joyful expression not just of love, but of character. Fizzing semiquavers bubble like champagne through this irrepressible aria, a true test of mettle for any mezzo-soprano that tackles it.
The real genius of Il barbiere di Siviglia lies in the musical details. An overture that’s an entire narrative in itself takes us from the tiniest glint of mischief to all-out explosive excess, setting the audience up for the action to come.
A cast of gleefully dysfunctional characters takes up the baton – from world-weary housekeeper Berta (who knows a thing or two about love, as ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’ proves) to the insinuating music tutor Don Basilio (whose aria ‘La calunnia’ captures the snowballing energy of slander with overwhelming effect). And of course Bartolo, who may be the butt of most of the opera’s jokes, but whose music bursts with self-important Italiante swagger and personality – one of the repertoire’s greatest comic roles.
Puccini might be master of operatic emotion, Verdi of drama, but Rossini is the musical comedian par excellence. Who could conjure a cheekier musical rendition of a stealthy getaway than ‘Zitti, zitti, piano, piano’ (Softly, softly), or a more accurate impression of a nuisance guest who simply won’t leave than Act II quintet ‘Buona sera, mio signore’ Il barbiere di Siviglia glows with good humour, painting a canny and surprisingly modern portrait of men and women – their weaknesses, their wants and of course their loves.
Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is on stage as part of Tour 2017 this autumn at Glyndebourne, The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, New Victoria Theatre Woking, Norwich Theatre Royal, Milton Keynes Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth.