“The Barber of Seville,” also known as “The Useless Precaution” is a comic opera crafted by Gioachino Rossini in two acts. Cesare Sterbini wrote the libretto in Italian. The opera was inspired by “Le Barbier de Séville,” a French comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais. One of the greatest works of musical comedy, “The Barber of Seville” is considered as the crème de la crème of all “opera buffa.”
The opera premiered on February 20th, 1816 using the title “Alm aviva o sia l’inutile precauzione” at Rome’s “Teatro Argentina.” Rossini’s opera is based on the first play of a three-part series by Pierre Beaumarchais, all revolving around the character of Figaro, an intelligent barber. Mozart’s famous opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” is a continuation of the story, and is based on the second part of Beaumarchais’ trilogy.
History & Performances
Rossini had quite a reputation of being remarkably productive. On average, he completed 2 operas every year, that too for continuously 19 years. Musicologists theorize that he crafted the music for “The Barber of Seville” within 3 weeks. However, the famous overture was actually borrowed from two of his earlier works - “Elisabetta” and “Aureliano in Palmira.”
The premiere in Rome was a disaster, as the audience jeered and mocked throughout the performance. Also, the majority of the audience supported Rossini’s rivals, and thus instigated hatred among the others. The second performance, however, received critical acclaim and was successful.
In England, the opera was first performed at London’s King’s Theatre on March 10th, 1818. It crossed the Atlantic in 1819 and was held at New York’s Park Theatre on May 3rd. Subsequent performances in French at Italian were organized at the “Théâtre d’Orléans” (New Orleans) and the “Park Theatre” respectively. Rossini had originally written the role of Rosina, keeping a “contralto” in mind. However, he later altered it after subsequent singers failed to live up to his expectations. When Joséphine Fodor-Mainvielle performed as Rosina at the London premiere, he also wrote a new Aria to suit her voice.
The events take place in front of Bartolo’s house, in the public square. Lindoro, a poor student, accompanied by a band of musicians are singing “There, laughing in the sky” to attract the attention of Rosina. Lindoro is none other than the young Count Almaviva, who disguised himself to pursue Rosina. He disguised himself, hoping that Rosina would fall in love with the real “him,” and not his wealth. However, his efforts bore no fruit, as he subsequently pays off the musicians and starts brooding alone.
Rosina is the ward of Bartolo, who doesn’t offer much freedom as he plans to marry her off one day and collect considerable dowry. Figaro enters the scene, crooning the Aria “Make way for the factotum of the city” as he approaches Count Almaviva, his old master. The Count seeks his assistance. He further offers Figaro money if he can successfully arrange a meeting with Rosina. They perform the duet “At the idea of that metal,” also known as “All’ idea di quel metallo.” Figaro suggests that the Count can take the disguise of a drunken soldier who has been billeted to Bartolo, as this would grant him entrance into the house. The Count handsomely rewards Figaro for the suggestion.
The next scene takes the viewers to a room in Bartolo’s house, where Rosina performs a “Cavatina” titled “A voice a little while ago.” Although this Aria was originally written for “E major,” it is sometimes performed in “F major” to allow the performers to sing more. Rosina writes a letter to Lindoro (Count Almaviva in disguise). Basilio and Bartolo enter, exchanging suspicions regarding the actions of the Count. Basilio wants to eradicate him by creating false rumors to tarnish his image. The Aria “Calumny is a little breeze” is performed here. As they leave the room, Figaro and Rosina enter, discussing Lindoro’s activities through the duet “Then I’m the one... you’re not fooling me?.” Rosina also manages to dupe a suspicious Bartolo and sings the Aria “To a doctor of my class” when confronted about the letter in her hand.
Count Almaviva enters the house as a drunk soldier and demands quarters. However, Bartolo refuses, stating that he is equipped with an official exemption, which allows him to refuse quarter to soldiers. Almaviva, pretending to extremely drunk, challenges Bartolo to a brawl instead. In the resulting confusion, Bartolo tries to locate the official document, while Almaviva discloses his real identity to Rosina, subsequently passing a letter. When Bartolo is suspicious of it, Rosina successfully dupes him by showing her laundry list. As the argument intensifies, Figaro and Basilio enter the fray. The cacophony also attracts the Officer of the Watch, who enters the room with his troops. Bartolo asks him to arrest the Almaviva (drunken soldier), but the officer stands down once the Count secretly shares his true identity with him. Basilio and Bartolo are astonished by this, why Figaro quietly laughs at them. The FInale “Cold and still, just like a statue” is played in the background. However, as the uncertainty prevails, everyone starts suffering from auditory hallucinations and headaches. The Aria is “My head seems to be in a fiery forge: the sound of the anvils deafens the ear” is performed here.
Count Almaviva again enters Doctor Bartolo’s house, disguised as a substitute for Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher. He pretends to be a priest who is also a singing teacher. A suspicious Bartolo reluctantly agrees, only after sharing his plan to discredit Lindoro, who he believes is pursuing women for his master - the Count himself. Meanwhile, Figaro arrives at the scene to shave Bartolo, who is reluctant but eventually agrees to do it in the music room. He doesn’t want to leave Rosina alone with the new music teacher, and conveys his suspicions through the Quintet “Don Basilio! – What do I see?” As Figaro starts shaving him, Bartolo overhears Rosina and the Count and throws everyone out.
The scene resumes at the square outside Bartolo’s house. Bartolo instructs Basilio to ensure that the notary is ready to marry him and Rosina that very evening and further explains his plot to nullify the lovers. Next, Rosina arrives at the scene. Bartolo convinces her that Lindoro is a mere acquaintance of Lord Almaviva, and is fooling her at his master’s orders. Rosina eventually agrees to the marriage. Further, a thunder-storm is created via musical effects to specify the passage of time. In the next scene, the Count, accompanied by Figaro climbs up to the balcony to meet Rosina, who confronts him. However, the two reconcile when Almaviva discloses his true self. As Figaro urges them to leave the place, they hear the footsteps of the notary and Basilio approaching the front door. As they attempt to escape, they find the ladder missing.
The couple still requires another witness, apart from Figaro to marry. The Count, desperate, makes an offer to Basilio - accept compensation and be the second witness, or be shot in the head. Basilio agrees to be a witness and the couple signs in front of the notary. Bartolo rushes into the scene with the Officer of the Watch and his men but is too late to stop the marriage. A confused Bartolo is finally pacified when the Count offers him a dowry. “May love and faith eternally be seen to reign in us,” an anthem symbolizing love is played in the background as the opera concludes.
The “Barber of Seville” has been frequently serenaded as the greatest among Comic Operas. The first-act is truly splendid, and offers consecutive all-time hits - Rosina’s “Uba voce poco fa,” and Figaro’s “Largo al factotum.” However, the second Act is devoid of any substantial music, although the plot twists and turns successfully divert the audience’s attention. The third Act offers a glorious musical quartet that will tickle your funny bones and sustains the dramatic tension effortlessly.
Questions can be asked about the lack of musical quantity, but Rossini has offered enough musical quality to sidestep them with ease. Overall, it is pure joy when considered from a musical viewpoint and definitely the “Alpha” among Rossini’s works.
Rossini’s music feels incredibly familiar to the ears; even the overture is instantly recognizable. The blistering musical performances are thoroughly breathtaking and will keep everyone rooted to the spot.
There is a certain self-assertiveness at play here, almost like a catchy tune one can relate to and be excited about at the same time. Rossini’s masterpiece truly fizzes with remarkable melodies, asserting individuality against the limitations of social privilege. Here we see a pioneer at his very best, with a delicate hint of intelligence that echoes throughout the piece - one that can only be associated with the composer of “The Barber of Seville.”