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An exploration of the music of Rossini's delightful bel canto opera The Barber of Seville.
San Diego OperaTalk!
Nicolas Reveles, host of San Diego OperaTalk! introduces The Barber of Seville. He talks about Rossini's life and the memorably disastrous opening night of The Barber of Seville, introduces the characters in the opera, and discusses Rossini's influence on Italian opera, the music of the opera, and some of his favourite recordings of The Barber of Seville.
The opening of The Barber of Seville is a deliciously tuneful, high-spirited, earworm-inducing piece of music, ending with a fine example of a Rossini Crescendo (aka Rossini Rocket), in which the music doesn't simply increase in volume, but builds excitement and intensity by repeating a tune over and over, adding new instruments with each repetition, until the general sense of anticipation and mayhem is almost too much to bear. This type of crescendo became a Rossini trademark, so much so that he earned the nickname Senor Crescendo.
Well known though this overture is, Rossini did not originally write it for Barber. It's recycled from not one, but two of his early operas, both of them serious works for which this cheerful little introduction might seem incongruous. But Rossini clearly knew it was too good not to use again!
Above, Claudio Abbado conducts the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala in a 1972 performance.
Below are Youtube links to the previous incarnations of the Barber overture (just so you can assure yourself that they are the same piece of music!):
Overture to Aureliano in Palmira (1813)
Overture to Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra (1815)
The Overture to The Barber of Seville was later also recycled to become the sound track of one of the most famous cartoons ever ...
The Overture again, as presented by Bugs Bunny in this short extract from Rabbit of Seville
Rabbit of Seville, a 1949 Warner Bros.Looney Tunes cartoon, features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in another of their epic battles, this one to the sound track of Rossini's overture from The Barber of Seville (ending with a brief segue into Mendelssohn's Wedding March!
Warning: Cartoon violence and sheer silliness!
Act 1: Largo al Factotum (Make way for the factotum)
Perhaps the most recognizable opera aria of all time – and certainly the most energetic and enjoyable, Figaro's opening aria introduces our barber-hero – an irrepressible rogue and busybody, a matchmaker, a fixer – and a barber-surgeon.
Until the 19th century, barbers provided a lot more than a shave and a haircut! As Figaro hints in his opening aria and later boasts, he is a barber, hairdresser, surgeon, herbalist, apothecary, veterinarian ... in short, the household's jack of all trades.
Baritone John Rawnsley is Figaro in this in this 1987 Glyndebourne Festival Opera production directed by John Cox, with Sylvain Cambreling conducing the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra.
Act 1: Una Voce Poco Fa (A voice just now)
Rosina has fallen in love with a young man whom she knows as the student Lindoro (actually the Count Almaviva in disguise). Here she tells us how she thrills to his voice – and makes it clear to what lengths she will go to win Lindoro for her own. Her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, had best beware if he gets in her way.
I am docile, I am respectful,
I am obedient, sweet and loving.
I can be ruled, I can be guided.
But if crossed in love,
I can be a viper,
Can't get enough of the Overture to The Barber of Seville? Wish you could sing along?
And now it's the turn of Mr. Rossini to revolve slowly in his grave as the King's Singers perform the Overture in an irresistible a cappella arrangement.
Act 1: Dunque io son! (Then it is I!))
Figaro has told Rosina that the girl Lindoro is in love with is ... Rosina! (although she has already figured this out for herself). She is thrilled to be such a lucky girl.
This exuberant duet contains a lovely little bit which Rossini had originally written for his very first staged opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract), composed in 1810 when he was just 18. One of the characters in La cambiale is very exotic indeed – a Canadian merchant named Slook, who has come to Europe to find a wife. Fanny, his intended bride, is in love with someone else. In the aria "Vorrei spiegarvi il giubilo" ("I would like to explain the joy"), Fanny sings of the delirious joy of love. Slook turns out to be a really nice Canadian and helps Fanny to marry her true love. The cabaletta (the fast part at the end) of the aria reappears in Rosina and Figaro's duet.
Soprano Beverly Sills is Rosina and Alan Titus is Figaro in this 1976 performance at New York City Opera. The tune from La cambiale begins 3 minutes, 10 seconds into the video when Rosina sings "Ah, tu solo, amor, tu sei che mi devi consolar" ("Oh, you alone, my love, can console my heart").
You can hear the original aria from La cambiale di matrimonio in this recording by Eva Mei, from her 1996 album Bel Canto Arias:
The cabaletta that Rossini re-used in Barber begins three minutes, 30 seconds in, as she sings "Ah, nel sen di chi s'adora, non ci resta che bramar" ("Ah! at the breast of the one you adore, one can only languish.") There are some wonderful Rossini-esque pyrotechnics in this piece! It's clear that even at the age of 18, Rossini could already write irresistibly delightful melodies.
Act 2: The Lesson Scene – Contro un cor che accende amore (Against a heart inflamed with love)
One of the comic highlights of The Barber of Seville is the music lesson scene. Almaviva, disguised as Lindoro disguised as a substitute music teacher has gained access to the house and proceeds to give Rosina her singing lesson as Bartolo dozes off.
The piece she sings is supposedly the rondo from the new opera, The Futile Precaution (the actual subtitle of both The Barber of Seville and of Beaumarchais' original play). She sings of her tyrant of a guardian, proclaims that love will triumph, and begs Lindoro to get her out of here.
Mezzo Soprano Joyce DiDonato is Rosina in this 2007 Metropolitan Opera production, with Juan Diego Flórez as Almaviva/Lindoro/Alonso and John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo. The conductor is Maurizio Benini.
The Lesson Scene has long been fodder for prima donnas to interpolate arias of their own choosing, often with no regard for plot or situation, but simply to show off the singer's coloratura abilities and thrill audiences. In fact, some singers would substitute two, three, even four arias, essentially putting on a mini concert (complete with encores) for their adoring fans.
The lesson scene has been tarted up with a startling range of showpiece arias, among them:
Here is a recording from 1905 of Adelina Patti singing "Home, Sweet Home".
An acclaimed 19th century opera singer, Patti (1843 to 1919) sang "Home, Sweet Home" for President and Mrs. Lincoln in 1862. She also famously sang Rosina's aria "Una voce poco fa" for Rossini himself, with so many decorative flourishes that Rossini said, A very pretty song! Whose is it?
According to the Metropolitan Opera Archives, on April 9, 1892, Adelina Patti sang the role of Rosina. The archival programme information states, In the Lesson Scene Patti sang Eckert's "Swiss Echo Song," and then supplemented this selection with "Home sweet home" and "The Last Rose of Summer." After the opera ended, she sang "Comin' Thro' the Rye" as an encore.