The Barber of Seville: A Note from Music Director James Conlon
First published: February 28, 2015. Revised: June 20, 2020.
“La musica ai miei tempi era altra cosa…” (“Music in my time—i.e., in the olden days—was different…”) declares the ever grumpy Doctor Bartolo in the second act of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Much had changed in the short space of time that separated the composer’s birth from his auspicious entrance on the world stage. The prodigious and precocious genius of the man who revolutionized Italian music in the first half of the 19th century both advanced and reflected societal changes in European life. The French Revolution had opened “serious” operatic art to the emerging middle class. Now the aristocracy, abolished in France and threatened elsewhere, would no longer be the sole arbiter of artistic values and tastes.
Rossini, born two years after that Revolution and during the terror that followed (February 29,1792), was far away in Italy. As he grew, he so admired Haydn and Mozart that as an adolescent he was nicknamed “il tedeschino” (the little German) at his music conservatory in Bologna. He essentially absorbed the Apollonian grace, architectural perfection and ebullient sense of humor of his Austrian models. But though far away geographically and culturally, the shock waves of the events in France were felt and absorbed.
With Rossini’s Barber, we are no longer in the court theater, but in the popular sphere that issued from that Revolution. The characters, often personifications of nobles in all walks of the socially structured past, were now treated as equals. Instead of the fearful respect and obsequiousness to which they were accustomed, members of the declining aristocratic class were now subject to ironic and comic denigration. Offsprings of the middle class (like Rossini) could more freely harpoon whom they wished.
Musically, Rossini started where Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte had left off in The Marriage of Figaro, creating his own impudent brand of opera buffa (comic opera). Maintaining their tongue-in-cheek humor, both composers render Count Almaviva’s moral failures transparent. The Count’s long-suffering and virtuous wife Rosina is profound, sympathetic and truly noble in Mozart. She is portrayed by the post-Revolutionary Rossini, in her pre-nuptial state, as more youthful, saucy and irreverent.
Objectively it was probably excruciating to hear and behold, but we were all delighted with our modest creation. Two years later we repeated it, this time in a proper theater on an only slightly higher level. By the following year, all of the boys’ voices were changing and nobody could sing anymore. So, we moved on to a work by Beaumarchais’ predecessor and model. We produced Molière’s The Hypochondriac, and thus I enjoyably began and ended my career as a theater director.
Anything that had to do with Figaro interested me. I found a recording, and eventually a score, of the first operatic Barber (premiered in 1782, only seven years after the original theatrical Barber was first produced at the Comédie-Française), composed by Giovanni Paisiello. I loved this too. This is a minor masterpiece of its time. It has been understandably obscured by Rossini’s Barber (whose premiere was marred by the demonstrative disciples of Paisiello, by then a venerated Neapolitan master), but it remains unjustifiably overlooked. Paisiello’s Barber premiered in St. Petersburg and Mozart knew it well. On Paisiello’s return to Italy via Vienna, the two composers probably met. The traces of Paisiello’s work in The Marriage of Figaro are clearly discernible.
I could not wait to conduct both Barbers, and so I did: Rossini and Paisiello, in 1973 and 1976 respectively. Life plays strange games and, incredibly, I never conducted either again. It was not until 2015 however, that I was finally reunited with them, thanks to “Figaro Unbound,” the Beaumarchais Trilogy and LA Opera.