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The Three Barbers of Seville

ART TIMES September 2005

Pierre-Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais wrote two plays centered on a clever servant named Figaro. The first, “The Barber of Seville” (1775), took a plot as old as Greek comedy. An old man (Dr. Bartolo) wishes to marry his young ward (Rosina). She in turn is in love with a poor student (Lindoro), who is in reality the Count Almaviva. The Count rehires his old manservant, Figaro, to help him win the young woman. Thanks to Figaro’s cleverness and one or two “useless precautions” taken by Bartolo, Youth wins out over Age (talk about your rites of Spring!) and all ends happily, except for Bartolo.

This is the kind of scenario that is tailor-made for an opera buffa libretto with very few changes. In fact, Beaumarchais originally intended his script to be a libretto for an opera, but he presented it as a straight 5-act play, saw it fail, reduced it to 4 acts, and saw it succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

Giovanni Paisiello was one of the leading composers of the late 18th century, leaving 80 operas behind him, each with a carefully chosen libretto. Therefore, he must have realized almost at once that the French play made an ideal libretto and commissioned an Abbot named Giuseppe Petrosellini to prepare one. The latter made only a few minor changes, taking over long stretches of the French text to act as the “dry recite” between orchestrated numbers.

It was Paisiello’s genius that created music that is just as dramatic as the text, and the work as a whole is filled with delightful musical tricks and turns that easily account for the work’s immense success. Now that was in 1782. After that, a much-reduced version was used on the stage; but its reputation endured even then and even with a few other “Barber” operas that could not match Paisiello’s and have been long forgotten.

Which brings us to 1816. For reasons that make little difference now, Gioachino Rossini decided to write a fresh operatic version of “The Barber,” knowing full well that admirers of Piasiello would not only object but would cause a riot during its opening. Rossini issued a statement that he had Paisiello’s good will that the title would be “Almaviva,” and so on. It had no effect at all.

The performance was in a badly built and drafty theater with poor musicians and equally poor singers. The tenor had to tune his guitar on stage, the basso tripped and had to sing his major aria while trying to staunch a mighty nosebleed, and a cat upstaged the cast—twice! The nosebleed and cat garnered the only applause from an audience that could not hear a note of what was happening on stage.

Rossini left hurriedly and some sources say he was found hiding under his bed, while others say he was found sleeping peacefully on it. Nevertheless, with a few minor changes, the work got a fair hearing on the second night and the rest is history.

Having just played a recording of the Paisiello version, I can only be impressed with (1) how good it is and (2) how much better the Rossini version is. Compare, for example, the “Calumny” aria in which Don Basilio describes the course of a rumor from a tiny breeze to a thunderclap as loud as a cannon. The Paisiello accompaniment certainly mirrors the thought but lacks the marvelous crescendo development found in the Rossini aria.

The cleverest music section in the earlier work is the trio between Dr. Bartolo and his two servants, one of whom cannot stop yawning and the other cannot stop sneezing, thanks to Figaro’s trick powders. Even Rossini knew he could not better this one and in his work the sequence is found only in the recitative between musical numbers. Paisiello’s librettist gives Figaro two arias, just as they appear in the Beaumarchais’ dialogue. In the first, he is trying to compose an aria about wine and laziness; in the other, he tells the Count about his travels and travails all over the world. This makes him a much fuller character than he is in the Rossini work.

Paisiello’s music for Rosina makes her a more serious character than the merely wily Rosina in the later work. This is established early in Act I when her music is of the opera seria sort, giving her certain elegance and therefore anticipating her role as Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro.”

However, Rossini’s melodies linger in the memory long after a performance while Paisiello’s have a certain homogeneity as was the custom in his time—and in Rossini’s, for that matter, except that Rossini was a genius and willing to take chances.

Unhappily, the only recording of Paisiello’s “Barber” is a dim sounding one with massive cuts in the recitative and merely adequate singing on a set of Arte Nova CDs. But if you find it or one of the older recordings such as the one that appeared on the long out of print Cetra series of LPs, it is certainly worth the hearing.

Next month, we will take a look at the two “La Bohemes.”

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