‘Come — let’s see some feat of your wits!’
On 20 February 1816, just as carnival week was approaching its climax, Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia had its premiere at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. The new opera was a highly appropriate match for the unfettered atmosphere of the Roman carnival: delighting in masks and disguise, parody and the grotesque, performance and pretence, it is permeated through and through with the spirit of carnival. Of course this is due in part to its literary prototype, Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville, a comedy of intrigue that draws its effect from its rapid tempo, entanglements and witty dialogue, and in whose clearly defined characters the archetypes of the commedia dell’arte — for example, the ‘Dottore’ or the resourceful servant — shine through as forebears. Spanish genres, influenced in their turn by Italian improvised comedy, also left their traces in Beaumarchais’s play, not least in the figure of the barber who acts as go-between. Figaro’s name may even derive from the Spanish pícaro, the term by which the witty ‘rogues’ who populate the picaresque novel are known.
Rossini’s librettist, Cesare Sterbini, emphasized the composer’s intention of avoiding the ‘temerarious rivalry with the immortal author who preceded him’ — that is, with Giovanni Paisiello and his Barbiere di Siviglia from 1782. Nonetheless, the new operatic version of the subject inevitably competed with the earlier work, soon putting it permanently in the shade. Verdi was convinced that with ‘the abundance of original musical ideas, its comic verve and the accuracy of its declamation’, Rossini’s Barbiere was ‘the most beautiful opera buffa there is’. Compared to the ‘naturalness’ of Paisiello’s opera, in Rossini’s work everything is energized, sharpened or exaggerated, charged with dramatic vibrancy and incisive theatricality. And thus the comedy in Rossini’s work is also closer to its origins in the commedia dell’arte than the French play on which it is based.
All too aware of the familiarity of the basic plot, staged in countless variations since antiquity, Beaumarchais’s résumé was pertinently concise: ‘An amorous old man intends to marry his pupil tomorrow; a young, more adroit lover forestalls him and that very day makes her his wife under the nose of her tutor and in his own house.’ Strikingly, this description omits the title character: Figaro, who helps Count Almaviva to gain the hand of his inamorata Rosina and outwit her guardian, Dottor Bartolo, who for his part has joined forces with the scheming music teacher Basilio.
Effervescing with self-confidence and vitality, Figaro’s entrance aria implies that not a single thing can be accomplished in all of Seville if the ‘city’s factotum’ doesn’t have a hand in it. In the duet with the Count we then hear how ‘at the thought of this metal’ — the gold that beckons as a reward — Figaro’s spirit is transformed into a ‘volcano’ erupting with ideas: Almaviva is to disguise himself as a soldier and turn up at Bartolo’s house with a billeting chit, and worse the wear for drink at that… While these ideas are not at all as ‘delicious’ as their inventor believes, they undoubtedly determine the course of events — in fact, Figaro becomes something like a co-author of the piece, especially given that he frequently steps out of the action in order to comment on it from a distance, making it seem like theatre within theatre.
The meta-theatrical dimension that characterizes Il barbiere di Siviglia is being further expanded in Rolando Villazón’s production — thus opening up new potential for comedy and moments of poetry. An additional protagonist is being introduced, played by the great (and fastest in the world) quick-change artist Arturo Brachetti, whose work draws not least on the tradition of the commedia dell’arte: a daydreamer who seeks escape in old movies, especially those starring a particular diva with whom he has become enamoured. But what if the movie characters suddenly step out into the real world to find themselves in an opera?
Translation: Sophie Kidd