Sunday, February 14, 2016

The other Barber of Seville

The composer Giovanni Paisiello at the clavichord,
by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1791 (detail)

Two hundred years after its first performance, Rossini's Barber of Seville (in Italian, Il barbiere di Siviglia) remains one of the best-known and most-produced operas in the repertory. According to Operabase, in the past five years alone it has received more than 2300 performances in over 500 productions internationally. San Francisco Opera has presented it in four of the past dozen seasons, including two of the last three. Music from the opera crops up in movies (Breaking Away), cartoons (the Bugs Bunny Rabbit of Seville), and commercials.

But the first performance of Rossini's Barber on February 20, 1816 was almost its last. It was a notorious fiasco. The mishaps on stage at the Teatro Argentina in Rome—a singer tripped and gave himself a bloody nose, and a wandering cat upstaged the diva (twice!)—were nothing compared to what went on in the audience. From the first moments of the opera, whistling, catcalls and shouted abuse rained down on Rossini (who was directing from the keyboard) and drowned out much of the music.

What was upsetting to some members of that first-night audience was that another version of Barber already existed. Composed by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782 to a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini, the earlier Barber—an adaptation of the first play in Pierre Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy—was an international hit and audience favorite. First written for the court theater of Russian empress Catherine the Great, it was quickly produced in other European cities such as Naples, Venice, Amsterdam, London, Lisbon and Madrid.

In Vienna in 1783, Paisiello's Barber was seen by a young composer searching for an operatic subject. Inspired by Barber's comic possibilities (and its popularity—it was performed during every opera season in Vienna for five years after its debut), the composer recruited a librettist to write a sequel based on the second play in the Beaumarchais trilogy, The Marriage of Figaro. That composer—Mozart, of course—included several musical allusions to his inspiration, quoting Paisiello's descending three-note motif ("Fiii-ga-ro") in the Figaro overture, and including an amorous serenade (Cherubino's "Voi che sapete") that has striking similarities to Barber's "Saper bramate," seen below:

In this clip the tenor Alessandro Safina is singing the role of Count Almaviva (the production is from the Accademia Lirica Mantovana). Almaviva is serenading Rosina, the beautiful young ward of the miserly Dr. Bartolo, who keeps her a virtual prisoner in his home. To make matters even worse, Bartolo is planning to marry Rosina against her will. Almaviva, struck by Rosina's beauty, enlists the aid of the canny barber of the opera's title, Figaro, to disguise himself, gain entry to Bartolo's home, and rescue her.

Rosina is attracted to this handsome stranger and desperate to escape the lecherous clutches of Dr. Bartolo. At the close of the first part of the opera she sings "Giusto ciel," a plea to heaven to witness the truth of her affections for the man she thinks is a poor student, and to grant her peace:

The soprano performing Rosina in this recent production from the Teatro Verdi di Sassari is Gabrielle Costa.

You may notice a resemblance between "Giusto ciel" and "Porgi amor," an aria for the Countess Almaviva (who is, of course, also Rosina) in The Marriage of Figaro. Again that resemblance is a deliberate evocation of Paisello's opera [1]. Such references, which Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte could assume would be recognized by their audience, created emotional continuity between the characters in Barber and those same characters in Figaro, the events of which take place a few years after those in Barber.

As these excerpts demonstrate, Paisiello's treatment of Barber is less farcical than Rossini's later version. But the high musical quality and humanistic warmth of Paisiello's opera ultimately could not compete against the sheer tunefulness and manic comic energy of Rossini's version. Despite that first-night demonstration against Rossini's opera, it went on to be a success, and within a few years Paisiello's opera was no longer performed. Despite occasional revivals in Europe and two or three (out of print) recordings, Paisiello's opera today remains, unjustly, a rarely-heard obscurity.

Enter West Edge Opera, a tiny Bay Area company with imagination and daring far beyond those of many much larger and richer organizations. Artistic director Mark Streshinsky and musical director Jonathan Khuner once again made virtues of necessity in their semi-staged concert version of Paisiello's Barber (seen February 9). The stripped-down musical forces (violin, cello, oboe and keyboards) and intimate non-traditional venue (the downtown Berkeley roots-music club Freight & Salvage) heightened the work's immediacy. Khuner's witty supertitles and the committed performances of an excellent cast (special mention must be made of Sara Duchovnay's Rosina and Nicholas Nackley's Figaro) made for an evening of sheer delight.

In the opera's finale ensemble, Khuner cleverly interpolated a few bars each of Bartolo's "La Vendetta" from The Marriage of Figaro and Figaro's "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Barber. The seamlessness with which these musical quotations could be inserted showed just how much the later (and now vastly more famous) composers owed to Paisiello. It was another demonstration of how thoughtfully the WEO artistic team approaches its productions.

WEO's Opera Medium Rare season continues on March 20 (Mills College) and March 22 (Freight & Salvage) with the other La bohème, composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo almost simultaneously with Puccini's version. It will be followed by the company's Summer Festival 2016, featuring Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Thomas Adés’ Powder Her Face, and Handel’s wickedly cynical Agrippina.

  1. In Mozart's Operas (University of California, 1990) Daniel Hearst has outlined many of the musical and thematic connections between Paisello's Barber and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, including those between "Giusto ciel" and "Porgi amor."

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