You can’t get a haircut or a shave at “The Barber of Seville,” but you can enjoy one of funniest and most popular operas ever performed. Seattle Opera presents Giaochino Rossini’s delightful musical romp October 14-28th, in co-production with Australia’s Queensland Opera.
Rossini’s score kicks off with the instantly recognizable overture, gains speed with a parade of familiar melodies and shenanigans, as it races to its “all is forgiven” finale. Director Lindy Hume accelerates the whirlwind pace with a high-spirited show filled with florals, frills, and frivolity.
Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s French comedy, “Le Barbier de Séville” (1775). Rossini’s opera buffa (comic opera) unfolds in two acts, with a libretto by Cesare Sterbini. It’s familiar and comedic, with a plot to rival today’s sitcoms. Rossini’s “Barber” is not to be confused with Mozart’s 1786 “Le nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro, also based on Beaumarchais’s play, but Mozart deals with the second part.
Set in sunny Seville, lovesick Count Almaviva serenades the wealthy orphan, sweet and sassy Rosina. Although sparks fly between them, she is under lock and key by old crabby-pants, Dr. Bartolo, her ghastly, grumpy guardian (He plans to marry Rosina himself.). Bartolo hires toady Don Basilio to spy on her. Basilio is actually Rosina’s music teacher; a slimy sycophant whose loyalty is for sale to whosoever will pay.
Enter fast-talking fixer and rascal, Figaro – barber, doctor, matchmaker, and self-styled “factotum” to all of Seville. Eager to save the day—and young love – Figaro promises to help Count Almaviva win Rosina’s heart and freedom through a series of harebrained schemes. Cue whimsical disguises, bribery, and good-natured trickery. In other words, Figaro fakes it till he makes it—makes it up as he goes along. (Director Hume describes his character as a Jack Black or Bill Murray type.)
Rossini’s music is incredibly familiar, possibly because as kids you saw the Bugs Bunny version, “The Rabbit of Seville.” But if you’re hearing the overture for the first time, though, it’s instantly memorable – especially two minutes in, when the violins set off like race horses, first trotting steadily then building up to a full gallop.
That’s Rossini’s favorite musical trick—the crescendo, sometimes called Rossini’s Rocket. It actually involves several musical devices used together to create a natural crescendo in the music to produce a slowly building musical frenzy. Not for nothing was he nicknamed Signor Crescendo,
On the surface, “Barber” might seem like a puff piece, lacking musical tension that opera purists prefer. After all, it overflows with buffoonery; even the music sung by the “bad guys” is upbeat. But take another look. Recent headlines confirm Rossini was right on the money. A wealthy man lusts after his young ward, and like so many rich and powerful men, he thinks himself above the law. Sound familiar? To quote a famous politician, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Until very recently, Harvey Weinstein would have agreed.
Legend has it that 21-year-old Rossini bragged that he scribbled out “The Barber of Seville” in twelve days—or maybe it was 18–wearing his bathrobe and not shaving. (Admittedly, he borrowed the overture from something he had written earlier.)
Rome, February 20, 1816. The opening night of “Barber/” was a disaster, Rossini’s musical rival, Paisiello, had composed an opera about the Barber of Seville in 1800. He was so outraged by young Rossini, that he organized a claque who booed and hissed throughout the opening night performance. And there were accidents. When Almaviva entered to sing his serenade to Rosina, his guitar strings snapped. A few minutes later, Figaro’s instrument broke. When Don Basilio made his entrance, he tripped head first, and picked himself up, wiping his bloody nose with his gown.
As if this weren’t enough, the Act One finale was just beginning when a cat appeared on the stage. Chased in one direction by Figaro, in another by Bartolo, in a third by Basilio, the animal, in a wild endeavor to escape, ran into the skirt of Rosina’s dress. The cat and not the music received the applause—and meows–from the audience, who laughed uproariously.
By the second night performance, the instruments had been repaired, and the hecklers, nosebleed, and kitty had disappeared. However, Rossini was so upset he locked himself in his dressing room and almost refused to come out. Thankfully, he heard the audience’s thunderous applause.
“Barber” not only took the contemporary opera world by storm, but has been celebrated over 200 years. In his heyday, Rossini was an operatic rock star. Girls shouted his name in the street and begged him for an autograph or lock of hair.
“Barber’s—and opera’s–most famous baritone aria, “Largo al factotum” (Make way for the guy who can do anything.) remains one of opera the most famous entrances ever. Rossini is also notorious for his incredibly difficult and rapid vocal lines. Count Almaviva’s Act One aria, “Ecco, ridente in cielo” (The beautiful dawn is breaking), is acknowledged as one of the most difficult arias in the tenor repertoire. An audience favorite is Rosina’s joyful but assertive Act One chamber aria, “Una voce poco fa / qui nel cor mi risuono” (A little voice just echoed in my heart.).
Rossini’s music must be sung elegantly, effortlessly, with extraordinary grace and good taste. The zillions of quick little notes and the breathless comical patter must tumble out rapidly. Example? The Patter Song, Bartolo’s aria “A un dottor” is sung at breakneck speed.
In a sit-down with Richard Wagner (Surprisingly, they admired each other.), Rossini confided, “I preferred to deal with comic rather than serious subjects.” Opera buffa is lively with a lot happening very quickly and always includes caricatures. The characters depict human weaknesses–stupidity, vanity, greed and affectation– often directed at the ruling classes.
Rossini actually pioneered a new era of bel canto (beautiful singing) opera–long, sustained vocal lines that show off the beauty of the voice. These melodies were often embellished with ornaments such as trills, turns, and runs, demanding showy, gymnastic vocalism–superstar singers who demand your attention and applause.
Figaro, one of the great roles for light lyric baritones, sings a huge amount of music and must be adorable and insufferable. Odds are, the Seattle audiences will applaud his entrance when they hear the opening notes of his famous aria.
The Count needs a gorgeous high tenor and great comic facility. Rosina can be either mezzo or high soprano, as long as she brings enough charismatic female energy to balance out the male-heavy cast.
The roles of Bartolo and Basilio call for gifted comedians who also have rich, bass voices. Bartolo must be able to sing tongue-twisting patter at breakneck speed. Don Basilio’s scandal aria “La calunnia” is one of Rossini’s most famous crescendos. Berta the housemaid (soprano) carries the tune in several big ensembles. And don’t forget Ambrogio. Juilliard-trained burlesque performer Marc “Waxie Moon” Kenison makes his Seattle Opera debut as the outrageous butler of Dr. Bartolo. He doesn’t sing, but you can expect highly physical antics
Wearing Tracy Grant Lord’s vibrantly colored, Spanish-inspired costumes, the singers will perform on her imaginative set design, a playful salute to Spain’s architecture. With doors galore, you’ll see a flurry of opening and closing during Act Two’s glorious storm. So many in fact, Hume playfully suggested the opera should be nicknamed, “The Comedy of Doors.”
If you were to ask someone on the street to sing something from an opera, odds are they would come back with: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! Figarooooh,” And they’d be right. What they may not know, however, is that the aria “Largo al factotum” is not from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” rather from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”
Sabina Puertolas and Sofina Fomina trade off in the role of Rosina. Both are making their Seattle Opera debut. Matthew Grills, also his Seattle Opera debut, and Andrew Owens will trade off as Count Almaviva, while John Moore and Will Livermore will do the same as Figaro.
One of the greatest masterpieces of comedy within music, “Barber” has been called “the opera buffa of all opere buffe.” It’s vivacious. It’s contagious. It’s elatious. And it sparkles with Rossini’s cheeky wit. “Look at that intelligent face,” remarked Wagner when he glanced at Rossini’s portrait. “That ironic mouth – it could only be the composer of “Barber.”
Seattle Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville” runs October 14-28 at McCaw Hall. It’s sung in Italian with English subtitles, performance Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission. The $25 tickets are sold out for the run of the show, orchestra seat tickets start at $90, and second tier tickets at $59. Tickets are available at 206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org. tickets may also be purchased at the box office, 1020 John Street, M-F 9am-3pm; group rates are available, 206.676.5588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rosina: Sabina Puertolas (Seattle Opera Debut, Oct. 14, 20, 22, & 25)
Rosina: Sofina Fomina (Seattle Opera Debut, Oct. 15, 18, 21, & 28)
Count Almaviva: Matthew Grills (Seattle Opera Debut, Oct. 14, 20, 22, & 25)
Count Almaviva: Andrew Owens Oct. 15, 18, 21, & 28)
Figaro, Jack of all Trades: John Moore (Oct. 14, 20, 22, & 25)
Figaro, Jack of all Trades: Will Livermore (Oct. 15, 18, 21, & 28)
Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian: Kevin Glavin (All performances)
Don Basilio, Dr. Bartolo’s toady sidekick: Daniel Sumegi (All performances)
Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper: Margaret Gawrysiak (All performances)
Fiorello, the Count Almaviva’s servant: Ryan Bede (All performances)
The Officer: Ku Kwangsuk, (All performances)
Ambrogio, Dr. Bartolo’s butler: Marc Kenison/Waxie Moon (Seattle Opera Debut,
All performances) Hume
The Creative Team
Director: Lindy Hume
Conductor: Iacomo Sagripanti
Associate Director and Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig
Production Designer: Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshall