Opera in my Pyjamas: Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ (1816)

the-barber-of-seville-video-coverThis was another opera that I really did watch in my pyjamas, one Sunday night before a recent public holiday, because I get really wild on the weekends. It’s basically the story of Rosina, the teenaged ward of Bartolo, a doctor prone to fits of rage who is effectively keeping Rosina under house arrest until she’s of an age that he can marry her for her dowry. And, probably, the sex.

Possibly on the basis that almost anything is likely to be a more attractive option than marrying Bartolo, Rosina falls for the poor student Lindoro, who is really the young Count Almaviva, who has disguised himself in order to test Rosina’s love by concealing his wealth.

As should be obvious by now, this is an Opera Buffa, or comic opera.

Teresa Berganza as Rosina

Because of the house-arrest thing, Almaviva finds it very difficult to gain access to Rosina, so he’s thrilled when he realises that the village barber is a former servant of his, the outgoing and wily Figaro. And if that name looks familiar it’s because ‘The Barber of Seville’ is effectively the prequel to Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, which premièred thirty years earlier, in 1786. Both operas are based on plays by the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799). Incidentally, the original plays form the first two parts of the ‘Figaro’ trilogy but the third, ‘The Culpable Mother’ was less popular and was only turned into an opera in 1966 (by Darius Milhaud, a French composer who I’d never heard of) and has never really caught on.

Anyway, Figaro is a big fan of the disguise thing and encourages Almaviva to don two more over the course of the opera, first as a drunken soldier in need of a billet, and then as a piano teacher, in order to gain access to Rosina’s house. Working against the trio is not only Doctor Bartolo himself but also his friend Basilio and his two servants Berta (who is in love with him, although that plot-line is never resolved) and Ambrogio. It all ends happily, of course, with Almaviva’s true identity revealed and Rosina and Almaviva joined in matrimony, much to the satisfaction of Figaro and the frustration of Bartolo.

Berganza with Luigi Alva (Count Almaviva) and Hermann Prey (Figaro).

Rossini’s (Gioacchino Rossini, 1792-1868) music is fantastic, particularly the incredibly upbeat parts where you wonder how the heck the opera singers are able to keep pace, but the opera is let down by the plot, which is extremely linear without anything resembling a B-plot, and nowhere near as funny as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. The version I watched was filmed in 1973, so the costumes and set were amazing. However, the singing had been dubbed, and while this meant that the quality was undoubtedly superior to what could have been recorded at the time (given the cinematographic nature of the production) poor lip-syncing meant that it looked a bit odd at times. Also, whoever did the makeup presumably didn’t take into account the different effect of close-up filming compared with viewing singers on a stage, and some of the characters look a little funny.

So I can see why it’s a classic: it’s definitely the music, rather than the plot.


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