Concepts of music Music history

The Three Barbers of Seville, No Waiting

Figaro shaves Bartolo while the lovers plot their elopement

The Three Barbers of Seville, No Waiting

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.

IMG_20150701_0001Giovanni 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. Unhappily, its score does suffer in comparison with what came next.

IMG_20150701_0002Which 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.

Paisiello, composer of the “other” Barber of Seville

Having  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.

Beaumarchais, the inspiration for the operas

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 a 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.

There are two videos of the Paisiello Barber, one of which , on the Bongiovanni label, I have seen. It is done in period costumes but the use of modern plastic chairs is distracting. But it is a must for those interesting in the history of how a play inspired two historic operas.


Essays Literary sources

Cinderella With and Without Magic

Cindarella_illustration_by_Charles_Robinson_1900Cinderella With and Without Magic

Concerning the Little Girl of the Cinders, there is the Rossini opera, the Massenet opera, the Prokofiev ballet, the Disney film, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical. Each of them is based on the rags-to-riches tale that exists in over 500 versions all over the world but which is known best in the form written by Charles Perrault in 1697.

Cinderella was originally a goose girl under the domination of cruel masters, in this case two sisters and an unfeeling father. In the earlier tales, she was helped to the ball either by an animal or the spirit of her dead mother. It was Perrault who introduced the Fairy Godmother and the midnight limit for the girl’s big night out. By a mistranslation, her “pantoufle de vair” (slipper of fur) became her “pantoufle de verre” (slipper of glass) that she drops as she runs from the palace. In other versions, it is a ring that she leaves behind. In one Zuni version, she is a turkey girl and her turkeys lend her their feathers in which to dress, but at midnight they come to reclaim them. Such is the nature of folklore.

The Disney version was laden with the usual anthropomorphic doorknobs and such and a stepmother far more frightening than the one in the French tale. Therefore, this Cinderella was much more vulnerable as she sang, “Cinderella, Cinderella, night and day, it’s Cinderella” and so on.

51jX+MBJRAL._AA160_In the Rossini opera, “La Cenerentola,” there are no supernatural doings at all. A wise and old tutor to the Prince gives Cinderella her dress and transportation. All the while, a comic servant of the Prince, Dandini by name, poses as the Prince and is chased by the two social-climbing sisters and their idiotic but cruel papa throughout most of the work. Also, the fairy godmother becomes the wise old Alidoro and the glass slipper becomes a bracelet.

“La Cenerentola” is a much more human and sentimental work than are most of Rossini’s comic operas. In fact, the subtitle is “Goodness in Triumph,” and that is a clue to the nature of both the title character and the meaning of the play.

As I was interviewing the cast and crew of a recent local production, the conductor wanted to emphasize that “La Cenerentola” is not a children’s opera but a moral tale for adults in which human failings are studied rather than pumpkins that turn into coaches. The stage director agreed that the cartoon approach to this work that shows up in so many productions should be avoided and that one must humanize the characters. Cinderella, he says, should evoke great empathy from the audience. The mezzo in the title role went so far as to say that she sees in this role something of the Virgin Mary, who “also did not seek honor or coronation.” She falls in love with a man she thinks is a butler and winds up a member of the royal family! The singer sees the moral of the tale as “he who truly seeks love in his heart will reap countless treasures beyond imagination.”

You don’t get reactions like that about “The Italian Woman in Algiers” or even about “The Barber of Seville”!

Those who have seen the video with Frederica von Stade in the title role could quite agree with most of those comments. Those who have seen Cecilia Bartoli mug her way through probably could not. To each his own.

But why did Rossini choose to eliminate all the magic from the story? It has been suggested that it was because the work was scheduled to be given in a Rome opera house and that the Vatican censors would not permit any sort of magic that did not come from their concept of the Christian deity. Rossini biographer Francis Toye attributes the de-supernaturalization to Rossini’s own dislike of the fantastic. However, I have a feeling that the truth lies closest to the reason given by Bridget Paolucci on the Metropolitan Opera’s tape “Talking About Opera: La Cenerentola.” According to her, Rossini knew that the Valle Theatre, for which he was composing the work, simply did not have the physical facilities for special effects on their not-quite-state-of-the-art stage!

Regardless, the work has scarcely suffered from its emphasis on human beings and it remains one of opera’s most charming creations.

51x1jmJB+QL._AA160_It is interesting that Massenet’s 1896 operatic version “Cendrillon” does keep the Fairy Godmother, But the score is far less interesting than Rossini’s and the work not nearly as much fun.



Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise

A-OP-Otello (Rossini)Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise 

In all the years I have been giving my “Shakespeare in Opera” talks, I have lamented the absence of video versions of Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Rossini’s “Otello.” At last half of that lack has been satisfied by the appearance of the latter on a Decca DVD.

It was filmed at the Zurich Opera House in 2012 with Muchai Tang conducting the Orchestra Scintilla and a very strong cast. Alas, the program notes claim that it is set in modern times to show that racial bigotry still exists—as if the play were about that! The only one who hates Othello (or Otello in this case) is Desdemona’s father (here named Elmiro). But in this production, a silent bit is added in which a white man treats a black servant with disdain. Frankly, I think the setting is simply to save the cost of Renaissance costuming.

This is the very first time I have seen this work performed. I knew that the first two acts were a pale modification of the original: no Cassio, no handkerchief but a letter falling into the wrong hands, no slow poisoning of Otello’s mind by Iago, and certainly no great depth of characterization. The third act, however, follows Shakespeare’s fifth act faithfully. (Of course, it all suffers when compared to Verdi’s masterpiece; but that is not fair in judging Rossini’s work.)

Desdemona and Emilia in the last act

This opera calls for three lead tenors (!) and here all three acquit themselves nicely: John Osborn (Otello), Javier Camarena (Rodrigo), and Edgardo Rocha (Jago). The Jago-Rodrigo duet (No, non temer) in Act I is powerful and the ensemble that follows is quite impressive. Since Emilia (Liliana Nikiteanu) has no handkerchief to give her husband, she is merely there to give Desdemona someone to sing to. Peter Kalman’s Elmiro is strongly sung and well acted.

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Bartoli, when not being strangled

The Big Draw here, however, is Cecelia Bartoli, whose unique manner of singing seems in the style of the early 1800s (“Otello” premiered in 1816). Her acting is intense and her lower notes are a marvel. It is not her fault that her Willow Song in Act III is staged with her standing still and facing the audience rather than Emilia.

It is known that Rossini composed an alternate happy ending at the request of the head of the Naples Opera, and those who wish to hear it may do so on the Opera Rara CD set of this work. (My favorite line in both versions is Desdemona’s exclamation, “What a day!” Surely the understatement of all time.)

It is also noteworthy that the orchestra plays on “authentic” instruments, giving perhaps the sound that Rossini wanted. The score is complete except for a chorus at the start of the Act I finale—a minor point for those not familiar with this work. But the “modern” setting and costuming, to me, are a strong minus for a video.

The running time is 156 minutes and there are subtitles in seven languages.