The Barber of Seville
A passionate count enlists a local barber and jack-of-all-trades to help him woo and wed a quick-witted woman. But it will take all their cunning - as well as some disguises and bribes - to ensure love wins the day.
This production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece revives and stylises a historic staging from 1997 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Directed by José Luis Castro, the magnificent scenography by painters Carmen Laffon and Juan Suárez depicting Rossini’s romantic vision of the Andalusian capital in Seville itself.
Antonio Andrés Lapeña
A police officer
Jorge de la Rosa
Coro de la Asociación de Amigos del Teatro de la Maestranza
Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla
José Luis Castro
Sets & Costumes
Carmen Laffón, Juan Suárez, Ana María Abascal, Jacobo Cortines
Juan Manuel Guerra
Artistic & musical director
In Seville, Count Almaviva wants to marry Rosina. He has disguised himself as a poor student in the hope that she will fall in love with him unconditionally rather than for his title or money. Rosina lives with the much older Doctor Bartolo, her guardian, who wants to marry her himself as soon as possible and receive her dowry. The Count serenades Rosina outside her window, but she fails to appear on her balcony. Figaro, the local barber, recognises him and offers to help. He tells the Count to pretend to be a drunken soldier and demand to stay at Bartolo’s house. That way he will be able to get close to Rosina.
Inside the house, Rosina writes a letter to the student she heard outside her window. Don Basilio, her music teacher, tells Bartolo that he should be suspicious of Rosina and the Count. When the latter arrives in his disguise, he passes a love letter to Rosina and whispers that he is in fact the student who serenaded her. Bartolo suspiciously demands to know what is in the piece of paper, but Rosina fools him by handing over her laundry list instead. Bartolo and the Count argue loudly, the noise attracting the attention of the Police Sergeant and his officers, who crowd into the room. Bartolo demands that they arrest the drunken soldier, but Almaviva quietly reveals his true identity to the Sergeant, who then stands down, causing complete chaos and utter confusion.
Count Almaviva appears at Bartolo's door, this time disguised as a priest. He tells the doctor that he is also a singing tutor and has come to replace the suddenly ill Don Basilio in teaching Rosina. Bartolo is suspicious but allows the lesson to take place under his supervision. Figaro arrives to shave Bartolo’s beard, distracting him enough for the Count and Rosina to declare their mutual love and plan their escape. When Basilio turns up, the Count tries to bribe him into leaving and comments on how sickly he looks. But Bartolo smells a rat and asks Basilio to summon the notary so that he can marry Rosina immediately.
During a storm, the Count and Figaro climb a ladder to Rosina’s bedroom to take her away. But as they are about to escape, they find that the ladder has disappeared. Hearing footsteps approaching, Figaro gives Basilio an offer he can’t refuse, forcing him to witness the marriage between Rosina and Almaviva. Bartolo barges in but it is too late, the marriage contract has been signed. Receiving Rosina’s dowry in compensation, he reluctantly accepts the situation and joins in as everyone sings an anthem to love.
5 things to know about The Barber of Seville
1° A disastrous opening night
At the premiere of The Barber of Seville in early 1816, no one would have predicted that Rossini’s opera buffa (comic opera) would one day become one of the most frequently played and most cherished operas of all time. At the time, the piece appeared thoroughly derivative. Based on Beaumarchais’s famous play Le Barbier de Séville (1775), another composer, Giovanni Paisiello, had already successfully adapted it into an opera in 1782.
Paisiello’s supporters indeed considered Rossini’s version an affront and organised a disturbance at the premiere. The opening night was a disaster: Zenobio Vitarelli, who sang the role of Don Basilio slipped on a trapdoor and had a prolonged nosebleed and an unexpected cat wandered on stage. As a consequence, Rossini decided to stay at home for the second night and was startled to wake to the sound of applause after the performance.
2° An operatic prequel
Beaumarchais' original play was the first in a trilogy of dramas centring around the scheming Figaro. Today we might call The Barber of Seville a sort of prequel. It precedes Mozart’s famous opera The Marriage of Figaro composed 30 years earlier, the barber in Rossini’s opera is in fact Mozart’s Figaro pre-marriage. If Mozart’s opera can be said to contain greater philosophical depth and a more poignant social examination, few operas equal The Barber of Seville in terms of operatic comedy.
Although much more rarely performed, the third play in the Figaro-trilogy has also been adapted into an opera. Darius Milhaud completed La mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), based on Beaumarchais’s eponymous play in 1966.
3° Figaro here, Figaro there
Touching upon thorny subjects such as the new bourgeoisie and social mobility, The Barber of Seville manages a balancing act in speaking to the masses without alienating the nobility. Figaro is a man of humble origins, who can only count on his wit and hard work to move forward. He sets up his own barbershop and, in his own words, becomes a factotum, the one everyone relies on to do anything in town.
While opera culture was undoubtedly elitist at the time - and continues to be so in many places -, with Figaro, suddenly a character emerged with whom the working classes could identify. The delicacy of this shift arguably stems from the fact that while Beaumarchais’s play is explicitly satirical of nobility, Rossini himself was rather apolitical. As a result, the opera was enjoyable for audiences of all sorts of social backgrounds.
4° Commedia dell’arte
Rossini’s most popular opera owes a great debt to commedia dell’arte. In this Italian comic street theatre, which enjoyed great popularity in the 1600s, performers playing stock characters improvised dialogue based on a couple of familiar scenarios. In commedia dell’arte, there is typically a pair of lovers (innamorati) who strive to marry but are foiled for a time by one or more elders (vecchi). Helping the young lovers is one or more servants (zanni).
Beaumarchais had clearly learned from the commedia dell’arte structure, as most of the characters in his play are modelled after these character archetypes. The barber Figaro represents the zanni character type: he is wily, inventive and outsmarts everyone else. Doctor Bartolo is a combination of two types of vecchi characters: Il Dottore, a gluttonous silly old doctor, and Pantalone, a sinister miserly guardian. The music teacher, Don Basilio, is a variation on the deceitful and cantankerous zanni character, Pulcinella. And the list goes on...
5° The lost overture
The presently known overture actually stems from two earlier Rossini operas, Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, which explains why it contains none of the thematic material in Il barbiere di Siviglia itself. Early in the opera’s performance history, it was substituted for the original overture, which did not survive the first production at Teatro Argentino, probably by accident. The existence of the lost piece is documented in a letter Rossini wrote in 1866.
Rossini’s biographer Giuseppe Radiciotti refers to the unreliable Rossini acolyte Edmond Michotte’s account that the composer wrote the original overture based on themes supplied by the famous Spanish tenor Manuel Garcia, who portrayed the Count Almaviva at the premiere. Today we can only ponder what the overture sounded like and whether it truly contained Spanish themes.