The story of a composer’s opera premiere

Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia

Few operas have had more sensational openings than The Barber of Seville. Accounts of the fiasco vary in detail, but all agree Rome’s Teatro Argentina audience feasted at young Rossini’s expense. Everything that could go wrong did, disaster striking immediately when the tenor singing Almaviva, who insisted on playing his own guitar, had to tune it, breaking a string in the process. In the audience, Rossini’s enemies pounced on this with cat-calls and whistles. And just as things were settling down, Figaro entered for his marvelous “Largo al fac­totum” (Make way for the city’s fixer), and the sight of his guitar caused another eruption. From there on only Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” (A little voice I heard just now) commanded any at­tention. But one moment of sanity could not salvage the opening. When it was over, Rossini took to his bed and refused to conduct the next performance.

Rossini’s youthful behavior—he was barely twenty-five—also contributed to the fiasco. Dressed in a too-tight, hazel-colored vicuna suit (with gold buttons!), he looked ridiculous conducting the orchestra. And his obvious scorn for the audience increas­ed their fury. Though Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri had catapulted Rossini into the first rank of Italian composers, that evening the Roman audience taunted him mercilessly.

Portrait of Composer Gioachino Rossini

The following night all went perfectly, and the audience responded with cries for encores. When Rossini didn’t appear for the customary bows, they left the theater calling his name. Legend has it they marched to his hotel, where Rossini hid under the bed, convinced “My poor opera has been booed still more than yesterday, and they have come to give me a trouncing.”

Perhaps the most important reason for the opening-night failure was the pro-Paisiello claque, who had come to punish an upstart. As Rossini knew, his opera was com­peting with Giovanni Paisiello’s II Barbiere di Siviglia (1782). Though over thirty years old, it was con­sidered the standard for II Bar­biere. Fearing this, Rossini had written Paisiello to ask permission to set the same text and even chose a different title, Almaviva, ossia l’lnutile precau­zione (Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution) to avoid any presumption. Though Paisiello raised no objection, his supporters were indignant at the upstart’s audacity. The rest is, as they say, history since today no one even remembers Paisiello, and Rossini remains opera’s most celebrated buf­fa composer.

The text of II Barbiere comes from the first part of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ 1765 stage trilogy: Le Bar­bier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Wife). The first two parts were immediately turned in­to operas, and though there have been almost a dozen Il Barbiere operas, only Rossini’s is performed today. The reasons for this are obvious; first, the plot employs that favorite comic formula of young lovers, aided by a crafty servant, outwitting an old guardian and would-be lover; second, it abounds in melodic numbers, both comic and romantic; and third, it is full of hilarious buffoonery.

But the most important reason is that not since Mozart’s comedies had music been so expertly used to establish character. Could anyone but Figaro sing his “Largo”? Or anyone but the smarmy Basilio justify slander with “La calunnia è un venticello” (Calumny is a little breeze)? These musical numbers fix character more securely than any costuming or stage antics. Perhaps the best example of this musical genius is Rosina’s first coming to life in “Una voce poco fa,” and then her fuller revelation in “Io sono docile/Son rispettosa’ (I am docile/I am respectful), where she tells us she knows what she wants and how to get it!

Adelina Patti as Rosina in ‘The Barber of Seville’

In the 19th and early 20th century, Rosina’s second act music lesson aria was completely altered by divas who preferred to give their own, thereby ignoring the scene’s dramatic significance for Rosina.

American favorite Adelina Patti regularly substituted “Home, Sweet Home,” whereas Australian diva Nellie Melba preferred the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Nineteenth century divas could not resist the singing lesson’s display possibilities, and their supporters encouraged them shameless­ly.

With II Barbiere’s triumph, Rossini’s fortunes skyrocketed, making him the most celebrated opera composer of his time. Thirteen years and many successes later, he retired and spent his remaining forty years indulging his love of high liv­ing. Retiring at the pinnacle of fame was his last brilliant act, as he noted: “Retiring in time requires genius, too.”

by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.