20 February 2018

The Barber of Seville premieres in Rome

Rival fans wreck debut of Rossini’s most famous opera

A typical costume for the main character, the barber Figaro
A typical costume for the main
character, the barber Figaro
The Barber of Seville, the work that would come to be seen as Gioachino Rossini’s masterpiece of comic opera, was performed for the first time on this day in 1816 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.

Commissioned by the theatre’s owner, Duke Francesco Sforza-Cesarini, it had a libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the French comedy play Le Barbier de Séville and was originally entitled Almaviva or The Useless Precaution, out of deference to Giovanni Paisiello, the most popular composer in Italy in the 18th century, whose own version of Il barbiere di Siviglia had been very successful.

The second part of the same text, by Pierre Beaumarchais, was behind Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered four years after Paisiello’s.

Nonetheless, Paisiello’s loyal fans saw Rossini’s opera as an attempt to steal their favourite’s thunder, whatever name he gave it, and organised what was nothing short of an act of sabotage, packing the theatre on opening night and proceeding to jeer, shout and catcall throughout the whole performance, unsettling the cast and leading to a number of mishaps on stage.

Rossini, who had conducted the opening performance, was so outraged and embarrassed he stayed away the following night, handing the baton to a deputy.

Rossini wrote the part of Figaro specifically for his friend, the baritone Luigi Zamboni
Rossini wrote the part of Figaro specifically
for his friend, the baritone Luigi Zamboni
Yet, having already made his mark with hits such as Tancredi, L’Italiana in Algeri and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Rossini had a following of his own and the audience for the second night, on hearing the now unmistakable arias for the first time, declared the opera a resounding success, their enthusiasm such that a crowd gathered outside his residence later in the evening to voice their approval.

Luigi Zamboni, the bass-baritone Rossini had in mind when he wrote the score – in the space of just 12 days, he later claimed – gave a bravura performance as Figaro, the barber of the title and something of a Mr Fixit, as in “Largo al factotum” – “Make way for the factotum” – the resounding aria that marks his entry on to the stage in the first act.

Count Almaviva, the Spanish nobleman who enlists Figaro’s help in wooing the rich ward of an elderly physician, was sung by the tenor, Manuel Garcia, who had worked with Rossini before, with the role of Rosina, the object of his affections, played by the contralto Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi. The bass Bartolomeo Botticelli was cast as her guardian, Dr Bartolo, whose motive for wishing to keep Rosina from running off with a handsome young suitor was that he wished to marry her himself when she came of age.

It was not long before the opera was being performed in cities across Europe, becoming known so generally as The Barber of Seville that the original title was, in time, discarded.

It made its London debut at the King’s Theatre in March 1818, followed by a version in English at Covent Garden in October of the same year.  The same translation, by John Fawcett and Daniel Terry, was performed at the Park Theatre in New York in 1819, becoming the first Italian opera staged in America to be sung in the original language when it returned to the Park Theatre in 1825, with Garcia again in the role of Almaviva.

More than 200 years later, according to Operabase, the respected collator of opera statistics, The Barber of Seville is the seventh most performed opera in the world, just ahead of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. On performance numbers, Verdi’s La Traviata is the world’s favourite.

The  Teatro Argentina, where the Barber of Seville was performed for the first time,  is one of  Rome's oldest theatres
The  Teatro Argentina, where The Barber of Seville was
performed for the first time,  is one of  Rome's oldest theatres
Travel tip:

The Teatro Argentina opera house in Rome is one of the oldest theatres in the city, constructed in 1731 to designs by Gerolamo Theodoli, on behalf of the Sforza-Cesarini family. It takes its name from its location on the Largo di Torre Argentina, a square that was named not after the South American country but by a Papal Master of Ceremonies who hailed from Strasbourg, the Latin name for which was Argentoratum. The theatre stands on the site of the Curia Pompeia, the meeting hall in which Julius Caesar was murdered in 44BC.

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The Palazzo Ducale is a typical palace in Pesaro
The Palazzo Ducale is a typical palace in Pesaro
Travel tip:

Gioachino Rossini was born in Pesaro, now a seaside resort in the northern part of Marche, about 40km (25 miles) south of the much better known resort of Rimini, in Emilia-Romagna.  Like many Italian Adriatic resorts, it has an old town distinctly different from the hotel-lined avenues close to the sea, in Pesaro’s case built on the site of an old Roman settlement that changed hands many times over the centuries until it became capital of the duchy of the Della Rovere family, who built many of the palaces that survive in the old town. It was still part of the Papal States when Rossini was born in 1792.

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