Fiorello and his clan arrive at the pre-determined time, anxious about the possibility of being discovered and jailed for loitering illegally in the courtyard of a nobleman. The Count wakes suddenly, and they accompany his serenade. When Rosina fails to appear, the Count crumbles in desperation, paying Fiorello much more than expected. This captures the interest of Fiorello’s entourage, who first thank the Count profusely, then rob him of his remaining gold.
Figaro, the infamous barber and surreptitious matchmaker of Seville, is preparing himself and his workers for their busiest time of the year, the Carnival season, when amorous intrigue and mayhem are the orders of the day.
The Count recognizes his former servant and decides to enlist his help, explaining his situation. When he points out the house of his beloved, Figaro explains that he has complete access as the barber and adds that Rosina is not the daughter of Bartolo but only his ward. The Count is overjoyed at this stroke of luck and promises Figaro untold wealth if he will help him win his beloved. Figaro clears his busy schedule, bumping this project up to high priority.
Rosina declares her love for Lindoro, the young student who has serenaded her beneath her balcony, and determines to be victorious over her tyrannical guardian and to marry Lindoro at all costs. She writes him a note professing her love and begins to scheme about how to get it delivered.
Her music teacher, Don Basilio, arrives with news for Doctor Bartolo. He has gotten wind that Count Almaviva is the secret suitor of Rosina and that the young nobleman has arrived in Seville to win her hand. This terrifies Doctor Bartolo: going up against such a powerful family could be dangerous. Basilio suggests a remedy, slander, which he has developed into a foolproof system capable of dispatching any adversary within a few days. Though intrigued, Bartolo decides he must move more quickly and marry the girl this very day to prevent Almaviva from succeeding in snatching away his beautiful ward. They begin drawing up the marriage contract.
Figaro, having overheard this dastardly plot, reports it to Rosina, who laughs it off as ridiculous. Besides, she has more pressing matters, like how to convey her feelings to her lover without seeming too forward. She and Figaro play a little cat and mouse game on this subject, and she finally reveals the note she has written, eliciting a promise from Figaro that he will deliver it.
Upon seeing Figaro with Rosina, Bartolo enters the room and begins questioning Rosina, suspecting that Figaro may be helping Almaviva gain access to her. She tells a series of lies, narrowly escaping each trap Bartolo lays out for her. Bartolo, in exasperation, finally threatens her with house arrest if she persists, unveiling a monstrous contraption he has been constructing for just that purpose. Rosina runs to her room, weeping.
A drunken soldier (Almaviva in disguise) arrives, producing a military billeting order to lodge in Bartolo’s house. Bartolo is stunned by this turn of events and produces an exemption he obtained from the royal court. This throws a monkey wrench into the Count’s plans, and he has to improvise. Complications mount, tempers flare, and the ensuing chaos brings the police force in to take action. After all witnesses have reported, the Sergeant at Arms decides it is the drunken soldier who must be arrested. In a coup de théâtre Almaviva privately reveals his true identity to the Sergeant, and the arrest order is reversed. Everyone is stunned. How could this have happened? This leads to even more chaos, and there is a fit of group insanity as the curtain falls on Act II.
Bartolo, completely baffled by the soldier episode, decides that Almaviva is somehow directly involved in this farce. Just then, a monk named Don Alonso (again, Almaviva in disguise) arrives, bestowing endless blessings upon the household. Bartolo knows he has seen his face somewhere before but cannot place it. When Alonso explains that he is a student of Basilio and is here to substitute for Rosina’s singing lesson due to the sudden illness of Basilio, Bartolo becomes suspicious and is about to throw the scoundrel out when Alonso produces the love note Rosina had written earlier. Bartolo is shocked. Alonso explains that he can solve Bartolo’s problem with Almaviva if he is permitted to speak with the girl in private. He will tell her that he got her note from the Count’s mistress and that the nobleman is only toying with her emotions in order to procure her sexually. Bartolo recognizes that this is slander but also a brilliant solution. He gives Alonso, his new trusted friend, carte blanche with the girl.
Rosina is brought in for her music lesson, and Alonso reveals his true identity to her, along with the plot Figaro and he have created to come to her balcony at midnight and rescue her from Bartolo. But he has no opportunity to warn her about the lie he had to invent regarding her love note. Chaos once again begins to mount as Figaro enters to give Bartolo a distracting shave, stealing from him the key that unlocks Rosina’s balcony grating. Suddenly, who should appear but Don Basilio to give the beautiful Rosina her lesson. Bartolo is confused again until Alonso tells him that Basilio knows nothing about the love note plot and that Basilio must be kept in the dark, or their plan will be destroyed. Bartolo sees the wisdom of this course of action and plays along with the others in trying to get rid of Basilio. Sensing that something is up, Basilio takes advantage of the situation by blackmailing each participant in exchange for his leaving the house. Once he is gone, the love note slander is back on track. Just as Alonso is about to finally explain that aberration to Rosina, Bartolo discovers the treachery and explodes in fury. Figaro and Almaviva barely escape his wrath.
Bartolo meets with Basilio, who explains that Alonso was not working for the Count but was actually the Count himself. In a panic, Bartolo sends Basilio to get the notary to execute his marriage to Rosina immediately. Bartolo also slanders Lindoro in order to destroy any love Rosina might have for Lindoro. When he breaks the news to Rosina, she is crushed and, in an act of vengeance, agrees to marry Bartolo, who is thrilled. A violent thunderstorm erupts.
Figaro and the Count arrive at Rosina’s balcony to begin the elopement proceedings. Rosina rebuffs them both, revealing that she now knows her beloved Lindoro was only acting as a pimp for the lecherous Count. Though stunned, the Count asks whether Rosina truly loved her Lindoro. She admits the depth of her feeling for him and the pain she now feels. Overjoyed at having won her sincere love, the Count now reveals his true identity, and all is cleared up between them. Suddenly, the young ward will become a Countess.
The celebrations are cut short by the arrival of Basilio and the Notary. Figaro suggests they depart by way of the ladder that they used to enter Rosina’s balcony, but they soon discover the ladder is missing. In a stroke of genius, Figaro co-opts the Notary into wedding the Count and Rosina on the spot. When Bartolo breaks into the room with the police force, he insists the intruders must be arrested. Once again Count Almaviva reveals his identity and the fact that Rosina is now his wife. Bartolo capitulates and gives his blessing on their union. All celebrate as the clock strikes twelve and Carnival begins.
He Who Laughs Last
by Garnett Bruce
Figaro might owe his fame to the operas of Rossini and Mozart, but he owes his creation to the revolutionary work of French playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
One of the eighteenth century’s greatest men of letters, Beaumarchais rose from modest origins, worked as a watchmaker and publisher, and yet he not only crafted the conscience of the day into his writings, he negotiated with monarchs (Louis XV and XVI) to spy on England, support the American revolution, and champion the ideas of liberty. But he was far from a rebel or revolutionary—to Beaumarchais, it was survival. Detailed in Maurice Lever’s biography, the death of his first wife left him in debt. Working back channels and personal connections with charisma and confidence, he arranged a job at Versailles which would lead to a royal appointment, and with it, a secure place in French society.
When The Barber of Seville was given at the Comédie-Française in 1775 (after a delay of some two years because of Beaumarchais’ legal troubles), the premiere was a flop. But in two days’ time, the traditional five-act play became a precise and concise four acts that has left audiences cheering ever since. Beaumarchais was a pragmatic man above all, not unlike his signature character, Figaro.
The basic plot follows the ancient story of the servant outwitting the master (in this case, Dr. Bartolo), but under the cloak of exotic Seville, satire of eighteenth-century France pours from every page, poking fun at fashion and philosophy. Our stealthy barber knows his way in and out of the best houses, is up on the latest news, and is easily able to manipulate a disguise. He’s also quick on his feet, knowing when to bluster an opponent or manipulate a situation.
The play originally included Spanish songs, but they were among the elements eliminated on the road to success. How ironic that 40 years later, Rossini and Sterbini (following other composers before them, to be sure!) embroidered a bel canto comic opera on the skeleton of Beaumarchais’ Barber. Now we have a French character, set in Spain, being sung in Italian. The humor expands exponentially: Italian comic traditions of the commedia seeped into this French farce and brought laughter and light-heartedness to Rome in 1816. An earthy character, Figaro has enough zing to amuse patron and peasant alike, with music that transcends its genre—repetition is followed with invention, invention with ornament, and ornament with glorious ensemble.
After the ultimate success of his Barber, Beaumarchais would not sit idly by writing letters and plays. With revolution afoot on both sides of the Atlantic, he activated his network of back channels and other smooth operators. At times he was disguised as a Spanish merchant or a French chevalier, becoming simultaneously one of France’s best ambassadors and notorious rogues, celebrated by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the American Congress, and hunted by the Third Estate. Despite Beaumarchais’ ties to the royals, he managed to outlive the French revolution. One of the leading newspapers in France today is Le Figaro, and, most delicious of all, Beaumarchais had a successful sequel: The Marriage of Figaro.
by Kirby Haugland
Duke Francesco Sforza Cesarini commissioned Rossini to write an opera on Beaumarchais’s play Le Barbier de Séville in late 1815. Barbier premiered in Paris in 1775, the first of the playwright’s three “Figaro” plays. It had originally been conceived as an opera libretto and was successfully set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in St. Petersburg in 1782. Paisiello’s opera was still popular decades later when Rossini’s adaptation, with libretto by Cesare Sterbini, opened at Rome’s Teatro Argentina during Carnival, so they advertised it with the title Almaviva to placate the elderly composer’s devotees. Despite this measure, the first performance, on February 20, was a disaster: Sforza Cesarini had died from a seizure days before, injuries and stray cats onstage marred the production, and the Paisiellisti raged throughout. Rossini refused to direct the second night, locking himself in his hotel room. That performance was a resounding success, but when Manuel García, the original Count, came to congratulate the composer, Rossini cursed and refused to come out.
Today the opera’s snappy wit and catchy tunes make it easy to forget that rocky origin. Both Beaumarchais’s original play and Rossini’s opera are full of commentary on politics and clever references to music and acting. The plot draws from the commedia dell’arte, a tradition of Italian semi-improvised theater, using stock characters like the crafty valet, the greedy doctor, and the music teacher. It also draws from the Spanish picaresque novel, which told adventures of wily low-class rogues called pícaros, a possible source for Figaro’s name. Figaro is presented as a creator, a puller of strings, and the smartest man in town, always prepared to wink knowingly at the audience.
Much of the opera’s humor has to do with music itself. The traitorous music teacher Basilio uses musical metaphors to describe the power of slanderous gossip in his aria “La calunnia è un venticello” (which Rossini gracefully executes in two orchestral tidal waves), and when overwhelmed in the Act I finale, he is reduced to singing solfège. Figaro’s famous introductory aria, “Largo al factotum,” boisterously proclaiming his skills as barber, surgeon, and jack-of-all-trades, has its origins in one of the play’s original musical numbers. Beaumarchais’s Figaro enters the stage with paper and pencil, composing a love song and lamenting that comic opera composers seem to only set meritless texts. He, like the audience, is ready for something a little more interesting in his opera. Figaro’s self-assuredness contrasts with the frustration of the Count, who in the opera has just paid a gang of musicians to accompany his nocturnal serenade to the absent Rosina. While Figaro is in control of his destiny, the Count’s musicians run wild (to a raucous Rossini crescendo), and he sullenly dismisses them: “I have no more need for sounds or music.”
Other musical jokes run throughout the opera. When Rosina first sees the disguised Count Almaviva from her window, she drops him a letter. She hastily tells her suspicious guardian that it was just the words to an aria from a new opera called Inutil precauzione, the futile precaution, which happens to be the subtitle of Barber itself. Despite Doctor Bartolo’s locked doors and scheming, Rosina has already begun her escape, imagining herself as the heroine of an opera. When Almaviva regains entry disguised as substitute music teacher Don Alonso in Act II, Rosina’s lesson features her performance of an aria from that same “new” work. The aria blends the fictional opera with the one on stage. In its highly ornamented cantabile, Rosina sings generically of the triumph of love and the fall of a tyrant, putting a bored Bartolo to sleep. His doze gives her the chance to shift to words about her beloved “Lindoro” and their escape from the sleeping tyrant across the room. Bartolo’s subsequent nostalgic arietta “from his youth” is a minuet ludicrously out of date, a jab directly from Beaumarchais rendered by Rossini in music typical of Paisiello’s generation. The “futile precaution” returns once more in the opera’s finale, when Figaro quips that the Doctor’s schemes have only aided the couple’s triumph.
The opera’s many ensembles let Rossini deftly turn conflicts into a counterpoint of musical styles. After Figaro convinces the highborn Count to become a drunken soldier in “All’idea di quell metallo,” they simultaneously sing of their separate motivations: inflamed love and clinking coins. Larger ensembles like the Act I finale and the quintet “Don Basilio!” in Act II stack up even more layers as characters struggle to handle their competing intrigues (in the latter case cooperating for entirely contradictory reasons). Sterbini’s dialogue and Rossini’s music manage to transform an already witty comedy into a masterpiece of humorous theater, outshining both Paisiello’s opera and Beaumarchais’s play.