Gioacchino Rossini: La Calunnia from The Barber of Seville

On the surface, The Barber of Seville might appear a puff piece. It seems to lack dramatic tension; it’s filled with buffoonery; the music, even that sung by the “bad guys” is upbeat. Superficial? Has it really nothing to say to us nearly 200 years later?

Nowadays, it seems, we no longer poke fun at the rich. In fact, in U.S. seems to have taken crass materialism to new heights. Once, for example, while sitting in the cafeteria of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I espied a well-groomed man in his early forties-lawyer-type-reading a book entitled “How to Write a Screenplay.”  A friend of his came up and said,  “Ah, the Yuppie’s lottery ticket.” We’ve probably all heard the urban myth of some friend of a friend who sold a script to a studio for six figures.

So what chord could Rossini strike in us? Let’s look at the character of Dr. Bartolo. The doctor, an aged wealthy man, lusts after his young ward, Rosina. In the light of the Eliot Spritzer, Anthony Weiner, and Mark Sanford, Rossini’s opera seems spot-on.  Rich and powerful men think themselves above the law (for example, Dominique Strauss-Kahn); that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac (Henry Kissinger).  By the way, why are the babes drawn to them?

Dr. Bartolo has his own servant, Don Basilio–Rosina’s music teacher–whom he enlists to keep her from falling into Count Almaviva’s hands. When they learn that the count is in town, and that he has designs on Rosina, Bartolo asks Basilio what he can do to thwart him. Basilio suggests they use slander to destroy the count’s reputation. All he has to do is start a rumor about Almaviva and eventually the people of Seville will rise up to throw him out of town. Basilio explains how slander works in the great aria, La Calunnia, which shows just how accurate a finger Beaumarchais had on the pulse of his own time and once again displays Rossini’s mastery at matching his music to the words:

La Calunnia e un venticello
un’aurette assai gentile
Che insensible, sottile
Incomincia a sursurar
Slander is a little breeze
A very nice little breeze
Which subtly, imperceptibly
Begins to murmur

Basilio starts out quietly enunciating every syllable and sounding so innocent. He continues on about how the rumors start inflaming the minds of the hearers, who in turn repeat it, embroidering on the story and embellishing the perfidy. As he sings, his voice grows louder, the syllables more rapid. By the end he’s almost shouting as he tells how the townspeople will rise up like an earthquake or a storm and hound the Count out of town.

Sound far-fetched? On hearing it again the other day, the Tea Party and GOP slander of Obama and the democratic agenda came to mind. From the start of Obama’s administration, there were rumors he was a Muslim, not an American citizen, that he was a racist, and worst of all, a socialist. These rumors were repeated and used to fan the fire of the ill-will of people who were quite legitimately upset with what had happened to the country. However, the calumny was used to target a president who had nothing to do with what got us here, and it has been used to fan the hatred against him, disrespect him, and do the absolute opposite of what he’s trying to do to fix the economy. All in all, it’s quite cynical.

Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum all must have have taken a lesson from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

After Don Basilio sings his aria about the power of rumor and slander he says to Dr. Bartolo “Well, what do you think?” Bartolo replies, “That may well be so, but were losing time,” and he just dumps the plan. Too bad we didn’t have someone like that around seven years ago.

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