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.

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

6 Responses to Gioacchino Rossini: La Calunnia from The Barber of Seville

  1. Incisive and insightful post! Sometimes it seems that what is behind the “calumny” perpetrated onto President Obama is straight and simple racism. They just can’t stand the fact that he is black and elected President. TWICE. Yet, they hide behind the skirts of all those other specious accusations. Pitiful. Outrageous. Unjust. The worst of human nature baying at the moon. So, there’s an opera about this too?


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks very much for your comments. Yes, the current political dialogue gives me much to worry about, especially since I’m old enough to remember MLK winning the peace prize, his being shot (along with both Kennedy’s), and the voting rights act which seems to be in peril in a faction of southern states. I wish there were more operas or people singing about these things like there were at one time. Take care.


  2. A great analysis. What a rich subject for an opera – the Obama presidency – The Audacity of Hope. I read both his books and here in Europe, we cannot understand why all Americans aren’t wild with pride to have such an intelligent and humane guy in charge.


    • kurtnemes says:

      You hit the nail on the head. There’s lots of reasons–those in power not wanting to share the wealth, zero sum game thinking, selfishness, racism, propaganda, a disdain for “learning,” and intellectuals, the myth of the self-made man. Obama is an intellectual and thinks that reason an logic will win over people to do the rational thing that’s in everybody’s self interest. But the GOP is much better at appealing to the emotions of fear, religiosity, family values and are better at painting him as a destroyer of all that. There’s a lot on this by Jonathan Haidt. Do you know his work? He writes on the psychology of morality and has done a ted talk and been on lots of TV programs here. It would be interesting to hear your take on his research.


  3. Hi Kurt, this was a fabulous read, I enjoyed your insight into the opera. I have seen a production of the opera performed at the MET on DVD and having read your thoughts I really must watch it again and look at the opera with a new perspective.

    Thank you


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks, Charlotte for writing. This is what makes great art–the timelessness of the themes and comments on the human condition. It’s why Shakespeare is still so moving 500 years later. It must be thrilling to be part of such a rich piece of our cultural heritage.


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