Gioacchino Rossini: “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville

I’m going to shift gears from writing about the passionate and romantic piano concertos that formed the subject of the past several previous entries. Maybe this change results from a comment that my friend John Kim made, when I told him about all the gushing Romantic pieces that I listened to in high school. He said, “weren’t there any fun things you listened to?” In fact there was–The Barber of Seville. So this week, I’m going to write about several arias from this opera.

A while back, here, I wrote about its overture, which I first heard used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. For some reason I was able to memorize it, and I would use it to break the monotony of the hundreds of laps we had to swim each day on the swim team. I used to be able to whistle it as well. I learned to whistle from my father, who always seemed to have a tune on his lips. I wonder if this is genetic: my daughter when she was in middle school was often reprimanded for whistling tunes in the hall and sometimes during class at school.

The Barber of Seville probably ranks as one of the most well known and popular of all operas. Rossini actually composed 36 operas from the age of 18 until 37, many of the overtures to which also get considerable airplay. (And which have been pirated–remember the theme from the Lone Ranger? It’s actually from the overture to his opera William Tell.) But the Barber which Rossini composed at the age of 24, was his ne plus ultra. Had he composed only this one piece, his reputation probably would the same.

Rossini started out as a cellist and composer, and was especially influenced by Mozart. He had a great ear for melody, of course, but he also understood the human voice. Nowhere does this show than in the The Barber of Seville in which the arias and grouping of the vocalists–duos, trios, quartets–are so masterfully composed that they soar and amaze.

What the Barber also shows is that Rossini additionally possessed a superb sense of humor coupled with a zest for life. Much of this comes out in his characters, but particularly in the pieces given to the role of Figaro, that is the barber of this work.

The aria Largo al Factotum introduces Figaro’s entrance on the stage. Figaro is a “fixer,” who by the end of the opera will help Count Almaviva, his old employer (from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), capture the heart of the maiden, Rosina. We don’t know of the connection between the Figaro and the Count, who has just finished paying off some musician when the barber arrives. Figaro appears singing a perky, boasting aria in which he talks about how much he loves his job as a barber and go-between. The job keeps him hopping–he shaves the faces of the rich young bloods, prepares wigs for them and for the rich young ladies and bleeds everyone–but it has its perks, especially among the young ladies, “la, la, la, la!”
The words are funny, true, but what makes it so incredible is that the baritone must sing it faster and faster as he nears the end. You normally think of the deep bass voice as being serious, but at one point, he sings in falsetto, imitating the ladies calling him for his services. And of course, there is the familiar: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” which, even if you know nothing about opera, you probably have sung once in your life.

My high school friend, Paul Ma***, whose family introduced me to many works of classical music, told me that the Barber of Seville was a good place to start listening to opera. He was the one who told me that this aria by Figaro was called Largo al Factotum, which means “make way for the jack-of-all-trades.” He also recommended a recording of it, which, since it costs a whopping $15.99 in 1972, I persuaded my parents to buy it for me as a birthday present that year. They were puzzled, but complied.

Around the time I received my copy of it, Paul told me he had recently heard the Barber on a Saturday broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco. During Largo al Factotum aria, the soloist actually started singing lines in English that made fun of the other singers. That caught my attention. It showed me that this serious stuff called “classical music” actually had some humorous soul who practiced it.

Needless to say, this was one of the best birthday presents I ever received, and giving it a spin today to refresh my memory, I find that it still makes me smile.

Gioachino Rossini: Overture to Semiramide

Even though I had changed my major from computer science to English literature, Purdue University still required me to take a course in the hard sciences. To make it easier on us liberal arts “thickies” they offered a number of science courses designed with a humanistic slant.

I had done pretty well in high school biology–getting an A by doing a meticulous insect collection–so at Purdue I signed up for the biology course, entitled “Man and The Biological World.” The course was taught by an enthusiastic professor of genetics by the name of Alfred Chiscon, who was one of the most broad minded and galvanizing speakers I’ve ever seen. He constantly challenged our beliefs and assumptions from a scientific stand point. In this class I learned that there was no such scientific term as “race,” since all humans had the same number of chromosomes and could interbreed and produce fertile offspring. That painted more clearly than anything else for me why racism was purely a political construct, used by the powerful (by whatever accident of fate made them so) to oppress others. One book we read said that if people were forced to interbreed, in just one or two generations everyone on the planet would have the same skin color, which would do away with racism. Of course, we’d probably find something else to use as a basis of discrimination–eye color for example.

In another class, he told the story of a young man who went blind for some mysterious reason. It turned out that he was overly reactive to cyanide. Cyanide, for some reason, concentrates in and destroys the optic nerve. Seems like no problem, since we don’t normally come in contact with cyanide. However, the young man had a roommate who smoked, and since cigarette smoke has large concentrations of cyanide in it, there was the cause of the blindness. After that, I had no objection to laws trying to outlaw smoking in public.

I was absolutely riveted by his classes and I sat in the first row of the lecture hall which sat about 500 students. One day after class, the teacher singled me out and asked me to come to his office to talk with him. I was a bit hesitant, but he was very friendly. He listened to me as I explained my dreams, ideas, and dissatisfaction with Purdue. Then he told me that I had to look really hard into myself to find my true desires and then follow them. “You’ve got to stand bare-assed naked in front of a mirror and just look at yourself.”

As we neared the end of the semester, I got a card in the mail from him inviting me to a party at his house. I arrive and he greeted me at the door and welcomed me and introduced me to his wife and gave me a tour. He and his wife had just adopted an African-American child, who was just learning to walk. I was so amazed at what a wonderfully nurturing and open-minded person he was, and I’ve put him into my personal Pantheon of role models, who have had an impact on and even changed my life. For I did look deep into myself and realize I had to leave Purdue. I applied to Indiana University and got accepted.

To remember Al today, I chose a fun overture to Rossini’s opera, Semiramide. This opera is a tale of intrigue about the Queen of Babylon, who is conflicted by her duty to choose a successor and the desires of her heart. What I particularly like about this piece is how Rossini manages to tell an entire story through different instruments, melodies, and rhythms. As in many of his overtures he starts out with an explosive blast, full of pomp and pageantry. The piece then stops and starts off in an entirely different vein, playing a slow beautiful melody in the horns. He soon abruptly changes again, bringing in one of his trademark “storm” interludes, which really gets your blood pumping. After the storm subside, Rossini slows it down again, using oboes and pizzicato violins to lull us into complacency. He alternates several more times between the storm and slow movements, before introducing, after eight stylistic changes, a wonderfully happy, Italian melody. That is the melody that I really love the best among all of Rossini’s uplifting works. Before finishing the nearly 12-minute overture, he changes to a tumultuous section and back to the happy melody several more times.

This is a good piece to represent Al Chiscon. If anyone was full of gusto for life it was Al. He advocated embracing life full-on: looking at the good and the bad, with a focused intellect, while at the same time never losing sight of the passion of what it means to be a human being. Knowing a bit about Rossini’s gusto for life, and the supreme intellect required to bring such a work into the light of day, the choice of Semiramide seems fitting for Al.

Thanks Al, wherever you are.

Rossini Biography

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Gioacchino Rossini: Overture to “William Tell”

Okay. This is the last Rossini-for a while at least. This is another one of those pieces that has been used so much in the popular culture that all you have to do is hum a few bars of it and you get instant recognition. Unfortunately, this is usually in the form of someone shouting “Hi Ho Silver. Away!” because, of course, one part of this overture was used as the theme from the Lone Ranger television series. That’s where I first heard it at least.

Mad Magazine once had a funny cartoon which showed a school teacher I think trying to teach a music appreciation class. She tells her young charges that she is going to put on Overture to “William Tell”, and though it was used for The Lone Ranger she wanted them to try extra hard not to think about that show while they listened. Instead she wanted them to concentrate on the beautiful music. She puts it on and they kids all close their eyes and squint very hard to block out all the mental images. Suddenly the principal opens the door to the classroom and shouts: “Hi Ho Silver. Away!”

I had the same reaction when discussing the piece with my friend, Paul Mankowski, in high school. He told me that that tune was only one part of the entire overture and that he actually preferred the other melodies in it. So I went to my copy of the Rossini overtures and gave it a more thorough listen.

Rossini is not known for his other, non-operatic, works. I think he wrote a piece called Stabat Mater and maybe even a Requiem, but these too would be vocal works. What the overtures show, however, is that he was a master of melody, orchestration, and also could write for solo instruments as well. For example, the overture to William Tellstarts with a beautiful cello solo. This gives way to Rossini’s “storm” section, in which the strings and flutes give the impression of a wind and rain drops. This eventually develops into a huge cataclysm, which I think is supposed to depict a storm at sea. I’ve heard this storm used many times on TV and film, especially in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. After the storm dies away, there follows a beautiful pastoral interlude. I believe this represents the hero, his ship having been wrecked, waking up in the sunlight on the shore of an island. Flutes dance around representing butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Finally, we get the famous horn blasts that then give way to the famous theme that takes us to the end.

This piece still reminds me of Lone Ranger, but so what? I don’t like it any less for the association. The Lone Ranger was a good guy who was a shining upright example of heroism. Wasn’t William Tell supposed to be the same? There are so few positive male role models on television, in the movies, in politics, on the world stage. Though I might start sounding like an old fogy in a minute, it makes me long for the times when there were shining examples whom we’d like to emulate.

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Giocchino Rossini: Overture to “La Gazza Ladra”

Seeing that today’s composer is once again Rossini, you might think I have some sort of obsession with him or his works. Rather, I think my fixation is more on music that makes me happy, that buoys my spirits, that takes my breath away. Rossini’s pieces do that for me, and therefore never lose their freshness for that reason.

Like most of my early musical education, my discovery of this piece goes back to the Mankowski family, whose son Paul was a big influence on my musical and intellectual development in high school. In 1972, when I told him that I liked The Barber of Seville he suggested I buy a recording of the overtures from a number of Rossini’s other operas. It was on the Vox or Nonesuch label–ergo, cheap—and contained the overture to William Tell, The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Barber, and today’s feature La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie). The orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, did a serviceable job. This music is so joyous, familiar, and often played, that even the Navy SEAL Band could probably squeeze out a fairly good rendition of them.

The overture to La Gazza Ladra starts out sounding like a militaristic march with snare drums, and trumpet blasts. Eventually, the strings come in, almost with the feeling of a strong wind or cyclone that blows all that away. Next the orchestra begins playing the theme, which has a kind of eastern mystical feeling about it. Eventually this gives way to a device that Rossini often used, the temporale or storm. He captures the feeling of a gale-force storm by using fast violin runs, trumpet and trombone blasts, and the crash of tympanis. The storm eventually blows off, and the orchestra returns to recap the theme. Rossini then brings back the storm again, slightly shorter this time. The theme comes back again, but altered. It now sounds more like a ballet or a waltz and has almost an oom-pah-pah feeling to it. The momentum starts to grow. Rossini adds piccolos, triangles, woodwinds to perk things up. It starts to sound more Italian and joyous and happy all the way to the ending.

When the movie, A Clockwork Orange came out in the summer of 1972, I desperately wanted to see it. Being only 17 at the time, however, I was turned away at the box office since it had an “X” rating. I read the book and bought the soundtrack, however, which also had an abridged version of the overture to La Gazza Ladra on it.

I did not actually get to see A Clockwork Orange until about 15 or 20 years later, when as an adult I rented it and watched it at home. What I saw upset me. It turns out that Kurbrick, the director, used this joyous overture as the background music to a stylized gang-rape. You know what? I’m glad I didn’t see it when it came out. I dread to think what demented associations would have formed in my own adolescent mind.

There is a kind of flawed logic here. The director wants to show the evils of fascism and how it crushes down the creative impulse in people. The people then do incredibly violent and destructive things, perverting art in the process. (Recently, I saw an interview with a Libyan man after NATO forces started its mission to oust Muammar al-Gaddafi. The man said that now that Gaddafi was gone and the populace was no longer oppressed, people were starting to treat each other kindly.)  But it’s one thing to comment on the soul crushing nature of fascism, and quite another to turn it into a ballet. Do you need to actually create that same perversion on screen? Are movies really the right place to try to make such subtle points? Movies, being visual, are much more immediate and leave a much more lasting impression on the mind. During the Reagan era, for example, someone once criticized his press secretary of propaganda. In one photo-op they arranged for the president to cut a ribbon on a new nursing home, even though Reagan had just cut funds for senior care. The press secretary, when the contradiction was brought to his attention said he didn’t care. The visual message is what got across and what stuck with people.

I’m not sure why Kubrick did this to the overture to La Gazza Ladra. To me, music is very powerful, and that is why it needs to be kept as far away from politics as possible. Fortunately, I can still partake of the joy in this piece. I wonder if Kubrick was able to.

Gioacchino Rossini: Mi par d’esser con la testa from The Barber of Seville

This, the last aria from the Barber of Seville that I’m going to write about never ceases to amaze me. It did so when I first heard it about 27 years ago in high school, and did yesterday when I gave it a spin on my old turn table. It makes me think of a line from the movie, Amadeus. Mozart, speaking about his opera Le Nozze di Figaro says that opera is the only art form in which you can have four different people speaking at the same time, each presenting a different point of view or even having an argument. What’s more, what in real life would appear pandemonium, in opera sounds heavenly.

The piece in which Rossini illustrates this fact, Mi par d’essere con la testa is a quintet for Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, Basilio and Bartolo. Almaviva has succeeded in infiltrating Don Bartolo’s house by pretending he is a drunken soldier who has been billeted there. Don Bartolo won’t have any of it: he says he ahs a letter that exempts him receiving billets. As he goes to produce it, Almaviva slips Rosina a love note. Bartolo catches sight of it. Almaviva makes Bartolo drop his letter and Rosina drops hers. He then manages to mix them up handing back to Bartolo nothing more than a laundry list.

Rosina’s presence inflames Almaviva which makes Bartolo suspicious, then angry and the doctor again tries to get the count to leave. Almaviva starts to threaten him with a sword, telling him he will kill him when Figaro arrives. The barber and Rosina try to calm the two suitors down, but they all become so loud that the local police come knocking at the door. They enter and demand to know what is going on as the din has attracted a crowd in front of the house.

Bartolo explains that he is affronted in his own house by a drunken soldier. The police chief is about to cart Almaviva away, when the count secretly shows him a letter that reveal his true identity–Count Almaviva, a nobleman. At this, the police chief is thunderstruck. Back then, nobles were inviolate. The others sing in wonderment at how something suddenly struck dumb the police chief. When he comes to his senses, he tells them to stop arguing. When Bartolo tries to get him to arrest Almaviva, the chief implies that if he doesn’t drop it, he might have to arrest him. That would have been within his powers.

This confuses everyone even more and they begin to sing:

Mi par d’esser con la testa
in un orrida fucina.
alternando questo e quello
pesantissimo martello
fa con un barbara armonia
mure e volte rimbombar, si
I feel as if I’ve stuck my head
into some dreadful smithy
Alternating one with the other
The heavy hammer blows
Make a barbarous harmony
That shakes the walls and rafters

To me this piece demonstrates one and for all Rossini’s mastery of matching his music to the words. Again, like La Calunnia it starts out soft. In the background the violins play quick triplets, punctuated by a triangle which imitates the sound of the crashing hammers. It is funny, clever, upbeat, and incredible as each voice surfaces for an instant and then is drowned out by another.

You know how the opera ends: After more intrigue and humorous scenes in which he and Figaro dupe Bartolo, Almaviva gets the girl. Not because his is any better a person, but because he could pay more than Bartolo. Maybe it’s more fitting that he is younger than Bartolo, but that’s not the main theme. The theme is that Figaro-a common barber-is more clever than any of them.

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, we baby boomers in the U.S. 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 Clinton Jennifer Flowers-Paula Jones-Monica Lewinsky debacle, Rossini seems right on the money. Rich and powerful men think themselves above the law (Dominique Strauss-Kahn); that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac (Henry Kissinger). And just 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.

Gioacchino Rossini: “All’idea de quel metallo” from “The Barber of Seville”

“Money! Makes the world go round! The world go round!  The world go round!”

Beaumarchais’ play, The Barber of Seville premiered at the Comédie Française in 1775. After a few inauspicious performances, it soon became a huge success, and French majors everywhere are eternally grateful. Because of its renown, no less than thirteen different composers turned it into operas before and after Rossini’s version. Some of these composers had crowds of supporters, almost like today’s football and basketball fans. Considering the fiasco which occurred at the first performance of Rossini’s opera, reportedly caused by the supporters of a rival composer’s version, however, these supporters seem more akin to the modern European football hooligans.

We moderns complain of the liberties Asian countries take with intellectual property rights. In Rossini’s time, though, the practice of plagiarism was almost as rampant as today. Beaumarchais, for example, used themes he borrowed from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte for the Barber. He also must have known about the existence of a French novel of the 1600s by Scarron called La Precaution Inutile. One of the more successful version of the Barber, written in 1782 by Giovanni Paisiello, is still known. Rossini paid homage to Paisiello in the preface to his Barber, and even called his work L’Inutile Precauzione (The Useless Precaution), which was the subtitle of Beaumarchais’ play. He also had his librettist come up with an entirely new libretto to avoid any charges of plagiarism.

Still, Rossini’s use of the theme again caused great consternation among Paisiello’s supporters, who disrupted the opera’s premier in Rome at the Teatro Argentino. The hooligans did not throw potatoes studded with razor blades, but they did let a cat loose on the stage and leave a trap door open so that one of the characters would trip over it. The Roman audience laughed, hooted, and whistled throughout the performance, while Rossini sat playing the harpsichord accompaniment throughout. At the end, the composer saluted the soloists, and feigning indifference, went home to sleep.

Rossini avoided its second performance, which the critics hailed as a triumph and at the end of the third, which he did attend, the crowd escorted him back to his house with a torch-lit procession. This is remarkable considering that the Roman audiences of the time were known to be the most demanding and critical of new works of music in all of Europe. Could you imagine something like this happening today?

There is a funny description of Rossini that people used to tell, that went like this: “Rossini only cried three times in his life–once when he heard Carafa (the Caruso of his day) sing; once at the premiere of the Barber of Seville, and the third at a picnic when the truffled chicken fell into the river.” This refers to the fact that after he retired from opera at the age of 36, he became a bon vivant and gourmand for his remaining 40 years. The Barber raised him to such a stature and eventually made him so rich that he could coast for the rest of his life.

Which brings me back to today’s piece. This duet between the tenor, Count Almaviva, and the baritone, Figaro, focuses on the wonder effect that gold has on people. Almaviva tells Figaro that he needs his help in winning Rosina’s heart. He is prepared to pay Figaro handsomely. “In gold?” Figaro asks. When the Count says yes, Figaro starts to work on the spot. He starts the duet thus:

You can’t imagine
What a prodigious effect on my will
To gratify your wishes
The sweet idea of gold has.At the mere sight of that portentous
All-powerful metal
My mind becomes
A spouting volcano of ideas.
Ah, non sapete
i simpatici effetti prodigiosi
che, ad appagare il mio signor Lindoro,
produce in me la dolce idea dell’oro.
All’idea di quel metallo
portentoso, onnipossente,
un vulcano la mia mente
incomincia a diventar.

Figaro proves his mettle by coming up with a plan to introduce Count Almaviva into the house of Don Bartolo–where he is the barber–so the Count can win Rosina’s love. Almaviva, he sings, must disguise himself as a soldier, which is believable since a regiment has just arrived in town. Almaviva sings his praises. Figaro more or less sings: “I’m just getting warmed up. Wait till you see what ideas gold gives me.” Then Figaro tells him to procure a billeting order from the colonel of the regiment, who just happens to be Almaviva’s friend, to stay at Don Bartolo’s house. When he arrives with the billet, Almaviva must act drunk to avoid suspicion. Almaviva protests having to act like a common drunk, but accepts after Figaro says it will work. They both sing back and forth until the end, Almaviva extolling Figaro’s cleverness and Figaro gloating over the full purse he soon will have.

I wonder whether this scene sums up some of Rossini’s own feelings and explains a bit his own behavior after he retired. Perhaps he identified with Figaro and the little guy. Despite Rossini’s reputation at the time, the Duke who owned the Teatro Argentino and contracted with him to write the Barber paid him only 1/3 of what the lead singer made for his performance. In addition, he only gave Rossini one month to write the opera! Could it be that after being bled for his ideas by the aristocracy himself, he just decided he’d had enough? Maybe this is why we chortle at Figaro’s avariciousness.

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