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 he wrote a piece to make us chortle at Figaro’s avariciousness.

Gioacchino Rossini: “Ecco Ridente in Cielo” from “The Barber of Seville”

Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville after Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, though it is actually the prequel to it. Both works come from the French playwright, Beaumarchais, who called himself de Beaumarchais, an aristocratic title that he could claim because of a piece of land that his wife inherited.

In 18th century France, this gave him a certain cache and air of respectability that a person of his class and profession (a clockmaker) could never hope to enjoy. The 18th century started off pretty well for the aristocracy, but by its end, King George III of England had lost the colonies and France’s Louis and Marie Antoinette had a very close shave in one of the bloodiest revolutions in European history.  Beaumarchais’ plays were seen as dangerous because they poked fun at the nobility and upper classes of the day and portrayed common people as much more clever and sympathetic than those who claimed privilege based on birth or divine lineage.

Certainly in The Barber of Seville, the young swell, Count Almaviva, comes off as something of a simp. The opera opens on a street in Seville, where the count’s servant, Fiorello, has just entered followed by a band of musicians he has hired for Almaviva. The Count use them to accompany him as he serenades under the balcony of Rosina, a beautiful maiden in the charge of the curmudgeonly, Dr. Bartolo, who has designs on her. His song, “Ecco Ridente in Cielo” (Behold Smiling in the Heavens) is a sweet tenor’s love song to Rosina where he notes the smiling dawn, which is breaking while his beloved still sleeps. He implores her to wake before sunrise and asks Cupid to lessen the sting of the arrow which has struck him. Though saccharine and sentimental, it still is a pretty aria. I can’t decide however whether it is designed to make him look like a twit or generally sympathetic.

Rosina fails to appear, so Almaviva dismisses the musicians, paying them off handsomely in gold. They are so amazed by his generosity that they burst into a song of effusive thanks. Almaviva, worried that they might be discovered, starts to shush them. When they continue with even more vigor he starts singing back to shut up. They continue and he yells at them (still singing) “Oh you damned fools. Get out of here. You curs! Away with you!” Thereby he shows his true colors as an aristocrat.

After the musician finally leave, Figaro enters singing his famous Largo al factotum, which was the subject of my previous post.

When I heard this piece in high school, I couldn’t believe how funny this scene was. Everyone I had known growing up had made fun of opera. You know the old joke: “In opera when someone gets stabbed, instead of bleeding, they sing.” And of course, we all thought it was an art form for the upper-crusties. Little did I know that there existed an opera that actually made fun of the upper classes and in which the little guy, Figaro, is cleverer than they. Coming from humble origins myself-the son of immigrants who worked in factories and as a domestic–that probably explains why I was taken with the Barber of Seville.

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.

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