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The Washington National Opera
Delights Us With The Barber Of Seville

By Gabriela Ramírez-Carr
September 19, 2009

The Barber of Seville
By Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini (1784-1831
Washington National Opera

Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Director: David Gately

The Washington National Opera under the leadership of the great tenor, Placido Domingo, the General Director, has become an invaluable asset to the city, the nation, and even serves a cultural diplomatic role across the globe. Every opera company will make attempts to broaden their audience, but few have developed such a variety of programs to engage so wide a spectrum of local school children, an international outreach to promising new talent, and with their “Opera in the Outfield,” on opening night of this “Barber of Seville” production, they even filled the baseball stadium of the Washington Nationals with 19,000 people to watch a free, high-definition simulcast on the stadium’s giant screen. During this economic crisis, while 28 opera companies face bankruptcy liquidation, the WNO has created a “hotline” for these troubled institutions to use in order to brainstorm to keep these opera companies alive. Placido Domingo and his staff deserve a standing ovation for all of these efforts.

WNO/Karin Cooper
The WNO cast of the Barber of Seville (from left to right) Eric Owens, Cynthia Hanna, Lawrence Brownlee, Donato DiStefano, Sylvia Tro Santafe, and Simone Alberghini.

On the surface Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville seems to be a light romantic comedy, however, it is based on the very politically biting trilogy of plays written by Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) which took head-on Europe’s feudal nobility. Beaumarchais’ social commentary reveals that even the most wealthy and powerful aristocrats are completely dependant upon society’s underlingsâeven for their thinking power. According to Beaumarchais, a commoner had to be at the center of every action, from inspiration to completion, and to help prove this point, this WNO production had Figaro, the barber, come out on stage and snap his fingers every time the curtain had to rise, or action on the stage had to start or stop. Figaro proudly and confidently introduced himself by singing perhaps opera’s most famous aria of all, “Largo al factotum,” that he can do anything, and that the entire town calls for him by name. Meanwhile, in this class conscious society, it is the privileged class that is exposed to ridicule and humor. It should be no surprise that Beaumarchais’ insightful writings were often censored or banned across much of Europe, and Beaumarchais was even held as a political prisoner for a period.

Several other composers had written operas based on Beaumarchais’ 1775 play, Le Barbier de Seville. The most influential work was that of Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) who wrote his 1782 Barber of Seville while he was the court composer for Catherine the Great of Russia. Paisiello knew that Catherine was an ardent admirer of Beaumarchais, so he was careful to make his Italian opera as faithful as possible to the original French play. Paisiello’s opera was widely popular across all of Europe and by 1785 it inspired Mozart and Da Ponte to use the second of the Beaumarchais trilogy to create the opera, The Marriage of Figaro, (where Mozart even developed a few of Paisiello’s musical ideas as well). When Rossini composed his Barber of Seville thirty years later, he felt obliged to change the name to avoid any confusion with the well known work of Paisiello.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), was born into a musical family, his mother was a singer and his father was a horn-player. By the age of 12 Rossini was already an accomplished singer and played several instruments, even before he started any formal musical training at the Conservatory of Bologna. By the age of 21, he had already composed 10 operas for several Italian theaters. In 1816, he was asked to compose an opera in Rome, with a libretto prepared by Cesare Sterbini (1784-1831), based on the play of Beaumarchais. Rossini was in such great demand that it is said that he composed his masterpiece “The Barber of Seville” in just two weeks. Initially this was not well received but the brilliancy of the music and its characters soon won the hearts of the public.

Today it may seem difficult to believe, but even at its simplest level, the love story that Rossini portrays was a revolutionary concept. Marriages of that period were often more like a Wall Street merger or acquisition, where one powerful family wanted the financial or political advantage of being connected with another powerful family, and would offer their son or daughter to cement the deal. Just as a Wall Street hostile takeover usually shows little interest in the improvement of the targeted company (nor the love of its employees) marriages of this period were cold and calculated. Beaumarchais’ Count Almaviva has a very privileged life ahead of him at court, but he shows a very human response to this by risking it all, to step out of this rigid class structure and pursue true love. Almaviva even feels the need to hide his noble identity in order to be sure that any reciprocal love be a love for him, and not love for his title or wealth.

Tenor, Juan Francisco Gatell, from Argentina, played Count Almaviva.

The opera opens with Count Almaviva (played by the young, but very accomplished Argentinean tenor, Juan Francisco Gatell, with his bright, well placed voice), who is accompanied by Fiorello (the Ukrainian baritone, Oleksandr Pushniak) and a band of musicians. Almaviva sings outside a balcony of the home of Dr. Bartolo. He hopes that Rosina will come to the window, but is disappointed, thinking that she never saw him. When Figaro arrives (played by the Italian baritone, Simone Alberghini) and sings his famous introduction, “Largo al factotum,” Almaviva decides to hire him, convinced that only with Figaro’s connections can he gain access to Rosina’s home. Figaro develops plenty of ideas, once he sees the payment of gold coins. Alberghini as Figaro, played a very demanding role with great vocal agility, and while he had many memorable arias, maybe most impressive of all was his handling of the patter in the duet with Count Almaviva “All’idea di quel metallo- Numero quindici.” Figaro tells Count Almaviva to disguise himself as a drunken soldier, who has orders to billet at the house of Dr Bartolo. Rosina (played by Spanish mezzo-soprano, Silvia Tro Santafe) writes a letter to her admirer and sings the aria “Una voce poco fa,” with a rich middle register and beautiful coloratura in the higher register of the voice.

Don Basilio, who arrives with Dr Bartolo, tells him that Count Almaviva has come to Seville attracted by Rosina’s beauty. Eric Owens, playing a kleptomaniac version of Don Basilio, showcased his impressive range of bass-baritone voice as he sang “La calunnia,” and to make sure that the audience has no sympathy for him, his kleptomania goes into high gear. Owens had the entire audience laughing out loud with his clever acting, but it was his deep rich voice that was the showstopper. Fearing that Almaviva has come to town to snatch Rosina, Bartolo (played by Italian bass Donato DiStefano) decides to marry her immediately. DiStefano sings “A un dottor,” and proves the program guide correct when it identified him as one of the great “buffo bass” singers in opera.

The entire opera was well staged thanks to the director, David Gately. Most impressive of all was the ending of Act I where Gately used a very challenging slow motion effect, just when chaos was about to ensue. A lesser production may have surrendered the stage to mayhem, but the slow motion had all of the slapstick humor of a Keystone Cops routine, but at the same time, the audience could also gain greater insight into each character on stage. Bartolo and Almaviva fight; a soldier reveals that Bartolo is past his prime when he steals his wig; Berta, the maid, bumps into walls and lands in the lap of a soldier; and of course Basilio takes advantage of the multiple distractions, to steal silverware, a rifle, a sword, etc. (and since this cannot all fit in his coat pockets, he tries to stuff it all down his pants). During this slow motion scene the tempo of the singing actually speeds-up, yet the Italian conductor, Michele Mariotti, was able to guide both pit and stage in unison, and an otherwise difficult sequence of events flowed very smoothly.

Act II opens as Almaviva again enters the Dr Bartolo home, this time disguised as the substitute music teacher for Basilio, claiming that Basilio was sick and unable to give lessons to Rosina. The trick works and Almaviva and Rosina are able to express their mutual affection. (In order to present a non threatening and unattractive Don Alonso to the jealous Bartolo, it would have been better to have altered Gatell’s voice to a more nerdy, nasal, irritating sound when he sang “Pace e gioia.”) Figaro arrives to shave Dr. Bartolo, but is more interested in stealing the balcony door key to prepare the way for the elopement of Almaviva and Rosina. Finally Don Basilio enters and the plotters fear that he will reveal Almaviva. They all tell Basilio that he is quite sick with scarlet fever, and, along with a bribe, convince him to go home and rest. The young lovers agree to elope at midnight, but Dr Bartolo leaves when he discovers that he is being tricked. Berta the house-keeper, played by mezzo-soprano Cynthia Hanna, sings “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” about old men chasing young women. Hanna, from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, is able to combine a great comedic stage presence with an exceptional voice. She is one of the newest cast members, but she clearly has a big operatic career ahead. Bartolo is able to convince Rosina to cancel her plans for elopement, telling her that her Lindoro does not love her, but instead intends to deliver her to Count Almaviva. Rosina resigns herself to marry the old Dr. Bartolo but just as Bartolo has a notary come to make the marriage official, the notary is bribed to be a witness for Almaviva’s marriage to Rosina instead. By the time Bartolo returns, the young couple are wed and Bartolo has no choice but to bless the marriage.

WNO/Tony Brown
Ninteen-thousand fans attended the free “Opera in the Outfield” opening night Hi-Def simulcast of The Barber of Seville at the baseball stadium of the Washington Nationals.

In the opinion of this reviewer, Rossini kept the best for last. The finale is a moving, Beethoven “Ode to Joy,”—every may a brother, type of moment—celebration of humanity, with all of its shortcomings. As the opera comes to a close, the audience is allowed to identify with each character on stage, even the unsavory ones. This opera seems to be calling on all of us to accept our role as human beings, to make each other better people. Maybe this is why Beethoven’s only request of Rossini was to, “Give us more Barbers!”





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