Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Article by James Naughtie, 1996

Farce is a funny thing. Because it’s cleverly constructed, even if the essentials of the plot amount to nothing more than a pile of banana skins, it sometimes produces a kind of fear or exaggerated respect in producers and performers, which makes them forget why they are there – to make people laugh. I wonder how many nights at the opera have been sabotaged by too much earnestness and too little simple comedy? Or by lumpen clumsiness? I wonder how many performances of The Barber of Seville have foundered on these shoals? Many.

Comic opera is difficult, and the first trick in solving the problem is to recognise that the difficulty lies not in the confusions or disguises or mix-ups on stage but in the obvious predictability of the story. Beaumarchais, whose play was Rossini’s plot, wondered after it flopped if one critic had simply been thrown off balance by its simplicity. He gave this description: “An old man is in love with his ward and wishes to marry her the next day. A younger, more cunning suitor intervenes and, on that very day, marries her right under the nose of the old man, in his own house.” There is nothing more to it.

From that story, said the playwright, he could have fashioned “with equal success, a tragedy, a comedy, a drama, an opera etc etc.” Leave aside the unanswerable question about whether a tragedy would have produced a better opera (because that is an argument that would go on long enough to unhinge us all, though of course I think I know the answer), but note the point that Beaumarchais makes. He was gripped by the straightforwardness of the story. But since the stage action is naturally swathed in the trappings of farce, with misunderstandings and deception the mainsprings of the plot, it’s easy to forget. Devotees of Rossini, on their pilgrimages to the festival in his name in Pesaro even as I write, might be offended by this – but remembering that it is froth is the first requirement of a producer, orchestra and cast in any Barber. Of course there has to be delicacy and precision – Rossini dies if his music gets fuzzy – but it must be in the service of fun. No more.

Simplicity is the watchword. Though the stage is cluttered with noblemen, doctors and music masters in cloaks and those vast hats to hide their faces, and though they have to emit an air of confusion and panic throughout, the line has to be held. From Figaro’s first entrance, giving any baritone his chance to show off at high speed and to toss off some highish notes with gusto if he is in the mood, the plot has to move steadily and quickly to the happy resolution. How obvious it sounds. How often it goes wrong.

I have seen performances which have left audiences sitting, pasty-faced even at the most obvious comic moments. Indeed, I have often wondered whether the more frantic the rushing about on stage, and the louder the voices at moments of confusion, the less the fun. A master of the operatic stage like Ruggero Raimondi, on the other hand, can turn Don Basilio into a figure of side-splitting pomposity, by appearing to do very little and letting the voice do its work. You can’t do comic opera simply by hoping that you can persuade singers to turn into farceurs, because most of them can sing rather better than they act. That is why they do what they do. Occasionally you will find a natural, who commands the stage with comic timing, but more often that luxury is denied. So it is a question of listening. The humour of the Barber, as well as its exquisitely touching moments for Rosina, are in the notes, not in the Barber’s chair or the garden doors. They are just the props, as everyone must remember.

Take the first scenes of Act2, the confused music lesson which encompasses the arrival of the Count in a new disguise, the business of the misleading letter, Figaros’s shaving of Bartolo, the arrival of the ‘ill’ Basilio, Bartolo’s childlike discovery that he’s in the middle of a plot…and confusion. I don’t think it’s unfair to say the opera turns on it. Everything in Act 1 – Figaro’s bravado, Rosina’s sweetness, the Count’s shamefaced persistence – all leads to this well-crafted muddle. If it is rushed, if the slapstick gets out of hand, if the singers don’t take their instructions from the music, all is lost. The resolution is the next scene, after the wedding in disguise, and the happy exit of Rosina and the Count hardly seem worth it: the comedy has to have everyone entwined in the ball of wool before they can be allowed to extricate themselves.

During any performance, the audience is likely to give an odd thought to the other Figaro. It is inevitable that Mozart’s transformation of the second play in the Beaumarchais trilogy seems to be floating somewhere above the stage. Maybe this is one of the problems that many people  – including me – have with The Barber, Very little of the dark side of the Mozart – da Ponte opera can be glimpsed, because this seems a different world. Rossini has created something which is meant to be lighter, and can’t easily be infused with the moments of bitter confrontation that any good Figaro will have. A dimension is missing. Without Figaro, it might be easier to plunge happily into the Bartolo household and forget everything: but Figaro has such a feel for the world, such a sharp cutting edge, that it often means that there’s a nagging feeling that you’ve come to the wrong opera again.

But the solution is available on the stage. If a Barber performance gets the pace right, and the orchestra understands Rossini’s tempi and the sharp delicacies in the score that give the characters their life, then a happy evening can be had by all. The comic effect is achieved by gracefulness above all, and that is why the stage business has to be kept in check as resolutely as the strings. The characters are drawn so clearly in the music, which gives them all moments of real intimacy and style, that they have a chance to grow, even in the hubbub of absurdities exploding around them. Control is everything.

The Barber is one of those operas, so many in number, which fell to earth on the first night but rose again. Rossini – still only in his mid-twenties – seems to have been philosophical about the whole thing, maybe because he knew he’d written the score in only a few weeks (some say a fortnight) and could therefore hardly afford to think of it as a work of a lifetime. The Rome audience booed throughout the second act, which could hardly have helped the comic business, and when Paris saw it they did much the same there, though probably at a slightly lower volume. It’s not a bad piece of performance history to bear in mind during a performance. Quickly written – a tumbling stream rather than a mighty river – and tricky to pull off smoothly.

Rossini’s greatest admirers have performed Herculean feats in recent years, uncovering and polishing much of his work which had been lying forgotten, and they’ve reminded everybody of the heights he scaled. That, too, is a useful context for The Barber This is young, exuberant stuff – brilliant rather than profound.

In that spirit, it works. Young voices, a spring in a conductor’s arm, an actor or two on stage and you’re off. Don’t compare it with Mozart’s Figaro; don’t expect more than Rossini meant you to get. And on a good night, you’ll have a laugh.