Sitcom in Seville

by Lindy Hume, director

Is Barber the greatest sitcom ever? Maybe, maybe not. First show me another sitcom that has maintained its global popularity for more than a few decades and we can compare.

This production began life in 2016 as a 200th birthday celebration of The Barber of Seville between Opera Queensland (Australia), Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera. It is a delight to revisit our salute to Rossini’s comic genius at a time when the world is thirsty for what Barber offers in abundance: humanity, love, laughter and the possibility of a happy ending, all set to exhilarating music.

Rossini wrote Barber in 13 days and was only 24 when he did. His Rosina, Geltrude Righetti, was the same age, and the opera explodes with her youthful energy, velocity and naughtiness. The piece was based on subversive political ideas: the possibility of love bringing together nobility, the bourgeoisie and the lower classes; a middle- class hero—Rossini’s characters are anarchic, flawed and full of humanity. His Act I finale, characterized by the famous “Rossini crescendo” and “ensembles of perplexity,” is the embodiment of utter chaos verging on madness. The famous story of that disastrous opening night in Rome in 1816 just adds to this already delicious feast.

Tracy Grant Lord’s design is a chaotic collage of doors of all kinds—but this illogical architecture makes sense—the action takes place first in a streetscape and then inside a crazy, fusty old house with many rooms and a suspicious old man guarding the keys. Trapped inside, a young girl is growing into a woman who longs for escape. She hears enticing news from Figaro of the world outside those doors—a world of freedom and excitement, of noisy musicians and nosy neighbors, of Paris fashions, gossip and most thrillingly, a world of romance and adventure. And on the other side of her window, the Count Almaviva sings as he dreams of breaking down the doors to rescue her.

At its heart, like all timeless dramas, The Barber of Seville is about people, relationships and a human theme everyone can relate to—the battle between younger and older generations. Two young people in love overcome all obstacles to be together. Set to Rossini’s ebullient melodies, this is the secret of its longevity. No prizes for guessing which side of the battle the composer was on. To borrow the military analogy Almaviva, disguised as a drunken soldier, slurs to Rosina’s crusty old guardian Bartolo: “You want to fight? Good! This is the trench, and you are the enemy!”

Rosina is both battleground and prize in this war. Victory will be won by strategy and resourcefulness. The odds seem stacked in Bartolo’s favor. He has the prisoner, the keys and a ragbag army: crazy Basilio running intelligence and propaganda, Berta and Ambrogio as the Stasi spies and gatekeepers (although one senses that in their hearts they too long for liberation). The “poor student” Lindoro has only his youthful audacity and a series of harebrained schemes cooked up by his ex-servant Figaro. The fact that he’s actually a fabulously wealthy nobleman in disguise does however help when things go pear-shaped.

In 1825 The Barber of Seville was the first full- length opera ever performed in New York, with the teenage Maria Malibran, a superstar in the making, playing Rosina in a cast that included her father as Almaviva and her brother as Figaro. It was a sensation. America immediately took Barber to its heart, and it’s not hard to see why. The unashamedly showy character of Figaro is the very embodiment of the American spirit of enterprise and optimism. An ambitious self- made man, Figaro loves his work. He makes himself indispensable to his clients; in turn, his usefulness and charisma makes him money. And money makes him a free man: Seville’s most sought-after businessman, no less. Who needs the class system? In a merit-based society, anyone with a work ethic and chutzpah can succeed!

Finally, a word about Figaro’s dazzling aria. It’s probably too famous for its own good, and the prospect of finding new ways to stage any hit song is daunting. But in preparing this production, I’ve gained a new respect for “Largo al factotum.” Rossini wrote it for his friend Luigi Zamboni, and the affection shows. He knew it was a showstopper and probably the best entrance aria ever written.

One thing’s for sure, when the orchestra strikes up with that famous tune, 208 years after it was written, it’s still guaranteed to send a shot of adrenalin from stage to audience and back again. And it reminds us, here in the digital age on the other side of the planet, of Rossini’s complete mastery of comedy.