The Barber of Seville, Opera by G. Rossini
If you choose to base an opera on exactly the same story used by one of your illustrious musical elders, you had better make sure that your version is an improvement on the original.
That was precisely the task that Gioachino Rossini set himself when he composed the music for The Barber of Seville. The much respected Giovanni Paisiello had already written his own ‘Barber of Seville’, based on Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais’ play of the same name, in 1782; if Rossini’s remake were seen as little more than a rehash, then the damage to his reputation might have been irretrievable.
Rossini deferred to Paisiello by titling his work ‘Almaviva’. This show of respect however did not stop his enemies from accusing him of plagiarism. Jeered by Paisiello’s supporters and suffering from a production that was still rough at the edges, the opening night at Rome’s Teatro Argentina on 20 February 1816 was something of a disaster.
Rossini is rumoured to have stayed at home the following night; fortunately, those in Paisiello’s camp did the same. The performance was a triumph and many members of the audience are reputed to have headed straight for Rossini’s house as soon as the last note was sung to assure the composer of the opera’s success.
When Paisiello died a matter of months after Almaviva’s premiere, in June 1816, the way was clear for Rossini to rename his opera ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’. Considered by many to be the greatest of all opere buffe, it is a work that has featured in the repertoire throughout its long life, and which now comes to the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice in the year the opera celebrates its bicentenary.
We have to suspend our disbelief a little to believe that Almaviva and Rosina find true love in Rossini’s retelling of events. After all, Almaviva, with Figaro's assistance, dons not one, not two, but three disguises to trick his way into Rosina’s affections, and her bedroom, at points leaving her to feel that she has been duped as much as her jealous guardian, Dr Bartolo.
No matter. In The Barber of Seville, it is the comedy that counts: the perfect vehicle for Rossini’s undisputed melodic talents.