Here’s my latest essay for San Francisco Opera, which is staging a production of The Barber of Seville directed by Emilio Sagi (fresh from his enjoyable work on Seattle Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment):
If Gioachino Rossini were to revisit today’s opera scene, he’d probably have mixed feelings about the remarkable tenacity of The Barber of Seville in the repertoire. (Rossini loved to joke about the advantage of being born on February 29, which would make him a middle-aged man of 55.25 in leap year terms, not a Methuselah of 221.) Mixed because, though he certainly recognized Barber as a work di qualità—as Figaro asserts of his own profession—its popularity still distorts Rossini’s versatile legacy.
By now we’ve had the better part of a century of the Rossini renaissance to regale us with one rediscovery after another. The result has been to bring before today’s public this composer’s command of an enormous gamut of operatic genres: farce, melodrama, semi-serious drama, comedy, lyric tragedy, sacred tragedy, and grand opera. (By comparison, the cunning Figaro’s skillful multi-tasking almost seems to parody such an encyclopedic range.) Several of his once-neglected works have since reentered the repertoire, yet the mere mention of Rossini continues to immediately evoke, before anything else, the vital comic style of Barber—the opera whose premiere in 1816, when the composer was still just shy of twenty-four, marked one of the legendary disasters of his career.
When Giuseppe Verdi was being lured out of retirement by the prospect of composing Otello in 1879, his publisher had to tread carefully and assuage bruised feelings triggered by a remark carelessly reprinted in the company’s music journal. The offending statement recalled what Rossini had declared decades earlier (in 1847): that Verdi could “never write a semi-serious opera…much less a comic opera like The Elixir of Love.” For Italy’s operatic elder statesman to crown his career by giving the world Falstaff served as a kind of vindication. On one level, Falstaff represents Verdi’s response to the anxieties he confronted about how his own legacy would be remembered in the unsettling twilight of the nineteenth century.
If Pierre Beaumarchais’s 1778 play The Marriage of Figaro was recognized as prophetic of the French Revolution—“the Revolution already put into action” in Napoleon’s famous phrase—Rossini did a good deal with his treatment of its “prequel,” Barber, to set the tone for a war-weary post-Napoleonic Europe early in that century. (Beaumarchais later published a third play about his Figaro characters—La mère coupable (“The Guilty Mother”)—but this last part of the trilogy had to wait until the twentieth century before it showed up on the opera stage.) The novelist Stendhal cleverly reversed the French leader’s metaphor of the artist as political prophet: “Napoleon is dead; but a new conqueror has already shown himself to the world,” he writes in the preface to his influential Life of Rossini of 1823.
In the composer’s verdict about Verdi’s putative unsuitability for comedy, which was hardly intended as a putdown, it’s tempting to sense an echo of the type-casting Rossini himself had faced—but with the tables turned. Legend holds that Rossini, very much a conquering musical general who had taken Vienna by storm, requested a meeting with Beethoven after arriving in the Habsburg capital in 1822 to supervise a new production. In his account decades later, Rossini recalled Beethoven’s pronouncement that serious opera was not a good fit for the Italian temperament: “You do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama.” On the other hand, the old master congratulated Rossini on The Barber of Seville, advising him to stick to opera buffa. “Any other style would do violence to your nature…Above all, make more Barber‘s!”