Arguably more famous than the versions carved by Chaplin and Bugs, The Barber of Seville is an enduring classic for a reason. (Spoiler alert – it involves cockblockery.)
Today’s Tenor Translator is taking a break from tragedy and presenting the charming comic opera The Barber of Seville (1816) by Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. You know the one – “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro”. You may recognise the opera from the Bugs Bunny cartoon entitled Rabbit of Seville, a brilliant piece of artistry if ever there was one.
The action starts outside Dr Bartolo’s house where his ward Rosina is being serenaded by the dashing Count Almaviva disguised as a student so he can ascertain whether she loves him or just his pile of moolah.
Figaro enters, singing our chosen aria, the lighthearted yet technically demanding Largo al factotum. He’s telling us he’s Seville’s Mr Fixit. Much more than a mere barber, he’s a handyman, a factotum; everyone loves him, he’s constantly in demand. That’s the bit where he says “Figaro” a lot – Figaro here, there and everywhere.
It’s fun to listen to, but it’s quite tricky work for the baritone (the tenor takes a back seat today). The tempo is very fast, the music steadily becomes louder, and there are a number of challenging rhythm changes. It’s a sparkling virtuosic aria, and is one of the most popular in opera.
Here’s baritone Peter Mattei singing the role:
Almaviva quickly recognises that Figaro can help him win Rosina, so he offers him a thick wad of cash to do all he can to expedite things. Regular readers of Tenor Translator will know that love happens pretty quickly in operas and Rosina is already rather taken with Almaviva even though she thinks he’s a poor student called Lindoro (Figaro’s suggestion). She writes him a lerv letter, which she gives to Figaro to deliver.
She also discovers that Bartolo wants to marry her and the feeling sure as hell isn’t mutual.
Figaro instructs Almaviva to disguise himself yet again – this time as a soldier billeted at Bartolo’s. When he arrives feigning drunkenness, Bartolo is livid and calls the cops. Before they come, Almaviva surreptitiously passes Rosina his own lerv letter.
The cops come and take him away but he reveals his true identity to them and they let him go, much to the chagrin of Bartolo and Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher and Bartolo’s co-conspirator.
Okay, now things really move along at a cracking pace. Almaviva arrives at Bartolo’s saying that Basilio is sick and that he’s the substitute music teacher. (In opera, disguises always fool people.) He tells the suspicious Bartolo that he’s going to badmouth Lindoro to Rosina and make her believe that Almaviva is taking her for a fool. Bartolo is on board with this – anything to make himself look good.
Figaro turns up to shave Bartolo and pilfers the key to the balcony because you just never know when a balcony key might come in handy. Meanwhile Basilio also shows up but is bribed by Almaviva to vamoose. Now, Figaro can only lather up Bartolo for so long, and it’s inevitable that Bartolo overhears Almaviva and Rosina planning their elopement. He’s fit to be tied and chucks Figaro and Almaviva out on their sorry derrières.
He then convinces Rosina that her supposedly steadfast Lindoro is actually going to pimp her out to Count Almaviva. Naturally she’s totally bummed out by this information and agrees to marry Bartolo who heads out to get the cops again.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Tenor translator: La Traviata
- Tenor translator: Verdi’s Rigoletto
- Tenor translator: Puccini’s La Bohème
Later, using the stolen balcony key, Almaviva and Figaro return to take Rosina away, but she’s not having a bar of it, saying that Almaviva is reprehensible, something that cheers Almaviva enormously because it proves to him that his girl would rather love a poor student than a devious count. Yes, she loves him for himself and doesn’t care about money. Hooray!
Once his true identity is sorted out and the lovers embrace, Basilio arrives with the marriage celebrant who thought he was coming to marry Bartolo and Rosina. The celebrant and Basilio are quickly persuaded otherwise and Almaviva and Rosina are joined in matrimony.
When Bartolo returns, he’s naturally miffed about what’s just transpired but he gets to keep Rosina’s dowry and that’s surprisingly mollifying.
Figaro, the helpful barber of Seville, ends the opera by wishing everyone well. It’s all very amicable and jolly. Close curtain. Leave the theatre with a smile.