The Barber of Seville, Opera by G. Rossini
You really do have to pinch yourself to believe that Gioachino Rossini was only twenty-three years old when he accepted his commission for The Barber of Seville. The work, which was premiered at the Teatro Argentina in Rome on 20 February 1816 originally under the title of Almaviva, o sia L'inutile precauzione, remains the gold standard that all other comic operas are measured by.
In the story, we meet Figaro, a self-proclaimed fixer who also sees himself as something of a matchmaker. He comes up with a variety of schemes to help Count Almaviva and Rosina elope and escape the jealous attentions of Rosina’s guardian and Figaro’s occasional employer, Dr. Bartolo.
Luck, as much as Figaro's ingenuity, is what decides whether Bartolo or Almaviva will marry Rosina. Almaviva dons so many different disguises that it is unsurprising that Rosina should at one point question whether his intentions are honourable. She falls in love with him when he sings to her as a student minstrel called Lindoro. He becomes a rather less attractive figure when he pretends to be a brutish soldier seeking a billet, a ruse to get under Rosina’s roof. Almaviva is thrown out and only narrowly avoids arrest by revealing his true identity to the police.
The count then becomes Don Alonso, a replacement for Rosina’s usual music teacher, Don Basilio. Still not knowing who he really is, Rosina recognises him as Lindoro and plays along with the deceit. Bartolo seems to gain the upper hand when he dupes Rosina into thinking that Lindoro is a scoundrel whose only interest is in selling her to the real Almaviva. Fortunately for the count, when he finally tells Rosina he is Almaviva, she believes, and still loves, him. Even then, it’s a race to the finish as to who secures Rosina’s signature on the marriage contract.
Not only is the quality of Rossini’s music undisputed; it’s the way it drives the action forward that really startles those watching on. As those who come to enjoy The Barber of Seville in Prague this season will find, Rossini brilliantly makes his audience complicit in the comedy. We enjoy Bartolo and Basilio’s pomposity being pricked, but we get as much fun out of Figaro’s half-baked attempts to outwit his old boss. The barber may think he is the master of events, but it’s those who are being entertained who truly have the last laugh.