27 September 2016 at 1.10pm | Comment on this article
Meet Figaro, the barber of Seville and the eponymous hero of not just one but two operatic masterpieces. Mozart told the tale of his marriage in Le nozze di Figaro in 1786, and 30 years later Rossini provided the prequel to the story in Il barbiere di Siviglia. But Figaro was originally the creation of French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, who created a trio of popular – and controversial – plays around his ingenious and ever-resourceful barber. What made them controversial? It’s actually not too different a question from our first: why make Figaro a barber?
The barbers in Beaumarchais’ time did more than just cut hair and shave chins. In the 12th and 13th centuries the clergy – the primary medical practitioners of the day – were forbidden from shedding blood. Who then could carry out even a simple bloodletting, the standard cure-all of the day? Step forward the barber, a man who could be expected to be handy with a sharp knife. Over the centuries the surgical services offered by barbers expanded to include lancing abscesses, setting broken bones, pulling teeth and many more. The barber surgeon was on his way out by the turn of the 19th century, but his legacy, particularly through 16th-century barber pioneer Ambroise Paré, was the birth of modern surgery.
So in Beaumarchais’ Figaro we have the universal personal handyman, an invaluable figure in any well-to-do household. Rossini has Figaro summarize the work he does for Don Bartolo: ‘I am barber, surgeon, botanist, apothecary, veterinary… In other words, I run the house.’ Figaro’s centrality to the Bartolo household, along with his resourcefulness, make him invaluable in Count Almaviva’s plan to free his love Rosina from her domestic incarceration. But there’s another aspect to Figaro that made him Beaumarchais’ revolutionary hero: class.
That Medieval change in policy was in response to theories about the sanctity of the body. It was seen as contaminating to touch blood – you could not celebrate the Eucharist with bloodstained hands. As seats of learning were largely held by the clergy, this led to a deep division between the physician – a university-educated theorist, sometimes barred even from examining a patient, let alone operating on him – and the barber surgeon – a working- or middle-class craftsman, trained through guild apprenticeships.
Let’s return to Paré. He was born to a working-class family in 1510 and joined the army after his apprenticeship. On his first campaign he followed the received wisdom of treating gunshot wounds with boiling oil. Overwhelmed by the numbers of injured, he ran out of oil and was forced to improvise, instead applying a poultice. To his surprise, the next day he discovered those he had treated with the poultice were improved; the boiling oil group, not so much. Through observation, he was able to advance medicine in a way that the physicians, isolated in their ivory tower, never could. Paré’s fame grew and eventually he was appointed to an influential position at court; but his career was a constant battle to argue the advantage of observation over classical education.
From this ancestry rises Figaro. He is smart, resourceful and will do any job that needs doing. Perhaps more than any other tradesman, he serves an essential purpose, but is despised for it – a pretty potent combination in pre-Revolutionary France. In Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro, Figaro rages against his superiors: ‘Nobility, fortune, rank, influence: they all make a man so proud! What have you ever done to earn such wealth? You took the trouble to be born, and that’s the sum total of your efforts. For the rest, a pretty ordinary man!’ Perhaps no wonder it was banned.
Il barbiere di Siviglia runs until 11 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is given with generous support from Professor Paul Cartledge and Judith Portrait OBE and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.