18 September 2014 at 12.31pm | Comment on this article
Rossini was a genius at usurping the conventions of his day for his own dramatic ends. He managed this with such aplomb that his operas won fantastic popularity – in fact with such success that his operas are now considered archetypes of their genres. Perhaps most acclaimed of all is Il barbiere di Siviglia, a key example of opera buffa (Italian comic opera).
By Rossini's time it was a long-established convention that the first-act finale of an opera buffa should be come at a height of imbroglio (part of the genre's debt to French farce). This finale was the composer's opportunity – indeed, obligation – to take the various plot lines and tangle them all up, leaving characters and audience hopelessly confused. The Act I finale of Il barbiere is actually not one of Rossini's most complicated – try Il turco in Italia if you really want to twist your brain in knots – but it doesn't do a bad job.
The lovelorn Count Almaviva is attempting to woo Rosina, ward of the jealous geriatric Doctor Bartolo (who intends Rosina for himself and keeps her locked away). On the advice of Figaro the barber, Almaviva has inveigled his way into Bartolo's house disguised as a drunken soldier in search of lodgings. The aim (admittedly slightly contrived) is for Almaviva to give Rosina a letter, while using his pretended drunkenness to bewilder Bartolo.
From the immediately preceding scene we have an idea that Bartolo might not be so easily foxed: his furious aria 'A un dottor della mia sorte' ('To a doctor of my standing') – in which he rails against Rosina's disrespect – is a masterful depiction of a self-important, pernickety bully. So when Almaviva staggers onto the stage to an orchestral melody of barefaced impudence, we have an unmistakable signal that the flood of imbroglio is on its way.
Bartolo does not respond well either to Almaviva's impertinent melody, or to his imposition, or to his insouciance: ('What was the name? Balordo (stupid)? Bertoldo (blockhead)?'). Bartolo's agitated outbursts do nothing to deter Almaviva's confident melody. Rosina's arrival makes it worse, as Bartolo (rightly) suspects the two to be secretly communicating. Confusion deepens when the servant Berta and the music teacher Basilio enter – and finally Figaro too, with a warning to Almaviva that he may have been over-zealous in his performance.
It turns out the police have been called, and soon enough there's an entire brigade on the doorstep. The officer's enquiry launches the patter song 'Questa bestia di soldato' (This beast of a soldier). The patter song is a recurring type in opera buffa: very rapid, text-heavy music, usually sung by a baritone. Bartolo, the opera's buffo baritone, accordingly sets this one of; but then he's joined by another baritone, Figaro; and then by all the others – so we have a patter song, usually difficult enough to understand when sung by one person, sung in imitation by all six principals. That the officer can reply to all this with a simple 'Ho inteso' ('I understand') is almost more ridiculous than the song itself.
In a daring key change, Almaviva evades arrest by showing his aristocratic insignia to the officer, who deferentially steps back. There follows another ensemble, of a form often referred to as the 'largo concertato'. Rossini was an expert in using these a slow ensemble section with minimal accompaniment, to ratchet up the tension. Rosina begins this section, marked ‘quadro di stupore’ (as in a stupr), frozen and breathless, describing how she's so shocked she can't move. She is joined one by one (in very elegant imitation) by the other characters, as we build towards the stretta.
The stretta, a common feature of finales of this period (defined loosely as a fast closing section), is here constructed by Rossini into a series of repeats that are given at increasingly high volumes – a form he was so fond of it's even earned the generic term 'Rossini crescendo'. Starting the final vivace section sotto voce (in a quiet voice) and in unusual unison, the cast agree how terribly confused they are – matched brilliantly in The Royal Opera's production by the entire set seeming to take leave of its tethers and rock dementedly about. It's a thrilling, bewildering, ridiculous ending, and one that shows Rossini at the height of his comedic powers.
Il barbiere di Siviglia runs 13 September–11 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous support from Professor Paul Cartledge and Judith Portrait OBE and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.