FWO Archives: Gioachino Rossini's "Barber of Seville" (2016 Festival)
Updated: Oct 3
Count Almaviva comes in disguise to the house of Doctor Bartolo and serenades Rosina, whom Bartolo keeps confined to the house. Figaro the barber, who knows all the town's secrets and scandals, explains to Almaviva that Rosina is Bartolo's ward, not his daughter, and that the doctor intends to marry her. Figaro devises a plan: the count will disguise himself as a drunken soldier with orders to be quartered at Bartolo's house so that he may gain access to the girl. Almaviva is excited and Figaro looks forward to a nice cash pay-off.
Rosina reflects on the voice that has enchanted her and resolves to use her considerable wiles to meet the man it belongs to-as Almaviva has led her to believe, a poor student
named Lindoro. Bartolo appears with Rosina's music master, Don Basilio. Basilio warns Bartolo that Count Almaviva, who has made known his admiration for Rosina, has been seen in Seville. Bartolo decides to marry Rosina immediately. Figaro, who has overheard the plot, warns Rosina and promises to deliver a note from her to Lindoro. Bartolo suspects that Rosina has indeed written a letter, but she outwits him at every turn. Bartolo warns her not to trifle with him.
Almaviva arrives, creating a ruckus in his disguise as a drunken soldier, and secretly passes Rosina his own note. Bartolo is infuriated by the stranger's behavior and claims that he has an official exemption from billeting soldiers. Figaro announces that a crowd has gathered in the street, curious about the noise. The civil guard bursts in to arrest Almaviva, but when he secretly reveals his true identity to the captain he is instantly released. Everyone except Figaro is amazed by this turn of events.
Bartolo suspects that the "soldier" was a spy planted by Almaviva. The count returns, this time disguised as Don Alonso, a music teacher and student of Don Basilio, to give Rosina her singing lesson in place of Basilio, who, he says, is ill at home. "Don Alonso" then tells Bartolo that he is staying at the same inn as Almaviva and has found a letter from Rosina. He offers to tell her that it was given to him by another woman, seemingly to prove that Lindoro is toying with Rosina on Almaviva's behalf. This convinces Bartolo that "Don Alonso" is indeed a student of the scheming Basilio, and he allows him to give Rosina her lesso n. With Bartolo dozing off, Almaviva and Rosina declare their love.
Figaro arrives to give Bartolo his shave and manages to snatch the key that opens the doors to Rosina 's balcony. Suddenly Basilio shows up looking perfectly healthy. Almaviva, Rosina, and Figaro convince him with a quick bribe that he is sick with scarlet fever and must go home at once. While Bartolo gets his shave, Almaviva plots with Rosina to elope that night. But the doctor overhears them and furiously realizes he has been tricked again. Everyone disperses.
Bartolo summons Basilio, telling him to bring a notary so Bartolo can marry Rosina that very night. Bartolo then shows Rosina her letter to Lindoro, which seems to prove that he is in league with Almaviva. Heartbroken and convinced that she has been deceived, Rosina agrees to marry Bartolo. A thunderstorm passes. Figaro and the count climb a ladder to Rosina's balcony and let themselves in with the key. Rosina appears and confronts Lindoro, who finally reveals his true identity as Almaviva. Basilio shows up with the notary. Bribed and threatened, he agrees to be a witness to the marriage of Rosina and Almaviva. Bartolo arrives with soldiers, but it is too late. He accepts that he has been beaten, and Figaro, Rosina, and the count celebrate their good fortune.
ROSINA: Contralto? Mezzo? Soprano?
By Nicolas Reveles, The Geisel Director of Education and Outreach, San Diego Opera
It is a matter of record that the composer Gioachino Rossini wrote the role of Rosina for a contralto, Geltrude Giorgi-Righetti, twenty-two years of age at the time of the premiere but already with a reputation as a singer with an extraordinarily flexible voice capable of virtuosic coloratura. But, please note: she was a contralto! This special voice-classification was often described as a singer with three quite distinct registers: a high voice of a silvery but penetrating quality; a rich, warm middle voice; and a powerful, dark, low voice often described as a "chest voice." (Giorgi-Righetti 's lower register encompassed an F below middle-C.) Contraltos cultivated the differences between these areas in their voices, which were marked (or marred in some critics' views!) by audible "breaks" from one register to another. One could describe these breaks as a vocal "shifting of gears" and is something that singers today work hard to disguise rather than celebrate, as earlier singers often did.
If you look closely at a score of Rossini's Barber or listen closely to a good recording, he worked hard to deliberately expose and manipulate these three registers of the contralto voice, and he did so for one excellent reason - in order to communicate the essence of the character of Rosina. Here is a young woman with loads of personality, a bright wit, disdainful of her current position as ward to a doddering fool, infatuated with a perfect stranger whose identity is a mystery, someone who does not suffer fools gladly ... in a word, spunky. Is there a more perfect voice-type that can convince an audience of these characteristics than the coloratura contralto? Not in this writer's mind.
But something funny happened early in the evolution of Barber's performance history: coloratura sopranos - whose place in the stellar firmament had been well-established by the time of the opera's composition and were always on the lookout for interesting and challenging roles - greedily co-opted the role for themselves. Soprano Giulia Grisi, who created both Adalgisa in Norma and Norina in Don Pasquale, sang the role of Rosina as early as 1828 in Bologna. Eventhough the great coloratura contraltos of the day continued to sing the role (singers like the renowned sisters Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot-Garcia come to mind), coloratura sopranos like Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba, and Amelita Galli-Curci took it up with verve and high temperament. By the turn of the twentieth century, few contraltos were still singing the role. They'd been virtually pushed out of the repertoire by their more brilliantly colored, higher voiced cousins.
If you're thinking that many adjustments would 've had to have been made to the original role of Rosina to make it possible for those higher-placed voices to sing it, you're absolutely right. The aria "Una voce poco fa" had to be transposed from its original key of E-major to F-major, a seemingly easy transposition of one semitone. But what a difference a semitone can make: the color or timbre of the aria, its very nature as a vehicle for character description, is completely changed by that transposition. With the dark, penetrating sound of the contralto in E-major, the aria (especially its second half, "lo sono docile") is witty but dangerous and edgy as well, especially as it explores the lower register of the voice. In the soprano's F-major transposition, the aria comes off much more as a superficial showpiece, not an exposition of character.
And here's where we need to ask a fundamental, classic question: is opera about drama or is it about music? Trick question: it is really (and yes, fundamentally) about both. As a showpiece for a virtuosic coloratura soprano, the role of Rosina is musically affecting and certainly satisfying for both singer and audience. However, as a contralto character, the role of Rosina is revelatory of the dramatic and comic situations she finds herself in, and a prime example of how music can carry dramatic intentions at a very deep level. I believe that Rossini was a composer of theatre music par excellence and that he realized quite profoundly how the nature and color of a particular voice would describe, elucidate and demonstrate the characteristics of his dramatis personae. One wonders how he would have reacted to Patti's treatment of the music lesson scene in Act II of Barber, in which the composer called for the singer to interpolate an aria of her own choosing. In a New York performance of the role, Madame Patti not only sang Arditi's waltz, "II bacio" as her aria, but additionally she sang the bolero from Verdi's Les Vepres Siciliennes, the "Shadow Dance" from Meyerbeer's Dinorah and, of all things, "Home, Sweet Home," which always brought the audience to its feet. This is a veritable show-off list of the nineteenth century's greatest operatic hits for soprano and simply underlines the argument that the role of Rosina in the "wrong" voice, combined with the attitude that music trumps drama, can actually destroy dramatic truth.
Later sopranos were rarely quite so cavalier in their approach to the role. Twentieth century sopranos like Lily Pons, Roberta Peters, and Beverly Sills had tremendous success with Rosina while at the same time honoring her as the feisty character she is. Their cadenzas in the aria may have tended towards their upper range (whereas contraltos and mezzos would tend to their powerful, lower notes), but the essence of Rosina was always still there. (The same can be said of some of today's reigning Rosinas, who because of both their singing and acting skills can create a brilliant characterization in this opera.) By the 1950s, thanks to conductor Vittorio Gui's restoration of Rossini's operas, the lower female voices began to reclaim Rosina for their own. Modern mezzo-sopranos, who unlike their contralto ancestors cultivated a smooth transition from low to middle to high voice registers, took over the role and proved to audiences how thrilling Rosina could be both musically and dramatically. The characterizations of singers like Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Agnes Baltsa, Jennifer Larmore, and Joyce Di Donato (who recently, and famously, sang the role with her leg in a cast!) have shown this wonderful character for who she really is: a woman ready for love, but who will not be outwitted by any man nor halted in her determination to make her way in the world.
Music by GIOACHINO ROSSINI
Libretto by CESARE STERBINI
SUNG IN ITALIAN
CAST AND CREATIVE
Conductor Joe lllick
Director David Gately
Scenic Designer John Stoddart
Lighting Designer Chad R. Jung
Makeup and Wig Designer Steven Bryant
Stage Manager Samantha Greene*
Assistant Director Joshua Miller*
Repetiteur Matthew Stephens*
English Supertitle Hannah Guinn
Spanish Supertitle Translation Gabriela Lomónaco
THE CAST IN ORDER OF VOCAL APPEARANCE
Fiorello Trevor Martin+
Count Almaviva Andrew Stenson*
Figaro Joo Won Kang*
Rosina Megan Marino*
Dr. Bartolo Kyle Albertson*
Berta Maren Weinberger
Don Basilio Tyler Simpson
Officer Trevor Martin+
Ambrogio Doug Jackson*
+ Mainstage Debut