By Director, Michael Shell
The Barber of Seville is a love story. It is a story of two people — Rosina and Almaviva, a Count in disguise — overcoming obstacles to be together. And with the help of an ingenious barber, they outwit Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian, and are united. The story is funny, passionate, and quite frankly, totally absurd. Rossini was a master at this type of storytelling. His music, always fresh and vibrant, makes all of these elements come alive and the absurd plausible.
For this production, I wanted to create an environment that not only allowed for Rossini’s brilliant blending of reality and borderline farce, but one that was also grounded firmly in Spain. For inspiration, my design team and I turned to the films of Pedro Almodóvar, which have all of the elements of a Rossini opera. Almodóvar is brilliant at walking the line between dramatic comedy and melodramatic absurdity. His films, rich with a vintage feel, are also deeply embedded in Spain and Spanish culture. But his films also embrace the surreal and random. Sometimes these notions are very theatrical and sometimes they are just depicting the randomness of life.
Part of the fun of Rossini’s music is that random interruption. At times, the action stops completely just so characters can sing about how crazy the situation is. At others, in the middle of an urgent getaway, for example, someone stops to sing at length about how urgent it is to leave right now — so long that he can’t escape in time. I wanted this production to embrace the random at a level that keeps the surprises fresh and is always entertaining.
We also bring Almodóvar’s sensibility towards his characters in terms of gender and sexuality. Rosina, the opera’s heroine, is usually depicted as an innocent, without sexual desire. This production gives her a little more teeth. Here, she is an assistant to Dr. Bartolo (an optometrist) looking for a life beyond the office walls (think of Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). She has desires, and it seems like this young man serenading her at the start of the opera might be able to fulfill them. She and that young man, Count Almaviva, never formally meet before falling in love. They rarely even speak to each other. It’s a physical spark between them. She has passionate feelings for the guy. If there was no desire for them to get together, than it would not work out. And we want it to work out!
To further root the production in Spain, we set it during the time of the Feria de Abril de Sevilla (“Seville April Fair”), which began as a livestock fair in the late 1800s and eventually became one of the largest to take place in Seville. At many Fair events, including the opening bullfight, many women wear Flamenco dresses and dance a very specific type of Flamenco – the Sevillanas. The Fair still shows its origins with many horse-drawn carriages carrying people wearing traditional costumes that span centuries. The Festival is represented in this production by these random people that come in and out of the scenes. Figaro, in a sense is their gang leader. They show us, in their costuming, the history of the festival and give an unconventional quality to many moments including various change of scenes.
Using Almodóvar as our muse, in combination with characters who create the festival atmosphere that happens during the Feria de Abril, we are able to fully inhabit the zany world Rossini has created, and to tell its story in the kind of fresh and interesting way that his masterpiece deserves.
The Barber of Seville
Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 18, 2 p.m.
Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo al factotum,” has largely become the defining example of the operatic genre thanks to the memorable repetitions of the barber’s name and its boisterous melody. The tongue-twisting Italian syllables and the speed at which they are sung make this aria a considerably challenging piece in the baritone-singer’s repertoire. Perhaps “factotum” is included in the title of the piece not only to refer to the array of Figaro’s servantly duties, but also to the expanse of technique required from the singer; in Latin, the term means “to do everything” and the soloist is required to do just that. Baritone John Moore (pictured right) who plays Figaro in Opera Omaha’s upcoming production of The Barber of Seville stunned audiences with his incredible rendition of “Largo” at Opera Outdoors on Sept. 11 in Turner Park receiving a rare mid-concert standing ovation.
The clever and self-assured Figaro, whose profession gives this opera its name, helps a lovesick, young count disguise himself as a student, soldier, and music teacher in order to win the heart of the lovely Rosina and thwart the lecherous intentions of her guardian. A comedy through and through, The Barber of Seville guarantees a visually stunning and colorful event for the whole family, one replete with laughter, hijinks, popular melodies, and, of course, a happy ending.
The Barber of Seville had its premiere on February 20, 1816 at the Teatro Argentia in Rome and in 1825 became the first Opera to be sung in Italian in New York City. Versions of the opera had already premiered in the United States in English and French, yet these proved to be considerably less popular than the original, well-rhyming Italian libretto.
Rossini’s headliner was first performed at the Opera Omaha as part of the 1963-64 operatic line-up and since then has been produced in five different seasons on the Orpheum Theater stage. 2015-16 marks the opera’s sixth production in Omaha, making it one of the most popular operas ever to be performed in this Midwestern city.
Leave it to the Critics
Despite its historical popularity (The Barber of Seville is among the world’s 10 most frequently produced operas) Rossini’s now famous comedy began its life onstage as a tremendous flop; the audience showed no hesitation in jeering and making a ruckus during the production itself and may even have contributed to a number of on-stage accidents. Fans of the composer Giovanni Paisiello, it is thought that these obtrusive audience members were protesting what they perceived as Rossini’s unjust appropriation of Paisiello’s own Barber of Seville opera, which had premiered earlier in 1782. Following the second performance, however, Rossini’s luck changed when audience members who were not devoted followers of Paisiello took note of the fluid melodies and skillful composition of the newer opera and insisted on rewarding Rossini with a standing ovation for his work.
For tickets to The Barber of Seville, call (402) 345-0606 or click here.
Born to two musicians in 1792, Gioachino Rossini was easily able to immerse himself in learning about music and theatre from a very young age. By the time he was 15, Rossini had already learned to play three instruments, sung in public, and even composed an opera series. His youth was spent in Italy composing and performing music and revolutionizing the traditional Italian opera buffa with embellished melodies, animated ensembles and new rhythms and dynamic effects.
After becoming bored with the Italians, Rossini chose to move to Paris in 1823 where he received a warm welcome. Rossini composed his final opera in 1829 and by this time had written one opera for each of the 38 years of his life. While he would continue to produce a handful of religious and instrumental works, the second half of Rossini’s life was spent largely in a self-imposed isolation. This relative solitude allowed the maestro to cultivate his other hobbies, such as playing piano and cooking, which he would pursue until his death in 1868.
The Europe in which Gioachino Rossini spent his life was a continent on the peak of modernization. At the time Rossini was born, the United States of America had been an independent country for four years, and before he celebrated his tenth birthday, the composer had lived through the French Revolution. At age 20, the Napoleonic Wars were nearing their end and the Industrial Revolution was running at full-steam, churning out inventions and innovations in areas such as textiles, steam power, and iron production, and bringing with it numerous problems for human welfare, such as extensive pollution and harsh child-labor. Although Rossini’s father was imprisoned for his support of Napoleon’s failed claim to empire, the life of the composer himself seems to have been somewhat untouched by the political and economic tensions felt elsewhere in Europe at the time. Perhaps we ought to think of Rossini’s comic operas as a means used by the upper-class for distracting themselves from the social problems all around them.
At the time of his death, Rossini left the world with a powerful legacy in his music having composed a total of 279 works over his lifetime. These works consist of 23 instrumental pieces, 18 cantatas, 10 sacred works, 38 secular pieces, 40 operas and theatrical works, and a collection of 150 vocal and solo piano salon pieces intended for private performance in Rossini’s sitting room. Given this prolific output, it comes as no surprise that a number of Rossini’s compositions have become famous components of the early Romantic canon. Perhaps the most well-known of these are the operas Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Guillaume Tell (William Tell), whose melodies have frequently featured in both film and television and are known to the young and old alike.
Despite what its grandiose music may lead you to believe, Rossini claimed to have composed The Barber of Seville in a matter of just a few weeks!
In a morning visit paid to the composer, it is claimed that Sir Arthur Sullivan observed Rossini working on a small piece of music. When asked what the music was for, Rossini is said to have gravely answered, “It’s my dog’s birthday and I write a little piece for him every year.”
Some final thoughts on Fidelio from Hal France…
Opening night is at hand! Here are a few thoughts from Michael Rose’s excellent book “The Birth of An Opera.” This book details the creative process of fifteen great operas.
These excerpts speak to Beethoven’s choice of subject, historical events that affected the 1805 premiere and the evolution of the piece. Enjoy and enjoy the upcoming performances of this fascinating opera.
“What he needed, in fact demanded, was a subject he could approach ‘with love and tenderness” that he could relate to the lofty if sometimes imprecise ideals of the dawning romantic movement.”
The 1805 Premiere
“By now the Empress, the Austrian nobility, the wealthy patricians, the great bankers and merchants, virtually the entire public on which the opera house relied for support, had fled the capital. A week before the premiere, the defenseless city capitulated to Napoleon, and on the next day the Emperor of the French hoisted the tricolor surmounted by a golden eagle on the Palace. And so it came about that the audience at the first performance was thin and heavily sprinkled with French officers in uniform, “more familiar with the thunder of cannon than with sublime musical conceptions.”
Evolution of the piece
“It was as much as anything the character of the composition that was to be changed. The original Fidelio, written by a young man building on the conventions of an essentially French tradition, is about personal relationships and personal courage, and the drama that arises from them. The 1806 version had disturbed the calculated structure of the original but not changed the basic message. But by 1814 the composer’s view had expanded beyond the purely personal to encompass a wider vision of humanity. Beethoven was an idealist, and during the years that separated the first Fidelio from its final version, the hopes of freedom that had swept across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution had been all but lost in the flood of French imperialism.”
Today, we share these quotes representing perspectives on the opera from two conductors, past and present.
The conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler observed, not long after the defeat of Nazism, “that now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty to their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage.”
These quotes come from the article written by the American art critic and philosopher, Arthur Danto in Fidelio: Lenore: Jun Kaneko. Arthur Danto was an American art critic, philosopher, long-time art critic for the Nation and Johnsonian Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at Columbia University.
“Jun Kaneko’s brilliant production is for our time and for all times.”
“…the miracle of Kaneko’s design is that he has found an architectural metaphor for the duality of good and evil by dividing the gridded space of the stage between white and black.”
“The white space to the audience’s left is the space of love and freedom, the black space for oppression, the suppression of truth and the torment of undeserved penal brutality. The white space is the realm of marriage, the black space of the miscarriage of justice. Marriage, because it is through spiritual union that love is fulfilled in the form of life the characters live.”
Music Director Corrado Rovaris premiered the production designed by Jun Kaneko at Opera Company of Philadelphia in 2009. When speaking about Fidelio, he said, “The work begins almost as an opera buffa, opening with the portrayal of the jailer’s family: little by little, the opera becomes more dramatic and somber as it depicts dark, mysterious danger and evil.”
“ At the most insidious moment, when the drama is most bleak and death seems inescapable, the composer makes us long for salvation. That possibility is planted like a seed in the midst of the deepest despair, and it is quietly developed, a loaded secret triumphantly revealed. They will live, they will be free and the climax contains a promise for all humanity. This is Beethoven.”
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