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Opera Chats: The Barber of Seville (Arena di Verona, 2018)

Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), is widely considered a masterpiece of comedic opera, and 200 years after its initial premiere in Rome 1816 it remains popular. It was composed by Gioachino Rossini, with a libretty by Cesare Sterbini, based on a French comedy from 1775 by Pierre Beaumarchais, who also wrote the play on which The Marriage of Figaro is based.

This open air production was staged in Verona, Italy, at the Arena di Verona, in August 2018. Conductor was Daniel Oren, and there are two different people listed as directors online: Hugo de Ana (who also did the staging) and Michele Olcese, with a third in the opening credits: Myriam Boyer. We can’t work out exactly who did what.

Rosina (Nino Machaidze) is the ward of Bartolo (Carlo Lepore), who intends on forcing her to marry him so he can get his hands on her dowry. Rosina is in love with Lindoro (Dmitry Korchak), who she thinks is a poor student, but who is actually the Count of Almaviva in disguise. He’s hoping she’ll fall in love with him, not his money. Perhaps the city’s matchmaking barber, Figaro (Leo Nucci), can help bring the young lovers together.

Basilio: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Berta: Manuela Custer
Fiorello/Ambrogio: Nicolò Ceriani
Un Ufficiale: Gocha Abuladze

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

Conductor: Daniel Oren
Choir master: Vito Lombardi
Direction, sets, costumes and lighting: Hugo de Ana
Choreography: Leda Lojodice
Coordinator of the corps de ballet: Gaetano Petrosino
Director of staging: Michele Olcese

■ ■ ■

Francis: Welcome back to another informal conversation about opera! Today we’re talking about the Veronese production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, by Gioachino Rossini.

Traxy: There sure are a lot of Italian opera composers.

F: Sì. But it’s where it was invented, so I think we’re allowed.

T: Absolutely. And this is performed in Italy as well. In the middle of what I presume is an old Roman amphitheatre.

F: It is, yes. It played host to the Arena di Verona Festival of opera since 1913, except during the two World Wars.

T: Cool. Have you ever been?

F: No, but it may or may not be on my bucket list. It’s known for hosting large scale opera productions, so not unlike the Handa Opera we discussed last time.

T: Except they haven’t got the cameras sweeping overhead.

F: I don’t think that matters.

T: Neither do I. What do you think of the scenography?

F: The big moving hedges and oversized roses? You know I never say no to roses.

T: You do love your flowers.

F: I do. I’m a sucker for red roses.

T: And this stage is full of them.

F: I know! And they’re beautiful.

T: Like the clothes?

F: I’m happy they’ve kept the time period.

T: I mean it starts with dancers who dance around like strutting peacocks, performing fancy fan dances in wigs like the Gorgeous Georgians straight out of Horrible Histories.

F: Weirdly specific.

T: But I recognise the melody in the opening!

F: Barber is incredibly famous, I’d be surprised if you didn’t. Especially as you said in our inaugural Opera Chat that you’ve seen it before.

T: Not this particular production. A different one, at the Gothenburg Opera House.

F: With your dad.

T: Yes. I don’t remember much from it, though.

F: Long time ago.

T: Nineteen years, I think. But you know what? Seeing this production, with everyone dressed like they’re straight from the 1700s, it’s what we associate opera with when we haven’t seen any of it. People in tall wigs and wide dresses. They look ridiculous, theatrical and unrelatable now.

F: You think people find that hard to digest?

T: Yeah. It makes it seem dusty and old-fashioned, somehow.

F: But you love period dramas, and period dramas are popular.

T: Most of them are set in the 1800s. Not a lot of wigs then, and people didn’t dress as outlandishly.

F: Less like peacocks?

T: Yes. More like the kind of clothes we’re used to today.

F: Fewer tricorn hats.

T: Definitely. I was expecting a spyglass to come out this time, but alas.

F: You got hedges instead. Hedges and ladders.

T: I mean, is this anything but a traditional farce?

F: It’s a comedy, so no. Oh, here’s a good question: do you find it funny?

T: Funny how? Are you asking if it amuses me?

F: Yes, in my very best Joe Pesci impression.

T: It’s vaguely amusing, sure. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but people had a different sense of humour way back when.

F: In your opinion, does it translate well or not at all?

T: It does sort of translate? But yeah, not exactly what I’d call hilarious, but it’s lighthearted and the performers make it as amusing as they can. The guy playing Figaro is clearly having a swell time.

F: He gets to sing a lot of words very quickly. That takes skill.

T: And to come back and do it twice as well!

F: It’s his signature move, doing an encore of Largo al factotum della città.

T: I was wondering about that. But then he is the city’s fatotus, don’tcha know?

F: “I’m nobody’s fatotus!”

T: Seville seems to be a very popular setting for operas. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Carmen was also set in Seville.

F: And the sequel to this one, The Marriage of Figaro, is as well. But you could say the same for Paris.

T: I thought Il Trovatore was to do with Seville as well.

F: No. Different part of Spain.

T: My Spanish geography isn’t great, to be honest.

F: Never taken an interest?

T: Never found a reason to. Haven’t been to Spain.

F: Neither have I.

T: One thing I have noticed here, is that they actually repeat the subtitles when the lyrics repeat. Most of the opera subtitlers seem to go “well, I’ve already told you what they’re singing, no need to repeat it just because they keep singing the same thing.” But I’ve already forgotten what they sang, and if you don’t speak the language you don’t know if it’s a repeat or if it’s something new and you’re not being told what they’re singing. So I prefer it this way.

F: Would you watch operas in English with subtitles?

T: Yes. It can be difficult to make out words at times, and if you add in a bit of audio processing difficulties as well then subtitles really are a godsend.

F: So you don’t miss anything.

T: Or mishear. Sometimes I genuinely go “wait, what did they just say?!” and sometimes it’s “wait, what was that? I didn’t quite catch it.”

F: When they’re singing this quickly as well, it can be difficult to keep up.

T: And Italian opera translated into English means too many syllables and it sounds incredibly clunky. You remember that clip from Tosca?

F: The less said about Vissi d’arte sung in English the better, thank you.

T: Agreed. You know, changing the subject again, I’m thinking Bartolo is a pompous prick.

F: Congratulations, that’s kind of the point. We’re not meant to sympathize with the man who wants to marry the heroine for her dowry.

T: No, I know. I mean, I like the performer. I like all of the performers, they inhabit the characters really well. You do sympathise with the Count and Rosina, and you come to dislike both Bartolo and Dracula’s Hairdo.

F: Dracula’s Hairdo? Oh, you mean Basilio?

T: Yeah, that one. He’s a prick too.

F: But a useful one.

T: As it turns out, yes! But you have to admit he really looks like a stereotypical villain.

F: I don’t disagree. With that haircut? He looks like the Bride of Frankenstein.

T: He really does. But I like how everyone in the main cast gets to sing their own solo aria, so they all get their own time in the spotlight, as it were. Plus it must be fun to sing some of these parts. The melodies are so varied and joyous, and yes, sung impressively quickly.

F: Rosina is a contralto role. I’m just sayin’.

T: She’s not a soprano?

F: Nino Machaidze is a soprano, but Rosina was written as a contralto role. So in theory you could learn to sing Rosina’s arias.

T: In theory anything is possible. To sing any kind of opera I’d need a lot of practice. And singing lessons.

F: Ain’t that always the case? Opera requires a very different technique to pop music.

T: You were a choir boy once upon a time, right?

F: Long time ago.

T: Yeah, sure, but does that mean you’re classically trained?

F: That’s really stretching the definition. I was a Catholic kid with nothing better to do. Of course I was a choir boy.

T: Right. Until you found something better to do?

F: In one.

T: So you don’t sing opera yourself?

F: Not outside the confines of my bathroom and kitchen. I do have neighbors to consider.

T: How kind of you.

F: I aim to please. For the duration of the second act they have three big roses center stage.

T: Yes. Two open ones and one rosebud.

F: See, that appeals to me.

T: Me too, and I like the painted piano, and even though the clothes are so flashy they are still beautiful for what they are. Rosina’s dress with all the flowers is stunning.

F: Should people these days be dressing up like it’s 1775? Could that become a thing?

T: No, I doubt it. Some of those clothes look uncomfortable or at least really faffy to get in and out of. Imagine having to take all of that off to go to the toilet.

F: Hats are so much easier to take off than a tall wig.

T: That too. And then all of a sudden the chorus shows up with umbrellas and transparent plastic raincoats. That was quite bizarre.

F: A good way to highlight the bad weather the script calls for. It was a dark and stormy night, after all.

T: Ahh, that lovely old trope.

F: But all’s well that ends well, just like Shakespeare said.

T: I don’t think Shakespeare used costumes with quite that amount of bling. They’re incredibly sparkly at the end.

F: Well, they’re getting married. You gotta have some sparkle for a wedding, and Rosina is marrying a count.

T: But apparently the “happily ever after” doesn’t last very long, considering the synopsis of the sequel …

F: Ma’am, those are spoilers! We ain’t even got it on the to-do list yet!

T: It’s been out for centuries, dude. I’m not sure it classifies as a spoiler anymore.

F: Yeah, but knowing what the sequel is about kind of sullies the happy ending of this one, because you know it don’t actually turn out too well. Takes away some of the charm. Like you just said, the “happily ever after” ain’t “ever after”.

T: Okay, I get your point. And now we’ve sort of spoiled it for anyone else who haven’t seen it. Oops.

F: Probably less of a concern, to be honest, and The Marriage of Figaro came out first, so Barber is technically a prequel. If anyone reads this they’ve probably already seen both, or be well aware of Marriage.

T: And they’re over 200 years old anyway, as we’ve already established.

F: Well, yeah.

T: And bold of you to assume anyone but us is actually reading this.

F: I don’t care. I enjoy hanging out with you, discussing operas.

T: Sometimes it feels as if we should be, I don’t know, cleverer about it?

F: Nah, this ain’t meant to be an academic analysis, it’s more of a way in for people who didn’t know operas can genuinely be enjoyed by everyone. We’re talking about operas the way people might talk about the latest blockbuster movie so it’s relatable, because you don’t need to have a university degree or live in a mansion on the Upper East Side to enjoy opera. I mean, look at me, I don’t exactly have a Ph.D., nor do my parents, but we’re all opera lovers.

T: Bit of a cultural thing for you, though.

F: Sure, but you don’t need to have a connection to Italy either. Or France, or Germany, or whatever. As we’re on the subject, are there any Swedish operas? I feel like I should know the answer to that, but ehh. I don’t speak Swedish.

T: I’ve been able to find some, but not many. Franz Berwald wrote a few, it seems.

F: Who?

T: Kind of the point we’re making here, isn’t it?

F: So who is he? Was he?

T: It says he was more appreciated after his death than when he was alive, so I guess that’s why he was an orthopedist and manager of a saw mill and a glass factory. He has a concert hall in Stockholm named after him, Berwaldhallen. He wrote six operas, if I’m reading this right. Wilhelm Peterson-Berger wrote five. Not all of them seem to have survived to modern day.

F: And the librettos are in Swedish?

T: I haven’t looked them all up, but most of them are, I think, yes.

F: Not to be that guy, but there’s your problem.

T: Yeah, I know, it’s not a big language and we have a small population. The flood of Swedish migrants arriving in the US in the 1800s were poor and from rural areas, they wouldn’t have brought Swedish opera with them, because they’d probably never heard any.

F: Instead they brought … what’s it called? Aquavit. Or is that a Norwegian thing?

T: No, it’s a Scandinavian thing, so we have it in common. They also brought pickled herring and lutfisk, but I think the akvavit was more appreciated.

F: It makes a hell of a lot nicer cocktails, that’s for sure.

T: You’re going to need one if you want to try eating lutfisk, if you ask me. If you’re plastered you won’t mind the texture so much, or the flavour.

F: Fascinating. Your ancestors ever consider making foods that people want to eat without requiring prior sedation?

T: Probably not, no. Hard booze and herring, that’s our cultural heritage. Heritage? Legacy. One of those. Or both. Probably both.

F: To get back on topic, Sweden’s definitely more famous for pop music than opera.

T: Yup, historically we were too poor and/or too drunk for opera. But we do seem to excel at pop music, so at least there’s that.

F: Think someone will ever create an ABBA – The Opera?

T: Oh gods, no! No! That’s not a thing that needs to exist!

F: I can give you an excruciatingly poor operatic rendition of S.O.S. as a taster if you like?

T: No! I really don’t!

F: Well, then. Do you have anything more to say about The Barber of Seville?

T: I can try to summarise?

F: Sure.

T: It had nice costumes, nice staging with the big roses, the performers were excellent, the old Roman amphitheatre was cool and it turns out that Rosina actually deserves better than Almaviva. But I liked that it was lighthearted, and we decided to watch it now so we can post this chat at the end of May, the Thursday nearest my dad’s birthday.

F: Good timing.

T: Seeing Barber with him in Gothenburg is one of the few memories I have of us doing something fun together, just the two of us, so it has a special place in my heart.

F: Happy to help. I raise my glass in his honor. He was clearly a man of impeccable taste, taking his daughter to the opera.

T: Like I said before, it was meant to be my mum, but I can’t remember why she couldn’t go.

F: Her loss. Your gain.

T: I looked up when they ran Barber, and it was late autumn of 2000 and in the spring of 2002. I’m wondering if it was actually in May 2002 we saw it.

F: So it would also be the twenty year anniversary of seeing it on stage! Even better timing!

T: Yeah. Funny that.

F: Coincidentally it will also be the Thursday closest to my birthday.

T: So it’s incredibly good timing.

F: If it was La Traviata then we’d really be talking coincidences. But yeah, I agree with your summary. Barber may be over 200 years old, but the production still has a lot of life to it, even if it ain’t laugh-out-loud funny.

T: Hey, if it’s your birthday, maybe you can get yourself some roses to celebrate?

F: I might, you know.

T: Should we tell any potential readers what we’ll be chatting about next month?

F: Bold of you to assume we have multiple readers!

T: Haha, well, we always have at least two, as we’ve already established.

F: Oh, yeah, so we do. Well, it will be our first English language opera, but not our first comedy. Until then, as always, a presto!

Francis

An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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