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A Guide to The Barber of Seville

19 August 2021

A favourite in Welsh National Opera’s repertoire, The Barber of Seville  by Rossini is also one of the most popular titles in opera. The music is fast-paced and recognisable, the story is funny and easy to follow and it has some larger than life characters that you can’t help but fall in love with.

It is suggested that the 24 year old Rossini composed The Barber of Seville in just 12 days, basing the story on an earlier Italian opera that itself was taken from a French play. Many of the jokes can be traced back to the comedy of ancient Rome.

A prequel to The Marriage of Figaro, it shows how the noble Count won the love of his life Rosina. However this is opera, so it’s not quite that straightforward! The basic premise is that a lovelorn nobleman (Count Almaviva) enlists the help of barber Figaro to help him woo his true love who is under the control of her protective guardian Doctor Bartolo (who wants to marry her himself for her money). So far so crazy.

Almaviva meets Rosina and instantly falls for her, but his initial attempts to serenade her fail. Rosina is unsure about his motives and Bartolo is determined to keep them apart. Almaviva employs Figaro as his servant and tasks him with getting Rosina away from her protector and persuading her to marry him.

Figaro disguises Almaviva in an attempt to get him inside the house, first as a soldier (which fails) then as a substitute for Rosina’s singing teacher, Don Basilio, who is sick. This is where we see the famous shaving scene, in which Figaro distracts Bartolo by shaving him while ‘music teacher’ Almaviva woos Rosina during her singing lesson.

Rossini’s music is all about athletic vocalism showcasing the superstar singers; it’s sung effortlessly with grace, and highlights dazzling coloratura and breathless comic patter. We also hear his favourite musical ‘trick’ – the crescendo – a musical passage lasting a minute or two, beginning very quietly and building to deafening. Two examples feature in The Barber of Seville: Don Basilio’s ‘Slander’ aria (presenting a musical picture of gossip spreading around a community) and the Act One finale which depicts a household descending into chaos and confusion.

True love wins through in the end, following the hilarious antics of our hero Figaro and the battling suitors. It’s the perfect opera if you like a good laugh, fantastic music and a happy ending.