• Your Guide to Rossini's The Barber of Seville

    By COC Staff


    Laugh out loud!

    There’s a reason this comedy has stood the test of time! The Barber of Seville is an infectious comic opera with genuine laughs. Rooted in the commedia dell’arte street theatre tradition, with zany stock characters and over-the-top scenarios, the addition of carnival and circus traditions adds a lot of extra fun! 

    Catchy tunes!

    From the spritzy build-up of its famous overture to the famous ‘Figaro here, Figaro there’ aria ("Largo al factotum"), The Barber of Seville is chock-full of catchy music you already know from movies, cartoons, and more.  

    A cartoon fantasy!

    With bright pops of colour, oversized set pieces and a distinct Pablo Picasso vibe, this playful production from Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants brings a whimsical, cartoon-like quality to the stage.

    “If I had gone to visit my barber for a shave, I wouldn’t have had time to finish.”

    Rossini was born in 1792 in the seaport town of Pesara, Italy, on the Adriatic coast. His mother was a soprano and his father was a horn and trumpet player, so he was no stranger to the bustling, often chaotic world of Italian opera houses. In this system, a new work might be composed, rehearsed, and performed within the span of only a few weeks.

    While composing The Barber of Seville, which Rossini claimed took just 13 days, he never left the house. Given such rushed timelines, it wasn’t uncommon for composers to repurpose their own previous compositions. Rossini frequently reused material from his back catalogue (much like some modern-day film composers) – Barber, for example, features passages from five previous Rossini operas.

    Despite this pragmatic, cut-and-paste approach to composition, the opera is considered one of his masterpieces. “You may say things about Rossini and they may be true regarding the borrowings…the speed of composition and so forth, but I confess I cannot help believing The Barber of Seville for truth of declamation the most beautiful opera buffa in existence,” wrote the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. From an overture heard in countless movies, cartoons and advertisements, to the most famous “entrance aria” in all of opera, to the exhilarating crescendo of “La calunnia,” to the sparkling classic beauty of “Una voce poco fa,” Rossini’s score is a veritable hit parade. It’s no wonder Bugs Bunny is a fan of these tunes.

    A clip from Bugs Bunny's The Rabbit of Seville

    A Close Shave

    The Barber of Seville is based on a stage play by the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais (whose Figaro trilogy is a satirical take-down of aristocratic privilege and also includes The Marriage of Figaro – made most famous by Mozart – and The Guilty Mother). Rossini’s was not the first Barber opera; in fact an earlier version by a composer named Giovanni Paisiello was considered such a cornerstone of the opera buffa repertoire that Rossini decided to write to the elder artist, assuring him that this new version was not intended as an affront to the original.

    On opening night a clique of ardent Paisiello fans bought up entire sections of the theatre, intending to boo the opera vociferously and cause a debacle, regardless of what happened on stage. But the performance itself was marred by its own problems: a guitar string broke in the opening scene; a singer tripped over an errant trapdoor and had to deliver his aria while trying to stop a bleeding nose; a cat dashed onto the stage and got tangled up in the soprano’s skirt. Though opening night was a disaster, the second performance was a great success and Rossini’s Barber has been popular ever since.

    A Timeless Barber

    Els Comediants – a Spanish theatre collective that has been creating multi-disciplinary performances for over 40 years – combines carnival and circus traditions along with puppetry, dance, acrobatics, pantomime, and commedia dell’arte practices. The Barber of Seville owes much to Italian street theatre tradition of improvised comedy, which features recognizable stock characters – the young lovers, the wily servant, the boastful soldier, the old man scheming to marry a young woman. The production team pays homage to these theatrical roots with costumes and makeup that reference these traditional tropes. According to director Joan Font, upon the COC’s first presentation of this production in 2015, “the old Doctor Bartolo could well be a shadow of Pantalone and Figaro a contemporary Arlecchino (Harlequin). The other characters may share numerous similarities to characters in this street theatre; they are prototypes of humanity played in a symbolic manner and able to create absurd, delirious, surreal, comical and ironic situations and actions.”

    The designs are partly inspired by Picasso’s Cubist aesthetic and the visual language of constructive sculpture, or art that is made by putting things together from different sources. Colourful guitars in Act I are an example, referencing similar constructions by Picasso. Many elements of the set design also have a multifunctional, open-ended quality, as objects take on different forms. The giant pink piano, for example, becomes a writing desk, a banquet table, and a boudoir over the course of the opera. Doors and windows at crooked angles, exaggerated hairdos, and outsized props all contribute to a cartoon-like disruption of scale and proportion. The semi-transparent fabric walls allow for shadow play and effects that mimic cinematic cutaways and montage, notably during the famous “Largo al factotum” aria, in which Figaro details his many tasks and responsibilities, while we simultaneously watch silhouetted figures performing those errands.

    “The idea behind our Barber is timeless; it is not located in a specific space. The action of the opera runs in Seville but it could well happen in the 19th century or in today's Toronto.”

    ~ Director Joan Font

    Join us for Rossini's The Barber of Seville on stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from January 19 - February 7, 2020.

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    All production photos by 
    Michael Cooper.
    Posted in 19/20


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