The 200-Year-Old Barber

I have recordings of over five-hundred operas. It would take me almost two months of non-stop listening to hear them all. Alas, I only have an hour of listening in the car each day (perhaps I should get a job further away), and a small amount before bedtime each night, both of which I take full advantage. There are favorites, of course (based on what I’ve heard so far), as well as desert island must-haves (even though, were I stranded on a desert island, I would finally have the glorious opportunity to listen to them all and, in an age when all of my operas can fit in the palm of my hand, I wouldn’t really have to choose). Carmen. Aida. The Magic Flute. Turandot. Among the priceless gems is Rossini’s brilliant work The Barber of Seville, which he composed in just three weeks when he was twenty-four years old. It was his seventeenth opera, some of them written when he was a child.

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Rossini at 24

When I was a child, I spent summers at my grandmother’s house and watched a lot of TV. Bugs Bunny cartoons were a staple of my early-seventies television diet, and those cartoons used a surprising amount of classical music. I mostly remember hearing Mendelssohn and Rossini, even though I didn’t know their names, and I suspect my love of classical music and opera began there. One memorable episode featured Bugs and Elmer Fudd in The Rabbit of Seville, with heavy use of the famous overture from Rossini’s similarly-titled opera. Another episode, What’s Opera, Doc?, featured the equally famous “Largo al factotum” from the same opera (this one you’ve heard: “Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiiigaro!”). It would be thirty years before I heard the complete two-hour opera, because, like most average Joes, I thought opera too inaccessible and esoteric for an average Joe. It would be ten more years before I gave myself permission to go see it live, and, just this year until I recognized the genius of the first act’s closing sextet, “Ma signor!”

Rossini had a gift for starting off a composition quietly, then slowly and steadily ratcheting it up to a frenetic and thrilling crescendo. He used this technique in his two most famous overtures, those to Barber of Seville and William Tell, and he really masters it in “Ma Signor.” In this glorious piece, six people, very confused from the recent happenings on stage, are singing different parts all at once, first quietly and slowly, then with increasing urgency and volume until the piece explodes in the musical equivalent of a fireworks finale. When I listen to it with headphones, which is necessary in order to hear all that’s going on in the background, I never cease to marvel at its technical brilliance and utter perfection. It has a satisfying mathematical precision that makes order out of chaos, which perhaps is why I like it so much.

I’m glad to be living in a time when I can easily listen to this and other works (or “opera,” which is the Latin word for “works”) any time I choose, a luxury that no one had in Rossini’s day. In fact, he took advantage of this fact by recycling his own overtures, using the same one in several different operas. Who would remember? Regardless, the man was a genius, right up there with Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He wrote 39 operas in all, and retired early to live out the latter part of his life as a gourmand and bon-vivant (the restaurant dish tournedos Rossini is named after him). This year marks the 200th anniversary of The Barber of Seville, still considered one of the best comic operas ever written.

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At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

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