Even if you have never heard a single opera in your life, chances are that you know a few licks from Barber of Seville. In fact, when you think of opera and opera singers, you may hear something like this in your head: “Figaro Figaro Figaro FIGARO!” While some mistakenly think that this is from Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, it is actually the aria (opera song) “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
Wait, now I am confused! Who the heck is this Figaro guy, and why is he trying to confuse me by being in so many darn operas? Well, that’s because Figaro is the hero in a famous set of three plays by Pierre Beaumarchais. These plays were all the rage, and they caused some rage in the upper classes too. The poor people liked them because they were all about the common man outsmarting the aristocracy, and the rich people hated them because the plays made them look like buffoons.
In 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed one of his greatest masterpieces, The Marriage of Figaro. This opera was actually based on the SECOND Beaumarchais play. Thirty years later, in 1816, the Barber of Seville, based on the FIRST play, premiered. If this is confusing to you, don’t worry- it’s confusing for us too. Luckily, they work pretty well as separate units. It is very easy to enjoy Marriage of Figaro even if you have not seen Barber of Seville, but since this post is about Barber of Seville, it is a moot point.
Anyway, when listening to or seeing an opera, the most important thing is the plot. In this particular opera, the plot is pretty simple. Count Almaviva has become infatuated with a beautiful (and wealthy) young woman named Rosina. She has not yet come of age, so she lives with a grumpy old man named Bartolo as his ward. Bartolo plans to marry Rosina himself and collect on her hefty dowry once she comes of age. This basically means that poor Rosina is a prisoner, and she cannot even speak to poor Count Almaviva. Enter Figaro the Barber. He has a plan, and it’s a good one. After all, every man, no matter how rich, at some point needs a good shave and a haircut (two bits).
Figaro uses his position of power (notice the theme of the common man having more power than the rich man) to gain entrance into the house of Bartolo and deliver love letters back and forth between Rosina and Count Almaviva. Eventually, Almaviva and Rosina finally meet when he disguises himself as a music tutor. Right in front of Bartolo’s nose, they profess their love through song, and while it is good sport for the two young lovers, Bartolo is not a complete idiot. He immediately rushes to the nearest notary to have a marriage contract written up. Luckily, after some hijinks, Almaviva and Figaro manage to use the marriage contract for themselves. Almaviva and Rosina are married, and Bartolo is given her dowry.
Okay, so maybe the plot is not as simple as I said it was. However, for an OPERA plot, this one is positively comprehensible. These days, it might be comparable to something like Oceans 11- convoluted but ultimately full of fluff and requiring very little actual brain power.
So, what makes Barber of Seville so special? First of all, the music is just about impossible to sing. Largo al Factotum is by far one of the easier pieces in the opera. The role of Rosina is written for a lower female voice, but she is also expected to hit notes up in the rafters (window rattling notes). Count Almaviva has A LOT of notes. He is expected to sing long, virtuosic (freaking difficult) lines of melisma. Most Almavivas look like this by the end of the opera:
All of that aside, I think what makes this opera truly great is its ability to speak to those who have never heard opera. It’s downright enjoyable to watch and listen to. Somehow it manages to cross over from music people to “normal” people. After all, people KNOW the “Figaro Figaro!” song even if they are not sure why. The Barber of Seville has become culturally embedded in our collective subconscious. For instance, do you recognize this delightful bit from the opera?
That’s right! This is the famous overture (opening) to Barber of Seville, made famous by Loony Tunes!
I must admit that every time I hear the overture to Barber of Seville, I snicker a little as I imagine Bugs tossing a delicious fruit salad on top of Elmer Fudd’s bald, bulbous head.