Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: The Barber of Seville

Setting: Seville, Spain, in the eighteenth century (usually).

Plot in three sentences: Figaro, barber of the title, plots to help Count Almaviva win the hand of Rosina, ward of Dr Bartolo who intends to marry her himself. The Count gets disguised (twice) and wins Rosina’s heart. Figaro foils the plots of Bartolo and his cronies, and Rosina and the Count are married in the nick of time. (The same characters, in fact, as from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, though a different instalment of the soap opera.)

Reputation: Ultimately, the opera that made Rossini and still the most popular of his operas. One of the most sure-fire of genial comedies, with ensemble passages that are near Mozartian and an ease of melody that is Rossini’s trademark.

Critical reaction: Disastrous first night, caused partly by factional animosity. Rossini’s jacket and the performers were roundly ridiculed. The second performance was a huge success, leading a mob to besiege Rossini’s hotel.

Classic performers: Victoria de los Angeles proved the most charming Rosina at Glyndebourne in the 1960s; Callas made her intriguingly sharp. Luigi Alva was always a reliably charming Almaviva, while Tito Gobbi (out of heavy mode for once) could always sparkle as Figaro.

Highlights: ‘Largo al factotum’, Figaro’s aria, Act 1; ‘Una voce poco fa’, Rosina’s aria, Act 1.

Death toll: Oh, come on…

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘For once Rossini’s vocal lines are restrained and subtly honed to comic effect.’

What to say quietly in the pub:More disguises that wouldn’t fool a child of three.’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995

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