It was habit in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to present operas, whatever their original language, in the language of the host country. Playbills of the past are filled with references toWagner's Il Sigfrido, or Mozart’s Il Fluto Magico, or Figaro's Hochzeit. The idea was, of course, to fill the seats. This is especially important in comedy, because what was the point if nobody got the jokes!
In the mid twentieth century, the Metropolitan Opera released a few operas in English. If memory serves -- and a box of LPs somewhere in my closet -- among these releases were Daughter of the Regiment with Lily Pons, Cosi Fan Tutti with Eleanor Steber and a Boheme with Richard Tucker.
For Christmas and for fun, and perhaps hoping that the audience will get the jokes, the MET revives this tradition with one of the greatest of all comic operas, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
It is one of Rossini’s most inspired works and Beethoven is said to have remarked when meeting Rossini, "Make more Barbers!". The opera was written over a short period of time, and claims of the swiftness range from nine nights to three weeks. The result was one of the world’s most popular overtures -- one that is played everywhere (including in cartoons for children) -- and three of the most beloved portmanteau arias of all time: "Largo al factotum della citta," (Make way for the factotum of the city) sung by Figaro, our Barber of Seville; Rosina’s "Una voca poco fa," (A voice a little while ago); and Basilio’s recommendation to Doctor Bartolo , the aging guardian who would be husband to his ward, "La calunnia e un venticello," (Calumny is a little breeze).
Watch Figaro's famous aria:
The plot is worthy of opera, or even nighttime television:
A young ward with a handsome dowry is kept under lock and key by her aging guardian who wants her for himself to get her money. She is also pursued by a prince charming in disguise, Count Almaviva (before he meets the Countess), who wants her to want him for himself and not for his money. He enlists the help of Figaro and resorts to a series of disguises as he pursues true love.
History recounts incredibly that the opening night was a fiasco. An earlier version of the work was composed by Pasiello and his defenders saw Rossini as a trespasser, the claques (professional applauders) making the first night unbearable. In fact, Rossini refused to conduct the show for a while because he was so upset over the disruptions. However, within weeks, history and the approval of the audience was undeniable. The Barber of Seville has now been part of the world repertory for almost two hundred years, since 1816.
Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher’s production of The Barber of Seville is a rollicking comedy classic the entire family can enjoy. This holiday entertainment is razor-sharp, stylishly-sung (in English!) and just two hours long. The charming and irresistible cast of young stars includes Isabel Leonard as the lovely Rosina, Alek Shrader as the Count who woos her, and Rodion Pogossov as the conspiring barber.
Tune in this Saturday at noon for a holiday special from the Metropolitan Opera. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in English on KPAC and KTXI.
Figaro's famous aria by Woody Woodpecker: