A tale of two barbers

If I were asked to name my favourite opera, I’d have a hard time picking one. However, there are some that would definitely make the shortlist, including Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville).

Apparently I’m not alone in assessing this to be a fine opera as it is one of the most popularly performed operas in the world (Operabase lists it at #8 in its list of the top 50 operas, by number of performances worldwide between the 2009/10 and the 2013/14 season).

As it happens, this was one of the first operas I explored when I started to get interested in the genre about a year ago, and was the first one for which I watched or listened to several different performances.

I also did a certain amount of background reading about Il Barbiere and, amongst other things, discovered that Rossini was not the first person to set this story, based on the play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre Beaumarchais, as an opera.  The play appeared in 1775, as the first part of a trilogy, the second being Le Mariage de Figaro (the Marriage of Figaro) which was very quickly set as an opera – Le nozze di Figaro – by Mozart (also one of the world’s, and my own, favourite operas) and the third being La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), which as far as I know has been turned into at least a couple of operas but none of them particularly successful.

Rossini’s version of Il Barbiere (which came out in 1816, about 40 years after the original play) caused quite a stir because there was already an opera of the same name, and based on the same play though using a different libretto, by Giovanni Paisiello. This had appeared in 1782 (i.e. within 7 years of the play) and was still immensely popular by the time Rossini got there.  Although Paisiello is now a somewhat obscure composer he was, by all accounts, quite a pop star in his own time and it was considered rather impertinent of Rossini to try encroaching on his territory (Paisiello died a few months after Rossini’s opera appeared; I couldn’t find any reference to his own reaction to Rossini’s work but his fans apparently rioted).  In fact, to start with, Rossini’s version struggled to gain a foothold while Paisiello’s remained tremendously popular.  Gradually, though, the popularity of Rossini’s opera increased while that of Paisiello’s waned.

Naturally enough, on hearing about Paisiello’s Barbiere, I was keen to hear it for myself.  I recently managed to track down a very reasonably priced audio recording of it and I enjoyed listening to it.  While it doesn’t ascend to the heights of operatic genius that Rossini achieves several times in his version, it is more than competently put together (at least from a musical perspective – I didn’t pay too much attention to the libretto so I can’t judge it dramatically) and pleasant to listen to.  I’d certainly be keen to see it performed (either live or on DVD) if I get a chance, though I probably wouldn’t want to make space for another audio recording (or more than one video one) in my library.

There is a certain ironic justice in Paisiello’s Barbiere having been eclipsed by Rossini’s later version because he himself had previously attempted (I’m not sure how deliberately, or with how much success) to do much the same to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with La Serva Padrona.  This was a short comic opera that Pergolesi had written (c. 1733) as a pair of intermezzos to break up the acts of his long opera seria, Il prigionier superbo, and had become vastly popular (while Il prigionier fairly quickly faded into relative obscurity); it is seen by many as “the quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period” (to quote Wikipedia – it’s not clear whether that’s just within the scope of opera or of music more generally).  Paisiello wrote a version, using (I think) the same libretto as Pergolesi but a much more modern musical style, in about 1781 (i.e. shortly before his Barbiere).  I’ve listened to both Pergolesi’s and Paisiello’s versions of La Serva Padrona and enjoyed them both; stylistically there is a much greater gap between them than between Paisiello and Rossini (though even there the two are noticeably different – Paisiello’s Barbiere is perhaps unsurprisingly more reminiscent of his near-contemporary Mozart than of Rossini) so they are quite hard to compare.