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The ABC’s of The Barber of Seville

Josh Borths – February 14, 2018

The Art of Comedy...

(Commedia dell’Arte) is the style of improvised comedy that traveled across Italy from the 16th-19th centuries. It laid the ground work for our modern, comedic sensibilities and can be found in contemporary classics such as Charlie Chaplin flicks, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and Saturday Night Live sketches. Commedia was traditionally performed in mask and featured specific stock characters in a variety of scenarios. All of the characters in Italian comedy—including The Barber of Seville—are based on the stock commedia archetypes such as Pantalone, the Doctor, the Young Lovers, the Old Lovers, etc. and feature physical performances including jugglers, acrobats, etc. Unique to Commedia performance, the actors assume the audience exists in the world of the show. There is no “forth wall” in commedia as performers compete for audience support, with the public acting as referee.

Beaumarchais...

was the famed French writer of the play The Barber of Seville. The first play of a trilogy including The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother, The Barber of Seville was an important work credited with fanning the flames of the French Revolution. Although it may not appear provocative to modern audiences, this play cycle gave voice to the discontentment of lower classes and advocated upending social norms. While much of the incendiary dialogue from the play was cut when adapted for the operatic stage, its progressive politics can still be traced through the character of Figaro and the opera’s distain for the aristocracy. Even the Count Almaviva, a member of Spain’s upper class, hates his aristocratic roots and disguises himself as a poor student in order to win the love of Rosina on his own merits. Beaumarchais “practiced what he preached,” and throughout a controversial and sprawling career became an advocate and arms dealer for the American colonists, helping secure victory against the English in the American Revolution.

Bel Canto opera...

is the musical style encapsulated in the works of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini throughout the first half of the 19th century. Literally meaning “beautiful singing,” bel canto opera emphasizes singers, giving them freedom to improvise and show off their skills. In bel canto opera, the libretto and orchestra exist to support and accompany, hence its reputation for utilizing silly plots. Since these operas were written quickly—legend has it that The Barber of Seville was composed in only 13 days—they relied heavily on musical formulas and conventions. For example, almost every aria is structured the same way: cantabile, tempo di mezzo, and cabaletta. The cantabile is slow and lyrical, emphasizing the grace and pathos of the singer. In the tempo di mezzo, something dramatic changes triggering the fast cabaletta. The cabeletta, deriving from the Italian word for running horses, displays the vocal fireworks of the singer, propelling the action forward. This music is versatile and flexible, allowing bel canto composers to borrow from themselves. They often appropriated existing melodies for different dramatic situations. For example, the overture to The Barber of Seville, which usually conjures images of Bugs Bunny’s antics, was originally written for a serious opera called Aureliano in Palmira. Possibly meant to depict the terror of the Syrian people as the Roman Emperor Aurelius lays siege to Palmyra, this overture is abstract and devoid of specific intent. This untethered quality has allowed for new interpretations for more than 200 years after the overture’s initial composition.

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