Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Figaro, Barber and Groom

In the beginning, of course, was the play Le Barbier de Séville by Beaumarchais, who wrote a trilogy of plays featuring the street-smart Figaro (the other two plays being The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother). These plays were somewhat controversial in their portrayal of the aristocracy, and, for a time, were banned. In the early 1780's The Barber of Seville was turned into an opera by Giovanni Paisiello. It inspired Mozart, along with his librettist da Ponte, to create an opera from the sequel play, which was called (in Italian) Le Nozze di Figaro.

I won't go into the details of the stories of these two operas; The Barber of Seville story can be found here, while The Marriage of Figaro story can be found here.

Paisiello's version of the opera had its followers, so much so that when Gioacchino Rossini created a version of The Barber, the production was hissed during the first performance, even though Rossini's version was originally called Almaviva. Rossini's version, in the end however, is the one known and performed now, while Paisiello's version is little more than a footnote.

As with much of classical music, many people have been introduced to the music of these operas through the famous parody The Rabbit of Seville, a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Even though Mozart's opera was written earlier, I decided to watch The Barber first as it comes first in the order of the story. I'm sure there are opera buffs who can listen to an opera recording with the libretto open on their laps, but I don't understand Italian and can't follow the action that way. So, my explorations of opera have been via DVD's with English subtitles. While this may be cheating a bit, it does compare to a modern experience of attending opera, where English translations are given via a screen either above or below the stage. I have to say, as much fun as the music is on its own, it takes on a deeper meaning seeing the action and subtitles in a real performance.

Within a day (both of these operas run close to three hours, so it helps to spread them out some) I dove into Mozart's Marriage and had a blast with it, too. There is a scene in the movie Amadeus where Mozart explains how he turns an aria into a duet, and then to a three-some, and so on until he has seven performers singing all at once, all carrying on for over twenty minutes. That scene, if you watch for it, becomes obvious and it is brilliant (it comes at the end of the second act, if I recall correctly).

It was in Marriage that I saw my first pants or breeches part. In Mozart's day a composer had access to male sopranos in the form of castrati, young males who were castrated before their voices changed in order to maintain a high pitched vocal range (the most famous of these was Farinelli). In modern productions, these roles are now played by women sopranos, wearing male clothes, hence the term "pants" role.

As imposing as opera can seem to one not exposed to it, comic opera (or opera buffa) I have found to be very accessible. Modern day movie musicals have opera as their ancestors, and the same sort of things happen in both. In a musical, the action of the story is spoken dialog and interaction of the actors (the opera equivalent is the chant-like recitative), and every so often the action stops as the actors perform a musical number (in opera this is an aria) which usually has the performer singing about his feelings or thoughts at that time. Opera has just this structure, usually in a language other than English. So much of operatic music has been used in other non-opera settings (in advertising and cartoons, for example) that there is a familiar feeling when that music is seen performed in its original setting. It's a lot more fun than I expected it to be, and I plan to explore more of it.


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