200 Years since Barber of Seville premiere

So what is it that made Giovanni Paisiello so angry on 16 February 1816. For 34 years he had been lauded as the composer of a very popular opera since his Barber of Seville premiere.

Yet on this day he organised a claque to destroy the premiere of an opera by a young upstart composer who from the point of view of Paisiello had plagiarised his work, had stolen the theme that rightfully belonged to Paisello. Yet the new opera did not even have the same title – it was originally named ‘Almaviva, o sia L’inutile precauzione’, and two other composers in the intervening 34 years had also presented operas on the same theme.

While it is said that Paisiello objected to the use of the Basso Buffo, maybe what Paisiello disliked was that this new version of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, The Barber of Seville, had great tunes. They were not always new tunes, for instance, the overture to this new opera had been heard many times before in two other operas by the same composer, being Elisabeth, Queen of England and Aureliano in Palmira. So, to an extent, Paisiello had a point, though a pyrrhic one. Though the tunes were not regarded well at the fourth Barber of Seville premiere.

Gioachino Rossini had no problems with plagiarising even his own works. It was all a matter of putting the right tune in the right place, and the overture, in Rossini’s scheme of importance was last ‘cab off the rank’ sometimes even being penned on the way to the premiere. Recycling a good tune is one of the most common elements of musical entertainment, to the extent that some famous operas exist solely on the merits of the ‘hit song’.

Nevertheless, Paisiello succeeded in gathering his supporters and destroying the Barber of Seville premiere by this Pesaro born and bred upstart, when it was launched on that day at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.

However, a good tune always wins out independent of the quality or veracity of the story line, and the complaints by the jealous (as Puccini also discovered nearly a century later). We are now able to hear the great arias of The Barber of Seville because, at its second performance, when it was met with rapturous applause, and rightfully so – and not much later a similar reception in London.

Rossini’s Barber with the quickly established famous arias, in particular ‘Largo al factotum’ has become a top ten performed opera of all time, and has been staged virtually everywhere that even passable voices could be found. So famous to the extent of shifting the pitch a bit to account for Rosina ranging from an alto to a coloratura soprano. One dream would be to hear Maria Callas and Marilyn Horne singing the role side by side – a duet that even Rossini might have enjoyed. Now whenever there is a Barber of Seville premiere, a new production, no-one thinks of Paisiello.

Happy bicentenary to the ageless Barber