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Poor Paisiello. Out of the nearly 100 operas written by this industrious composer just one was generally regarded as a masterpiece. Yet a few months before his death in 1816 at age 76 a young upstart from Pesaro premiered a competing version that would forever eclipse Paisiello’s. However, his Il Barbiere di Siviglia has never been completely forgotten and On Site Opera’s winningly effervescent revival which opened Tuesday night proved a delight.


For several seasons On Site’s mission has been to present rarely seen operas in unconventional venues; last year Rameau’s piquant Pygmalion invaded Madame Tussauds Wax Attraction.

Barbiere’s first act took place in the courtyard outside the early 20th century Fabbri Mansion on East 95th street, which now usually serves as an Episcopal retreat house. Before a seated audience of 80 or so, a tiny orchestra of eight accompanied Almaviva and Figaro as they concocted their scheme to meet the cloistered Rosina who occasionally appeared at a second story window. Everyone then trudged up a long stone staircase to the mansion’s sumptuous library which became Bartolo’s home for the remaining three acts.

The appealing staging by OnSite’s General and Artistic Director Eric Einhorn was pleasingly restrained: despite the often farcical complications, Paisiello and Petrosellini’s characters behaved like human beings rather than cartoon characters. However, Einhorn’s decision to mount the two-hour work without intermission seemed unwise.

His nimble cast enthusiastically responded with energetic yet nuanced portrayals. Debonair in his spats and straw hat, David Blalock’s determined Almaviva clearly relished his loony disguises while Monica Yunus’s touching Rosina more than once displayed the sadness and humiliation caused by years of Bartolo’s suffocating guardianship.

Figaro is a far less dominant figure than in Rossini’s opera—he disappears for most of the second and third acts—but Andrew Wilkowske’s bustling barber parried wittily with the brusquely domineering Bartolo of Rob Nelman, frightening in his florid mutton chop sideburns. Isaiah Musik-Ayala’s slyly insinuating Basilio and Benjamin Bloomfield and Jessica Rose Futran as Bartolo’s less-than-faithful servants gamely entered into the spirited plan to rescue Rosina.

Those familiar with other examples of 18th century opera buffa like Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia La Buona Figliuola or Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto would feel at home in Paisiello’s sprightly but undemanding score which premiered in 1782 during his long stay in St. Petersburg. Even without the challenge of Rossini’s more brilliant version, it seems unlikely that this charming if faded Barbiere would have retained its place in the repertoire.

Much of the music, like Basilio’s calumny aria, is pleasant if unmemorable, and Rosina’s plaintive “Giusto ciel, che conoscete” which concludes the second act fails to rise to the heights of Paisiello’s best known aria, “Il mio ben quando verra” from Nina ossia la pazza per Amore.

And yet occasionally one gets glimpses of why this Barbiere was once so popular—Bartolo’s  “Veramente ho torto” brilliantly bullies Rosina with yards of dyspeptic patter. In the score’s highlight, the marvelous third-act finale magically transforms the stunned “buona sera” quintet into a wonderfully scampering quartet.

And Paisiello briefly touches the sublime in a near-Mozartian duet for Rosina and Almaviva at the beginning of the final number; one is reminded more than once of Konstanze and Belmonte from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which also premiered in 1782.

Only occasionally challenged by the awkward logistics of the library setting, Geoffrey McDonald, who in April conducted R. B. Schlather’s disturbing Orlando, led Barbiere with a firm, loving hand. His substitution of a guitar for a keyboard for the recitatives worked surprisingly well. While it was reassuring to glance over and note McDonald conducting with a blissful smile on his face, one does hope that he will soon get the opportunity to lead a production where his orchestra includes more than just two violins.

Although I’ve enjoyed Paisiello’s score for years coming to it in high school via the entrancing 1959 Renato Fasano recording with Graziella Sciutti, Nicola Monti, Rolando Panerai and Renato Capecchi which I first heard via a set of Everest LPs and which remains available on CD, On Site’s production was my first opportunity to experience it live. Unfortunately the four-performance run has been completely sold out for weeks.

So it’s not too soon to make plans to catch the next installment of the company’s ambitious three-year Beaumarchais project: in 2016 it will produce the North American premiere of Marcos Portugal’s long-forgotten 1800 version of Le Nozze di Figaro, followed in 2017 by the US premiere of Darius Milhaud’s La Mère Coupable.

Those unable to catch On Site’s Barbiere can rejoice that—remarkably–the Paisiello will soon be mounted again in New York City: in August by dell’Arte Opera Ensemble as part of its Figaro project.

Photos: Rebecca Fay

  • Poor Paisiello. Out of the nearly 100 operas written by this industrious composer just one was generally regarded as a masterpiece.

    An ungenerous assessment. The highly unconventional “Nina” was a big deal at the time (though scholars nowadays use the term “sentimental” to describe it, the work borders on the nascent “semiseria” tradition. Paisiello himself described it as an “opera di mezzo carattere” It is a remarkable piece still stageworthy today. Paisiello’s “Molinara”, known in German lands as “Die Schoene Muellerin” still trod the German stage as late as 1827 (and quite possibly later).

    • In re: “just one [of Paisiello’s operas] was generally regarded as a masterpiece”, Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy wrote c. 1818:

      Naples afterwards enjoyed almost exclusively the fruits of an imagination the fertility of which seemed to increase with age. That Paisiello should have succeeded in maintaining amidst his rivals and fellow-citizens that exalted rank to which he had been raised by the suffrages of all Europe, is not the least glorious circumstance in his long career. The ten years which followed his return to Naples, marked, in the history of his talent, a new series of compositions, both in the grave and comic style; and the continued representations of his operas, among which we cannot forbear distinguishing “La Molinara”, still render it a matter of dispute in every city of Europe, to which of his works the pre-eminence is due.

      It has been observed, that the multiplicity of the productions of an artist contribute, more than is generally imagined, in establishing that classic celebrity inseparably combines the name of the author with that of a single chef-d’ouevre. Public opinion is always inclined to centralize in this way its admiration of a great man. There always seems a wish to designate all he has produced by a single word. Hitherto it has been extremely difficult to determine which of Paisiello’s works deserves to be quoted as his title of glory. At Naples, however, it is generally allowed that “La Nina o la Pazza per amore” richly merits the preference. Of all his compositions, that opera is regarded as the most learned, affecting, simple, varied, and complete in every department of the art; and in future ages Paisiello’s Nina will probably be spoken of like the Venus of Praxiteles, or the Transfiguration of Raphael.

  • Shortly after the composer’s centenary, a correspondent for the “Cosmorama pittorico” of 1844 offered this assessment of Paisiello’s works:

    “Sotto il rigido cielo delle Russie, il genio di Paisello s’era un cotal po’raffreddato; ritornato, ridivenne italiano, e ben lo dimostrano “L’Olimpiade” ch’ei componeva nel 1786, il “Pirro” nell’anno susseguente, e quindi successivamente senza che alcun intervallo di tempo scorresse fra l’un componimento e l’altro, “La Fedra”, “Il Catone in Utica”, “L’Ulfrida”, “La Didone”, “L’Andromaca”, “I giuochi d’Agrigento”, “Le Gare generose”, “Gli Schiavi per amore”, “La Molinara”, “La Modista raggiratrice”, “I Zingani in fiera”, e tant’altre che non vogliamo qui tutte ricordare per non riescire soverchiamente noiosi ai nostri lettori. Ma ci sia permesso parlare d’una sola di queste opere che celebrata da tutta Europa, su tutti i teatri rappresentata, ovunque applaudita, e ancora la delizia di quanti sono dilettanti dell’arte musicale, voglio dire della “Nina pazza per amore”.

    Molti credono sostenere il contrario, ma noi siam d’avviso esser questo il capolavoro del nostro maestro. E in vero chi a parte a parte ne esamini le sorprendenti bellezze no potra a meno di esclamare con chi va entusiasta delle venusta di quest’opera “La Nina Pazza” e ispirata! Paisiello ha qui superato se stesso! Infatti si getti uno sguardo su di essa a veggasi con quanta filosofia vi siano dipinte le piu forti e terribili passioni, cn quanta dolcezza vi si spieghino quei patetici e commoventi motivi che penetrandoti al cuore, ti fanno spuntare tra ciglio e ciglio una lagrima! A per addurre una prova che quest’opera e veramente sublime nel suo genere, veggasi quante volte fu ripetuta in Milano, ove fu per la prima volte rappresentata, poscia in Inghilterra, in Francia, in Germania, e in Ispagna, e sempre andasse lieta d’altissimi applausi, sicche appare non essere la voce di pochi, ma quella bensi di popoli intieri che la chiamino vera gemma del teatro italiano.”

    Giacomo Ferrari, in his “Anecdoti nella vita di Giacamo Ferrari”, recalls: “[Prince Leopold] received us with great affability; and, after reading his sister’s letter, he made me many kind offers of service. Then, turning to my old friend, he said, “Signor Paisiello, as long back as I can remember, I have heard your music spoken of and admired. Tell me how many works you have composed?” -- “I have composed nearly a hundred operas,” replied Paisiello; “but, if I were to reckon my interludes, farces, ballets, church and chamber music, I might add another hundred to the list of my works.” -- “And to which of your operas do you give the preference?” -- “Your Highness asks me an embarrassing question. I am scarcely able to choose between the “Barbiere di Seviglia”, “Il Re Teodoro”, and “Nina””. At the mention of “Nina”, I observed the tears start to his eyes. The Prince also noticed the old man’s emotion and, taking his hand, he said, in the Venetian dialect, “Yes, “Nina” is the best, my dear Paisiello, undoubtedly the best.”

    • (the second paragraph should of course contain “I Zingari in fiera”. Croche Enterprises regrets the error.)

      • Camille

        Croche Enterprises is never RONG! No need for apologies.

        Very interesting, m.c., and did not La Ceci Bean record or at least perform Nina ossia la pazza per amore? Or am I misremembering this entirely?

        A big old score, if I remember that correctly, which again, I may not.

        • There is a DVD with her performing it at Zurich, with Jonas Kaufmann as Lindoro (and Un pastore), conducted by Adam Fischer.

          Probably the best cast “Nina” since Pasta and Rubini trod the stage with it in the 1820s. Pasta sang Nina from 1823-29 or so. As far as she and several other critics were concerned, “Nina” was Paisiello’s masterpiece -- and the work did not die with him in 1816. Bellini (as has been documented by Pierluigi Petrobelli) modeled some of I Puritani after “Nina”, and used the role of Nina to give Malibran an idea of what kind of character Elvira was.

          But hey, what did Bellini know?

          • Camille

            He knew a lot; but is not given much credit and looked upon as a dumb blonde from the Southland—think Valley Gurl—, thanx to Herr Heine, usw.

            Well, gee, that is really interesting to me and further raises the spectre of what the tessitura of Nina may have been as the Puritani he was remanaging for La Malibran was per forza somewhat lower, no? And yes, besides La Grande Pasta, I’ve noticed the role mentioned in other’s bios.
            Interesting to think of der Jonas in such a role. He certainly had a thorough training ground in Zürich.

            Now I wish I would have looked over the score a little more, as recall nothing of it other than its great big size. It seems to me that it was something of a novelty in 1986, when first I noticed it on the shelves of the now defunct Ricordi, but I do not know if this was the absolute first moden edition.

            Thanks for the further on my beloved Bellini.
            M. Croche, you certainly DO cover the waterfront—from il belcanto in Napoli to the Mongolian Mountains, and everything inbetween. Simply jawdroppingly encyclopædic.

            • I have the DVD, but it has been several years since I last watched it (mild allergy to watching Bartoli emote, and Nina emotes quite a bit). The performance, I believe, is currently available on Y**T***. I wouldn’t say the score is particularly large. Maybe you saw a bulky manuscript reproduction?

              Anyway, Paisiello is nothing to sneeze (or yawn) at:

            • Lohengrin

              In this production one of my most beloved singers is Laszlo Polgar, he died 2010. There are some more DVDs from Zürich with him singing: Fidelio, Fierrabras.

            • Camille

              Here’s the prescription for that mild allergy, sir, a beautifully nuanced and precisely placed performance in a classical style:

              Yes, La Ceci Ban really does “emote”, or does schtik, or does something here. The black lipstick is giving her a punk look, as well, which is why??. It looks a lot like she just had a bad case of cramps, but boy, does her voice sound well in this outing. Firm and full, with none of that wildly skittering, gyrating vibrato. Brava la Ceci! Like the proverbial girl with a curl, when she’s good, she’s very, very good, but when she’s bad—well, you know.

              Acually, this little aria brought to mind another little gem, “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” from Mozar’s Zaïde, at least a bit. Wonder which came first.

              There is a collection of other divæ -- Anonacci, Caballé, Rancatore, singing this excerpt on YouTube, fwiw.

              Somehow, this opera brings to mind La Gazza Ladra, as well, which bears at least another couple repetitions for me, till I get a better sense of it. More “seria” than “semi”. Perhaps “semifreddo”? Oh no….sorry.

            • armerjacquino

              ZAIDE 1780, NINA 1789- so Mozart takes the palm here.

            • Camille

              As I suspected and when does the palm not go to Herr Amadeus?

              The thing I have always liked about him is his kink—he always goes somewhere else, somewhere the rest of the pack would not have run off the road to have pursued.

              Nice little work, Zaïde, which I was given an opportunity to hear once in concert form. It would be fun to see it all decked out in a proper Regie version, I am supposing.

            • armerjacquino

              It would be fun to see it all decked out in a proper Regie version, I am supposing.

              Look no further than the Mozart 250 box set from Salzburg, which I bought a couple of years ago in a fit of flushness.

              It contains that rara-est of avises, a rather beautiful performance from Mojca Erdmann.

            • Camille

              Why thank you very kindly and I do recall now Cerquetti/Farrell’s commenting upon her performance, some time ago, and it was apparently this which more or less established her.

              We’ll have to caution poor Nerva Nelli, (or her solicitor, Herr Krunoslav) who may fly into yet another tizzy at the mere mention of her name or post that dread bed of roses once more!

            • Krunoslav

              Actually, I find armer’s comparison of DG’s latest Eva Lind stand-in to a rental car not inapposite.

            • Camille

              Uh-oh--caught in fragrante delicto! Herr Krunoslav has found us out.
              Alles ist verloren!

              And for that matter, I am smack dab in the midst of a Rock Hudson movie, so it will have to wait a while, as Rock trumps all.

            • messa di voce

              “I am smack dab in the midst of a Rock Hudson movie, so it will have to wait a while, as Rock trumps all.”

              To my great regret, Rock never trumped me.

              Or vice versa.

            • Camille

              My condolences, MdiV, and allow me to offer you my crying towel.

              Not having ever paid all that much attention to him, I was utterly struck and taken aback by his otherwordly dreamboatiness whilst viewing him in the current exhibition devoted to the art form of TechniColor, as developed for American cinematography, now currently being showed at MoMA—see and go to the Film Series section

              Some marvelous examples of films will be shown in this series, from now until early August, including that unusual film The Pirate, with Gene Kelley and Judy Garland playing a señorita(!). The Wizard of Oz will be shown once more this coming Sunday, incidentally.

              Then, some of you may prefer The Garden of Allah, which will be shown again in latter July, and which features a very early form of coloration, along with the ever beautiful Charles Boyer and a devastatingly chic and debonair Charles Busch, oh silly me, Marlene Dietrich, which really has to be seen to be believed.

              Great summer fun which includes free freezing air conditioning and senior citizens acting up, also gratis. Bring a sweater or a light wrap and sit far from the drooling crowd.

            • antikitschychick

              Hi Camille :-) this is OT but now that you mentioned MoMa, just wanted to let you know I was finally able to go last Sunday and see the Bjork exhibit (on the last day it was being showcased!) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Saw the various paintings by Picasso et al on display on the 5th (?) floor including the original Starry Night which I did not know was being kept at that museum so that was a pleasant surprise! Also saw the Yoko Ono exhibit (I do recall was on the 6th floor) which was interesting and whimsical, well except the green apple on the podium on display as one enters lol. I definitely enjoyed the Bjork exhibit the most though. The music video that was being shown from her new album was stunning. I was very moved by it. She is such a unique artist and I so admire the way in which shes able to express herself, like no other female singer/songwriter I know of really. Thanks again for letting me know about the student tickets and for encouraging me to go. I was sick all throughout last week with a terrible cold but it was worth the trip :-).

            • Yoko Ono and the recently departed Ornette Coleman in a rare collaboration:

          • Camille

            So happy you made it there, AKC, as it was so important to you, and despite the hardship of travelling a ways and being sick (everytime I passed her instruments in the lobby I spent a little time there remembering you), I do so hope the experience and exposure to such an institution was an inspiration and an uplift, and that you will have a lot more opportunities there. Yes, the Starry Night was on their Membership Card a couple years ago, it is that much an icon of the institution, as are other works.

            Take care now and rest and get massive vitamin C and chicken soup, so that you may be well during your internship. May you continue to flourish and grow and walk the walk.

            • antikitschychick

              thank you Camille; very sweet of you to say. It was a very enjoyable experience overall; it felt very refreshing and cleansing getting to see such a wonderful and varied array of contemporary(esque) works and pieces, along with the Bjork exhibit and the more renown paintings (the Wyeth painting was also a highlight), especially after spending so many months in school. Apologies for the delayed response; have been busy, out and about…hope you have a nice evening :-).

              M.croche: thank you for sharing that clip. It was interesting to listen to, especially the transitions between the 3 different sonic ‘phases’ so to speak, i.e. the sustained notes the moaning and the primal screams echoed by the trumpet…I admire how she really pushes the boundaries but with a very specific concept or idea that she’s trying to express or convey and how she invites the spectator to interact with her artwork and display pieces. In the exhibit I saw, I was really captivated by Cut Piece which I’ve come to learn is one of her seminal performance/film pieces. I’m sure many are familiar with this piece, but for those that aren’t, the film consists of her, sitting on a floor in an unspecified location, and a man wearing a suit and tie, (probably a spectator) is slowly cutting up her clothing with a pair of scissors, exposing her undergarments and such. She is just sitting there, not uttering a word but not completely motionless or impassive either, and the guy is just grinning from ear to ear as he continues to cut up her clothing. As a woman I have to say I thought this was brilliant in a kind of sinister way, since the ‘act’ is a metaphor that showcases gender inequality (and many other issues). It’s great that her work is being given recognition, especially so that younger people such as myself can be exposed to it.

  • phoenix
  • Camille

    And one last thing as I have always been curious and never found this one out: is the little ditty which Don Bartolo sings in Act II of the Rossini work, “Quando mi sei vicina…ecc.” actually based on something of Paisiello— as the old Don is supposed to be reiterating a tune from an earlier era, — so I kind of always supposed it might be some work of Paisiello’s or at least resembled one of this tunes—which Rossini was taunting and poking fun at—?

    Maybe semira mide will know the answer.

    Eccolo quà:

  • Will

    “the entrancing 1959 Renato Fasano recording with Graziella Sciutti, Nicola Monti, Rolando Panerai and Renato Capecchi which I first heard via a set of Everest LPs and which remains available on CD . . . .”

    . . . . and which I purchased at a very reasonable cost from Amazon two days ago based on the reviews from this imaginative “site-specific” production. By the way, with more and more adventurous, intelligent productions like this one and the continuing production of new material that is getting excellent reviews like the recent Charlie Parker’s Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder, starring Lawrence Brownlee, is there any validity in the “opera is dying” trope so many seem to enjoy espousing? Opera is evolving and exploring new territory, but change does not equate to death.

    • armerjacquino

      For those as allergic to Sciutti’s voice as I am, there is an alternative:

    • Donna Anna

      I’m with you, Will. We’re lucky to have Opera Fusion: New Works, funded by the Mellon Foundation. New or works that haven’t been produced come for intensive ten-day workshops with a conductor, stage director and conservatory students. It’s exciting to hear new works in the early stages. Four operas have gone on to major productions: Doubt, by Cuomo and Shanley, Champion by Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer, Morning Star by Ricky Ian Gordon and William Hoffman, and Great Scott by Jake Heggie and Terence McNally. I’m delighted that companies are taking the risk to premiere new works. These are American operas in their stories and one hopes they merit the crucial second and third performances.