Cher Public

Shave and a haircut

It’s fun to wonder what might have happened if Rossini had never composed Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Would Giovanni Paisiello’s earlier adaptation of the work be a repertory favorite? Or would it have faded into obscurity with an occasional revival here and there? 

Dell’Arte Opera is doing a “Beaumarchais Trilogy” this August. I caught the matinee performance of Paisiello’s Barbiere and my overall impression was that Paisiello’s opera was a lyrical, gentle, melodic work that nevertheless lacked the spark and fire that would put the work into A-list opera buffa. The characters sing prettily, with lovely tunes for Almaviva and Rosina especially, but no one has any spunk. Rosina in particular is a cardboard ingenue soprano character that has no resemblance to Rossini’s “vipera” minx. It’s pleasing but the music has a slightly generic feel.  

There are moments in this Barbiere (and Giuseppe Petrosellini’s libretto) where anyone even vaguely familiar with Rossini’s opera will say “wow, that sounds familiar.” You know how Don Basilio sings a funny aria about the effectiveness of slander (“La calunnia”)? Well it’s in Paisiello’s opera as well. And remember how in Rossini’s opera Count Almaviva sings “Pace gioia gioia pace” in a nasal affected voice? You can find it in Paisiello’s earlier opera, in the exact same context. Figaro’s opening aria melody also has a more than passing resemblance to Rossini’s “La calunnia.”

But you compare how Paisiello composes that moment with Rossini’s efforts and Rossini wins every time in terms of inventiveness and inspiration. For instance, there is a vague thundering crescendo in Paisiello’s “La calunnia” but none of the pomposity and bluster that makes Rossini’s aria such a favorite among basses and audiences. And both Paisiello and Rossini have an ensemble “Buona sera” where various members in Bartolo’s house attempt to get rid of each other with this polite phrase. But Rossini’s ensemble crackles with passive-aggressive humor. You don’t have to understand Italian to get the bitchy subtext behind every “buona sera.” Paisiello’s ensemble simply doesn’t make the same impact.

Dell’Arte’s production took place in the Baruch College basement theater and the dim lighting, sparse audience and malfunctioning subtitles lent a grim air to this ambitious presentation. The set designer made do with a wooden platform, some panels, and vaguely Japanese costumes. It looked typical of a shoestring budget production, but the show seemed under-rehearsed and many comedic moments fell flat. The entrances, exits, windows, and dropped keys/fans/letters that are so important in opera buffa were only intermittently articulated by the blocking. 

The orchestra was an impressive 12-piece chamber orchestra that played well. It was clear however that the orchestra didn’t have much experience with opera, oblivious to the dynamic changes and modulations opera orchestras have to make to different voices. The band also missed the rhythmic crescendos that are a hallmark of opera buffa. 

These opera productions often offer one voice that impresses the audience as being, well, not long for the basement opera world. Alessandra Altieri (Rosina) was today’s discovery–an airy, bell-like soprano who made a strong case for Paisiello’s gentler, more low key version of Beaumarchais’s heroine. Altieri had it all, including a lovely trill that she showed off in cadenzas. Rosina’s third act shepherdess air in the “Lesson Scene” was a vocal highlight. Jonathan Morales (Almaviva) was also talented — young, cute, with a bright lyrical voice. Figaro, Bartolo and Basilio were not at that level of talent — they weren’t bad, but they did sound amateurish, with an almost phonetic Italian pronunciation and absolutely no feel for the patter aria.  

At the end of the performance Christopher Fecteau, dell’Arte’s AD, seemed visibly and audibly upset over the malfunctioning and mistranslated supertitles as well as “numerous other things that happened” during the performance. I felt instantly guilty for snarking on the performance. This was obviously a labor of love project and Paisiello’s opera has some very charming moments. It’s clear this wasn’t dell’Arte Opera’s best outing.

Photo: Mark Baker

  • manou

    Interesting to note that the full (French) text* shows the original Calunnia:


    La calomnie, monsieur ! vous ne savez guère ce que vous dédaignez ; j’ai vu les plus honnêtes gens près d’en être accablés. Croyez qu’il n’y a pas de plate méchanceté, pas d’horreurs, pas de conte absurde, qu’on ne fasse adopter aux oisifs d’une grande ville en s’y prenant bien : et nous avons ici des gens d’une adresse !… D’abord un bruit léger, rasant le sol comme hirondelle avant l’orage, pianissimo murmure et file, et sème en courant le trait empoisonné. Telle bouche le recueille, et piano, piano, vous le glisse en l’oreille adroitement. Le mal est fait, il germe, il rampe, il chemine, et rinforzando de bouche en bouche, il va le diable ; puis tout à coup, ne sais comment, vous voyez calomnie se dresser, siffler, s’enfler, grandir à vue d’œil. Elle s’élance, étend son vol, tourbillonne, enveloppe, arrache, entraîne, éclate et tonne, et devient, grâce au Ciel, un cri général, un crescendo public, un chorus universel de haine et de proscription. Qui diable y résisterait ?

    There is also the original text of the Buona Sera scene (Bonsoir Monsieur Basile) if anyone is interested.


  • That’s a good question! I have another one: what do you do when your favorite counter-tenor is loosing both his hair and his voice and you can no longer pretend you don’t see/hear it? A wonderful Sunday to all parterrians, at the end of this suffocating -in many senses- summer.

    • armerjacquino

      I was about to ask what question you meant, then I figured it out.

      (You should read the whole review- it’s good!)

  • quoth the maven

    It’s possible that if Paisiello’s version were more compelling, it could claim a berth in the standard rep; after all, the repertory has places for two different versions of Manon Lescaut. The Paisiello Barbiere‘s footnote status no doubt can be attributed to the shortcomings that Ivy has so deftly articulated.

  • Here is Paisiello’s La Calunnia:

    • armerjacquino

      I think you’ve been a little hard on this aria. I really enjoyed it- full of wit and invention.

      • well yesterday;s conductor was no Rene Jacobs, I can assure you that.

        • Nero Wolfe

          And not every performance of Rossins’s Barber is conducted by Rene Jacobs either. I also thought i was a delightful aria--not as great as Rossini’s version but well worth hearing.

          • Paisiello’s opera is delightful. There’s a lot of charming lovely melodies. I’m just saying it doesn’t pack the punch of Rossini’s version.

            • armerjacquino

              Oops, crossed lines- I was just talking about the aria. I think it has more going for it than a ‘vague thundering crescendo’.

  • Poison Ivy, you might find this program book for La Fenice’s production of Paisiello’s Barbiere worthwhile. It’s full of interesting remarks about details of the opera that might have escaped you on your single (?) hearing of the work.

    • I can;t read Italian, :(

      • manou

        Ivy -- you can copy the text in chunks and let Google Translate mangle it up for you.

        • armerjacquino

          Genuinely quicker to learn Italian.

          • manou

            Porca miseria…

          • Quicker and better for you.

  • Well that’s too bad. In lieu of the Fenice program book, you might enjoy consulting Daniel Heartz’s “Music in European Capitals”, which has 15-16 pages devoted to Paisiello’s years in Petersburg and “Barbiere”. After that, try the same author’s “Mozart’s Operas”, which considers Paisiello’s Barbiere in relation to Mozart’s Figaro.

    Seems like it’s been a rough summer for Paisiello at Parterre.

  • ML

    Nina has an inventive score too. There’s a DVD with Cecilia Bartoli and Jonas Kaufmann conducted by Adam Fischer and a (smoother) CD set with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Juan Diego Flórez conducted by Muti:

    • ML

      and fwiw a Paisiello Barbiere list:

      1959, Mercury

      1982, live in Martina Franca, Frequenz

      1984, Muza

      1984, Hungaroton

      1997, live in Putbus, Arte Nova

      Carella/dell’Oste/Siragusa/Spagnoli/di Pasquale/di Gioia,
      2000, live in Trieste, Dynamic

      di Stefano/Donzelli/Guadagnini/di Gioia/Lo Piccolo/Bordogna,
      2005, DVD, Taranto, Bongiovanni

  • parpignol

    some of the music was very lovely: the count’s cavatina, the concluding love duet (bell’idol mio), the ensemble work in the music lesson scene and Don Basilio; agreed, mostly not up to Rossini’s brilliance, though the real point of comparison is Mozart since that’s much closer to Paisiello’s style, and is perhaps part of what Mozart responds to with his Figaro, and of course not up to Mozart’s brilliance either, but much of the score very charming and quite beautiful; I was very glad to get to hear it (after all, one has heard the Rossini plenty); the lack of spunk mentioned in the review: I wonder whether, with a little more rehearsal, the conductor could have given us a somewhat livelier performance; Rossini also sounds not so great if conducted at all tentatively--
    agreed production seemed amateurish; agreed Altieri very talented, though maybe best for small productions in small theaters. . . wish I had seen this at La Fenice!

  • parpignol

    I love that the La Fenice booklet annotates the libretto with commentary on the music; is that standard for them? very interesting about Paisiello and the tecnica sequenziale; would like to know more about the performance in St. Petersburg; look in Heartz?

    • Depends on how much detail you want about the premiere. Marina Ritsareva (Music in 18th-century Russia) indicates that there’s ample source material among Russian court documents, Paisiello’s autobiographical notes, and Paisiello’s letters to document the Italian composer’s years in Petersburg. Her book provides a useful background if that period of Russian music history is terra incognito for you. if you have access to a good library, and a working knowledge of Italian and/or Russian, you can try poking around in monographs dedicated to the composer or to music in 18th-century Petersburg. Otherwise: Heartz, Ritsareva, and take a gander at the literature on Catherine the Great and her court.

      • parpignol

        Ritzareva doesn’t have much to say about Barbiere, though does mention that Catherine specifically wanted operas to be short! the La Fenice account mentions that she commissioned the Barbiere, but doesn’t say whether she was present for the performance (as I suppose she would have been) or what she thought of it (was it short enough?) but clearly the opera also had a very significant performance history after St. Petersburg--

        • Perhaps she didn’t want any operas longer than her own….

  • Will

    I must say that I think Ms Ivy has been unnecessarily harsh in commenting on the Paisiello Barbiere. Instead of comparing it relentlessly to the Rossini, why not simply savor it for its own beauty and invention? Those qualities are real, quickly reveal themselves, and remain reasonably consistent, given a fair listening to the opera.

    • pirelli

      “Instead of comparing it relentlessly to the Rossini, why not simply savor it for its own beauty and invention?”

      Ironic to say that, if we’re to believe the stories surrounding the premiere performance of the Rossini. Seems that that (pro-Paisiello) audience couldn’t savor the Rossini piece for its own beauty and invention, instead having already made up their minds to compare it relentlessly (and unforgivingly) to the Paisiello. ;-)

  • zinka

    What went wrong?
    Didn’t Beverly Sills once say that she would rather have 5 years of Callas than 25 of her? Well, I do agree that the Callas between 1949 and about 1955, with a few good performances around 1957-60 is worth any 25 year career. However,she did become unlistenable after that period, despite the great artistry.
    Who else had a short career, owing to faulty technique and never had the Callas genius to compensate? I would add Anna Moffo, Elena Suliotis, and despite some fabulous years, Giuseppe di Stefano. More recently, Sharon Sweet never fulfilled her earlier potential, and now Patricia Racette has sounded truly unpleasant, despite some fine earlier performances.
    Is it the teachers? Was Elvira de Hidalgo not really a proper teacher for Callas? Is it just that singing is so incredibly diffficult that it “goes with the territory” that not everyone can be Magda Olivero or Placido Domingo as to longevity? I guess it is that old expression that every singing teacher thinks “they have the answer.” Some of us (including me) have gone through a few of them, and Birgit Nilsson eventually taught herself.
    Also, many of our great favorites have had vocal problems, usually later in their careers, but they were so wonderful for a good number of years, we can treasure what they did.(i.e. Tebaldi got flat on top, De Los Angeles was metallic, Carreras pushed into heavier repertory.)
    The rarities who sounded so magnificent into their later years (Gedda, Bergonzi, Gigli,Olivero, Tucker, Siepi,etc.) were amazing, very few singers retain their glory into their 60’s,70’s, 80’s.(Magda). Also, despite Placido still sounding like a tenor in baritone roles, he still has kept so much at his age.
    Who are today’s singers for whom we can predict very long careers? I hope they are around, when I am not. Charlie