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