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Notes from the Director and Conductor of The Barber of Seville

A Note from the Director

by Eric Sean Fogel

I was elated when James Robinson asked me to come to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and create a new The Barber of Seville. But I was also a little bit intimidated — the opera is notoriously difficult to stage. The Barber of Seville tells the story of two young lovers and an elder who tries, unsuccessfully, to stand between them. It’s a familiar trope on the stage, perhaps because it’s familiar in real life. My own grandparents were forbidden to marry by their guardians, but they didn’t let that stand in their way. In 1943, they traveled here to St. Louis to elope at the Chase Park Plaza.

 

But the opera is more than a love story— the title is, after all, The Barber of Seville! The Count’s friendship with Figaro is at least as important as his romance with Rosina. In my earliest conversations with Kelley Rourke (who wrote our English translation) and other members of the creative team, I wanted to make sure Figaro remained
at the center of the plot.

 

We decided to set the piece in 1930s Spain, just before the Spanish Civil War that led into the Second World War. At that time, the country was teeming with artists who were challenging the status quo, just as Beaumarchais’ Figaro — a character who had a lot in common with his creator — challenged norms in the original Figaro trilogy. Figaro is a creative fellow, a jack-of-all-trades, and we decided to lean into the idea of Figaro as “Artist.”

Inspired by Spanish artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró, our Figaro is an artist performing a difficult balancing act: entertaining the masses without alienating the nobility. The Spanish surrealists were living and working in a world that was, on the surface, very different from that of Beaumarchais, yet their aims were largely the same: to fight against oppressive structures and clear the way for love and truth.

 

What I love about Figaro is that he makes magic out of everyday items and quick thinking. There is so much audacity and optimism — just like the audacity and optimism that inspired my grandparents to defy their families and run off to St. Louis all those years ago.

 

A Note from the Conductor

by Jonathan Brandani

I consider The Barber of Seville one of those incredible works of art that — even after centuries of performances — never lose their brilliancy and freshness: from beginning to end, this opera is a miracle of musical energy and it’s not surprising that some of its most memorable pieces have acquired an iconic status even in the broader
popular culture.

 

One example of this is the sinfonia that opens The Barber of Seville. As a young kid, years before I experienced the full opera, I was already familiar with its overture, which I heard many times in different contexts: concerts, TV, radio, and even (memorably) sung by my uncle, complete with his own nonsensical lyrics! Its main themes are so memorable and its rhythmical activity so forward-driving that when combined with Rossini’s ability to create incredible momentum through a well-calibrated intensification of energy using crescendo and accelerando, no one can escape the sheer vitality and enthusiasm of this music! “Largo al Factotum,” the title role’s cavatina, is also one of this opera’s greatest hits and rightly so; its music immediately communicates Figaro’s irresistible energy, joie de vivre, resourcefulness, and humor.

Rossini’s ability to create comedy through music is astonishing to me. Don Basilio’s aria “La calunnia” is a brilliant example of how Rossini uses his irresistible crescendo technique to build up comic excitement of hilarious and exaggerated proportions, which perfectly matches the character’s excessive and hyperbolic narrations. The quick sections of Don Bartolo’s aria “Signorina un’altra volta” require the baritone to sing a ridiculous number of syllables at neck-breaking speed; the point here, though, isn’t to showcase the singer’s virtuosic skills, but to create music that vividly and immediately conveys Don Bartolo’s hysteric frenzy and loss of self-control. And at the very end of the Act I finale, it is Rossini’s ingenious music, with its relentless rhythmical energy and growing momentum, which brings to the forefront the ridiculous comedy of this scene by highlighting the characters’ sense of disbelief and turmoil.

 

But The Barber of Seville is not just lightness and comedy — you can also find moments of sincere tenderness and melodic introspection that betray the influence of Romanticism, such as Count Almaviva’s opening cavatina or his serenade in Act I. Most notably, the storm music in Act II, with its violent and impassioned character, is not meant to depict the weather in Seville that night, but rather the stormy feelings of Rosina, who in that moment believes she has been betrayed by her lover. It is a powerful parallelism between human emotions and natural events, typical for the Romantic age, but one that you probably would not expect to find in a comedy like this one.

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Leadership support for The Barber of Seville comes from Noémi K. Neidorff. 

The Barber of Seville is supported by a gift honoring the memory of Sally S. Levy from The Saucy Foundation by her children: Lucy & J. David Levy, Diane & Paul Jacobson, and Karen & Mont Levy.