October 26, 2016

Rossini's "Barber": the greatest remake in entertainment history

Big news, Faithful Readers! A major Hollywood studio has announced a forthcoming remake of Gone With The Wind! Aren't you excited? Jennifer Aniston will take on the role of Scarlett, with Keanu Reeves as Rhett Butler. This'll be GREAT!
Giovanni Paisiello (1732-1799)

Okay, just kidding.

But actually, this past summer did feature two remakes of classic movies that turned out not to do so well at the box office. There was a new version of Ben Hur. I looked it up on imdb.com and I swear to you, I literally had never heard of any of the actors. Another flop: the reinvented Ghost Busters with a female crew. It cost $140 million to make, and to date made just $70 million.

One of my favorite screwball comedies ever is 1979's The In-Laws, with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. ("Serpentine, Shel, serpentine!!") A remake came out in 2003 with a promising cast: Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. But it was a dud, totally missing the inspired silliness and chemistry of Arkin and Falk. Yuck.

Remakes ---- WHY?

Which brings me to the topic of Rossini's Barber of Seville. It's first performance some 200 years ago was one of those fabled "flops of a masterpiece", right alongside Carmen and Madama Butterfly. To place the hissing and booing in context, it's important to understand that Rossini's comedy was a remake. What's more, the opera it sought to replace had been one of the most popular and beloved operas in the world for 34 years: the 1775 Barber of Seville by Giovanni Paisiello.

For the audience assembled for Rossini's opening night, this new Barber was an affront; they felt about it as you felt if you swallowed my opening lines about Gone With The Wind. A very long evening of hissing and catcalls conveyed their displeasure at such sacrilege. Of course, before long the remake had overwhelmed Paisiello, sending it straight to the archives of opera history.

So - is it simply that Paisiello's version was bad, and that the public finally understood that once they had Rossini's to compare it with? Not at all - the earlier opera is quite good. The music is attractive, the orchestration is fine, and let's face it: Beaumarchais's play is almost fool-proof material for a libretto.

The best way to understand how Rossini managed to surpass Paisiello in crafting the greatest remake ever created is to do a little side-by-side comparison of corresponding numbers. This is easy to do since the respective librettos are very similar. I won't bore you with going through the entirety; 3 or 4 examples should do the trick.

I. The Count's serenade
In the first scene, the Count, disguised as the student Lindoro,  serenades Rosina underneath the balcony of her boudoir, accompanying himself on a mandolin (in Paisiello) or a guitar (in Rossini). As you can hear in this recording, Paisiello's serenade "Saper bramate" is sweetly melodic, the type of ingratiating melody one might easily be humming on the way home from the theater. Well and good!

But now click here to hear Rossini's version of the same moment, "Se il mo nome saper voi bramate". The difference is clear and dramatic; it can be summed up with a single word: yearning.  Paisiello's melody, in comparison, is too generic. It could just as aptly be used for a lullaby, or a song in praise of Nature or some religious theme. Rossini's version is the obvious expression of a love-sick youth who finds the girl of his dreams tantalizingly out of reach.

But Rossini didn't stop there! In his Barber, the Count is given two serenades. Why? He realized the value of something lively and virtuosic to open the show; an opening aria that would grab the audience. So, like Emeril Lagasse "kicking it up a notch" (BAM!) Rossini added "Ecco ridente in cielo", a bravura first serenade that features breathtaking coloratura. The presence of the onstage band that accompanies him also provided the opportunity for some highly amusing farce. The musicians, who had been shushing each other, making a show of tip-toe sneaking and whispered admonitions of "Piano, pianissimo" (I always think of Elmer Fudd staring into the camera and saying "Be vewy vewy quiet"), suddenly go noo-noo-bonkers when the Count says he's ready to render payment for their services.

Rossini upped the ante.

II. Figaro's entrance aria
Paisiello brings his title character out almost immediately, following a brief solo for Almaviva. This is faithful to the Beaumarchais model. As Figaro enters, he is working on a song he's been writing; he sings a portion and then remarks that he thinks it's pretty good. For the dramatic situation being depicted, it's fine. As you can hear in this recording, the music does a good job of giving us information about this man: he's easy-going and good-natured. (NOTE: the link takes you to a complete recording; to hear Figaro's "Diammo alla noja", start at 5:45). Following this solo, there is a passage of recitative, a condensed version of expository dialogue from the play. Figaro and Almaviva recognize each other and converse for the sole purpose of telling us who they are.

However, sadly for Paisiello, Rossini gave Figaro (and the rest of the world) the greatest entrance aria in all of opera when he hit upon the inspired "Largo al factotum", here sung with panache by Hermann Prey. Among the superior aspects of this iconic show-piece is the way it renders all the expository recitative mostly unnecessary; Figaro introduces himself to us! The brilliance, energy, bravura (there's that word again...) and colorful orchestration set the bar impossibly high for any composer giving us a portrait of Figaro. (NOTE: I feel impelled to point out that "Largo" is the only operatic aria to reference blood-letting by leeches. That's cool, right?) As genially pleasant as Paisiello's perfectly fine number was...

...Rossini upped the ante.

III. Basilio's "slander aria"
Neither composer, of course, could resist a comic aria for that oily weasel, Don Basilio. This is one of Paisiello's best achievements; I rate his "La calunnia" as a highly effective show-piece for a bass with the cavernous voice also demanded by Rossini. As you listen to this excellent performance, savor all the ways in which the composer graphically describes the progress of slanderous gossip from a whisper to a roar. The ascending scales remind me of the line "E il grande, maestoso" from Leoporello's "Catalogue aria" in Mozart's Don Giovanni (find your own Youtube recording of that!). When the big crescendo reaches its apex on a series of bellowed high E's, the strings produce some tremulous trills that might be describing the ill wind of slander, or the noise of murmuring gossips. It's good stuff!

Except that Rossini's La calunnia blows it out of the water. Once you've heard it (as in this exemplary performance) you realize that Paisiello didn't go far enough. Rossini not only out-does his predecessor in the descriptive crescendo, he also captures Basilio's slyness and subtlety, as in the opening theme. In comparison, Paisiello's Basilio is a bit straight-forward at the outset; he gives us the forcefulness of the character but not his weaselishness. (That's a word, right?) Rossini wisely assigns the burden of the crescendo to the orchestra, whereas in Paisiello, the voice does most of the work, with the orchestra tagging along for the ride.

Rossini upped the ante. How about one more?

IV. Rosina's opening solo.
Rossini's "Una voce poco fa" has become so familiar to opera-lovers, almost to the point of being as hackneyed as, say, the "Moonlight Sonata", that it's difficult to imagine how it sounded to those first audiences in 1816 who only knew Paisiello's Rosina. I can help you with that.

Our heroine's first solo in the earlier opera is not a full-fledged cavatina; it's a 75-bar solo comprising the opening section of a duet with Dr. Bartolo. And this music, "Lode al ciel" is gloriously beautiful. It is ravishing; elegant, graceful and eloquent. Listen to it here and perhaps you'll agree with me that if you didn't know who had composed it, you might assume it was Mozart at his most lyrical. This is the Classical Style at it's height.

Too bad it misses the character of Rosina by a mile.

Now, even if you know it well, listen to Cecilia Bartoli sing Rossini's aria; listen analytically, comparing it to the other. In assessing the two pieces, we have to clarify: who is Rosina? I think we can agree that she's smart, sassy, strong-willed, funny, lively and (of course) sweet to those she favors.

Is that what Paisiello's music conveyed? What I heard is music for a different kind of character; a poised, mature, reflective woman of introspective bent. My theory: Paisiello sees Rosina as a kind of Rapunzel. She's the princess being held captive in Bartolo's "tower", awaiting rescue by a handsome "prince". So her first solo paints her as a delicate girl hoping for better days to come. She might as well be a stuffed animal on the shelf a shooting gallery, waiting for someone to claim her as a prize.

In contrast, Rossini's setting reveals the real Rosina. In a strikingly modern attitude, she declares that she wants "Lindoro" and has a plan for landing him. She's pro-active! All her wit and energy are on full display, not to mention some impressive coloratura.

There are other operatic "re-makes", including Puccini's red-blooded Manon Lescaut, appearing ten years after Massenet's Manon. But no one ever achieved such a clear-cut triumph over a worthy predecessor as Rossini did in his masterpiece. No wonder even Beethoven was a fan!

But let me be clear: despite not measuring up to Rossini, Paisiello's opera is not bad! If I've left that impression, I regret it. The "first Barber" should be performed more often. I think it would be a good choice for a college opera program. The vocal demands are moderate and the music is truly enjoyable. But the Barber of 1816 is possibly the greatest situation comedy in all of opera.

It's a few weeks until Virginia Opera's production opens. In the meantime, maybe the Ghostbusters remake is on cable.

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