October 20, 2016

The deceptive cartoonishness of "The Barber of Seville"

Everyone - and I'm including hardened criminals serving life sentences in prison here - has seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon based on Rossini's The Barber of Seville (the next production upcoming for Virginia Opera). But I've been telling my students that Barber has an even closer connection to other Warner Brothers cartoon characters: Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Count Almaviva tries to enter Bartolo's house.

What happens in a Road Runner cartoon? Coyote wants to catch Road Runner, but it's difficult, so he comes up with crazy scheme after crazy scheme to get the job done. Roller skates with jet skis, painting a fake tunnel on the side of a mountain. etc. etc. The crazy schemes never work, ending in disaster.

In Rossini's opera, Rosina is the Road Runner, the "thing desired". Coyote is a combination of Almaviva and Figaro. Almaviva wants the "thing", but it's Figaro who devises crazy schemes to get his buddy into Bartolo's house. The first two schemes, in which Almaviva A) pretends to be a drunken soldier, and B) pretends to be Rosina's substitute music teacher, both go comically awry, ending in chaos. Of course, unlike Coyote, Almaviva eventually succeeds because he doesn't want to roast Rosina and eat her, he wants to marry her, and we're rooting for him.

I point out the cartoonishness of the plot to make the point that, as drama, neither Rossini's opera nor the 1775 Beaumarchais play on which it's based threaten King Lear or Long Day's Journey Into Night for serious messaging or depth of characterization. This show is escapist entertainment, right? The characters are one-dimensional stock figures from Commedia dell'Arte, right? I mean, Rosina is sweet & pretty & smart & sassy; Almaviva is likeable & dashing & handsome & funny; and so on.

Harmless, meaningless farce, right? Toe-tapping tunes and belly laughs and nothing more, right?

Not so much, in my opinion.

Remember that Barber is the first installment in a trilogy of Beaumarchais comedies (these days it would be called a "franchise") following Figaro, Almaviva and Rosina through the larger part of their adult lives, from youth to the onset of old age. The other two are 1781's The Marriage of Figaro (you may have encountered this title here or there...) and 1792's The Guilty Mother. 

My theory: no matter how well you know Rossini's The Barber of Seville, you don't really understand it until you consider it in the context of the other two plays.

While Marriage of Figaro still contains its share of crazy schemes and farcical humor, the cartoonish element has shrunk and the characters have taken on darker aspects. Almaviva, who was so winning in Barber, has been corrupted by wealth and privilege and is now a first-class TOOL. He ignores Rosina (now called the Countess) unless he suspects her of infidelity, in which case he flies off the handle. Furthermore, he's a degenerate skirt-chaser, spending the entire opera trying to get his wife's chambermaid into bed - ON HER WEDDING DAY. (Ewwww...) Rosina has lost her teenage sass and spunk; she's subdued and depressed, grieving for the loss of her husband's love. Figaro himself shows indications of having a temper and, what's more, he's not always quick on the uptake - not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Even when the Count turns to his better angels and begs Rosina's forgiveness, we in the audience feel uneasy about the supposed "happy ending", sensing that Almaviva will be on good behavior for a while, but eventually betray his wife again.

Yikes! What the hell happened to these people?

And then there are the clear political messages. Beaumarchais, an avid supporter of the American colonies in their revolt against King George of England, delighted in depicting an arrogant noble being defeated by two clever commoners. This caused the play to be banned by Louis XVI for three years, with tensions leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 already simmering.

And then there's the final play, which takes place 20 years after the events of Marriage of Figaro. In The Guilty Mother, the marriage of Rosina and Almaviva has, shockingly, become completely dysfunctional. The titular "guilt" consists of Rosina's having slept with the young page we met in the previous play (the girl-crazy Cherubino), and <GASP!> having borne his illegitimate son Léon. As for the Count he suspects that the boy may not be his though, with no proof, he can't end the marriage. Instead, he's arranging for Léon to have no inheritance. He's also given up his title, living now as a commoner in Paris.

Oh, and he's fathered a daughter by another woman. See? We were RIGHT about him.

It's up to Susanna and Figaro to help the troubled couple to make peace with their mistakes and enter their senior years with some degree of reconciliation.

HERE'S MY POINT: now that we've followed Rosina and Almaviva through their entire journey, we look back on the innocence of Barber differently. We realize that we were meant to fall in love with them upon our first meeting, in which case it was crucial that we not know anything bad about them.

Think about every great first date you ever went on. That other boy/girl was funny and charming; he/she made you laugh; you had so much in common! The same movies, the same values, the same ideas about politics and religion...

It might have only been after months of dating - or marriage - that flaws emerged. Intimacy lessens the urge to present only our best selves to our partners. meaning that now we observe that our partner leaves socks and underwear on the bathroom floor, tells raunchy jokes that make us cringe, doesn't always listen when we're speaking, and chews his/her nails.

The Barber of Seville is an operatic first date. We believe that the characters are uncomplicated and kind of perfect. The author wants us to bond with them; this will make us feel more deeply all the conflicting emotions brought about by the flaws that are introduced over time.

This stock figures are, in reality, just as complex and many-sided and believable as you and I.

In fact, look back on your own long-ago youth. (Here I'm assuming you're old like me!) Don't you smile wryly when you consider how simple life seemed to you as a teenager? Remember when you thought you had all the answers, and that "old people" (like Bartolo and Basilio) were easy targets for your superior wits and intelligence? Remember when life was a game that you were ALWAYS supposed to win? Remember when a crush felt like true love?


Look back on Rosina and Almaviva in the first play/opera as you look back on your own young adulthood: with bittersweet nostalgia brought about by the perspective that life's adversities always brings, even to fictional characters.

"Shallow farce"? I say not.

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