Simanaitis Says

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CULTURAL TALES CAN lead to literary works, then be transformed into operas. The myths of Greek gods, for instance, led to The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C., which in time led to operas by Mozart (Idomeneo, 1781), Richard Strauss (Elektra, 1909), and others.

Another example in this regard was cultural upheaval of the 18th-century inspiring the plays of Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais and leading to operas by Rossini, Mozart, Milhaud, and Corigliano. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits about these latter four operas.

The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution, is an opera buffa, a comic opera, by Gioachino Rossini first performed in 1816. Its libretto is based on Beaumarchais’ play of the same title. And don’t you love the “useless precaution” part?

Gioachino Antonio Rossini, 1792–1868, Italian composer of 39 operas, though he withdrew from composing them during the last 40 years of his life. Image, c. 1810.

Barber introduces us to Count Almaviva, something of a conniver (and tenor, naturally) who loves disguises, not to say Rosina too. Rosina is a rich commoner; Bartolo is her stuffy guardian. And Figaro is the barber and Seville’s conman extraordinaire.

The Barber of Seville, by Gioachino Rossini. Engraving by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard from Wikipedia.

The fact that the lofty count and lowly barber share a con is, in itself, revolutionary for an 18th-century setting when commoners were supposed to know their place. Barber ends well for everyone: Almaviva and Rosina marry. Even Bartolo is not unhappy: As part of the deal, he gets to keep Rosina’s dowry. Almaviva and Figaro remain buds.

The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s operatic sequel to Barber, was actually premiered earlier, in 1786.

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, 1756–1791, Austrian composer extraordinaire. Detail of a portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

Unlike the operas, Beaumarchais’ plays made their debuts in correct order: Le Barbier de Séville, 1775; Le Mariage de Figaro, 1786; and La Mère Coupable, 1792.

Beaumarchais’ Mariage was initially banned by French King Louis XVI: Too much aristo satire, don’t you know.

In both play and opera, Count Almaviva now has his Countess Rosina, but he’s still a conniver having evolved into a skirt-chaser. Figaro and his intended Susanna are trying to avoid Almaviva’s droit du seigneur, if you get the drift of my français. And Bartolo is seeking revenge against Figaro based on perceived Barber injustices.

The Marriage of Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Image from Wikipedia.

There are disguises a’plenty, including the Countess and Susanna switching places. Quelle horreur!/Che orrore! However, being another opera buffa, everything is finally resolved.

Tomorrow in Part 2, opera buffa continues, right up to 1991. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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