Monday, March 19, 2012

The Barber of Seville

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t “get” The Barber of Seville. Perhaps what I am about to say is sacrilege to many opera lovers.

Rossini’s opus is perhaps one of the most popular operas of all time, and yes, it is performed all over the world, to the point that the aria Largo al factotum was immortalized in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I saw it for the third time this past Saturday, in a new production by Vancouver Opera. I have to admit that my reservations regarding the opera were not changed by the performance.

Both Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville were based upon plays by Pierre Beaumarchais, with pretty much the same cast of characters. But this is where the similarities end. Mozart’s Figaro is a divine comedy, with meltingly beautiful music that one never tires of hearing. Yes, The Barber of Seville has memorable music too, but the few great arias in the opera are interspersed between music that is rather bland and trite. Where Mozart’s opera is both sublimely beautiful and supremely funny, Rossini’s music is merely pretty, and its humor superficial. And whereas Mozart’s characters and drama is a commentary on humanity, Rossini’s merely serves to give us an evening of light entertainment. Yes, both operas feature the same Figaro, the same Count Almaviva, the same Rosina, and the same Doctor Bartolo and Don Basilio. But how Rossini’s portrayal of these same characters pale in comparison with Mozart! Mozart’s characters are real, with flesh and blood, whereas Rossini’s remain two-dimensional stock characters to give us a few laughs.

I find that in The Marriage of Figaro, the most humorous scenes are sometimes also the most moving. In the scene when Figaro realizes that Marcellina is actually his long lost mother, I often find myself weeping tears of joy. There is one genuinely funny scene in The Barber of Seville, at the beginning of Act II, when Count Almaviva poses as Rosina’s “substitute” singing teacher. But even this scene is no more than merely funny, and the drama never really raises above the level of Blake Edward’s Pink Panther movies.

Vancouver Opera mounted a good production of Barber of Seville, with wonderful voices singing Rossini’s demanding music. But updating the opera to a movie studio in the 1940’s did not add anything new to the drama. Yes, there are tunes in the opera that sends you out humming, but one does not leave the theatre walking on air.

Is this too much to expect from a work of art? Absolutely, I think. A great work of art should lift us above our everyday existence and elevate us into a higher sphere of well being and awareness. I’m afraid The Barber of Seville falls short of this criteria.

Of course art can be entertaining, but entertainment is not necessarily art.

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