THE history of what is popularly called Italian opera begins in the United States with a performance of Rossini’s lyrical comedy “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” ; it may, therefore, fittingly take the first place in these operatic studies. The place was the Park Theatre, in Park Row, opposite the present Post Office, and the date November 29, 1825. It was not the first performance of Italian opera music in America, however, nor yet of Rossini’s merry work. In the early years of the nineteenth century New York was almost as fully abreast of the times in the matter of dramatic entertainments as London. New works produced in the English capital were heard in New York as soon as the ships of that day could bring over the books and the actors. Especially was this true of English ballad operas and English transcriptions, or adaptations, of French, German, and Italian operas. New York was five months ahead of Paris in making the acquaintance of the operatic version of Beaumarchais’s “Barbier de Séville.” The first performance of Rossini’s opera took place in Rome on February 5, 1816. London heard it in its original form at the King’s Theatre on March 10, 1818, with Garcia, the first Count Almaviva, in that part. The opera “went off with unbounded applause,” says Parke (an oboe player, who has left us two volumes of entertaining and instructive memoirs), but it did not win the degree of favor enjoyed by the other operas of Rossini then current on the English stage. It dropped out of the repertory of the King’s Theatre and was not revived until 1822 a year in which the popularity of Rossini in the British metropolis may be measured by the fact that all but four of the operas brought forward that year were composed by him. The first Parisian representation of the opera took place on October 26, 1819. Garcia was again in the cast. By that time, in all likelihood, all of musical New York that could muster up a pucker was already whistling “Largo al factotum” and the beginning of “Una voce poco fà,” for, on May 17, 1819, Thomas Phillipps had brought an English “Barber of Seville” forward at a benefit performance for himself at the same Park Theatre at which more than six years later the Garcia company, the first Italian opera troupe to visit the New World, performed it in Italian on the date already mentioned. At Mr. Phillipps’s performance the beneficiary sang the part of Almaviva, and Miss Leesugg, who afterward became the wife of the comedian Hackett, was the Rosina. On November 21, 1821, there was another performance for Mr.
Phillipps’s benefit, and this time Mrs. Holman took the part of Rosina. Phillipps and Holman brave names these in the dramatic annals of New York and London a little less than a century ago ! When will European writers on music begin to realize that musical culture in America is not just now in its beginnings?
It was Manuel Garcia’s troupe that first per-formed “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” in New York, and four of the parts in the opera were played by members of his family. Manuel, the father, was the Count, as he had been at the premières in Rome, London, and Paris; Manuel, _son, was the Figaro (he lived to read about eighty-one years of operatic enterprise in New York, and died at the age of 101 years in London in 1906) ; Signora Garcia, mère, was the Berta, and Rosina was sung and played by that “cunning pattern of excellent nature,” as a writer of the day called her, Signorina Garcia, afterward the famous Malibran. The other per-formers at this representation of the Italian “Barber” were Signor Rosich (Dr. Bartolo), Signor Angrisani (Don Basilio), and Signor Crivelli, the younger (Fiorello). The opera was given twenty-three times in a season of seventy-nine nights, and the receipts ranged from $1843 on the opening night and $1834 on the closing, down to $356 on the twenty-ninth night.
But neither Phillipps nor Garcia was the first to present an operatic version of Beaumarchais’s comedy to the American people. French operas by Rousseau, Monsigny, Dalayrac, and Grétry, which may be said to have composed the staple of the opera-houses of Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century, were known also in the contemporaneous theatres of Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. In 1794 the last three of these cities enjoyed “an opera in 3 acts,” the text by Colman, entitled, “The Spanish Barber; or, The Futile Precaution.” Nothing is said in the announcements of this opera touching the authorship of the music, but it seems to be an inevitable conclusion that it was Paisiello’s, composed for St. Petersburg about 1780. There were German “Barbers” in existence at the time composed by Benda (Friedrich Ludwig), Elsperger, and Schulz, but they did not enjoy large popularity in their own country, and Isouard’s “Barbier” was not yet written. Paisiello’s opera, on the contrary, was extremely popular, throughout Europe. True, he called it “The Barber of Seville,” not “The Spanish Barber,” but Colman’s subtitle, “The Futile Pre-caution,” came from the original French title. Rossini also adopted it and purposely avoided the chief title set by Beaumarchais and used by Paisiello; but he was not long permitted to have his way. Thereby hangs a tale of the composition and first failure of his opera which I must now relate.
On December 26, 1815, the first day of the carnival season, Rossini produced his opera, “Torvaldo e Dorliska,” at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome, and at the same time signed a contract with Cesarini, the impresario of the theatre, to have the first act of a second opera ready on the twentieth day of the following January. For this opera Rossini was to receive 400 Roman scudi (the equivalent of about $400) after the first three performances, which he was to conduct seated at the pianoforte in the orchestra, as was then the custom. He seems to have agreed to take any libretto submitted by the impresario and approved by the public censor ; but there are indications that Sterbini, who was to write the libretto, had already suggested a remodelling of Paisiello’s “Barber.” In order to expedite the work of composition it was provided in the contract that Rossini was to take lodgings with a singer named Zamboni, to whom the honor fell of being the original of the town factotum in Rossini’s opera. Some say that Rossini completed the score in thirteen days ; some in fifteen. Castil-Blaze says it was a month, but the truth is that the work consumed less than half that period. Donizetti, asked if he believed that Rossini had really written the score in thirteen days, is reported to have replied, no doubt with a malicious twinkle in his eyes : “It is very possible ; he is so lazy.” Paisiello was still alive, and so was at least the memory of his opera, so Rossini, as a precautionary measure, thought it wise to spike, if possible, the guns of an apprehended opposition. So he addressed a letter to the venerable composer, asking leave to make use of the subject. He got permission and then wrote a preface to his libretto (or had Serbini write it for him), in which, while flattering his predecessor, he nevertheless contrived to indicate that he considered the opera of that venerable musician old-fashioned, undramatic, and outdated. “Beaumarchais’s comedy, entitled `The Barber of Seville, or the Useless Precaution,'” he wrote, “is presented at Rome in the form of a comic drama under the title of `Almaviva, ossia l’inutile Precauzione,’ in order that the public may be fully convinced of the sentiments of respect and veneration by which the author of the music of this drama is animated with regard to the celebrated Paisiello, who has already treated the subject under its primitive title. Himself invited to undertake this difficult task, the maestro Gioachino Rossini, in order to avoid the reproach of entering rashly into rivalry with the immortal author who preceded him, expressly required that `The Barber of Seville’ should be entirely versified anew, and also that new situations should be added for the musical pieces which, moreover, are required by the modern theatrical taste, entirely changed since the tie when the renowned Paisiello wrote his work.”
I have told the story of the fiasco made by Rossini’s opera on its first production at the Argentine Theatre on February 5, 1816, in an extended preface to the vocal score of “Il Barbiere,” published in 1900 by G. Schirmer, and a quotation from that preface will serve here quite as well as a paraphrase; so I quote (with an avowal of gratitude for the privilege to the publishers) :
Paisiello gave his consent to the use of the subject, believing that the opera of his young rival would assuredly fail. At the same time he wrote to a friend in Rome, asking him to do all in his power to compass a fiasco for the opera. The young composer’s enemies were not sluggish. All the whistlers of Italy, says Castil-Blaze, seemed to have made a rendezvous at the Teatro Argentina on the night set down for the first production. Their malicious intentions were helped along by accidents at the outset of the performance. Details of the story have been preserved for us in an account written by Signora Giorgi-Righetti, who sang the part of Rosina on the memorable occasion. Garcia had persuaded Rossini to permit him to sing a Spanish song to his own accompaniment on a guitar under Rosina’s balcony in the first act. It would provide the needed local color, he urged. When about to start his song, Garcia found that he had forgotten to tune his guitar. He began to set the pegs in the face of the waiting public. A string broke, and a new one was drawn up amid the titters of the spectators. The song did not please the auditors, who mocked at the singer by humming Spanish fiorituri after him. Boisterous laughter broke out when Figaro came on the stage also with a guitar, and “Largo al factotum” was lost in the Another howl of delighted derision went up when Rosina’s voice was heard singing within : “Segui o caro, deh segui così” (“Continue, my dear, continue thus”). The audience continued “thus.” The representative of Rosina was popular, but the fact that she was first heard in a trifling phrase instead of an aria caused disappointment. The duet, between Almaviva and Figaro, was sung amid hisses, shrieks, and shouts. The cavatina “Una voce poco fà” got a triple round of applause, however, and Rossini, interpreting the fact as a compliment to the personality of the singer rather than to the music, after bowing to the public, exclaimed: “Oh natura!”
“Thank her,” retorted Giorgi-Righetti; “but for her you would not have had occasion to rise from your chair.” The turmoil began again with the next duet, and the finale was mere dumb show. When the curtain fell, Rossini faced the mob, shrugged his shoulders, and clapped his hands to show his contempt. Only the musicians and singers heard the second act, the din being incessant from beginning to end. Rossini remained imperturbable, and when Giorgi-Rhigetti, Garcia, and Zamboni hastened to his lodgings to offer their condolences as soon as they could don street attire, they found him asleep. The next day he wrote the cavatina “Ecco ridente in cielo” to take the place of Garcia’s unlucky Spanish song, borrowing the air from his own “Aureliano,” composed two years before, into which it had been incorporated from “Ciro,” a still earlier work. When night came, he feigned illness so as to escape the task of conducting. By that time his enemies had worn themselves out. The music was heard amid loud plaudits, and in a week the opera had scored a tremendous success.
And now for the dramatic and musical contents of “Il Barbiere.” At the very outset Rossini opens the door for us to take a glimpse at the changes in musical manner which were wrought by time. He had faulted Paisiello’s opera because in parts it had become antiquated, for which reason he had had new situations introduced to meet the “modern theatrical taste”; but he lived fifty years after “Il Barbiere” had conquered the world, and never took the trouble to write an overture for it, the one originally composed for the opera having been lost soon after the first production. The overture which leads us into the opera nowadays is all very well in its way and a striking example of how a piece of music may benefit from fortuitous circumstances. Persons with fantastic imaginations have rhapsodized on its appositeness, and professed to hear in it the whispered plottings of the lovers and the merry raillery of Rosina, contrasted with the futile ragings of her grouty guardian ; but when Rossini composed this piece of music, its mission was to introduce an adventure of the Emperor Aurelian in Palmyra in the third century of the Christian era. Having served that purpose, it became the prelude to another opera which dealt with Queen Elizabeth of England, a monarch who reigned some twelve hundred years after Aurelian. Again, before the melody now known as that of Almaviva’s cavatina (which supplanted Garcia’s unlucky Spanish song) had burst into the efflorescence which now distinguishes it, it came as a chorus from the mouths of Cyrus and his Persians in ancient Babylon. Truly, the verities of time and place sat lightly on the Italian opera composers of a hundred years ago. But the serenade which follows the rising of the curtain preserves a custom more general at the time of Beaumarchais than now, though it is not yet obsolete. Dr. Bartolo, who is guardian of the fascinating Rosina, is in love with her, or at least wishes for reasons not entirely dissociated from her money bags to make her his wife, and there-fore keeps her most of the time behind bolts and bars. The Count Almaviva, however, has seen her on a visit from his estates to Seville, becomes enamoured of her, and she has felt her heart warmed toward him, though she is ignorant of his rank and knows him only under the name of Lindoro. Hoping that it may bring him an opportunity for a glance, mayhap a word with his inamorata, Almaviva follows the advice given by Sir Proteus to Thurio in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” ; he visits his lady’s chamber window, not at night, but at early dawn, with a “sweet concert,” and to the instruments of Fiorello’s musicians tunes “a deploring dump.” It is the cavatina “Ecco ridente in cielo.” The musicians, rewarded by Almaviva beyond expectations, are profuse and long-winded in their expression of gratitude, and are gotten rid of with difficulty. The Count has not yet had a glimpse of Rosina, who is in the habit of breathing the morning air from the balcony of her prison house, and is about to despair when Figaro, barber and Seville’s factotum, appears trolling a song in which he recites his accomplishments, the universality of his employments, and the great demand for his services. (“Largo al factotum dello città.”) The Count recognizes him, tells of his vain vigils in front of Rosina’s balcony, and, so soon as he learns that Figaro is a sort of man of all work to Bartolo, employs him as his go-between. Rosina now appears on the balcony. Almaviva is about to engage her in conversation when Bartolo appears and discovers a billet-doux which Rosina had intended to drop into the hand of her Lindoro. He demands to see it, but she explains that it is but a copy of the words of an aria from an opera entitled “The Futile Precaution,” and drops it from the balcony, as if by accident. She sends Bartolo to recover it, but Almaviva, who had observed the device, secures it, and Bartolo is told by his crafty ward that the wind must have carried it away. Growing suspicious, he commands her into the house and goes away to hasten the preparations for his wedding, after giving orders that no one is to be admitted to the house save Don Basilio, Rosina’s singing-master, and Bartolo’s messenger and general mischief-maker.
The letter which Rosina had thus slyly conveyed to her unknown lover begged him to contrive means to let her know his name,condition, and intentions respecting herself. Figaro, taking the case in hand at once, suggests that Almaviva publish his answer in a ballad. This the Count does (“Se il mio nome saper”), protesting the honesty and ardor of his passion, but still concealing his name and station. He is delighted to hear his lady-love’s voice bidding him to continue his song. (It is the phrase, “Segui, o caro, deh segui così,” which sounded so monstrously diverting at the first representation of the opera in Rome.) After the second stanza Rosina essays a longer response, but is interrupted by some of the inmates of the house. Figaro now confides to the Count a scheme by which he is to meet his fair enslaver face to face : he is to assume the rôle of a drunken soldier who has been billeted upon Dr. Bartolo, a plan that is favored by the fact that a company of soldiers has come to Seville that very day which is under the command of the Count’s cousin. The plan is promptly put into execution. Not long after, Rosina enters Dr. Bartolo’s library singing the famous cavatina, “Una voce poco fà,” in which she tells of her love for Lindoro and proclaims her determination to have her own way in the matter of her heart, in spite of all that her tyrannical guardian or anybody else can do. This cavatina has been the show piece of hundreds of singers ever since it was written. Signora Giorgi-Righetti, the first Rosina, was a contralto, and sang the music in the key of E, in which it was written. When it became one of Jenny Lind’s display airs, it was transposed to F1 and tricked out with a great abundance of fiorituri. Adelina Patti in her youth used so to overburden its already florid measures with ornament that the story goes that once when she sang it for Rossini, the old master dryly remarked : “A very pretty air ; who composed it?” Figaro enters at the conclusion of Rosina’s song, and the two are about to exchange confidences when Bartolo enters with Basilio, who confides to the old doctor his suspicion that the unknown lover of Rosina is the Count Almaviva, and suggests that the latter’s presence in Seville be made irksome by a few adroitly spread innuendoes against his character. How a calumny, ingeniously published, may grow from a whispered zephyr to a crashing, detonating tempest, Basilio describes in the buffo air “La calunnia” a marvellous example of the de-vice of crescendo which in this form is one of Rossini’s inventions. Bartolo prefers his own plan of compelling his ward to marry him at once. He goes with Basilio to draw up a marriage agreement, and Figaro, who has overheard their talk, acquaints Rosina with its purport. He also tells her that she shall soon see her lover face to face if she will but send him a line by his hands. Thus he secures a letter from her, but learns that the artful minx had written it before he entered. Her ink-stained fingers, the disappearance of a sheet of paper from his writing desk, and the condition of his quill pen convince Bartolo on his return that he is being deceived, and he resolves that henceforth his ward shall be more closely confined _A than ever. And so he informs her, while she mimics his angry gestures behind his back. In another moment there is a boisterous knocking and shouting at the door, and in comes Almaviva, disguised as a cavalry soldier most obviously in his cups. He manages to make himself known to Rosina, and exchanges letters with her under the very nose of her jailer, affects a fury toward Dr. Bartolo when the latter claims exemption from the billet, and escapes arrest only by secretly making himself known to the officer commanding the soldiers who had been drawn into the house by the disturbance. The sudden and inexplicable change of conduct on the part of the soldiers petrifies Bartolo; he is literally “astonied,” and Figaro makes him the victim of several laughable pranks before he recovers his wits.
Dr. Bartolo’s suspicions have been aroused about the soldier, concerning whose identity he makes vain inquiries, but he does not hesitate to admit to his library a seeming music-master who announces himself as Don Alonzo, come to act as substitute for Don Basilio, who, he says, is ill. Of course it is Almaviva. Soon the ill-natured guardian grows impatient of his garrulity, and Almaviva, to allay his suspicions and gain a sight of his inamorata, gives him a letter written by Rosina to Lindoro, which he says he had found in the Count’s lodgings. If he can but see the lady, he hopes by means of the letter to convince her of Lindoro’s faithlessness. This device, though it disturbs its inventor, is successful, and Bartolo brings in his ward to receive her music lesson. Here, according to tradition, there stood in the original score a trio which was lost with the overture. Very welcome has this loss appeared to the Rosinas of a later day, for it has enabled them to introduce into the “lesson scene” music of their own choice, and, of course, such as showed their voices and art to the best advantage. Very amusing have been the anachronisms which have resulted from these illustrations of artistic vanity, and diverting are the glimpses which they give of the tastes and sensibilities of great prime donne. Grisi and Alboni, stimulated by the ex-ample of Catalani (though not in this opera), could think of nothing nobler than to display their skill by singing Rode’s Air and Variations, a violin piece. This grew hackneyed, but, nevertheless, survived till a comparatively late day. Bosio, feeling that variations were necessary, threw Rode’s over in favor of those on “Gia della mente involarmi” a polka tune from Alary’s “A Tre Nozze.” Then Mme. Gassier ushered in the day of the vocal waltz Venzano’s, of amiable memory. Her followers have not yet died out, though Patti substituted Arditi’s “I1 Bacio” for Venzano’s; Mme. Sembrich, Strauss’s ” Voce di Primavera,” and Mme. Melba, Arditi’s “Se saran rose.” Mme. Viardot, with a finer sense of the fitness of things, but either forgetful or not apprehensive of the fate which befell her father at the first performance of the opera in Rome, introduced a Spanish song. Mme. Patti always kept a ready repertory for the scene, with a song in the vernacular of the people for whom she was singing to bring the enthusiasm to a climax and a finish: “Home, Sweet Home” in New York and London, “Solovei” in St. Petersburg. Usually she began with the bolero from ” Les Vêpres Siciliennes,” or the shadow dance from “Dinorah.” Mme. Sembrich, living in a period when the style of song of which she and Mme. Melba are still the brightest exemplars, is not as familiar as it used to be when they were children, also found it necessary to have an extended list of pieces ready at hand to satisfy the rapacious public. She was wont at first to sing Proch’s Air and Variations, but that always led to a demand for more, and whether she supplemented it with “Ah! non giunge,” from “La Sonnambula, ” the bolero from”The Sicilian Vespers,” “O Luce di quest anima,” from “Linda,” or the vocalized waltz by Strauss, the applause always was riotous, and so remained until she sat down to the pianoforte and sang Chopin’s “Maiden’s Wish,” in Polish, to her own accompaniment. As for Mme. Melba, not to be set in the shade simply because Mme. Sembrich is almost as good a pianist as she is a singer, she supplements Arditi’s waltz or Massenet’s “Sevillana” with Tosti’s “Mattinata,” to which she also plays an exquisite accompaniment.
But this is a long digression ; I must back to my intriguing lovers, who have made good use of the lesson scene to repeat their protestations of affection and lay plots for attaining their happiness. In this they are he d by Figaro, who comes to shave Dr. Bartolo in spit& of his protests, and, contriving to get hold of the latter’s keys, “conveys” the one which opens the balcony lock, and thus makes possible a plan for a midnight elopement. In the midst of the lesson the real Basilio comes to meet his appointment, and there is a moment of confusion for the plotters, out of which Figaro extricates them by persuading Basilio that he is sick of a raging fever, and must go instantly home, Almaviva adding a convincing argument in the shape of a generously lined purse. Nevertheless, Basilio afterwards betrays the Count to Bartolo, who commands him to bring a notary to the house that very night so that he may sign the marriage contract with Rosina. In the midst of a tempest Figaro and the Count let themselves into the house at midnight to carry off Rosina, but find her in a whimsy, her mind having been poisoned against her lover by Bartolo with the aid of the unfortunate letter. Out of this dilemma Almaviva extricates himself by confessing his identity, and the pair are about to steal away when the discovery is made that the ladder to the balcony has been carried away. As they are tiptoeing toward the window, the three sing a trio in which there is such obvious use of a melodic phrase which belongs to Haydn that every writer on “Il Barbiere” seems to have thought it his duty to point out an instance of “plagiarism” on the part of Rossini. It is a trifling matter. The trio begins thus : which is a slightly varied form of four measures from Simon’s song in the first part of “The Seasons”.
With these four measures the likeness begins and ends. A venial offence, if it be an offence at all. Composers were not held to so strict and scrupulous an accountability touching melodic meum and tuum a century ago as they are now; yet there was then a thousand-fold more melodic inventiveness. Another case of “conveyance” by Rossini has also been pointed out; the air of the duenna in the third act beginning “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” is said to be that of a song which Rossini heard a Russian lady sing in Rome. I have searched much in Russian song literature and failed to find the alleged original. To finish the story : the notary summoned by Bartolo arrives on the scene, but is persuaded by Figaro to draw up an attestation of a marriage agreement between Count Almaviva and Rosina, and Bartolo, finding at the last that all his precautions have been in vain, comforted not a little by the gift–of his ward’s dower, which the Count relinquishes, gives his blessing to the lovers.
I have told the story of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” as it appears in the book. It has grown to be the custom to omit in performance several of the incidents which are essential to the development and understanding of the plot. Some day soon, it is to be hoped managers, singers, and public will awake to a realization that, even in the old operas in which beautiful singing is supposed to be the be-all and end-all, the action ought to be kept coherent. In that happy day Rossini’s effervescent lyrical arrangement of Beaumarchais’s vivacious comedy will be restored to its rights.