“Barber” Program Notes by William Berger
Paisiello’s Once and Present Masterpiece
For better or worse (mostly worse), it is impossible to consider Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia apart from Rossini’s opera of the same name. Because of Rossini’s, Paisiello’s Barbiere is only famous as a sidebar in music history and almost unknown in its truest essence – as an operatic masterpiece in its own right. It bears a worse fate than being merely forgotten: it is buried under a set of half-truths and untruths that have become accepted as fact simply by having been uncritically repeated so often.
The received knowledge about this piece runs roughly as follows:
Paisiello set Beaumarchais’ revolutionary play for the Imperial Russian court at Saint Petersburg in 1782 (true), naturally toning down the radical aspects of the play (not as true as people assume). The Court setting also dictated that the music be extremely refined (not true). It pleased the aristocratic audience with an elegance that bordered on the effete (untrue) and thus became outmoded quickly and holds no interest for post-18th Century audiences (absolute falsehood).
The misinformation only gets worse from there, when Rossini enters the picture. Fast forward to Rome, 1816, for the famous part of the story…. The young whippersnapper Gioacchino Rossini dares to set the same play as an opera. The fusty old guard, partisans of Paisiello and his style, conspires to boo the new work off stage. The opening night of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is a literal riot, with the composer run right of the theater. It was only after the second (some say third) performance that Rossini’s new, exciting opera established itself as a perennial favorite, consigning Paisiello’s phoofy old opera to the dustbin of history along with powdered wigs and snuff boxes (almost entirely untrue, with just enough truth in it to be truly misleading).
Now let’s scrape away some of the barnacles crusting the legend of the Rossini premiere fiasco in order to get a clearer view of the Paisiello opera. The account of the 1816 premiere is said to derive mostly from Stendhal’s Vie de Rossini (Life of Rossini). However, if one actually bothers to read the Stendhal (which is delightful but admittedly no easy matter given that author’s gnarly prose and heavy agenda) the account does not come across quite as people like to remember it. The curtain was brought down mid-performance, but there were accidents on stage and the audience was more bored and disenchanted than savage. And that audience was not merely hidebound in its conventions. Many of Stendhal’s accounts of their pique that night show they were rather insightful. For example, Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa,” – now among the best known arias in the operatic repertory – was judged to be all wrong for the character, turning her into a “virago”. If we today were not so familiar with this piece (thanks to Bugs Bunny, among many others [“ Can’t you see that I’m much sweeter? I’m your little señorit-er…”]), we might have the clarity to make the same judicious assertion.
Furthermore, we have to remember that the 18th century tradition was to set the same libretto several, even dozens, of times, or more. The great librettist known as Metastasio, (a Roman, perhaps not incidentally), was the supreme example: his Adriano in Sirio was set by over 60 composers; his La clemenza di Tito by over 40, including (with alterations) Mozart. Composers were not as proprietary about libretti as they later became. True, Stendhal tells us that Paisiello, still alive (barely) in Naples in 1816, relished the possibility of a disaster for Rossini, “Il comptait apparemment sur une chute éclatante.” But this is personal and petty (if funny), and not conclusive proof of a battle of wills between a conservative, pro-Pasiello faction and the emerging young Rossinians. The situation was rather different and less competitive than it would be today when, say, different Batman movies are made within a year of each other, or, to use a more operatic (if mind-boggling) example, if Philip Glass decided to set Cats as an opera. The opening night of Rossini’s Barbiere shows a much deeper set of issues than is normally ascribed to it, and if examined closely, helps us to appreciate Paisiello’s accomplishment rather than dismiss it. The problem was not that Paisiello’s Barbiere was dated. The problem was that audiences in the 19th century could no longer understand it. The world changed between 1782 and 1816. The world is always changing, of course, but you’d be hard-pressed to find three decades that encompassed a more radical shift than those. It’s deeper than the map of Europe having been rearranged by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (1789 – 1815); it’s deeper than the map of the Americas having transformed from three colonial empires into an emerging patchwork of a couple of dozen sovereign nations. The bigger issue of what had changed was people’s understanding of time.
As we found in On Site Opera’s production of another all-but-forgotten 18th Century gem last year, Rameau’s Pygmalion, there are certain questions one must ask about how any given opera was meant to be understood. How are the characters meant to be perceived (eg., real people, allegories, mythological beings, historical abstractions)? And the most important idea – how is time treated in this work? That sounds recherché, but trust me – failing to consider this issue leads to the same spurious dismissals of past art that has kept Paisiello in the doghouse these last two centuries.
Consider time in the ultimate Baroque operas, those of Handel. Linear time happens in the recitatives, while the glorious arias suspend time to explore and revel in every possible aspect of that moment. The Greeks, whose dramas were the prototypes of opera, clearly understood the two different aspects of time, chronos (linear) and kairos (non-linear). Someone who cannot experience time in both aspects is likely to be bored to death in a Handel opera, and it must be admitted that there are those for whom that particular art form is not a possibility. One sees them fidgeting with the invisible thought bubbles over their heads clearly reading “My God, why don’t they just get on with it already!” while the rest of us are writhing in the exquisite ecstasies of Planet Handel.
Maybe the best example of Handel’s use of stopped-time is found in his Messiah (I know… not an opera, but bear with me). Consider the “Amen” that concludes the massive oratorio: four minutes on a single word – and it’s among the greatest creations of the human mind. It is a choral number, we hear the sopranos, then the tenors, then combinations of voices, every conceivable sound giving us its own unique expression of this marvelous word of acceptance to the Universe. There is no question of finishing quickly. It is because Handel’s genius that we never want it to end. Audiences never abandoned Messiah because as an oratorio it was understood to be a “non-dramatic,” that is, “non-linear,” experience. In fact, “dramatic” is considered a negative word when applied to non-operatic works (eg., Verdi’s Requiem). His operas, however, were thought to be goners. 19th century critics didn’t hate them – they had simply ceased to exist. Handel did not see his operas and his oratorios so distinctly. Some of his oratorios were operas in all but name, and several (Samson, Semele, et al) have come to be categorized as operas.
Now let us once again use the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as a boundary between epochs. In this period, passenger steamboats began running (1808) and commercial railroads appeared (1813). Time had to become standardized in the industrializing nations. In the 18th century, lunch time was when the guy who rang the bell looked up at the sky and decided it was time for lunch. This was sufficient – in fact, it was better than anything else, because the lunch-ringer was connected in a deep way to the people around him. By Rossini’s time, this was insufficient. Trains famously needed standardized time so they didn’t run into each other. Steamships began operating on fixed schedules. Suddenly, the rhythm track was louder: chronos triumphed, and no one remembered kairos – or it seemed like stasis, at least. Everything had to move in the 19th century, from Point A to Point B. Witness Verdi’s obsession with “keeping the action moving.” The novel became the standard form of literature, replacing the poem (in a process whose acceptance among the bourgeoisie of the 19th Century has been explored well, as in Ian Watt’s famous study The Rise of the Novel).
It’s high time to reconsider Paisiello, and not as merely Rossini’s stepping stone to fame. We can see what the 19th century could not see – that time is not always linear. There is no one definition of time. That’s why we can enjoy Handel’s operas as core repertory when our 19th Century forbearers thought they were dead. Some moments take longer than others – like a Handel aria. We’ve had Einstein to show us that time is relative, and we had Picasso to show us that time’s correlative, space, is also fluid. A nose can logically appear on the side of a face because faces turn – one moment this way and the next that way – and if two moments in time can exist in one (as in, say, memory), then a nose can be over there as well as over here, or even over there entirely. Quark theory reinforces this. But Handel and his contemporaries sensed this the whole time. We the public have, in my grandmother’s quaint phrase, gone all around the block to get to the house next door.
The New Grove Dictionary ends its description of Paisiello’s opera by enumerating all the ways in which “it pales in comparison to Rossini’s”: Thin orchestration (so? Rossini’s orchestration then pales in comparison to Berlioz’, or Wagner’s, or…); Paisiello’s vocal writing is not as difficult as Rossini’s (perhaps, if that were the only measure of worth – but there is also the question of the beauty of tone and refinement of style that Paisiello’s audience could appreciate so much better than later ones); Rossini’s harmonic vocabulary is “richer” (again, Paisiello wasn’t trying to be harmonic in the orchestra – the beauty of the voice reigned supreme for his audiences). In short, this is the sort of critique that sees all music in Darwinian terms, how everything points to a modern ideal. It represents the best thinking of 1860.
Now consider Paisiello’s accomplishment. For example, Lindoro’s serenade to Rosina. In Paisiello, it is the exquisite aria “Saper bramate.” The gorgeous (and yes, simple) melody repeats itself, never going anywhere, content to float suspended as if admiring its own beauty. It is only after it concludes that you realize you have spent a few minutes outside of your body, suspended, perhaps. The original orchestration is certainly “thin” by the Romantic standards of the 19th century, with prominent roles for the solo cello and mandolin. One can imagine the beaux and belles of the 18th century promenading endlessly around geometrical gardens, satiated in the perfect beauty of the moment – and in fact, this was exactly how that master of suspended time, Stanley Kubrick, used it so marvelously in his sumptuous (but not entirely understood, least of all in our nation of “doers”) Barry Lyndon. Compare Rossini’s, wherein Lindoro’s serenade accompanied by guitar is comically interrupted. It’s stiffness is a comic foil, and becomes part of the motion of the plot.
Now a bit of Paisiello on his own: Note Rosina’s aria that concludes Act II, “Giusto ciel,” a powerful and genuinely human plea for some sanity in her unhappy life. The complex finale “Cara, sit tu il mio bene,” is as fun and bubbly as a bel canto comedy, but remaining firmly within Paisiello’s vocabulary (the same can be said for this opera’s “Buona sera” quartet). Throughout the opera, Paisiello’s gift shines – especially in the sort of intimate context for which it was intended. We are truly fortunate that we live in an era that can once again appreciate his art’s unique beauty.
William Berger is an author, lecturer, radio commentator and Creative Content Producer
for the Metropolitan Opera.