Rossini to Wagner on the opening night performance of Barber of Seville. “As I sat at the keyboard…I had to protect myself from an audience that was completely out of control…I really thought they were going to assassinate me.” Emil Michotte La Visite de R. Wagner a Rossini (Paris, 1860)
The Barber of Seville is the first of a trilogy of plays by the French playwright Beaumarchais (1792-1868). In the years before the French Revolution, Beaumarchais’ plays challenged the class system and raised the ire of the monarchy. Something about his questioning of the status quo obviously resonated with the public because six operatic versions of the play had already emerged prior to Rossini’s. The most popular of these was by Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello. Paisiello had a reputation for being difficult so the young Rossini tried to avoid conflict by calling his version Almaviva, ossia l’inutile precauzione (The Useless Precaution). The Rossini version gained in popularity and eventually donned the name by which it is known today.
For all its success, the opera didn’t have an easy birth. It was written in an unbelievably short time. From the start of the libretto arriving to the time of the finished score was three weeks. Rossini wrote non-stop, taking pages out of the hands of the librettist Cesare Sterbini while the ink was still wet and transforming them into the arias we know today. He managed his impossibly tight deadline by borrowing some of the music from his other operas. In fact, one of the most famous pieces from the opera, the overture, had been used as the overture for two of his other operas! Opening night was a disaster. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Guitars broke, cues were missed, and arias were booed. By the time the weary singers got to the finale a cat wandered on to the stage and began meowing at the singers. The audience laughed hysterically and meowed back at the cat. Rossini was so upset that he took to his bed the next day claiming illness. Fortunately, though, the tide of public opinion changed quickly, the opera was selling out within a few days… and the rest is musical history.