Gioacchino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, presented in New York in 1825, was the first opera in Italian to be heard in the city, just nine years after its Rome world premiere. That November night at the Park Theatre on Park Row the audience included Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of Le Nozze di Figaro, among other Mozart operas. Le Nozze was seen this season in the Met’s “Live in HD” series and was the subject of a recent OperaPost. Il Barbiere di Siviglia will be simulcast on November 22. Both operas are based on comedies by the 18th-century French playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Il Barbiere has rarely been absent from the Met since its very first season, 1883-84, Le Nozze since 1939-40.
We focus here on Rosina, the lead female character of Il Barbiere, and a rare example of a role in the core repertoire that has been attributed to either the high or low voice. Rossini wrote Rosina for Geltrude Righetti, the contralto who also created Angelina in his La Cenerentola. But despite the composer’s intentions, throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th the part has been held hostage by sopranos who have had few qualms about raising the key of some passages, singing the higher octave of others, and interpolating high notes where none were indicated. In 2006-07, for example, coloratura soprano Diana Damrau was the season’s first Rosina; mezzo Joyce DiDonato took over later and can be seen in the video of the simulcast. Here they are in the familiar “Una voce poco fà,” Damrau in Madrid, DiDonato in concert in New York. They are both terrific.
Whether performed by high soprano or mezzo soprano, Rosina is a showcase for prodigious dexterity. The opera’s scenario incudes a singing lesson for which Rossini provided an aria, “Contro un cor.” It became common practice, however, for sopranos to depart from the score and substitute pieces that better showed off their virtuosity. In 1883, the “Letter Scene” simply stole the show. One reviewer of the Met’s first performance gave his notice over to Marcella Sembrich’s mini-concert during which the Rosina selected the difficult Proch variations and two German songs, all of which post-date the character’s playlist. In the course of her sixty-four subsequent Met Rosinas, a record still unbroken, Sembrich sometimes sang Bellini, sometimes Chopin or Johann Strauss. In the 1920s, Amelita Galli-Curci picked a bel canto aria, not necessarily by Rossini, and followed it religiously with “Home Sweet Home,” the latter chosen to privilege the singer’s legendary legato and creamy timbre. This is Galli-Curci’s 1927 recording of the old standard.
The Met’s first experiment with a mezzo Rosina, a single performance by Jennie Tourel in 1945, left reviewers cold. In the new production of February 1954, the audience at last heard Rossini’s own aria in the “Lesson Scene,” but it was sung by coloratura Roberta Peters. Two months later Rosina was restored to her earthier, mezzo self. The rapturously received Victoria de los Angeles made an irrefutable case for the lower voice. And mezzos Teresa Berganza and Marilyn Horne ultimately ended the hegemony of the high coloratura. Since then, mezzos have taken the advantage, two to one. This Saturday’s Rosina will be mezzo Isabel Leonard.
In point of fact, male roles dominate Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Nonetheless, the jocular baritone, the dulcet-toned tenorino, the scene-stealing basso buffo and basso profondo have often played second banana, served up with great gobs of shaving soap, to Rosina, high or low. The production that will be heard and seen this Saturday was new in 2006-07. Wittily staged by Bartlett Sher, its cast formed a remarkable ensemble for which bel canto embellishment was a sign of joy rather than an excuse for vocal calisthenics. The other role that requires extensive embellishment is that of Count Almaviva. His “Cessa di più resistere,” restored at the Met only in recent decades, is a long aria that tests the display of fioritura and the legato of cantilena and crowns the comic climax. Here is how this coming Saturday’s Almaviva, Lawrence Brownlee, sang it in concert in 2005.