Rossini for our times: Reflections on The Barber of Seville

11 Nov 2019

Richard Mills reflects on the essence and origins of Rossini style, for both voice and orchestra, and how the composer's love for humanity continues to shine through in his music.

Giorgio Ronconi as Figaro and Fanny Persiani as Rosina - Théâtre Italien, Paris (1844) / Wikimedia

The first point to make is my firm belief that Rossini is a master for all time: his music speaks to us today with an immediacy that is formed by the perfect fusions of technique, inspiration and profound humanity – reaching from the early 19th century to the 21st century with a clarity and capacity for engagement undiminished by time and fashion and capable of lasting and yet immediate vitality. How then, does a performer prepare to recreate the enduring magic of this literature for the audiences of our time? Probably the best way forward is to reconsider the essence of the Rossini style and its origins.

The most important element in Rossini is the voice and an understanding of the vocal traditions of bel canto is essential to good Rossini style – and it is good to remember that the origins of bel canto lie in the Baroque era where the word was of paramount importance. Rossini for the most part had a very direct relationship to the texts he worked with – it is only after the initially clear representation of the words is accomplished that the composer proceeds to more elaborate vocalisations.This is not always the case where many characters are joined in ensemble but, even in these situations, the intention is always clear. Rossini’s harmony is simple, though that does not mean, in any way, simple-minded. Rather than subjective introspection, Rossini favours an objective application of his musical language in a vocal style formed from the classical ideals of bel canto: an instrumental perfection of the voice, absolute control of legato with the potential for achieved mobility with agile and focused ornamentation, plus the capacity to deliver text with clarity and imagination.

One could observe that in Baroque opera, gods became men through song; in Rossini, men can become like gods through song. But Rossini’s art is grounded in logic and humanity, there are no abstract or mythical beings – the closest being Alidoro in La Cenerentola (Cinderella) – rather a concentration on character and human predicament via a musical apparatus that shares some commonalities with classical ballet; both art forms having a highly developed vocabulary of gestures applied to the business of storytelling and creating a supporting emotional geography. Interestingly both forms require performers of the highest technical accomplishment. The singers of Rossini’s time were trained like instrumentalists – only after years of training did they get to sing any songs at all – the pedagogy was aimed at forming the voice as an instrument. The singers were the superstars of the day, much like Hollywood actors are today. Impresarios like Domenico Barbaja, who was also a gambling magnate setting up casinos front-of-house to cross-subsidise his opera business, controlled the careers of Pasta, Malibran, Rubini, Rossini (who he brought to Naples), Bellini and many others.

Richard Mills conducts Rossini's William Tell. Photo: Jeff Busby

Many operas were written at breakneck speed – Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) was composed in just over two weeks – and there was a considerable amount of reusing already composed material. The Overture to Il barbiere is a case in point, having been re-purposed from one of the Neapolitan operas, Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra (Elizabeth, Queen of England), that he wrote for Barbaja and San Carlo. No matter, in Rossini’s own words opera is about ‘voice, voice and more voice’.

But the inspiration of the voice flows to the orchestra – its syllabic energy, its sparkling variety of attack, its palette of rhythmic and dynamic emphasis, its capacity for flexibility and rhetoric should transfer seamlessly from the voice to the instrumental forces, and in turn inspire soloistic flair from the wind instruments in particular contexts. Also, the patterns of string articulation need to derive their energy from the voice, with its soft and hard consonants, its beautiful legato and its ever-present expressive intention, which comes, of course, from the text.

In all this, the conductor needs to honour the subliminal presence of 18th century performance practice in rhythmic shaping. Of course, the editions of the Fondazione Rossini, developed by the scholars surrounding the famous Rossini festival in Pesaro, are indispensable for serious preparation – but one has to temper the philological elegance of these editions with the practical necessities and realities of contemporary performance, and the use of modern brass and wind instruments. Rossini’s notation only goes so far, and he wrote with great speed, adjustments have to be made – but always with faithfulness to the primacy of voice, the overall Rossini style and with the application of musical common sense.


To move on now from ‘bread and butter’ practical questions to consider the opera in a wider context. The opera’s original focus in 1816 was Count Almaviva, in fact the opera was called Almaviva, ossia L'inutile precauzione and composed for the famous Manuel Garcia, who founded a dynasty of singers and teachers. Nowadays, the emphasis has shifted to Rosina. Beaumarchais’ comedy (on which Cesare Sterbini based his libretto for Rossini) ran into difficulties with magistrates because of its exultation of the idea of marriage for love and the aristocratic bridegroom’s familiarity with the ‘low life’ of Seville.

So, we have the ‘new’ or ‘modern’ characters: Rosina, Almaviva and Figaro, unconstrained by pre-French-Revolutionary aristocratic and societal conventions; and the ‘old order’: Bartolo, Basilio and Berta. Both groups are defined by the value they place on money – the secret character of the opera. For the wealthy Bartolo – as for his class and their servants (including Basilio and Berta) – marriage is the means to secure and increase a fortune. For Almaviva, a rebel, and Rosina, a fiercely independent idealist, it is the fulfilment of romantic attraction. For the cynically opportunistic Figaro it is whatever is convenient and well paid. It is well to remember that the obvious dignity accorded to love and women in 1816 was itself revolutionary.

Il barbiere di Siviglia has endured in the affections of humanity because it unites the worlds of the 18th century opera buffa with something much greater – the exploration of the human soul by a composer whose love for humanity, in its glories and in its foibles and weaknesses, shines forth on every page.

Dr Richard Mills AM
Artistic Director, Victorian Opera