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Today, The Barber of Seville is so well loved that the comedian Robin Williams performed its most famous aria in the guise of a cartoon bird in Mrs Doubtfire. But when it premiered in 1816, Rossini's opera was met with heckling.
It took a composer of singular confidence to agree to turn the Beaumarchais play The Barber of Seville into an opera in 1816.
By then, opera audiences were very used to a setting by the Italian composer Paisiello. It’s probably fair to say that his version was a much loved favourite with the famously loyal audience of the time.
When Rossini agreed to take on the project, he knew that he had to come up with something wonderful. By the end of the cold February night in Rome, where Rossini’s work was premiered, it wasn’t looking good. The composer had even taken care to call the opera something different – it premiered as Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution.
The evening had ended with the audience baying, ‘Pai-si-ell-o, Pai-si-ell-o!’ to a closed curtain. Somehow, though, Rossini turned it around. It’s even possible that the audience reaction wasn’t genuine and the first-nighters were a hired claque (a group of paid applauders prevalent in French opera houses at the time). Eventually retitled, Rossini’s Barber of Seville saw Paisiello’s version relegated to the dusty top shelves of the library of history. As well as possessing a simply stunning overture, the opera is a sheer delight throughout, with hit after hit, including ‘Una voce poco fa’ and the ‘Largo al factotum’.
Maria Callas (soprano) as Rosina; Tito Gobbi (tenor) as Figaro; Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; Alceo Galliera (conductor). EMI Classics: 4564442.