Florentine Opera performs Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Opera may not seem exciting to everyone, but with the right story, the right performers and the right score, certain works have gained immortality.

One of those works is The Barber of Seville, whose popularity is fueled by a hilarious story and a memorable score. Those qualities make the Italian masterpiece a perfect entrée to opera for newbies, as well as an ongoing operatic pleasure for veterans.

The Florentine Opera performs Rossini’s The Barber of Seville May 5 and May 7 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Prolific pop star

The prolific Rossini, who wrote two to four operas a year during his most creative period, was considered a “pop star” in 19th-century Europe. His ability to please mass audiences has continued for centuries, says Tim Sterner Miller, professor of music at UWM and Florentine Opera musicologist.

“A lot of people into high opera are not necessarily into Rossini,” says Miller, who will be giving pre-show lectures before both Florentine performances. “He was writing for a particular period and in a context driven by the singers with less attention paid to the music itself.”

“There is a great story told about Rossini,” Miller says. “Writing opera came so easy for him, it was said, that if an opera he was working on ever fell to the floor, he’d just start over with another one because it was easier than bending over and picking it up.”

Opera 101

Appreciating Rossini means understanding his orientation to singers, rather complex symphonic lines.

In opera, the two biggest vocal categories are the recitatives and arias. The recitatives drive the opera’s story and serve the narrative’s expository needs. Music is critical, of course, but here the words may be even more so.

“This is how the story is communicated and the primary purpose of the recitative is to get a lot of words out,” Miller says. “In an opera like Barber, it’s also is where all the jokes happen.”

Arias, on the other hand, are the points where time stands still and emotions are expressed, Miller explains. Traditional arias generally focused on only one emotion, but Rossini’s arias juggled several emotions at once This resulted in characters that were more realistic and believable, since it’s a rare human being who doesn’t mix emotions when considering an issue, he adds.

“The first female aria operates in this way,” Miller explains. “First, Rosina is singing about being in love, then scheming about how she was going to get her own way. That takes us right into the antics of the plot.”

Two musical highlights Miller suggests those new to opera should listen for involve the two key characters and help explain their roles.

Figaro’s “Largo al factotum della città” (“Make way for the city’s jack of all trades”) — one of the opera’s best-known numbers — is in fact a comedic patter number that introduces the character when he first appears onstage (“Figaro! Figaro! Fiii-ga-roh!”).

The other is Rosina’s first aria, “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice I just heard”) in which she talks about love and her plans to prevail.

“In terms of gender dynamics this is good because she’s not just singing about being a foil of the male characters or a damsel in distress,” Miller says. “Here we have a very rich character who has her own power and knows how to use it.”

‘Textbook production’

The plot of Barber is at once simple and complicated, in the style of opera buffa and more than one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Poor Rosina (Carol Garcia) has no time for herself given all the suitors who want her hand in marriage. The list includes Count Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), who is disguised as Lindoro, a poor musician, in hopes that Rosina will choose him for himself and not his money. Another suitor is the elderly Bartolo (Andrew Wilkowske) — which is complicated, as young Rosina is his ward.

And, of course, there is Figaro (Luis Alejandro Orozco), a former servant of the count who plots with his past master to assure that the proper nuptials take place. This being comic opera, true identities are revealed, love prevails, Rosina marries the right man for the right reasons, and (almost) everyone is happy.

Garcia, Stayton and Orozco are each making their Florentine Opera debut in what Miller calls a textbook production of Rossini’s opera.

“Florentine artistic director Bill Florescu, who is directing, has set out to create a very straight-ahead production here,” Miller says.

Florescu will highlight the moments, arias and recitatives that give The Barber of Seville its musical and comedic appeal, Miller says. And there is plenty of both to introduce new fans to opera and provide enduring enjoyment for genre veterans.

“It’s become a cliché to say that comic opera is like popular music in its ability to bring people in,” Miller says. “I’d flip that around and say that people who know music will come to Rossini and find new things that take a little more work to uncover.

“It speaks in the same language that we use now and people who listen to just about any kind of music will be able to relate to it.”

On stage

The Florentine Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is May 5 and May 7 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $40–$158. Call the box office at 414-273-7206 or go online at marcuscenter.org.