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Stealing a Little Thunder: 'The Barber of Seville'

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WOO-1443-Barber-Square01Did you know that Rossini wrote an opera called Otello? If not, Verdi is probably to blame. His later version of the same story is among the greatest operas ever written -- so brilliant and moving that even a top-notch score by Rossini couldn't compete.

Rossini didn't live to see his Otello so completely upstaged by Verdi's opera. Yet, if he had, he might well have decided it was just part of the opera business. As it happens, in the same year that Rossini wrote his Otello, he engaged in his own bit of operatic one-upmanship -- with The Barber of Seville.

Though now one of the most popular of all operas, Rossini's Barber had some stiff competition when it premiered in 1816, and it got off to a slow start. Another composer, Giovanni Paisiello, had already made a successful opera from the story, taken from the influential play by Pierre Beaumarchais. That one was a hit, and when Paisiello's fans heard about Rossini's new opera they choreographed a campaign of dirty tricks, to create a disturbance at the premiere. The production was sloppy and mistake-prone, and the opera's future looked bleak. Even Rossini was discouraged, refusing to lead any further performances.

But you can't keep a good opera down, and Rossini's Barber is a lot better than just good. It quickly overshadowed Paisiello's version and before long it had spread all over Europe, with performances from London to St. Petersburg. By 1825 it had become the first opera ever sung in Italian in New York City, and Rossini was arguably the most popular composer in the world.

In operatic terms, The Barber of Seville is actually a sort of prequel. Beaumarchais' original play was the first in a series of dramas. The second one was The Marriage of Figaro, the source of Mozart's great opera from the previous century. The characters in Barber continue their story in Figaro. In fact, the "Barber" of Rossini's opera is Figaro himself -- pre-Marriage.

Mozart's opera may have greater philosophical depth, and a more pointed social message, but it's hard to think of a more perfect operatic comedy than The Barber of Seville.

On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents Rossini's Barber from the 2014 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the composer's hometown in Italy. The stars are baritone Florian Sempey in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Chiara Amarù as Rosina and tenor Juan Francisco Gatell as Almaviva, in a production led by conductor Giacomo Sagripanti.