This weekend, the Metropolitan Opera notes the holiday weekend with a special performance of a comedy that has been delighting audiences since its first performance in Rome in 1816.
Or almost since its first performance. For various reasons, the world premiere of Rossini's Barber of Seville was not a total success. There was an anti-Rossini faction in the house, thanks to the internal politics of the opera world. And it couldn't have helped when a cat wandered on stage.
But anybody can have a bad day. The Barber of Seville went on, very quickly, to become a favorite. Unlike some operas that thrive, then fade, then make a comeback, Barber has had an uninterrupted place in the operatic repertoire.
It's even gone beyond the confines of the opera world, to become one of those cultural points of reference that everyone somehow knows--even people who "don't know anything about opera."
If you recognize the image of a singer repeating "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro" - you're thinking of The Barber of Seville, and its most famous aria.
For some details, let's quote the newly published History of Opera, by two of the world's most distinguished opera scholars, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker: "Its virtuoso bass aria 'Largo al factotum'. . . has had a rich afterlife in twentieth-century popular culture. The buffoon barber Nicki Papaloopas, mugging it in Broadway Melody of 1938, is one iconic example. In The Rabbit of Seville (1950), Chuck Jones's cartoon version, Bugs Bunny performs the aria with considerable flair."
They go on to say, "Il barbiere [The Barber of Seville] remains genuinely popular on stage. Regional producers may find themselves at odds with boards and audiences when they propose Tancredi, but Il barbiere has never needed special pleading."
Maybe that's why the Met chose it when they were trying to answer a recurring question: What to program at holiday time?
Many theater companies have standard holiday shows. Charles Dickens is a key name here, though he's not the only member of the club. And for ballet companies, The Nutcracker has become even more of a fixture, pleasing audiences, bolstering the box office, and giving (especially) young people their first taste of the art form.
The opera world doesn't have an exact equivalent to The Nutcracker. The closest thing might be Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, though it's nowhere near as omnipresent as Tchaikovsky's ballet. There's also Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. But with a running time of only sixty minutes - it was originally written for TV - it doesn't make for a full evening in the opera house.
So in this holiday season, the Met will present The Barber of Seville, in a special version that's aimed at families. It will be sung in English (a new translation by the noted poet J. D. McClatchy). Its running time will be trimmed to about two hours, about the same as a movie. No doubt the singers, like Bugs Bunny, will perform with considerable flair--and for some young audience members, a long-lasting interest in opera will begin.