Rossini in the here and now

‘The Barber of Seville’ takes on a contemporary look at the Israeli Opera.

‘The Barber of Seville’ takes on a contemporary look at the Israeli Opera. (photo credit: ROSINA MATTHIAS HORN)
‘The Barber of Seville’ takes on a contemporary look at the Israeli Opera.
(photo credit: ROSINA MATTHIAS HORN)
Some would argue that Italian is the only language in which opera should be performed. While the Germans, French and even Americans and British might have something to say about that, Omer Welber has absolutely no problems with presiding over the instrumental side of performances of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv for two weeks or so.
In fact, 32-year-old Welber will share conducting duties with David Sebba, while German director Katherina Talbach takes care of the onstage action in a definitively forward-looking manner for the baker’s dozen shows that will take place between November 21 and December 7.
The Barber of Seville, or The Futile Precaution, is an opera buffa in two acts by Gioachino Rossini, with an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The libretto was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s French comedy Le Barbier de Séville, written in 1775. The world premiere of the opera took place on February 20, 1816, at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. The opera was not initially well received, but it transpired that petty politics played a part in the hissing and caterwauling that issued from the Italian audience, many of whom were fans of Rossini’s rival Giovanni Paisiello. Paisiello died less than three months later.
The Barber of Seville tells the story of the beautiful Rosina, whose elderly guardian Dr. Bartolo wants to make her his own, while restricting her freedom of movement. Meanwhile, the young lady has fallen in love with the handsome and far more age appropriate Count Almaviva, who only wants to make sure she wants him for himself and not for his considerable fortune. The young couple are abetted by Bartolo’s barber and valet Figaro, and there is a more or less happy ending to the whole dramatic and romantic saga. Mix in more than a modicum of humor, and you have a sure-fire recipe for commercial success.
“I love Rossini operas, and Verdi’s too,” says Welber. “I have a strong feeling for the Italian language as well.”
Each language also has its inherent musicality and natural tempo, and that impacts on the composer’s output.
“Mozart wrote music for operas in German and Italian, and the score comes out very differently for the two languages,” notes Welber.
The conductor is also enamored with Talbach’s take on the late 18th-century storyline and says that her contemporary portrayal of the events would almost certainly meet with the composer’s approval.
“This is a production that seamlessly crisscrosses among three focal points of action taking place simultaneously,” continues Welber.
“There are events happening in transit, another focal point which is like a theater within a theater, and there is also an urban street scene.
There is fascinating interplay, which is alluring and funny, between what is actually occurring in reality and the things that are outside the realms of reality.”
This, says Welber, pushes the action along at high speed.
“This is always a fast-moving opera,” he notes. “In that respect, Katherina’s approach is not surprising, and it augments the hectic and high-energy mood of Rossini’s work, with its constant stream of text. It provides a visual space for Rossini’s tricks.”
The fast-flowing thematic development is, says Welber, part and parcel of the Italian composer’s mindset.
“Rossini’s operas always verge on the [highly articulate] bel canto style.”
The latter also requires the vocalists to match the register and tonal quality of their singing to the emotional content of the words. As there is an abundance of love and high drama in The Barber of Seville, that stylistic choice seems to be a natural fit.
Welber feels that Talbach’s directorial choice of a 21st-century setting would also get the thumbs up from Rossini. The contemporary features in the opera include an Elvis lookalike, a scene in a dental clinic and a bustling here-and-now street scene. “There are all sorts of operas which you could say have a contemporary feel to them, such as Romeo and Juliet [by mid-19- century French composer Charles Gounod], but it is much more difficult to make a joke sound relevant to the current times than a drama. It is really amazing, but when we are in the rehearsal room, we find ourselves cracking up over a joke that was written around 250 years ago,” he laughs.
Then again, we do live in the 21st post-modern Internet-connected, social network-swamped century, and Welber says he would not consider trying to perform an opera exactly as it was rendered in the original.
“Music is not supposed to be a museum piece. You have to progress with the times and make it relevant for the period in which you live,” he asserts.
That, says the conductor, is also often central to the composer’s intent.
“People want to come to an opera and be passive during the performance, as if they have come to look at a painting by Picasso or some other artist. But you mustn’t be passive when it comes to music – not as a player or as a member of the audience. And there are lots of scores without too much detail about how this or that passage should be played,” he observes.
“That leaves you with a lot of room to maneuver and freedom of expression. Mozart himself said that there was plenty of room for improvisation in some of his works.
The last thing that interests me is how this or that opera was first performed. We have to get away from that. Opera, and music in general, is a living thing.
Musicologists say that cadenza [improvised or writtenout ornamental passages, usually in a free rhythmic style, which often allowing for virtuoso displays] were far freer than we previously thought,” he says.
The upcoming performances of The Barber of Seville should provide us with an enduringly endearing experience.
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