19 Feb 2023Sofia Opera and Ballet


20 February 1816 is a great date in the life of "The Swan of Pesaro" – Gioacchino Antonio Rossini /1792 - 1868/ and also in the history of opera. On this day his masterpiece, the comic opera "Il barbiere di Siviglia ossia L'inutile precauzione", saw the light of day. Many stories are still told about this fascinating work, some of them sounding like legends. It is worth recalling now Henri Beile or Stendhal, a contemporary and passionate admirer of Italian opera and of Rossini himself, who wrote a remarkable book about the composer. Here's what he tells us: "Arriving in Rome, Rossini finds Barbaia, the famous impresario and owner of Rome's great theatre, the Argentina, mired in a nasty row with the local police. And it had imposed a strict ban on all operatic libretti, on the pretext that their content was... "very meaningful"! /And at that time, this wonderful and romantic art, opera, was incredibly popular, it replaced football and television, it was at the centre of everyday life of all strata of society... Glorious times, right?!/...

And Stendhal continued, "When the people is clever and unsatisfied, every word takes on the meaning of "hint"... Having judged a more propitious moment, the impresario offers the Roman governor the "lovely", in his words, libretto of "Il barbiere di Siviglia". The poet Cesare Sterbini wrote it from the comedy of the same name by the Frenchman Pierre Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais /1732 - 1799/, and before that the famous Neapolitan maestro Giovanni Paisiello had already used it for an opera of the same title. The Governor of Rome, bored that day with endless talk of manners and propriety, readily accepted the offer to stage the opera."

But this embarrasses the young Rossini; he was clever and prescient enough not to show undue modesty in the face of real merit. And he hastened to write to Paisiello in Naples. The old maestro, who possessed to a considerable degree the traits of a true Gascon and was dying of envy at the success of the young and already notorious Rossini, very graciously replied that he welcomed with "great joy the choice of the papal police and the censorship" of his work. Evidently, Paisiello had counted on the resounding failure of his young and presumptuous rival. Rossini, however, wrote a small preface to "The Barber", showed Paisiello's letter to all the music-lovers in Rome, and set to work feverishly. In just 13 days /!/ the music was completely finished. But at the premiere the Roman audience found the work of the young composer from Pesaro ... "dull" and "much weaker" than Paisiello's work and booed it...

In fact, in this case, as is well known, it was a pre-planned failure, or rather a scandal caused by the supporters of the old Paisiello, which led to Rossini's flight from Rome. Fortunately, the second performance was a real triumph for the author and his work. Before long, Rossini's Figaro became the uncrowned king of comic opera of all time.



To the great singer Isabella Angelica Colbran

My dear and lovely friend,
I would like you to be in Rome now for a little while to see my triumph. With every day that passes, "Il barbiere di Siviglia" becomes more and more popular and appeals to even the most ardent opponents of the new school of music. Count Almaviva's serenade from Act I is sung here every night in the streets, Figaro's great aria or cavatina is a crowning number for baritones, and Rosina's cavatina is an evening song with which every local beauty goes to sleep, to be awakened in the morning with the phrase "Lindoro, mio sara!"/Lindoro will be mine!/... But, my dear Angelica, I guess that much more interesting for you than my last opera will be the recipe for a new salad that I recently invented to the delight of all the gourmets in Rome. I hasten to tell you: take a suitable pot, pour in some Provençal oil, add English mustard, a little lemon juice, mayonnaise, pepper and salt to taste. Stir it all very well, then add the main thing – finely chopped truffles. They will give the salad a very sophisticated taste, worthy of any real gourmet. The Cardinal's secretary, whom I met these days, apostolically blessed me for this invention...

But let's go back to "The Barber." In Act II, which – frankly – is inferior to Act I, what I like best is the duet of Almaviva, disguised as a music teacher, under the name of Don Alonso, with Doctor Bartolo, Rosina's guardian /"Joya, Pace!" /Peace and Joy!/, and also the aria of the old guardian, "As long as we are with you two, oh my dear Rosina!" in which I lightly parodied the old Italian school, and finally, the terzet of Rosina, Almaviva and Figaro, "Hush, hush..." I like the quintet less, in which the fever-stricken Don Basilio goes away and comes back again. I am prepared to admit to anyone that this number from Maestro Paisiello's opera on the same subject is much more graceful than mine...

My dear Angelica, I would be very happy if you like my new truffle salad. As you can see, the recipe is not complicated at all.

For myself, Angelica, I can say that I am now living quite well here in Rome. I have a lot of success with the local beauties, but I am downright desperate that there are hardly any good fresh oysters to be found in this lost city. If you, Angelica, in divine Naples, please remember me.

I would forgot the most important thing: I have started a new opera. It's called "La Gazzetta" and it's based on a text by Carlo Goldoni. I will finish it very soon.

Don't forget me, dear Angelica!

Yours: Gioachino
Rome, February 1816

In 1822 Rossini and Isabella Colbran married and the talented singer performed the leading roles in most of his operas.

/The date and name of the recipient are not visible from the manuscript/

...Wait until night of the premiere. Nothing stirs up inspiration like the presence of the notetaker, looking forward to your work with great anticipation, and especially the terribly worried impresario, who has already started to pluck his hair and swear desperately!

I must tell you that in my time all the impresarios in Italy went bald long before they were thirty!...!

I composed the overture to "Otello" in a servant's room in the palace of Barbaia in Rome, where I was forcibly locked in by the baldest and fiercest of all the opera directors and impresarios of Italy. He tossed me a plate of spaghetti like a dog and threatened all the servants not to let me go until I had written the last note. I wrote the overture to "La gazza ladra" only on the day of the premiere in... the stairwell, where I was locked in by the director of La Scala under the supervision of four stagehands. They were ordered to take the manuscript from me – sheet by sheet – and hand it over to the notetaker, who was sitting on a table outside, ready to copy it and hand it over to the orchestra... For "The Barber" I did the more sensible thing: I did not compose a new overture, but just took one ready-made – for the serious opera "Elizabeth, Queen of England", which was no longer performed. The audience liked it very much and didn't realise it was old – they were overjoyed!... I wrote the overture to "Le comte Ory" while fishing, knee-deep in the waters of the Seine, in the pleasant society of seigneur Aguado, a Spaniard, a celebrated Parisian banker, who was ranting on the state of finance in his country...

Under similar circumstances I composed the overture to my last, thirty-ninth opera, "Wilhelm Tell". As for "Moses" – for this famous opera I simply did not write any overture...

To Mr Filippo Sandocale, lawyer
Palermo, Sicily

Dear friend,
You expect me to answer you in my own hand, and here I am obeying your wish. For thirteen months I have been tormented by terrible, unbearable nervous fits, which have gradually deprived me of sleep and appetite, impaired my hearing, my sight, and so impaired my physical condition that I can no longer dress myself without help from others. Doctors are unable to treat me – they only comfort me. In the midst of these misfortunes, my dear friend, my dear benefactor, I can do nothing for you and for your lovely wife except to express my infinite gratitude for your immeasurable kindness to me....

I haven't held a pen in my hand in so long that I can't even write.

Please be lenient with the man you have become for pity's sake. Be patient!

Preserve your cordial disposition towards me, and that will be my greatest consolation...

Florence, May 1865                                                 Your faithful: Rossini

Selection and translation from Italian: OGNYAN STAMBOLIEV


Undoubtedly, "Il barbiere di Siviglia" is the most frequently staged and performed opera by the Swan of Pesaro on our stage. The Bulgarian audience has also met other wonderful operas by Rossini: "La Cenerentola" in Sofia /1968 and 2010/, "La cambiale di matrimonio" /Varna, 1977, Plovdiv, 1987, Sliven, 1988/, "La gazza ladra" /Blagoevgrad, 1980, Ruse, 1983/, "L’italiana in Algeri" /Sofia, 1980, Plovdiv, 1987, Burgas, 1988, Ruse, 1992/, "Il turco in Italia" /Varna, 1988/.

"Il barbiere di Siviglia"

It is interesting that the first production of "Il barbiere di Siviglia" in this country was realized relatively late – in 1922, in the tenth season of the Opera. After a number of great titles such as "Faust", "Il Trovatore", "Les Huguenots", "Le nozze di Figaro", "Prince Igor"... The premiere was on 29 December 1922, under the musical direction of the chief conductor Moysey Zlatin, with Nikolay Vekov as director and Alexander Milenkov as stage designer. The roles were performed by two wonderful singers – Maria Vasileva and Maria Milkova-Zolotovich /Rosina/, Dimitar Hristov was Count Alvaviva, Doctor Bartolo – Georgi Donchev, Don Basilio – Petar Manov, Berta – Maria Shterbanova, and Figaro himself was Peter Zolotovich. According to the critics of the time, most of the performers were really brilliant, especially Maria Zolotovich and Peter Zolotovich, and also the male opera chorus trained by the composer Panayot Pipkov. "Il barbiere di Siviglia" immediately became a beloved, repertoire opera and for many years this first production never left the stage, its cast constantly renewed over the years until 1943. On 11 January 1943, its second capital premiere was presented, prepared by a new team consisting of Edmondo De Vecchi /conductor/, Petar Raychev /director/ and Preslav Karshovsky /designer/. In the new production, the Italian conductor and our famous tenor and director decided to bring back all the abbreviated from before numbers /coupures/ as well as the rarely performed and now ladies' chorus of Scene 3 by entrusting the roles to new performers: Lilyana Tabakova – Rosina, Mihail Lyutskanov – Figaro, Mihail Popov – Basilio, Pavel Elmazov – Bartolo, Diana Gerganova – Berta. In this way, Rossini's masterpiece, now refreshed, sounded authentic and attracted more and more audiences, especially young audience for whom this wonderful Rossini title was an approach to the operatic genre. Moreover, like almost all operas at the time, it was performed in Bulgarian, and in the very good translation by the writer Yordan Stratiev. Interestingly, from this pre-war production, three of the principal performers – basses Mihail Popov and Pavel Elmazov and the titular Mihail Lyutskanov – have for years been the indispensable Basilio, Bartolo and Figaro.

After the war the opera was staged again on the capital stage – premiere on 14 October 1950 /Asen Dimitrov, Petar Raychev, Asen Popov/. Ilia Yosifov /Almaviva/, Katya Apostolova /Rosina/, Don Basilio /Dimitar Kozhuharov/, and Figaro was again the irreplaceable Lyutskanov, together with Bartolo – Pavel Elmazov. The production remained unchanged for 15 years in the theatre's poster, until the new realization of the then young and exceptionally talented Mihail Angelov, Nikolay Nikolov and Mariana Popova.

Then the stars of Assen Selimski /Figaro/, Petya Ivanova /Rosina/, Pavel Kurshumov /Almaviva/, Pavel Gerdzhikov /Bartolo/. In this very successful production, the Sofia audience had the good fortune to meet the great art of Ghiaurov, Ghiuzelev, Dimitar Petkov, as performers of the role of Don Basilio. A number of famous foreign singers also made guest appearances, among them the best Figaro of those years, Nicolae Herlia of the Bucharest Opera.

In 1983 the conductor Ivan Kozhuharov, the singer and director Pavel Gerdzhikov and the artists Radostin and Boyana Chomakov offered a new interpretation of "The Barber", lively, active, fascinating, with new searches and solutions.

The production was performed for a long time, until 1996, when Plamen Kartaloff and the conductor Emil Tabakov realized it in the language of the original in a very bright and dynamic spectacle /here I must mention the exceptionally interesting set design by the Greek Yoana Manoledaki, which gave strength, brightness and uniqueness to the production/ as well as the strong coverage of all the roles. Kartaloff's work with the soloists and chorus produced truly remarkable results. A world-class performance, worthy also of the name of our national opera, an event in our contemporary musical culture.

Rossini's opera has been staged more than 50 times all over the country – from Sofia, Ruse, Plovdiv, Stara Zagora and Varna to Burgas, Pleven, Sliven, Vratsa, Blagoevgrad, Veliko Tarnovo, the Academy of Music, New Bulgarian University.

The first production after the capital was in Stara Zagora in 1927 by a team consisting of Hristo Manolov /conductor/, Dimitar Hristov /director/ and Vasil Danov /designer/. In the city of lindens, poets and singers this opera has been realized seven times so far!  In Varna – five times, in Ruse – 5 times, in Plovdiv – 4 times, in Pleven – 2 times, in Burgas – 3 times... Among the conductors we see the names of: Asen Dimitrov, Ruslan Raychev, Ivan Vulpe, Boris Hinchev, Mihail Angelov, Romeo Raychev, Dimitar Manalov, Ivan Filev..., and for three of them / M. Angelov, Ruslan Raychev and Boris Hinchev/ this score was among their favourites! Among the directors are Hristo Popov, Ilia Ivanov, Emil Boshnakov, Bohos Afeyan, Tsvetana Prohazka, Stefan Trifonov, Plamen Kartaloff, Rumen Neykov, Pavel Gerdzhikov, Kuzman Popov...

The number of singers simply cannot be determined. Among the brightest performers, I would point out, besides those already mentioned: Maria Zolotovich, Mihail Popov, Mihail Lyutskanov, Katya Apostolova, Maria Mitovich, Petya Ivanova, Ilia Yosifov, Pavel Kurshumov, more: Tsvetana Arshinkova, Maria Dimchevska, Nikola Vasilev, Sabin Markov, Stoyan Popov, Georgi Genov, Kiril Krastev, Mihail Zidarov, Avram Andreev, Nadya Haritonova, Nikolay Zdravkov, Rosa Mitova, Minyo Minev, Nikola Kutin, Stefan Tsiganchev, Lyubomir Dyakovsky, Alexander Krunev... The list can be extended. The roles in Rossini's masterpiece are a touchstone for any singer.

"Il barbiere di Siviglia" is a never-ending feast!