It may come as a surprise, but “The Barber of Seville” we know and love wasn’t the first opera with this title.
Similarly adapted from Pierre Beaumarchais’ French play of the same name, composers Giovanni Paisiello, Nicolas Isouard and Francesco Morlacchi also created operas with the title, but it’s Gioachino Rossini’s that stood the test of time. Paisiello’s version was so popular that Rossini’s opera was considered a flop at its premiere, owing to the perception that the young Rossini was arrogant for attempting to top Paisiello.
But history has gone in Rossini’s favor, and it’s his version that’s coming to town this weekend. Updating it from the late 18th century to the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Virginia Opera has changed the setting and other elements of the show for a more modern take.
“It’s one of those famous, big-hit operas,” says Will Liverman, who plays the eponymous barber, Figaro. “It’s basically about two lovers that want to be together, but are held back.”
The conflict involves Count Almaviva and his attempts to woo young Rosina. Wanting Rosina to love him for who he is instead of his money, the Count disguises himself to win her hand, as well as fool her guardian and suitor Dr. Bartolo. The Count enlists the mischievous and scheming Figaro to help him.
“Everyone always wants him or needs something from him,” Liverman says. “He is sort of the jack of all trades.”
Andrew Owens, who plays Count Almaviva, says Rosina has given his character a reason to swear off his promiscuous ways.
“He’s basically kind of a playboy, but he’s found someone he has his eye on and really loves, and he’s going to attempt to woo her as an impoverished student,” Owens says. “That’s where Figaro comes in. They make a pretty darn good team.”
Owens says “Barber” lives up to its reputation as one of the funniest operas in existence.
“It’s entertainment that really doesn’t stop,” Owens says. “It’s a lot for the eyes, a lot for the ears, it’s fast-paced, very funny. There’s a lot going on.”
Megan Marino, who plays Rosina, says director Michael Shell wanted to update the setting of the opera to time when women had become empowered, but still set in the “B.C.” period — or “before cell phones.” She loves the florid, bel canto style of Rossini’s music.
“It’s one of my very favorite operas, period. Definitely my favorite Rossini opera,” Marino says. “For a first-time operagoer, it has tons of accessible, very melodic tunes.”
Conductor John Baril credits the singers and musicians for their skill at putting the show together.
“It becomes a real test of the singers’ worth and value that they can sing ‘Barber of Seville,” Baril says. “[Sometimes] we forget how hard it is to actually pull it off. It requires the very best playing from the orchestra and the very best singing from the singers.”
Marino adds that the production’s set and costume design are exceptional.
Costume designer Amanda Seymour “has really done a great job to make sure that my costumes look and fit me impeccably,” she says. “They’re tailored within an inch of my life.”
Liverman says that updating the setting helps the audience relate to characters.
“It still works. We aren’t changing any of the text,” Liverman says. “The cool thing is that people who have never seen ‘Barber of Seville’ recognize tunes from it, like the overture and my aria in the opening act from commercials and movies.
“Old-time opera lovers love it, and newcomers can really appreciate it too.” S
Virginia Opera’s “The Barber of Seville” plays Nov. 18 and 20 at the Dominion Arts Center, 609 E. Broad St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.