Perspectives: The Barber of Seville
by Gerald N Izenberg, PhD
The excuse for a psychoanalyst to discuss an opera can only be that there is something psychological to illuminate in it, whether in the libretto or in the way its music expresses emotion and character. Unlike, however, an opera like Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville would not seem to be a promising subject. In Mozart’s opera, Giovanni’s complexities and inner conflicts lead to his tragic downfall. Rossini’s Barber, however, is opera buffa at its most comic, its farcical plot, stock characters and slapstick humor apparently just scaffolding for its gorgeous music. Dr. Bartolo, the proverbial avaricious old guardian, wishes to marry his beautiful and rich aristocratic ward Rosina for her money. She, however, is in love with the mysterious Count Almaviva, who is courting her in disguise as the commoner Lindoro to test the genuineness of her affection. At the instigation of the cunning servant Figaro, Almaviva insinuates himself into the household first as a billeted drunken soldier and when that scheme fails as a substitute music teacher. Though the intrigues are easily exposed, true love ultimately triumphs over avarice.
But the frivolousness of the comedy is deceptive. The opera, adapted from an eighteenth century play by the famous playwright Beaumarchais, is a morality tale in the neo-classical tradition in which entertainment was spice for moral education. Virtue and vice, in this case authentic emotion and greed, are identified both with different social classes and with specific personalities. As it turns out though, the characters are more complicated and ambiguous psychologically than they first seem.
On the surface, the opera suggests that nobility of character comes only from nobility of birth, while the uppity new middle class is money-grubbing and devious—the standard aristocratic view in Old Regime France. So are the lower classes who serve it, like the cheerfully venal Figaro, who at one point tells the disguised Almaviva, “You cannot imagine/what a prodigious devotion/the sweet thought of gold/makes me feel towards Lindoro/At the idea of this metal/portentous, omnipotent/a volcano of imagination within me/commences to erupt.” The anti-bourgeois message seems to be that only those who don’t pursue gain and therefore don’t need to use others are capable of true emotion.
But in fact the opera, like the play, is highly subversive of the society it supposedly celebrates. It suggests that what is supposedly bad is in fact good, and the subversion works through the psychology of the characters as expressed in their music.
Perhaps the best instance, certainly one of the best-known arias in the opera literature, is Figaro’s “Largo al factotum.” It is a bravura piece, full of immense energy and brio, a tour de force of expressive vitality. These musical qualities are central to the character of Figaro and what he represents. “Make way for the factotum of the city,” he sings, “always in a bustle, in constant motion…Everybody calls for me, everybody wants me.” Figaro is full of himself because he is in demand, and he is in demand because he leads a busy, productive and useful life—the opposite of the aristocrats who do no work and live to exhibit their courtly manners. Figaro’s bourgeois virtues are the expression of the vitality which has been liberated by a new kind of entrepreneurial society that values genuine personal effort over gesture, naturalness over artificiality. Figaro represents a new kind of selfhood in the post-revolutionary nineteenth century, which is permitted to celebrate a healthy narcissism, one based on genuine achievement and social usefulness. It is not an accident that the opera is named for Figaro rather than for the aristocratic protagonists of the love story. But Rossini writes music like this even for “villains” like Don Basilio, Rosina’s singing teacher and Bartolo’s adviser, as in the great aria in which he suggests getting rid of Almaviva by spreading slanderous rumors about him. Its liveliness is as wicked as its words; Rossini knows the dual nature of the era’s newly released energies, which can be aggressive and destructive as well as creative and productive—and enjoyed as such.
By contrast, Almaviva’s music, at least when he is being his most chivalric, as in his song to Rosina toward the beginning of the opera, is genteel, even a little sappy. An even more striking example of music conveying insight into social character is Bartolo’s reaction to the lively song Rosina sings accompanied by the disguised Almaviva: he falls asleep. He prefers, he says, the old fashioned kind, of which he proceeds to give an example whose lyrics and music are quite insipid. They represent the courtly conventional opera of the eighteenth century which Rossini was challenging. The social/psychological point is that like all arrivistes he is trying to show that he is worthy of established society by aping its cultural preferences. Even representatives of the new society can be hopelessly reactionary when they identify with the standards of the old.
The new idea of personality, however, can also be embodied by representatives of the old society, as Rosina shows. She is a woman; she accepts her place in a male dominated world. But when it comes to the rights of passion, there are limits to her submissiveness. In her great aria “Una voce poco fa” she makes it clear that she will not be thwarted in love. “I am docile,” she sings demurely, “I am respectful/I am obedient/sweet and loving. /I can be ruled/I can be guided. But if crossed in love/I can be a viper/and a hundred tricks/I shall play/before they have their way.” Rosina’s rebelliousness on behalf of Eros is socially and psychologically subversive of the very authoritarian and patriarchal order she represents as an aristocrat.
Rosina’s aria is one illustration that the music of The Barber was the most subversive thing about it. Its innovative vitality challenged the cultural superego and shocked its audiences. A well known English writer of the time wrote of the opera’s first London performance, “We saw at once that there was a great revolution in dramatic music. Rossini burst on the stage like a torrent.” And Rossini knew exactly what he was doing. The notable composer Paisiello had composed a version of the Barber years before Rossini. In redoing it, Rossini wanted to displace the older man’s more sedate version. Not surprisingly, Paisiello’s supporters retaliated. It was their noisy demonstration that made the opening night of the opera a famous disaster. The Barber of Seville was born in a professional oedipal battle.
In fact, there was also a more personal oedipal background to the opera. I said earlier that Rossini’s music subverts the aristocratic order. But in the plot, Count Almaviva is the victor and hero. The aria proclaiming his victory over Bartolo contains all the typical fantasies of an oedipal rescue fantasy, the young man rescuing the damsel in distress from the yoke of an “evil powerful tyrant,” changing her “anguish into delight” and letting her enjoy freedom “in the arms of a faithful husband.” The result is that traditional values reassert themselves, despite the revolutionary music; the aristocrat remains on top. The conflict between social radicalism and conservatism mirrors a conflict in Rossini himself. Later in life he became an extreme reactionary, a supporter of the traditional aristocratic order.
In this biographical context it is fascinating to learn that Rossini’s father, a highly popular musician himself, had been an ardent supporter of the French Revolution who wanted to see its ideals extended to Italy and was imprisoned for pro-revolutionary activities when his son was seven. It is not hard to see the son’s ambivalence towards his father’s ideals, which increasingly hardened into complete opposition, as a kind of oedipal battle. In a revolutionary age, the way to rebel against one’s father is to be conservative. On the manifest level, the opera reaffirms the legitimacy of aristocratic society. One might even think of Rossini’s identification with Count Almaviva as the typical expression of what Freud called “the family romance,” the repudiation of the devalued father in the fantasy that he is not the real father, who is of a much more elevated status. But at the same time, the rebellious musical energy that is the opera’s true core represents the son’s deep identification with his father and his father’s radicalism. Eventually, as I noted, the son would turn completely against his father’s politics. But The Barber of Seville, precisely in the tension between its music and the outcome of its plot, is a true child of the French Revolution, and its very charm, lightheartedness and vitality a manifesto of the new, libidinous and proudly assertive idea of self that the revolutionary age had ushered in.
Gerald N. Izenberg, PhD, is a retired member of the Faculty of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and former Professor of History at Washington University. He is also the author of several books He is the author of several books, including The Existentialist Critique of Freud: The Crisis of Autonomy, reissued in 2015 as part of the Princeton Legacy Library, published by Princeton University Press.