You Say You Want a Revolution

Classic Arts Features   You Say You Want a Revolution
H. Daniel Webster explains why the dawn of the rock 'n' roll era makes perfect sense as a setting for Rossini's 1816 comedy The Barber of Seville.

Revolutions begin in straight lines, but inevitably end in circles. They take many forms: armies marching across Europe, tennis kings wielding newly designed racquets, wives storming angrily out the door, guitar players smashing their instruments, composers presiding over silence.

The tennis pro, the wife, and the guitar player are all angered with convention: they seek new light‹and find it, too‹but notice that everything looks and feels like something they had just left behind. Iconoclasts ultimately pray before old icons.

So it is in opera. First composed to honor kings and gods, opera turned to mock those kings, and then crowned them again, only to move opera from palaces to peasant cottages. And in the 20th century? Peter Grimes and King Priam are contemporaries; Moses und Aron declares the death of tonality while Susannah celebrates its resurrection.

Opera regularly joined the revolution, whether historical, social, or personal. (Opera has even instigated revolution, but who remembers what Auber's La Muette de Portici is all about?) With The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte foretold the end of royal hegemony before revolution emphatically made that point in France. Rossini in the aftermath of that revolution added his buoyant paean to the rise of the bourgeoisie in La Cenerentola and The Barber of Seville, the latter of which Australian director Lindy Hume presents at Houston Grand Opera from April 23 through May 15.

Opera in Rossini's day had many duties. It entertained, it glorified singers and composers, it inspired, and it taught moral lessons. Opera always held a mirror to its audience. What can a comedy dashed off in 1816 tell an audience that is inured to nuclear devastation, imminent environmental disaster, social cataclysms, and the highest rate of depression ever recorded? In this case, it can remind listeners that the iconoclasts of the 1960s look curiously like those of the 1920s, the Civil War era, and the American Revolution. It can evoke similarities between revolutionaries of different times and it can inspire nostalgia for the good old days when conventions and old values fell.

Setting The Barber of Seville in the rock 'n' roll era, as Hume has done, lets the director explore the basis for a revolution just within memory. World War II was the fading product of old political ideas. The fighters returned, fixed on the old beliefs of family, home ownership, financial security. That airless world was ripe for detonation.

Pop culture, fashion, film, and painting keep going back to the 1950s and '60s, relishing the anger, but missing its basis. Rock music swept away swing and sentimentality because those were old values. Classical composers burned their harmony books and wrote serial music designed less to communicate than to defy the march of history. The young became the dominant social group, opening a valve for a flood of sociological studies. The Pill crumbled walls that had inhibited sexuality. Drugs accelerated artistic productivity and shortened chaotic lives. Fashion shouted that anything goes, especially nudity. Rock invalidated any music older than last night's and allowed any level of talent‹and of decibels‹to be the basis of stardom.

Never trust anyone over 30? Rossini was safe, for at 24, he wrote an opera about throwing out the old and letting in the new. Dr. Bartolo stands for male hegemony; he is also the defender of artistic tradition, even singing examples in Rossini's sly parody of music that he had heard as a boy in Pesaro. Almaviva is more complex. He uses the perquisites of aristocracy while masquerading as a commoner. He stands with a foot in the past and one, hesitantly, in the future.

Both he and Figaro recognize that money pulls the tide now, more than title. Almaviva wants Rosina to love him as a poor student to avoid winning her with title and wealth. Curiously, Figaro, the glorification of the Common Man, gives up independence and his entrepreneurial wiliness to become Almaviva's servant. A free spirit, he chooses to join the revolution from within the palace walls in The Marriage of Figaro.

No specific icons of 1950s and '60s turmoil appear in this production. Elvis won't step in for Basilio, and the Beatles won't be hiding in the bushes to serenade Rosina in the first scene. Everywhere, however, will be the symbols of the triumph of youth culture and the demise of a world grown old.

In this new clothing, Rossini's music will also ask for redefinition. His harmonic choices marked him as a not very daring innovator in his time. His adaptation of the old traditions did, however, point to the future. Those full orchestra crescendos, first developed by the Mannheim orchestra nearly a century before, became the composer's trademark way of laughing at conventions and of rousing his audience to near-hysteria. The forces inviting him to compose with such novelty had counterparts in the bubbling currents of the early rock era. Rock bands learned that repetition and insistent volume had the same effect. Rossini's parody of canzonetta and scholarly musical devices had their echo in the Beatles' music hall recollections and other rock groups' versions of country music.

Revolution was a living, dangerous force in Rossini's day. The Bastille and Napoleon, more than being mere symbols, were propelling change everywhere in Europe and in young America. Rossini was playing to his audience's realization that what was unfolding as comedy in his opera was happening as drama in the homes and palaces of Europe. The straight line of the French Revolution has come back full circle in the iconoclasm and gleeful social and musical destruction of the 1950s and '60s.

H. Daniel Webster writes frequently about the arts.

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