The history of productions of Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre dates back to 1822, when the opera was presented at the Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre – the predecessor of the most important imperial musical theatre. That was the first St Petersburg Barbiere featuring the outstanding singers Grigory Klimovsky (Almaviva), Nimfodora Semyonova (Rosina), Vasily Shemaev (Figaro), Alexei Yefremov (Basilio) and Ivan Gulyaev (Bartolo). The opera was sung in a Russian translation produced by Rafail Zotov while the original version appeared in the repertoire of the Italian Company in St Petersburg which featured such dazzling stars as Giulia Grisi and Adelina Patti (Rosina), Giovanni Battista Rubini (Almaviva) and Antonio Tamburini (Figaro). It was in this opera that Ivan Turgenev saw and fell passionately in love with Pauline Viardot who made her debut in Russia as Rosina in 1843.
The first Mariinsky Theatre production came in 1882 and was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, the lead roles being performed by Pyotr Lody (Almaviva), Maria Slavina (Rosina), Ippolit Pryanishnikov (Figaro), Fyodr Stravinsky (Bartolo) and Mikhail Koryakin (Basilio). Lody, Slavina and Stravinsky had been students of Professor Camille Everardi of the St Petersburg Conservatoire – a brilliant vocals teacher and favourite singer of Gounod and Rossini, with the latter of whom he prepared in person (!) the role of Figaro in Barbiere. In the 1890s this opera was enhanced by the darlings of St Petersburg audiences Yevgenia Mravina (Rosina) and Joachim Tartakov (Figaro), also a pupil of Everardi.
In the 19th century the production of the opera was, in essence, a “concert with costumes” (according to the composer himself and the critic Alexander Serov), though the development of drama and music theatre in Russia did have a beneficial effect on the stage culture of opera. In the 20th century the most vivid “acting-singers” set their sights on directing opera – Ivan Yershov, Fyodor Chaliapin, Gualtier Bosse... Joachim Tartakov was appointed Head Stage Director of the Mariinsky Opera and staged a new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia together with the brilliant designer Konstantin Korovin. Its premiere in 1912 was conducted by Albert Coates, the stellar cast including Fyodor Chaliapin (Basilio), Lydia Lipkovskaya (Rosina), Mikhail Karakash (Figaro), Cyprian Piotrovsky (Almaviva) and Vladimir Losev (Bartolo). Post-revolutionary productions of Il barbiere di Siviglia were staged at what was then the Kirov Theatre: in 1924 (conducted by Daniil Pokhitonov, directed by Nikolai Smolich and designed by Alexander Golovin), in 1940 (conducted by Sergei Yeltsin, directed by Emmanuel Kaplan and designed by Nikolai Akimov) and 1958 (conducted by Sergei Yeltsin, directed by Emmanuel Kaplan and designed by Simon Virsaladze). These productions featured a veritable galaxy of Soviet star singers (Rozalia Gorskaya, Pavel Bolotin, Nikolai Sereda, Galina Kovaleva, Sergei Leiferkus, Yevgeny Nesterenko and Boris Shtokolov) as well as international artistes. To commemorate the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the Metropolitan Opera’s lead soloist Jerome Hines visited the USSR, performing at the Kirov in Il barbiere di Siviglia as Basilio.
In 1996 there came the revival of the 1958 production, now based on international practice using the original language. This featured soloists of the opera company – many of whom have won international fame such as Anna Netrebko, Larisa Yudina and Olga Trifonova (Rosina), Vasily Gerello and Vladimir Samsonov (Figaro), Vladimir Ognovenko and Yevgeny Nikitin (Basilio), Leonid Zakhozhaev and Dmitry Voropaev (Almaviva) and Yuri Shklyar (Bartolo). As late as the 21st century all of the Mariinsky Theatre’s productions have had historically accurate costumes. In 2009 stage director Alexei Stepanyuk offered a new serious version of the opera aimed at student audiences, the plot unfolding in some modern European city.
What’s the secret of Il barbiere di Siviglia’s eternal youth? Naturally it involves the tradition of comedy in masks, easily recognisable images and situations that are real everywhere and at all times. The plot is simple: some young people want to get married against the wishes of their elderly fathers and guardians. But here the most important characters are the crafty and inventive servants – jacks of all trades, they assist the lovers. But in Rossini’s brilliant opera instead of “maskers” we have real people, opening the next page in the story of this comic opera. All the characters, albeit genetically linked with tradition, are depicted in a new light. Rosina here is no well-educated loving bashful girl; in the original this role was meant for a low-register female voice – typical of operatic practice of the time – and made a “girl with character” of the heroine (it is not by chance that according to Stendhal the first audiences were angered at Rosina appearing as a “war-woman”). In the virtuoso cavatina of the heroine, in line with tradition receiving her lover’s advances, she states that she will be a fine wonderful and faithful wife if... he doesn’t contradict her, of course. Don Basilio is also no conditional masker – instead of a lowly scoundrel and informer we have before us a veritable ideologist of wickedness whose theories are expressed in the famous “calumny aria”.
Pushkin compared Rossini’s sparkling music with the bubbles in a glass of champagne. The most recent stage director, Alain Maratrat, has striven to imbue Il barbiere di Siviglia with a festive mood as well, making the audience participants of his production. The vocals are to be sung by soloists of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Opera Singers – people the same age as the opera’s characters. The plot of this dynamic production unfolds not just and not so much on-stage – the performers come into the auditorium and truly interact with the audience. The boxes are adorned with flowers and rather than colossal sets there is a blue sky and white drapes, while the costumes are incredibly decorative and varied. The main surprise and the culmination of the opera comes with the appearance of huge towering puppets – these are guests of the masquerade and drunken officers that appear to Bartolo in a dream. Bright and merry, Maratrat’s production is filled with the spirit of Rossini who worked as he lived – overcoming every difficulty with his generous heart.