People who don't know the first thing about opera still recognize "Largo al Factotum," even if they don't know it by name. The aria is one of opera's most well-known: Think "Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!"
The song -- which has found its way into everything from a Bugs Bunny cartoon to "The Godfather" to "Babe 2: Pig in the City" -- comes from "The Barber of Seville," which opens San Diego Opera's 2006 season on Saturday.
"The Barber of Seville" is based on an 18th-century play written by Pierre Beaumarchais, set to music by Gioacchino Rossini in 1816. Opera houses around the world continue to mount "Barber" for its ability to draw new audiences into the theater -- it is one of the most accessible operas, featuring an uncomplicated plotline, timeless love story, physical humor and an enduring musical score.
The opera follows the exploits of Figaro as he aids Count Almaviva in wooing the beautiful Rosina, ward of the manipulating Dr. Bartolo, who locks her away and intends to marry her himself. But Figaro conspires to infiltrate Bartolo's guarded estate so that the Count may gain access to his beloved Rosina.
Though ostensibly a love story (and really a romantic comedy), the main character is actually Figaro, "barber by day, matchmaker by night." He is intelligent, crafty, confident -- and nothing gets done in Seville without him. In that famous aria, he boasts that he is valet to the whole city.
"He is the one who pretty much makes everything happen during the show," said renowned British baritone Christopher Maltman, who plays Figaro in the San Diego Opera production. "He's a joker. He always has a smile on his face, flitting around from place to place, full of ideas. Although he's a hard-nosed business man, he takes great delight in the whole process.
"Basically, he's a used car salesman with a heart."
The opera has its roots in commedia dell'arte, a tradition of stock characters and physical comedy that dates back to the Italian Renaissance. Bartolo represents the stock type of the doddering old man, while the Count is the braggart soldier. Figaro embodies the wily servant who appears to be smarter than everyone around him -- and in its time the opera held subversive underpinnings of working-class power, presenting an affront to notions of class and status.
Director Lotfi Mansouri, former general director of San Francisco Opera, and conductor Edoardo Muller, San Diego Opera's principal guest conductor, are both "completely, utterly immersed and steeped in this tradition of Italian buffo opera," said Maltman. "They give insight and wit both to the music and the production.
"It's a very traditional production in that sense, but full of razor-sharp physical gags."
The physical comedy and slapstick requires a cast of not just singers, but singing actors. In addition to Maltman, San Diego Opera's production features an all-star lineup that includes coloratura tenor and Sony recording artist Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva and American mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavez as Rosina. Argentine bass-baritone Eduardo Chama, renowned Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and American mezzo-soprano Judith Christin round out the cast.
Physicality -- from performance to appearance -- has become an increasingly important part of opera. Audiences are becoming more sophisticated and demanding more realism and adaptability from singers. And artistic directors and singers are responding by focusing more on the dramatic and physical requirements of a role.
"Many opera singers out there now are really working hard to both sound and look like their roles, and to really engage with the acting side of things as well," said Maltman, "because it's one thing to hear someone sing beautifully on stage, and it's quite another to hear somebody sing beautifully and be dramatically moving at the same time.
"There is still this stereotype that opera singers should be the size of a house," he quipped. "It's the job of myself and other singers of my generation to respond to that by breaking the leviathan, Pavarotti mold of opera singers."
Maltman himself has been dubbed "England's hottest baritone," not just for his rich, captivating voice and clean diction, but also for his charming good looks.
And he'll put all those qualities to use in "The Barber of Seville," which includes some of what Maltman calls "the greatest music that's been written for baritones."
"While there's a responsibility to get it right, it's also a gift, an opportunity," he said. "I suppose like most of the good roles, it's a little bit of a high-wire act. It takes an effort of will to get up there, to stay on the wire. But if you do, the laurels await you at the end.
"It's a high-risk, but high-return role."
PROGRAM: Rossini's "The Barber of Seville"
Organization: San Diego Opera
Dates and show times: Jan. 28 and Jan. 31 at 7 p.m., Feb. 3 at 8 p.m., Feb. 5 at 2 p.m., Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.
Location: San Diego Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street, downtown
More information: (619) 533-7000, www.sdopera.com
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