Thursday, January 3, 2013

Il Barbiere into The Barber

The Barber of Seville, sung in English, which the Met proudly mounted this season, not surprisingly deflated Gioachino Rossini’s sprightly opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The problem was the English language.  Every language has its own cadence, and, to the extent Rossini matched his music to the rhythm and flow of the Italian language in Cesare Sterbini’s libretto, the English translation, despite J. D. McClatchy’s effort, brought out blatantly the discord between the language and the music.  This is not to say that Italian libretti cannot be successfully translated.  It just so happens that the clarity of vowels, essential in an opera buffa, in particular in those patter passages, are hard to come by in English which is rich, instead, in slurs and schwas (those unstressed vowels).  The contrast is evident in the very word in the title; il barbiere, pronounced in five crisp syllables (il-bar-bi-e-re) comes out as the barber, pronounced in three syllables of a schwa-slur-schwa.  Note how the word like padre becomes fluffy in father and qui e la comes out drawn out in here an’ there; and gioia e pace peters out sonically in joy and peace.   English words more frequently end in a consonant whereas Italian words almost invariably end in a full vowel.  It’s not that for these reasons English is not suited to the opera.  Purcell, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Britten glorified their language in their operatic works; Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim wrote lyrics and music to fit the English cadence.  Though the English Barber, abridged to two hour from the three-hour long Barbiere, was trumpeted to be a family fare for the Holidays to suit the kids in the audience, we must recognize that children are often more responsive to the comic effect of nonsense words and, therefore, to the succession of brisk syllables the Italian Barbiere delivers with gusto. They grasp the sense of the sung phrases if they failed to understand their word-by-word meaning.  The Barber sounded flat like the birra that lost its fizz; it was un barbaro di Siviglia.

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