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Friday, January 27, 2006 | When the scalawag barber of Seville hits the stage singing one of the greatest baritone arias in the opera repertory with gusto, the action begins. As he explains in his popular tune, Figaro can do anything. He brags that he is a jack-of-all-trades and the best factotum matchmaker.

The plot of Rossini’s most popular opera, “The Barber of Seville,” was a spoof of the aristocracy of his time. That was not a wise pastime in the late 18th century before the French royals lost their heads over their domineering ways. The libretto for “The Barber of Seville” is based on the rebel plays by Beaumarchais, a literary hero of the French Revolution. Under extreme pressure, the 24-year-old Rossini composed the score in 15 days. It premiered in Rome in 1816 to a jeering reception but rapidly became one of the most popular in the standard repertory.

The play on which “The Barber of Seville” is based was a popular theater piece dating from 1775 seeking social reform by the French aristocracy. The subversive implications were thinly masked by a farce in the style of opera comique. The cover-up is a young lord in disguise wooing a girl while clowning around with comedia dell’ arte characters, a popular entertainment for the people’s theater of the day.

San Diego Opera will open its 2006 season with Rossini’s “Barber” on Saturday, Jan. 28, marking the company’s sixth production of this classic during the company’s 46-year history.

Today’s audience can relate the erotic but subtle innuendos to current sitcoms. Sexual dalliances also amused opera audiences two centuries ago. In brief, Figaro the ambitious barber serves his master, the count, and other social worthies of Seville while plotting a secret rendezvous between his lord and a sheltered beauty kept in check by an aging libertine.

There’s plenty of horseplay with mistaken identities and flirtations devised by the barber to keep pace with the lively music. Rossini is famous for his “patter songs” that challenge vocal resources with fast and furious vocal dialogue. Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo Al Factotum,” is the joy or despair of many baritones. The audience can keep up with the fun by viewing the English translations in super titles flashed above the stage.

SDO is fortunate to cast a young tenor, Lawrence Brownlee, as the desperate lover, Count Almaviva. He comes here after his La Scala debut but before his Metropolitan Opera appearance and teams up with Covent Garden’s Christopher Maltman as Figaro and Ferruccio Furlanetto in his first-ever comic role as the dippy cleric, Don Basilio.

Local audiences know the Italian bass as a more dramatic Verdian artist since his debut here in 1985. Furlanetto sings in the United States only at the Met Opera and his seven appearances in San Diego.

Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” runs (for five performances only) 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28 and Tuesday, Jan. 31; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5; and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7 at the Civic Theatre, at the intersection of Third Avenue and B Street in downtown. Info: (619) 232-7636 or www.sdopera.com.

John Patrick Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at the San Diego Historical Society.

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