The Barber of Seville is one of the most familiar operas, and the title character, Figaro, is one of the most familiar roles. There's even a Bugs Bunny cartoon inspired by the Rossini opera, called Rabbit of Seville.
"Everybody knows it, everybody loves it,'' says Jeffrey Mattsey, the baritone who plays the barber in the Opera Tampa production that has two performances next weekend.
Figaro introduces himself with an aria that is among the most famous in all of opera, Largo al factotum, in which he recounts his skills as not just a barber but as the go-to guy of Seville. Do you need a date, a message delivered, a messy situation fixed? Figaro is the man to see.
"The Largo is one of the most fun arias to sing,'' Mattsey says. "It helps to get the audience on your side for the entire evening. They feel a kinship with you from the very beginning, which is a great thing to have happen in the theater.''
Director James Marvel likes to think of Figaro as a laid-back, easygoing sort of guy like Dean Martin. "You always got the sense with Dean Martin that he really liked himself,'' Marvel says. "And I think Figaro has a similar quality of just enjoying life.''
Easygoing the barber may be, but the famous Largo, his only aria in the opera, is far from easy. There are several high G's scattered throughout it, as well as a high A that takes a baritone into tenor territory.
"It is deceptively difficult,'' says Mattsey, 44, who first sang the role of Figaro professionally in 1991. "If you give too much voice early, the end will suffer. You have to know how to pace it.''
Largo is the sort of aria that opera buffs collect recordings of to hear how the great baritones have handled it, and Mattsey has his favorites. He compares the performances of two of the greats, Tito Gobbi and Sherrill Milnes.
"The difference between Gobbi and Milnes is vast,'' he says. "Gobbi used so much more muscle in his singing of the Largo than Milnes did. Milnes' voice is so smooth and easy. He was such a technician in the way he approaches things. His high notes just sort of sailed.''
Milnes, who is artistic adviser to Opera Tampa, was something of a role model for Mattsey, who, like Milnes, is from Illinois. Mattsey was the cover singer for Milnes in a 1989 production of Don Giovanni by Orlando Opera.
The Barber of Seville represents a rare foray for Opera Tampa into bel canto opera, whose leading composers were Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. The characteristics of bel canto — "beautiful singing'' — are vocal display and lightness of touch. Under conductor Anton Coppola, the Tampa company has favored operas of a later Italian tradition by Verdi and Puccini.
The style of singing Rossini is much different from Verdi. "The words are more important in Rossini,'' says Mattsey, who performs regularly with the Metropolitan Opera. "Your voice has to be right in the front of your mouth, right at the back of the teeth, and it has to glide along the top of the music, while in Verdi, the voice is in the middle of the music.''
Mattsey offers a food analogy to compare Rossini and Verdi singing. "One way to put it is that it's like the difference between a nice veal scallopini and a killer filet mignon,'' he says. "They're both great. The veal scallopini is Rossini: It's delicious, it's light, the flavor's right there. Verdi is heavier.''
Rossini's style is more like that of Gilbert and Sullivan. "The patter songs have a similar type of feel to Gilbert and Sullivan,'' Mattsey says. "And the comedy is very similar. The minute Gilbert and Sullivan become slapstick, it's horrible. And the minute Barber becomes slapstick, it's horrible. It has its lowbrow moments, but they have to come out of a real human place to make them funny.''
One of the intriguing things about The Barber of Seville is how it relates to another opera with many of the same characters, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Both are adapted from plays by the 18th century French dramatist Beaumarchais. This can be a source of confusion, since Rossini set the first of the plays, while Mozart's opera is drawn from the second. So, in effect, Rossini wrote the prequel, even though he came after Mozart.
Figaro is quite different in the two operas. "In Barber, he lacks the discontented bite, the politicism of Figaro in Marriage,'' says Mattsey, who has sung both roles. "He's doing pretty well in Barber. He's making a nice living, he's calling his own shots. When he goes to work for the Count in Marriage, he loses some of his freedom. He becomes the disgruntled employee.''
Sarasota Opera performed The Barber of Seville several weeks ago, and there is some cross-pollination between the productions. Bass-baritone Stefano de Peppo played Bartolo, the music teacher, in Sarasota and will do so again in Tampa. Francesca DeRenzi, the stage manager for Opera Tampa, is the daughter of Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of Sarasota Opera.
Marvel is back for his second production for Opera Tampa, having directed Madame Butterfly in 2004. And once again, Coppola will be in the pit. At 91, he is amazingly durable. Mattsey has worked with the ageless conductor several times.
"When I first met him 20 years ago in Cincinnati, I thought he was an old man,'' the baritone says. "Now he seems young to me. He just keeps going.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.