The Barber of Seville

Paisiello

Information

The Barber of Seville
(Il barbiere di Siviglia, ovvero La precauzione inutile)
Dramma giocoso in four scenes
music by Giovanni Paisiello (1782)
Libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini, after Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais
English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

The Deanery Garden, Bampton, 15 and 16 July 2005
The Opera House, Buxton, 19 and 23 July 2005

English translation by Jeremy Gray and Gilly French

Cast

Rosina, an heiress Rebecca Bottone
Count Almaviva, in love with Rosina Adrian Dwyer
Figaro, a barber Nicholas Merryweather
Bartolo, Rosina's guardian Paul Carey Jones
Basilio, a music master and friend of Bartolo Marc Labonnette
Mr Sprightly, a redcoat David Murphy
Mr Lively, a redcoat Jonathan Sells
A mayor David Murphy
A registrar Jonathan Sells
   
Conductor Paul Hoskins
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

Act I Scene 1
The colourful Count Almaviva has fallen in love with a stranger whilst on holiday in Spain. Six months later he’s tracked her down, discovered her name, and now hopes – disguised as the impoverished Lindoro - to serenade her outside the holiday-camp caravan where she’s kept incarcerated by the her over-protective guardian, Dr Bartolo. Unexpectedly he bumps into Figaro, who once worked for him and is now odd-jobbing as a barber. Rosina manages to appear at a window and she drops a message to Lindoro. Bartolo, who has his own designs on Rosina, is deeply suspicious of her excuse that it’s merely a tune from a comic opera she's learning, Deceit Outwitted, but fails to intercept it. Figaro proposes a ploy to the Count: since he’s conveniently barber to Bartolo, he suggests Almaviva should dress up as a soldier, who will be billeted on Bartolo, and leave the rest to him.

Scene 2
Locked indoors, Rosina writes again to Lindoro. When her friend Figaro enters, the sounds of Bartolo’s approach forces him to hide. Bartolo is livid because Figaro has administered sleeping and sneezing potions to his two servants, Sprightly and Lively. Bartolo is visited by Rosina’s music-teacher, Don Basilio, who warns him that Almaviva has arrived in town, incognito, but is confident that a well-planted slander will settle the matter. Bartolo resolves to marry Rosina that very evening. Figaro emerges, and warns Rosina of Bartolo’s marital intentions. Almaviva arrives, disguised and drunk, and manages to reveal to Rosina that he’s actually Lindoro, and receives her letter. He threatens to fight Bartolo, but is persuaded to leave. Bartolo has spotted the exchange but is foiled when Rosina swaps the letter; the discovery that it is indeed from her cousin reduces him to apology. Rosina, alone, reflects on her plight

Act II Scene 1
Almaviva tries out a new disguise: Don Alonso, come to give Rosina a singing lesson as replacement for the ‘sickly’ Basilio. His tedious and sanctimonious greeting is deeply aggravating to Bartolo, but Alonso wins favour when he (foolishly as it turns out) hands over Rosina’s letter to Almaviva, pretending that Basilio has asked him to do so: his suggestion of slander proves him to be a true follower of Basilio. When Rosina discovers her new teacher is actually Lindoro she is more than happy to run through her repertory. Figaro steals the key to Rosina’s window and promises to arrive at midnight for their elopement. Unexpectedly, a perfectly healthy Basilio turns up. However, even Bartolo has his reasons for trying to get rid of Basilio, and so everyone gangs up to convince him that he is really ill. Figaro shaves Bartolo to distract him, but with limited success.

Scene 2
Midnight approaches with a fierce storm. Bartolo finds Rosina is still up, and to her horror he produces her letter to Lindoro: maliciously he claims that Lindoro was merely acting for another, namely Almaviva, who’s passed it on to a new girlfriend as a trophy. Rosina is devastated by Lindoro’s deviousness, and reveals the elopement plot – unhappily she agrees to marry her guardian in order to be revenged on Lindoro. Bartolo leaves to get the mayor.

Almaviva and Figaro arrive, as planned, by ladder. Rosina, still thinking he is Lindoro, repudiates him, until he reveals that he and Almaviva are the same. Their romance duet comes to an abrupt end when Figaro discovers that the ladder, their means of escape, has been removed. Fortunately Basilio turns up with the Registrar to conduct the marriage to Bartolo, but is very quickly bribed by the Count to marry the young lovers instead. When Bartolo arrives, he is just too late – and his deceit has been outwitted.

Reviews

the cheeky, the ingenious and the bizarre
Opera, 15th July 2005

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the cheeky, the ingenious and the bizarre

Opera, 15th July 2005

Bampton Classical Opera’s stagings of comic opera are endless fun; invariably, you die of laughter. Yet Jeremy Gray’s and Gilly French’s sparkling ensemble has proved it has a nobler mission. In its captivating Oxfordshire Deanery garden setting its snappy productions juxtapose the cheeky, the ingenious and the bizarre with a genuine serious concern to make the music tell, engaging gifted young singers, capable orchestral players, and invariably charming the swallows overhead to join in.

They staged Paisiello’s Nina a few seasons ago; next season they have Martin y Soler in their sights. This summer’s romp was Paisiello’s Barber of Seville. The inevitable question was whether it would remotely hold its own when weighed against Rossini’s masterpiece, which eclipsed it three decades after it was first staged in St.Petersburg in 1782 and Vienna in 1783 - three years before Mozart’s Figaro.

Not really. Yet with a cast as zippy as this, pacy recitative and a clutch of deft and daft ensembles, it was easy to see why Paisiello had his champions. The real star of the evening was Gilly French’s cleverly inventive rhymed translation – witty, lucid, always audible and a boon to all the singers. Adrian Dwyer’s lightish but characterful tenor and perky personality made a charming job of Almaviva, from the early serenade to the lovely ‘Cara sei’ which sets in train the bustling extended finale. Rebecca Bottone (Rosina) is a scrumptious talent in the making: her upper register is clear as a bell, her tone appealing right across the range, and amid the poutings and yearnings she has the look of a versatile actress.

The Figaro, Nick Merryweather, has virtually grown up with the company. He’s not just an endlessly slick performer, blissfully adept at making Bampton’s zany kind of comedy work, but produces an admirably resonant baritone that impresses on every hearing. Other companies should catch him while they can.

The comedy, abetted by Paul Carey Jones’s delightfully awful, jealous Bartolo, was a hoot. This was Seville modestly rejigged (by Nigel Hook) as a holiday camp, with ubiquitous red- (or pink-)coats (two of whom have a glorious snoring and sneezing duet), rattling window boxes and television aerials (for a hilarious storm sequence) and unlikely oranges festooning the Bampton box hedges.

There was one slow set change, and just occasionally the stage business erred on the silly side; more often Gray displays a wonderful eye for paradox, sending things up much as Paisiello’s score does, which both typifies and impishly parodies the Italian style. Paul Hoskins directed an orchestra whose strings produced near-period precision. Not quite Rossini, inevitably, but far from a mere pallid predecessor.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

fast-moving, zestful and colourful
Opera News, 15th July 2005

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fast-moving, zestful and colourful

Opera News, 15th July 2005

Bampton Classical Opera is a vivacious and talented young British ensemble which presents opera in a charming, picturesque Oxfordshire garden. It has a special gift for breathing fresh life into rare and neglected repertoire. Recently it successfully staged Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni and Salieri’s Falstaff. This summer it boldly set its sights on Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville.

Paisiello’s Barber, first staged in St.Petersburg in 1782 and seen in Vienna a year later, enjoyed huge popularity among Italian operas until Rossini’s upstaged it in 1816. Mozart learned from it; and it’s easy to see why. What it lacks in sophistication of plot and orchestration it makes up for by sheer energy and verve.

Much of the fun of Gilly French’s skilled, fluent rhyming translation focused, naturally, on the flimsy, humorous deceptions engineered by Figaro (Nicholas Merryweather) and Rosina (Rebecca Bottone) to outwit her jealous guardian, Bartolo (a delightfully gruff and crotchety performance from Paul Carey Jones), latterly invoking the connivance of Don Basilio (Marc Labonnette).

Jeremy Gray’s fast-moving, zestful and colourful production transferred the action from Seville to a British 1950s holiday camp, where Rosina is virtually imprisoned in Bartolo’s caravan. It was launched with a memorable patter aria from the characterful Figaro: Nick Merryweather is an impressive young baritone, with fine breath control, a lovely rounded tone, snappy delivery and a clever sense of timing. Although Figaro has a less prominent role lattterly than in Rossini, with much of the comedy falling on the amorous antics of the disguised Count, he instantly stamped his personality upon the role.

With a welter of rickety ladders, mislaid letters and improbable entries and exits, the action all looked deliciously unlikely, and fuelled many comic mishaps. Bampton’s orchestral strings excelled themselves under a sensitive and incisive new conductor, Paul Hoskins, the woodwind was stylish, and the harpsichordist, Kelvin Lim, brought marked flair to the well-paced recitatives.

Adrian Dwyer (as the disguised Almaviva) is a charming and appealing lyric tenor with good upper range who – not least in the Count’s early serenade – prised the maximum fun from the furtive wooing scenes. But it was Rebecca Bottone’s delivery of Rosina’s arias, especially Act 3’s ‘Gia riede primavera’, into which Paisiello inserts a meltingly lovely Siciliana, which finally stole the day. With a fluent delivery, beautiful tone across the range and an acting gift to match, Miss Bottone, daughter of the distinguished tenor Bonaventura Bottone, is clearly a soprano with a promising future.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

Comic romp takes a holiday by the sea
The Times, 21 July 2005

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Comic romp takes a holiday by the sea

The Times, 21 July 2005

There's one good reason to be grateful to Giovanni Paisiello for his 1782 setting of Beaumarchais’s comedy: Mozart saw it in Vienna and liked it so much that he decided to do the sequel. Paisiello’s Barber is a kind of shorthand version of the story, composed in telegraph style for the St Petersburg court because of Catherine’s short attention span.

It whips through the familiar tale with marginally shifted emphasis: Figaro fades away a bit after the first scene, the love story between Rosina and “Lindoro” comes to the foreground, following the sensibilities of the time, and Paisiello milks some human warmth out of the story where Rossini turns out a brittle commedia romp in his more famous version.

Jeremy Gray’s productions at Bampton Classical Opera, the cheapest and most cheerful of open-air summer venues, have always indulged his weakness for the surreal, and Seville here was replaced by an English seaside holiday camp of timeless ghastliness.

Bartolo, sung by Paul Carey Jones with the pressure-cooker madness of a Basil Fawlty, keeps Rosina locked in a caravan. Figaro’s peripatetic life has brought him here as an orange coat whose mower is handily equipped with barber’s pole, and he carries out his shaving assignments with a pair of garden shears.

So far so restrained, indeed. What follows is a madcap comedy done with the usual ensemble pizzazz that this little company musters: Nicholas Merryweather’s bluff and adept Figaro, Marc Labonnette the creepily prissy Basilio, Adrian Dwyer an attractive and hard-working Almaviva, and Rebecca Bottone as little Rosina, a pert tease singing with gorgeous clarity and focus.

The music is worth it, too: a vivid score brightly conducted by Paul Hoskins with a particular delight in violin scallopings and a compelling way with relentlessly accelerating finales.

There’s plenty of Leporello in Figaro’s music, a prototype Voi che sapete -type serenade and a final septet of restorative benediction, plus a cavatina for Rosina that makes you realise that she’s the same girl as Mozart’s: burbling woodwind, muted strings and the voice arching upwards with a soul and passion that lift this little comedy into some other place entirely.

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Robert Thicknesse

 

Seville party in the charm of Bampton
The Oxford Times 22 July 2005

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Seville party in the charm of Bampton

The Oxford Times 22 July 2005

Giovanni Paisiello's version of Beaumarchais' famous comedy was eclipsed in 1816 by Rossini's more celebrated adaptation. But here at Bampton, in the cosy intimacy of the Deanery garden, it sparkled brightly and convincingly against the occasional clatter of picnicker's knives and forks.

The new English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray hit the mark too, delivered with droll appreciation by an energetic and enthusiastic cast, who somehow managed to convey the impression that this was, in fact, just a big family party. Therein, of course, lies Bampton's charm – and the reason so many come back for more, year after year.

As always, the production benefited from economical staging and visual fun. A cluster of promising young singers coped well with the demands of singing out of doors, although it did occasionally seem as if they were doing battle with the orchestra.

Adrian Dwyer, as Count Almaviva, fared the least well in this respect. Gorgeously honey-toned though his voice is, it could have done with a bit more oomph. Nicholas Merryweather's spirited Figaro demonstrated how it should be done; with verve, panache and vocal clout.

Rebecca Bottone was charming as Rosina, singing with clarity and dexterity, particularly in her pensive soliloquy at the end of act one as she ponders her predicament. Paul Carey Jones and Marc Labonnette turned in some fine comic performances as Bartolo and basilio respectively, while David Murphy and Jonathan Sells nearly outshone them in the small but hilarious roles of the two inaptly named servants, Mr Sprightly and Mr Lively.

Paisiello doesn't stretch his singers as much as Rossini, and his music doesn't have quite the same fizz. But it is elegant and charming, with plenty of melodic interest. The ensembles were particularly enticing, sung with great eloquence and joy.

Paul Hoskins conducted discreetly and conscientiously, ensuring that Paisiello's variations in mood and texture were fully realized. We just needed a better balance between orchestra and singers.

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Nicola Lisle

 

combines fun and sentiment to perfection
Manchester Evening News 20 July 2005

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combines fun and sentiment to perfection

Manchester Evening News 20 July 2005

Rossini’s Barber was booed off stage on its first night because of the established success of this opera – written in 1782 by Giovanni Paisiello.

The later version took over eventually, but you can see why the old one, which inspired Mozart to write his sequel, had its fans. Buxton Festival brought Bampton Classical Opera to perform it, in English and cleverly staged, last night.

Bampton is a lively company, using young singers and not short on entertainment. Director Jeremy Gray – with the supreme advantage of an audience that knows the story before he begins – has brought it into the 1950s and a Hi-de-hi style holiday camp.

It works: there are even a few gags (Gray and Gilly French’s own translation) linking up with the Figaro we know. But many of the attractive features are there because Paisiello did them first.

Best of all, the Rosina is the brilliant young soprano Rebecca Bottone. She has a lovely voice, a superb technique and acting ability which – especially in the act two scene with Adrian Dwyer's Almaviva – combines fun and sentiment to perfection.

Nicholas Merryweather is excellent as Figaro (the role can never be as good as Rossini made him, but you’d hardly know), and Paul Carey Jones enjoys being a Basil Fawlty-style Bartolo.

Paul Hoskins conducts with taste and affection for a score which, as it goes on, with its storm and its inventive ensembles, is surprisingly good.

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Robert Beale

 

Programme notes

So extremely to the purpose - A tale of two operas
Jeremy Gray

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So extremely to the purpose - A tale of two operas

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732 - 1799) put much of himself into the versatile and flamboyant figure of Figaro. The odd-jobbing barber’s colourfully flippant autobiography in the opening scene of Le barbier de Séville – sometime valet to the aristocracy, petty civil administrator, horse doctor, peddler of medicines, poet and satirist – undoubtedly parallels Beaumarchais’ own notorious career as watchmaker to the Louis XV, harp-teacher to the royal princesses, financial speculator, judge, spy, dealer in arms, slaves and tobacco, a pamphleteer and playwright, and ever the self-publicist – as Horace Walpole commented ‘he is too pleased with himself’. Beaumarchais was hardly a professional man of the theatre (just as Figaro, despite the title, is far from being a career hairdresser) and yet he created two of the very greatest comedies of the eighteenth century.

Beaumarchais originally conceived Le barbier, subtitled La precaution inutile, in 1772 as an opéra comique, that is, a spoken play interspersed by musical numbers, and he collected popular songs and dances from Spain for the purpose. In the end he rewrote it as a purely dramatic piece, although still preserving five musical numbers, but its innate musicality made it immensely attractive to librettists and composers. Just as Mozart’s Don Giovanni of 1787 was the fourth setting of the subject that year, so Rossini’s temerarious version of Il barbiere in 1816 was already the seventh opera (and a further six were to be composed up until 1924). The first, by Friedrich Ludwig Benda, was premiered at Leipzig in 1776. But since it was the commedia dell’arte which had so strongly shaped French theatrical comedy earlier in the century, it is not surprising that Le barbier should have been especially suited to Italian opera buffa. The great Neapolitan composer Giovanni Paisiello (1740 – 1816) was in many ways the ideal composer for the text, and was at the height of his prolific career, having been invited by Catherine the Great to be her maestro di capella in St Petersburg. The Empress may have had no especial love for opera but she appreciated the political prestige an Italian company brought, and Paisiello was one in a highly illustrious sequence of maestri including Galuppi, Traetta, Cimarosa and Martín y Soler. The result was that the court opera at St Petersburg ranked amongst the most glittering in Europe.

It was the Empress’s enjoyment of a dramatic performance of Beaumarchais’ play in 1780 which led to the creation of Paisiello’s opera two years later. Since ninety minutes was apparently about her concentration limit, Paisiello’s setting of 1782 was intended to be brisk and breezy: as he wrote in his dedicatory introduction ‘Since your Imperial Majesty had a taste of Le barbier de Séville, I thought that the same piece set as an opera would not displease you: consequently I have made an extract from it which I have attempted to render as short as possible, conserving the expressions of the original piece without adding anything’. As a result, and in common with most of his Russian period works, Il barbiere di Siviglia is concentrated and has relatively few recitatives, since Italian was not generally understood at the Russian court. Dynamic in mood and energy, and effective in colour and orchestration, the work is attractively melodic without making virtuoso vocal demands. Paisiello described the music as ‘in the Neapolitan manner, tormented and varied, with lively harmonic passages and with accidentals’.

Paisiello’s librettist, the Roman Abbate Giuseppe Petrosellini (1727 - after 1797), worked with most of the leading Italian comic composers of the time and was also probably the author of La finta giardiniera set by the young Mozart. Petrosellini was one of several librettists of his age who moved away from a string of arias with their distinctive but isolated colours to the more engaging realism of ensembles and extended finales. In tackling Le barbier he undoubtedly played safe, holding closely to Beaumarchais’ structure and, in the recitatives especially, providing little more than an attractive, abbreviated verbatim translation: Paisiello described it as simply ‘the French comedy… translated into Italian verse’. Perhaps inevitably much of the original playwright’s ingenuity and cynicism evaporates; even Figaro, after a promising opening scene, retreats to become something of an accessory in the battle between the adept and resourceful Almaviva and the scheming Bartolo. And yet one suspects that Beaumarchais would have approved, for in his apologetic Lettre modérée sur la chute et la critique du ‘Barbier de Séville’, he expressed his impatience with the depressing ‘agony of repetition’ of operatic style: ‘Hey, get along, music! Why do you always repeat yourself? Instead of telling the story smartly, you always harp on the same thing!’ The strength of Petrosellini’s libretto indeed lies in its succinctness, crystal-clear narrative and dramatic pacing. Nor was it entirely devoid of flair: the elaboration of ‘Don Alonso’ into a repetitious and sanctimonious bore was one especially appealing addition, which resulted in fruitful treatment by both Paisiello and Rossini. But there are structural weaknesses as well, not least the conclusion of the first act with its reflective solo scene for Rosina, rather than the firework finale ensembles which were rapidly becoming established in other works by Paisiello and his fellow Italians. Rossini’s brilliance at this point makes the loss in Petrosellini/Paisiello all the more obvious.

Following its St Petersburg première on 15th September 1782, the opera was widely taken up throughout Europe, with translations into French and German adding to its exposure and runaway success. In Vienna it found especial favour, receiving almost 100 performances between 1783 and 1804; in London where it played more sporadically between 1789 and 1808, the critics were often lukewarm, although when Rossini’s version appeared there in 1818 they rallied to Paisiello’s defence and accused Rossini of ‘impudence’. The formidable critic Leigh Hunt, writing in The Examiner, praised the older composer’s superiority:

‘Paisiello’s compositions are especial instances of this power of expression. His melodies are exquisitely graceful, touching, and original; and his recitatives always appear to us as so extremely to the purpose, as to be superior even to those of Mozart’.

Much the same response had of occurred in Rome in 1816 and it is well-known how the diehard supporters of Paisiello, then in his 76th and, as it turned out, final year, packed out the Teatro Argentina on 20th February to disrupt the première of Rossini’s presumptuous makeover. Indeed Rossini was well aware of his rashness in taking up an iconic plot. Much later, in 1860, he claimed that he had written to Paisiello to ask for his blessing and that this had been readily granted, but the correspondence, if it ever existed, has not survived. He attempted to demonstrate his tact by entitling his version Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione and he prefaced his libretto with a ‘Notice to the Public’ praising Paisiello’s mastery and presenting his own version as a homage:

‘Called to take on the very same difficult task, signor maestro Gioacchino Rossini, so as not to incur the bad reputation of a foolhardy rivalry with the immortal composer who has preceded him, has specifically asked that Il barbiere de Siviglia should be entirely reversified, and that there should be added to it several new situations of musical pieces which were called for by modern theatrical taste.’

Many of these ‘new situations’ including the opening scene and the brilliant dénouement of the first act were master-strokes, and quickly served to displace the older version from its previously unassailable pinnacle. Nevertheless for some years, comparisons continued to intrigue: the Théâtre-Italien in Paris presented both versions in 1819, and at Covent Garden a year earlier an extraordinary synthesis combined passages from both the Italian operas with new music by Henry Bishop – The Times reported ‘we have seldom enjoyed a higher musical treat at an English theatre’. (Such a pastiche was of course not new, and Lorenzo da Ponte himself had presented an amalgamation of Gazzaniga’s and Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket).

But it is unfair to judge Paisiello’s work entirely through later tastes and developments. In its own right, his Barber is an outstanding example of comic opera, cogent and effective in its narrative and humour. Typical are the extensive and spacious orchestral introductions to the arias, establishing colour and mood. Frequently it is the orchestra which continues to maintain the melodies, against which the vocal line may be treated with considerable simplicity and even at times reduced to a virtually monotone parlante, an important technique often attributed to Paisiello’s invention. His tight, compressed rhythmic patterns may create a certain relentlessness, but this drive is wholly appropriate to the focus and direction of Beaumarchais’ plot. Figaro’s introductory aria, cast in the ‘catalogue’ genre of opera buffa, brilliantly expresses his mounting enthusiasm and confidence: melodically it may be negligible, but the key structure and orchestral figurations create a breathtaking élan. Paisiello’s excels in the comic timing of the extended Act II quintet, ‘Don Basilio’, which hilariously interrupts Rosina’s music lesson, and Paisiello cleverly keeps the voices consecutive and never concurrent, until everyone gangs up to dismiss the music-master back to his sickbed. The robustly absurd trio in which the raging Bartolo attempts to interrogate his servants who, thanks to Figaro’s potions, can only respond with yawns and sneezes, is one of the funniest in all classical opera, and Rossini was wise to make no attempt to recreate this particular scene.

David Kimbell, in his weighty Italian Opera, concludes that in Paisiello ‘word and tone fit like hand and glove; but never does the aptness of the music to text or situation result in obtrusive “illustration” or in any abuse of what is natural in musical terms.’ It was this skilful decorum which must have impressed Mozart when he heard it in Vienna and led him to set Beaumarchais’ sequel, Le mariage de Figaro, in 1786 (and also to compose in 1789 the breathtaking German insertion aria for The Barber, Schon lacht der holder Frühling, intended for Josepha Hofer, and which is included in tonight’s performance). Few other operas have borne such a miraculous progeny.

Jeremy Gray
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