When The Barber of Seville was first performed, early in 1816, it would have been difficult to predict that Rossini's comedy would become one of the most beloved operas of all time.
For one thing, the piece would have seemed decidedly unoriginal. It was based on a famous play by Beaumarchais -- and another composer, Giovanni Paisiello, had already made a successful opera from the story. That one was a hit, and when Paisiello's fans heard about Rossini's new opera, they choreographed a campaign of dirty tricks, to create a disturbance at the premiere. The opening night performance was sloppy, and the opera's future looked bleak. Even Rossini was downhearted, and refused to lead any further performances.
But you can't keep a good opera down, and Rossini's Barber is a lot better than just good. It quickly overshadowed Paisiello's version and before long it had spread all over Europe, with performances from London to St. Petersburg. In 1825 it became the first opera ever sung in Italian in New York City, and Rossini was arguably the most popular composer in the world.
In operatic terms, The Barber of Seville is actually a sort of prequel. Beaumarchais' original play was the first in a series of dramas. The second one was The Marriage of Figaro, the source of Mozart's great opera from the previous century. The characters in Barber continue their story in Figaro. In fact, the Barber of Rossini's opera is Figaro -- pre-marriage.
Mozart's opera may have greater philosophical depth, and a more pointed social message, but it's hard to think of a more perfect operatic comedy than The Barber of Seville.
On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents Rossini's Barber from the Grand Theatre of Geneva, with soprano Silvia Tro Santafé as Rosina, tenor Juan Francisco Gatell as Almaviva and baritone Tassis Christoyanis in the title role. The production also features the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, led by conductor Alberto Zedda.