The Beaumarchais play Le Barbier de Séville (1775) had already been adapted for music several times before Rossini got around to it. The standard version was Giovanni Paisiello's, unveiled in St. Petersburg in 1782. In (feigned?) deference to his predecessor, at the time alive and much revered, Rossini gave the premiere of his new take under the title of Almaviva, ossia L'Inutile Precauzione. That was on February 20, 1816, at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome — a fiasco.
In June of that year, Paisiello died in Naples, and in August, Almaviva reappeared in Bologna as Il Barbiere di Siviglia — but more had changed than the name. Stripped of the title role, the dashing young count of Aguafrescas was also robbed of his showpiece "Cessa di più resistere," a strategic loss. In a tripartite peroration, Almaviva — speaking, at last, in his own person — lays claim to Rosina, beginning with a commanding recitativo accompagnato, proceeding to an expansively romantic middle section and closing in a climactic burst of coloratura fireworks. The aria runs eight minutes and is the final solo of the opera.
Impressed with the piece, Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi, the original Rosina, appropriated it at the Bologna revival. The following year, Rossini cannibalized it for her in La Cenerentola, with new text, as part of Angelina's closing rondo, "Nacqui all'affanno." And with that, "Cessa di più resistere" had vanished, not to resurface until the latter part of the twentieth century.
Barbiere was never renamed Rosina, but from Bologna on, the opera belonged to the prima donna. The lesson scene in Act II, in particular, offered opportunities limited only by her exhibitionism and the indulgence of the public. In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Richard Osborne describes the frequent result as "a show-stopping cabaret." He goes on to note, "Adelina Patti's repertory in this scene included Arditi's 'Il Bacio,' followed by the bolero from I Vespri Siciliani, the shadow song from Dinorah and 'Home Sweet Home.' Melba provided a similar programme, accompanying herself on the piano in the final number." In living memory, Beverly Sills regaled audiences in Boston with Adolphe Adam's bravura variations on "Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman" (or "Twinkle, twinkle, little star").
Now the balance is tipping back. Thanks to Rockwell Blake, Raúl Giménez, Frank Lopardo and others, "Cessa di più resistere" is quite familiar, its opening flourish from the orchestra no longer cause for surprise. Of course, the aria is included in Bartlett Sher's new production for the Metropolitan Opera. How could it not be, with Juan Diego Flórez as Almaviva? (In his Met debut next month, Lawrence Brownlee will sing it, too.)
But is there more at stake here than an opportunity for virtuoso display? Yes — a lot more.
Well aware of the opera's history, Flórez considers Almaviva — in the form in which it was conceived — the finest tenor role in the bel canto repertoire. "Musically and dramatically," he says, "the part is complete. People think of Figaro and Bartolo as the comic characters, but Almaviva is the one who wears all the disguises. And, really, the story is about what happens to him." (Tell that to Rosina.) He points out that the first Almaviva was Manuel García, whose stardom may be judged by his fee for appearing in Barbiere — higher than Rossini's for writing it. (Do not confuse this Manuel García, a tenor, with his son of the same name, a baritone and a legendary voice teacher.) "García said that Almaviva was the greatest acting role ever written, and he must have been a very great actor." Among the tenor García's other parts was Mozart's Don Giovanni, an acting role par excellence, though no doubt he had it transposed, as singers were wont to do at the time.
Osborne dismisses "Cessa di più resistere" as "lengthy and expendable." Conversely, Philip Gossett argues in his recent Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera (University of Chicago Press) that without the aria, the revelation of Almaviva's identity — the turning point of the action — "inevitably falls flat." Very true. Still, Gossett concedes, there are "excellent reasons" for eliminating it. "The single most important reason," he says, "is that few tenors can do it justice."
As Sher sees it, the aria delivers the message of Beaumarchais, the forward-thinking revolutionary. "The aria says that you don't have to follow the old order, that you can love who you want, and it's O.K. The Count can't get what he wants based on his privileges as an aristocrat. To win Rosina, he needs Figaro's help. This is information I need to hear in this silly little comedy. We're in incredibly perilous times culturally. The aria tells us about love and freedom. It says that the way we look at the world can be changed."
Dig out your Beaumarchais, and that philosophy is there, but in dry, utilitarian dialogue. Like Mozart in Le Nozze di Figaro, Rossini clothed argument otherwise unlikely to be remembered in eloquence impossible to forget — provided the tenor can sing it.