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The history of what is popularly called Italian opera begins in the United States with a performance of Rossini's lyrical comedy "Il Barbiere di Siviglia"; it may, therefore, fittingly take the first place in these operatic studies. The place was the Park Theatre, then situated in Chambers Street, east of Broadway, and the date November 29, 1825. It was not the first performance of Italian opera music in America, however, nor yet of Rossini's merry work. In the early years of the nineteenth century New York was almost as fully abreast of the times in the matter of dramatic entertainments as London. New works produced in the English capital were heard in New York as soon as the ships of that day could bring over the books and the actors. Especially was this true of English ballad operas and English transcriptions, or adaptations, of French, German, and Italian operas. New York was five months ahead of Paris in making the acquaintance of the operatic version of Beaumarchais's "Barbier de Séville." The first performance of Rossini's opera took place in Rome on February 5, 1816. London heard it in its original form at the King's Theatre on March 10, 1818, with Garcia, the first Count Almaviva, in that part. The opera "went off with unbounded applause," says Parke (an oboe player, who has left us two volumes of entertaining and instructive memoirs), but it did not win the degree of favor enjoyed by the other operas of Rossini then current on the English stage. It dropped out of the repertory of the King's Theatre and was not revived until 1822—a year in which the popularity of Rossini in the British metropolis may be measured by the fact that all but four of the operas brought forward that year were composed by him. The first Parisian representation of the opera took place on October 26, 1819. Garcia was again in the cast. By that time, in all likelihood, all of musical New York that could muster up a pucker was already whistling "Largo al factotum" and the beginning of "Una voce poco fà," for, on May 17, 1819, Thomas Phillipps had brought an English "Barber of Seville" forward at a benefit performance for himself at the same Park Theatre at which more than six years later the Garcia company, the first Italian opera troupe to visit the New World, performed it in Italian on the date already mentioned. At Mr. Phillipps's performance the beneficiary sang the part of Almaviva, and Miss Leesugg, who afterward became the wife of the comedian Hackett, was the Rosina.
On November 21, 1821, there was another performance for Mr. Phillipps's benefit, and this time Mrs. Holman took the part of Rosina. Phillipps and Holman—brave names these in the dramatic annals of New York and London a little less than a century ago!
When will European writers on music begin to realize that musical culture in America is not just now in its beginnings?
It was Manuel Garcia's troupe that first performed "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" in New York, and four of the parts in the opera were played by members of his family. Manuel, the father, was the Count, as he had been at the premières in Rome, London, and Paris; Manuel, son, was the Figaro (he lived to read about eighty-one years of operatic enterprise in New York, and died at the age of 101 years in London in 1906); Signora Garcia, mère, was the Berta, and Rosina was sung and played by that "cunning pattern of excellent nature," as a writer of the day called her, Signorina Garcia, afterward the famous Malibran. The other performers at this representation of the Italian "Barber" were Signor Rosich (Dr. Bartolo), Signor Angrisani (Don Basilio), and Signor Crivelli, the younger (Fiorello). The opera was given twenty-three times in a season of seventy-nine nights, and the receipts ranged from $1843 on the opening night and $1834 on the closing, down to $356 on the twenty-ninth night.