Gioachino Rossini
1792-1868

Essays on Rossini's Life & Work
La cenerentola  
   
Gioachino Rossini composed just one opera that holds a firm position in the standard repertoire, Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816). Yet if this were the only opera he ever produced, it is such a brilliant work of musical and comic genius that its composer would have to be considered one of the all time greats and his story is indeed the stuff that legends are built on. It is fitting that Rossini was born on a February 29, he was such a remarkable character. The son of a horn player and an actress, the very talented Rossini left his birth city of Pesaro at an early age to study in Bologna.  He was an outstanding singer, keyboardist and cellist, but his inclination was towards composition and he created his first opera, Demetrio e Polibia at the age of 15. This work was not staged until 1812, but his second opera, La cambiale di matrimonio, was premiered in Venice in 1810. With the success of this work, he was admitted to Bologna's prestigious Accademia Filarmonica as was his idol, Mozart, some 40 years earlier. There he studied with the extremely knowledgeable, although ultra-conservative, composer and teacher Padre Stanislao Mattei (1750-1825).

This was an exciting period in the history of Italian opera. The castrati were virtually extinct and the prima donna was dominant in opera performance. The catastrophic social changes that turned Europe upside down with the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic wars had a profound impact on all civilized institutions, including the opera house, especially in Italy. The early part of the 19th century saw the emergence of the businessman-impresario, no longer a creature of the nobility that routinely suffered huge financial losses in exchange for a few perks (like unabashedly operating a notorious casting couch). The most important and powerful of these was Domenico Barbaja (1778-1841), who at one point simultaneously ran the San Carlo in Naples, the La Scala in Milan and the Kärntnerthor in Vienna. Naturally it was in his interest to commission operas from the most talented composers available. Like his aristocratic predecessors, he was not immune to the charms of his prima donnas, and carried on a very public affair with Isabella Colbran (1785-1845), the most well known singer of her day.
 


Domenico Barbaja


Isabella Colbran

A shrewd judge of talent, Barbaja appointed Rossini director of the San Carlo and Fonda Theaters in Naples. Rossini, who by this time was recognized as the best composer in Italy, agreed to compose at least two operas per year for Naples, but was also free to accept commissions from other companies. For the next eight years Rossini worked under this agreement with Barbaja and composed some very popular operas including Il barbiere di Siviglia and ten that featured la Colbran, whom the composer married in 1822. In 1823 Rossini and his wife left Italy for Paris via London. Unlike Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, a future composer/prima donna married couple, Rossini and Colbran separated. The older Colbran did not like Paris, nor did she enjoy living in the shadow of her younger husband who, after retiring at the age of 37, became the "Grand Old Man" of music and a full blown celebrity. Rossini clearly enjoyed his exalted status and assumed the role of de facto king maker, using his influence to propel the careers of Bellini and Donizetti.

Why did Rossini retire so soon? He probably was just tired of going to all the trouble of composing, especially
when it was becoming increasingly apparent that he would be known to posterity through just one opera. Besides, he had all the money he'd ever need and he lived like a prince. He may also have been affected by some negative editorializing by the French Italophile Henri Beyle, known as Stendhal (1783-1842), who felt that Rossini, once the champion of "pure" Italian opera, had displayed certain "German" tendencies in his compositional style.

In the common repertoire of today, it is true that the Barber is by far the most frequently performed opera of Rossini's works. Occasionally, La cenerentola and L'italiana in Algeri are staged, both comic pieces. This would seem to bear out Beethoven's view that Italians were incapable of serious substance in opera. This idea seems laughable now in the face of Verdi and Puccini. But actually these great Italian "tragedians" owe much to the opere serie of Rossini, who was very influential in shaping the musico-scenic structure of opera in the Romantic era. And that Rossini was an innovator, full of fresh ideas, is borne out by the criticism of his teacher, Mattei, who groused that Rossini had "dishonored" the Liceo of Bologna.
  


             Stendhal

Although, with Bellini and Donizetti, Rossini is considered one of the three great Bel Canto composers, his music sounds far more like Mozart than the other two. He uses the harpsichord-colored recitativo secco when appropriate (at least until his French period) and his harmonies are definitely similar to those of the Classical period. His exquisite overtures (which are solidly in the repertoire of any symphony orchestra of note) provide a fine example of this.

As to why he retired at such an early age, we are reminded of one of those stories that are told only about legendary characters like Rossini. It seems that Rossini often composed while in bed. It is said that if he happened to doze off and the music paper on which he was writing fell off the bed, he would compose another wonderful tune rather than take the trouble to get up and retrieve the fallen sheet. Is this so hard to believe?

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