Brian Sewell on Rossini and Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Article by Brian Sewell, 1996

The early auspices for the boy who was to become “the God of Harmony”, “the first composer in the world”, and “the God of modern music”, promised nothing of the kind. Dragged round the slaughter-houses of Pesaro, a town of no importance on the Adriatic coast in a decaying Papal State, by his father, who doubled as their Inspector and as town trumpeter, twice apprenticed to a blacksmith, put into the care of a pork butcher who taught him how to stuff boloneys, instructed on the harpsichord by a drunken vintner who could only play it with two fingers, and threatened with castration because his treble voice was fine and strong (emasculation would have made it last, albeit with an unpleasant timbre, late into his adult life), Gioachino Rossini’s was a childhood rich in the stuff of farce and comedy, but quite unsuited to the infant prodigy he might have been, had Salzburg been his birthplace and Leopold Mozart his determined father.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was eventually to play his part in forming young Rossini, for having spent many of his pre-pubescent years in these mean apprenticeships and traipsing round the little theatres in the fever-ridden flatlands of Emilia and Romagna, his illiterate mother, a baker’s daughter suddenly turned prima donna buffa, singing comic roles by rote, his father hacking with the horns and trumpets in their temporary orchestras, Gioachino taught himself harmony, counterpoint and the rich business of orchestral sound by such painstaking analysis of Mozart’s scores that he was nicknamed Il Tedeschino, the Little Kraut. He was by then a pupil in the Liceo Musicale of Bologna, the opera buffa nonsense of his boyhood ended, his wide-ranging but undisciplined talents and abilities to be tamed there by academic pedantry. They were not: by 1806, this boy of fourteen had had so much knock-about practical experience of music in the theatre, opera and church, had earned his living accompanying caterwauling contraltos who could neither hold nor read a note, and had saved his testicles from surgeons, that he was far too adult to knuckle down to a tutor who wanted him to concentrate on canon, plainsong and florid cantus figuratus, and whose response to the question “Why?” was invariably “Because this is the way it has always been done.” Had the Licei had its way with Rossini, he would have been a staid relic of the 18th century, not the young man of eighteen whose first commissioned opera, The Marriage Contract, performed in Venice in 1810, set him on a brilliant and very public career, not the young master of the “shocking consecutive fifths” that so excited those who heard them in The Italian Girl in Algiers in 1813, and certainly not the amusing and popular composer of his day, even throughout the long lean years from 1836 to 1855 when he wrote no operas and, apart from the Stabat Mater, very little else.

After The Marriage Contract, Venice, Bologna, Ferrara and Rome fell to Gioachino’s musical charms, whether expressed in the comedy that came to him so easily, or in the high historical drama expected of a serious composer. His reputation swiftly reached the rich and powerful kingdom of Naples, and in 1815 he was command thither to become the musical director of both the city’s opera houses, contracted to write two operas a year, his annual payment some £35 and a cut from the theatres’ gaming tables amounting to perhaps £200. There he met Isabella Colbran, the finest dramatic coloratura in Europe, who, though seven years his senior, became his mistress, and eventually his wife – though it is rumoured that he married her to secure her money and the rich estates she owned in the purlieus of Bologna. She left him in 1837, having then endured for five years his amour with Olympe Pelissier, a notorious Parisian courtesan.

For a man so celebrated, given so many amatory opportunities, Rossini seems to have been remarkably restrained in sexual matters – but then he was uncommonly ugly; there was no scandal in his youth, no early instruction from toothless sopranos or frustrated priests, and of philandering in adult life there is no evidence other than the overlapping of Isabella and Olympe, the devoted mistresses, one Spanish, the other French, both of whom turned wife.

His Neapolitan contract did not deny him the freedom to compose for other opera houses, and on 15 December 1825 he signed a contract with the Teatro Argentina in Rome for what was to be The Barber of Seville, the first performance scheduled for 20 February 1816 – nine weeks away. It is often said that Rossini wrote the music in a fortnight or so, and he himself claimed only eleven days, but neither is quite true, for though the first act of the libretto was not ready until 25 January, the music for it was in the hands of the copyists by 6 February, and words and melodies then followed in fast tandem, the invention of the second half agreeably farcical but no match for the sparkling music and activity promised by the first – twenty days not quite enough even for a Signor Fa Presto to sustain the quality.

As with his youth, the first night of Almaviva, as The Barber was then dubbed, was a pantomime of mishaps and misfortunes farcical enough to inspire the libretto of another melodrama buffo. In using the story told by Beaumarchais in his play of 1775, Rossini trod on the heels of Giovanni Paisello, a much loved old composer who had written a Barber of Seville in 1782, and who now, in 1816, aged seventy-six, was literally at death’s door in Naples. His claque were determined to drown Rossini’s version with catcalls, and were aided by the antics of a real cat that disrupted the finale by repeatedly running on and off the stage chased by members of the cast, finally leaping into the arms of Dr. Bartolo as the audience mimicked its miaowing. Dr. Bartolo, no doubt a composite recollection of all the music tutors of Rossini’s youth, has already tripped over a trap door and sung the first act with a bleeding nose; Almaviva, sung by the very Manuel Garcia who was later to establish an Italian Opera Company in New York with da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, had to serenade Rosina with the pitch of his guitar not tuned to that of the orchestra (the note A then varied between 415 and 429 vibrations per second, and differed widely across Europe); and Rossini made a fool of himself by wearing a pseudo-Sevillian costume that made him look like a character mislaid.

The second performance was a triumph, and at twenty-four, Rossini was soon a household name right across Europe, the horizon of his career so dramatically widened by The Barber that he later complained to Wagner that the incessant travel involved in being famous had inflicted on him “the life of a nomad.” The opera reached London, the first city outside Italy to stage it, in March 1818 (with Garcia as Almaviva), and Rossini, after ranging many times from Naples to Milan, and on to Vienna and Paris, followed four years later. In great demand, he charged £50 to appear at salon and soiree, and £100 to give a music lesson (the Duke of Wellington among his pupils). George IV invited him to stay at his pavilion in Brighton, and there he sang in falsetto for is supper, offering Desdemona’s famous aria from his Otello. The King thought his manners crude, but they later sang duets together – His Majesty having an ear for neither note nor volume, and given to stamping his foot to beat the time, when Rossini left England after a residence of five months, he had a gift of £7,000 in his pocket. In music, Rossini may well have deserved the nickname Signor Crescendo, but his life after the surge of operas that ended with William Tell in 1829, was a long diminuendo not concluded until his death in 1868. There were a few great late compositions, but the songs and scraps for the piano that he called Sins of Old Age suggest a mood and purpose very far from the driven ebullience of his youth, brief sparks from slowly dying embers. “Buona sera, mio signore…..” – let us leave him on a note of farce.