Article by David Shonfield
It is almost impossible not to be seduced by Rossini – both by his music and by his personality. Inventor of the bel canto style and composer of some of the most catch tunes ever written, he was also a wit and a bon viveur perhaps the original foodie. Christened Gioachino, his very name seems to echo the Italian word for joy. Even as stern a critic as Wagner was charmed when he met the old man in 1860, and this despite Rossini’s reputation for making fun of the Wagnerian style. Rossini thought Wagner ‘lacked sun’; for Wagner, Rossini was not a ‘serious’ composer. The one Rossini opera of real substance, at least in Wagner’s view, was Guillaume Tell; that had been composed more than 30 years earlier, and it was to be his last.
For many, this lack of ‘seriousness’ sums up Rossini’s life. Naturally gifted, the son of musicians, he impatiently cuts short his academic studies. He bursts on the scene in Italy at the age of 20, producing five operas in 12 months. He composes at a fearsome rate: his first success L’Italiana in Algeri took him 4 weeks. Il barbiere di Siviglia was said to have been written in a fortnight.
At the age of 26 he was known throughout Europe. By the time he visited Paris in 1823 he was a star, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. So lavish and ostentatious was the banquet in his honour that two popular Parisian writers promptly wrote a one act farce to commemorate it, in which a landlord ball Biffteakini organises a feast to welcome Rossini, but no one knows what he looks like. A penniless young music student successfully impersonates the great man (with predictable results concerning the landlord’s daughter).
Reality sometimes supersedes fiction. At 30, Rossini claimed to have “made the acquaintance of every important chef on the continent” and later he was to have a series of gluttonous recipes dedicated to him, the most famous of which – Tournedos Rossini – involves a concoction of fillet steak, truffles, madeira and a hefty slice of foie gras.
The story goes that the quality of the restaurants was the reason Rossini decided to settle in Paris (where he was to spend the final years of his life). Whatever the truth of this, his security was assured in France. After a series of approaches to the French government, Rossini secured a lifetime annuity from Charles X. In effect it allowed him early retirement at the age of 37 with a handsome stipend to add to his considerable savings.
Rossini did not cease all composition, but in terms of substantial works his career was more or less over. This is one reason for his reputation as a composer with great gifts who did not use them to the full. The books speak of his “legendary laziness’; others suggest that the good life proved too much of an attraction. These assessments are wide of the mark.
To begin with, anyone who composes 39 operas in 20 years can hardly be called lazy. Secondly, Rossini was far from the inspired profligate that is often portrayed. He was a shrewd businessman who handled negations with both singers and impresarios with considerable skill. On his visit to London in 1824 he made a fortune estimated at tens of thousands of pounds from a series of concerts – both public and private – and from the music lessons and appearance fees. As Richard Osborne points out “At a time when the best music teachers were charging one guineas an hour, Rossini was being offered 100 guineas.” His wife, Isabella Colbran, a singer with extraordinary range but by then in decline was able to charge £1,500 for the season of eight operas at the Kings’ Theatre Haymarket. The Rossinis certainly drove a hard bargain.
Nor does Rossini’s rehearsal style suggest anything other than meticulous professionalism. The gossip was that he enjoyed flirting with prima donnas when he should have been conducting, but a contemporary account (March 1822) of a rehearsal in Naples sounds convincing: “he never gets ruffled; he hardly says two or three words … His principle is not to upset the orchestra and, above all, not to humiliate the singers. His prodigious memory allows him to make his observations to each one in particular after the rehearsal. Leaving the San Carlo (opera house) I accompanied him to the house of the copyist to whom he pointed out some fifty mistakes without looking at the score.”
Hard work and attention to detail did not desert him. In fact he seems to have been almost obsessive. Guglielmo De Sanctis painted to his portrait in 1862 in Paris and commented:
“Rossini takes the greatest pains when copying out his writings, never wearying of perfecting them, often going back to read them over and alter notes…Another thing that I observed about him was regularity of his habits, not to mention the symmetrical order in which he placed the furniture and objects around him…When, struck by that perfect orderliness, I showed my surprise to the Maestro, he said to me: ‘Eh, my dear fellow, order is wealth.’”
In fact, although Rossini may not have produced great works in the latter part of his life, apart from a mass, the Petite Messe Solennelle, written in 1863, his output remained high. It was as if he had recognised that his large-scale compositions were no longer suitable for the times, no longer to the taste of the public, and in this his instinct may have been profoundly right.
The young Rossini took the musical world by storm. The florid bel canto style he created – and which owes a lot to the Neapolitan influence – enchanted audiences who were still mainly used to a less dramatic approach. Not for nothing did he become known as ‘Monsieur crescendo’. But the very success of bel canto was a problem: even at the time there were not that many singers who could manage the range and the expressiveness of the style. At least one unfortunate soprano effectively finished off her career by tackling a Rossini opera.
Another factor was the irresistible rise of romanticism. Rossini’s influence on those who followed him was considerable, but he was unable to alter his approach to reflect changing tastes. It is significant that his final opera Guillaume Tell took him six months of intense work to complete.
But two other powerful forces were involved in bringing Rossini’s great creative years to an end. One was politics, the other his own personal problems.
Rossini on the whole tried to distance himself from the great political convulsions of the time. His father Giuseppe was an ardent republican; Gioachino was, if anything, a moderate nationalist. It is, however, difficult to avoid politics when your country is occupied by foreign powers. In April 1815, less than 12 months before the first performance of Il Barbiere, Rossini was in Bologna writing the rousing Inno dell’Indipendenza – ‘Arise Italy, the hour is come’ – in response to the rising which followed the call by Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law for Italian independence from Austria. Unfortunately, the day after the new anthem was performed the Austrians re-entered the city, an event which one imagines must have cooled his radical fervour. A year later, when the opera L’Italiana in Algeri was performed in Naples, with its newly-restored Bourbon regime, Rossini discreetly withdrew one of the arias – Pensa alla patria – on the grounds that its nationalist sentiments might cause trouble.
When he moved to France in the 1820s however, Rossini was associated with the reactionary regime of Charles X. As a result, when the liberals overthrew Charles in 1830, Rossini found himself definitely out of favour. The new government immediately cut the Civil List from 40 million francs a year to 12 million. Unluckily for Rossini, the Civil List was the source of his lifetime annuity.
It took him five years to have the money restored (he even had it backdated to 1830) but this coincided with a severe deterioration in Rossini’s health. He was to suffer intermittently from depression over the next few years and consistently from bouts of physical illness that were painful and humiliating. Without going into too much unpleasant detail, the symptoms included haemorrhoids and retention of urine. Descriptions for the treatments he was obliged to follow sound almost as bad as the illness. Leeches were applied.
In addition to his endless ill health we can count the death of his mother, Anna, in 1827; his increasing alienation from Isabella Colbran, leading to their eventual separation in 1837; and finally the death of his father in 1839. None of these events on their own were decisive but they all contributed to Rossini’s decline from the heights he had achieved. The middle years of his life seem tragic. Although he found strong support from his companion Olympe Pélissier, who eventually became his wife after the death of Isabella, he was mentally and physically reduced to almost complete dependency. All the more remarkable then that, once back in Paris in 1855, he recovered his zest, started to compose anew and for the last ten years of his life organised a remarkable musical salon, where weekly Saturday night concerts brought together composers such as Liszt, Gounod and Verdi and performers including Nilsson, Patti, Joachim and Sarasate.
Of his operas, however, not many were performed – with the prominent exceptions of Tell which received its 500th performance in 1868, the year of Rossini’s death and increasingly Il Barbiere. It is only in the past 30 years or so that Rossini’s other operas have been rediscovered initially at least because of the energetic work of the Rossini Foundation in his home town of Pesaro.
Of all of these operas, Il Barbiere continues to be the most loved and most widely performed. Verdi thought it the finest comic opera ever written. Beethoven told an awestruck Rossini in Vienna in 1822 “Above all, make lots of Barbers.”
It comes as rather a shock that the opera flopped on its opening night in Rome in February 1816.
In part this was because there was already an opera called Il barbiere di Siviglia, written by the well-liked composer Paisiello in 1782. Paisiello was still alive and in deference to him, and his supporters, the new work was originally called simply Almaviva, after the young count. A note in the libretto emphasised that the title had been changed, and that this was a new version of the original Beaumarchais play. This did not placate the rowdies in the audience, however: jeering drowned out the singing and Rossini, dressed in a new jacket for the occasion, was mocked and abused.
Fortunately, the second night was a success above all because of the memorable Largo al factotum with which Figaro enters proceedings. Rossini was elsewhere. One account has him hearing the cries of ‘Bravo, bravissimo Figaro’ from the street and assuming it was more abuse, refusing to come out and acknowledge the applause.
Figaro’s signature tune must be one of the biggest hits in musical history – certainly in Italy. As an expression of Italian character – assured, ready for anything, capable of anything – the combination of words and music is irresistible. Rossini was especially gifted in his ability to express meaning in musical form, and Il Barbiere has some wonderful examples: Basilio’s La Calunnia Aria and the Act 2 trio ‘Ah! Qual colpo’ with Figaro, the Count and Rosina (the best moment of a somewhat weak ending). You hardly need to understand the words – the music and the action convey the humour. In addition Rossini plays some purely musical jokes (most obviously) in the singing scene at the start of Act 2), sending up old-fashioned musical taste in a way which perhaps explains the hostile reaction of Paisiello’s friends.
It was Rossini’s tremendous energy and humour that Leigh Hunt noted when he wrote in 1819: ‘The author seems to delight in expressing a precipitate and multitudinous mirth; and sometimes works up and torments a passage, and pours in instrument upon instrument, till orchestra and singers all appear drunk with uproariousness, and ready to die on the spot.”
Rossini’s opera has always invited comparison with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro – always to Mozart’s advantage. Mozart’s opera sustains its quality right through to the end and there are also much stronger roles for the women. Mozart’s Figaro has moments of self-doubt. Rossini’s is supremely self-confident. Certainly Mozart was a greater composer than Rossini but yet these differences also reflect changing times. In Mozart’s day, composers were still largely bound to patrons – the aristocracy or the church. It was only right at the end of his life that Mozart felt he was in a position to stage an opera independently with Schikaneder. For Rossini, working 25 years later, the world had changed. Music had become a business, and the composer was able to make his way in the world as an independent professional.
He certainly worked like lightning Il Barbiere. He claimed it took him thirteen days although there is an element of Figaroesque exaggeration here. In fact the contract was signed on 15 December 1815, so he had about two months for the project. Moreover the workload was made somewhat lighter by his decision to recycle the overture from a previous opera Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra which had been performed in Naples the previous October. Nevertheless it was still an astonishing achievement and one that stands the test of time. It may have been a little galling for Rossini to hear Beethoven’s praise for the comedy rather than the more serious works into which he had put most effort. But Beethoven’s verdict was right. We need more Barbers.