Il barbiere di Siviglia

Article by Stephen Jay-Taylor

But that is the fate of Gioacchino Rossini, born in 1792 on the peculiar Gregorian calendrical quirk that is the 29th February.  Somehow it seems oddly apt for a man who in his relatively brief career as a composer of operas – less than twenty years, 1810 to 1829, separate his 1st and his 39th and last – arrived like a whirlwind, took the world’s stages by storm aged just twenty-one, revolutionised the whole aesthetic outlook and practice of genteelly moribund Italian opera, and effectively retired at thirty-seven, still with another thirty-nine years left to live.

1792. An interesting date. The French revolution had been in full swing for three years, inspiring terror not only in much of its own citizenry, but in the semi-feudal principalities of its neighbouring countries, especially pre-unification Italy, where Republicanism was a very dirty word indeed amongst the powers-that-be, and the sympathising with which could land a fellow in prison.  Somebody like Giuseppe Rossini, in fact, the composer’s father and Pesaro’s town trumpeter.  The castrati still ruled the roost in many opera houses, though it was a tradition in steep decline (luckily for Gioacchino, a gifted boy soprano, who nevertheless only escaped the unkindest cut of all by his amateur opera-singing, baker’s daughter mother’s refusal to give her permission).  And it’s also the year after Mozart dies, aged just 35.  Since Rossini is a leap-year baby he must have been conceived in the early summer of 1791 – which rather explains his parents’ precipitate marriage at the end of September – but Mozart, who only died in December, would still have been alive.  The notion would – perhaps did – appeal to the Italian, who, from his earliest periods of musical study was nicknamed “il tedeschino” (the little German) on account of his preoccupation with the works of the Austrian master.  More than six decades later, in sumptuous retirement in a staggering villa he had had built in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris, Rossini would say “Ah, Mozart! The admiration of my childhood, the despair of my maturity, and the consolation of my old age”.

By the time the composer had achieved his major breakthrough, in 1812 with La pietra del paragone – his first full-length comedy and his first première at La Scala, which chalked up an unheard-of 53 performances in one season – the political map of Europe had changed completely as the idealistic principles of the failed French revolution had given way to Napoleon’s dictatorship and conquest of mainland Europe, including Italy.  So it’s not entirely inappropriate to read Stendahl’s frequently fictitious 1824 biography of the composer with its reference to the new, musical Napoleon who has swept through Europe as a meaningful comparison (more so, perhaps, in that Rossini even managed to conquer something that had defeated Napoleon himself: Britain).  By 1815, the very year of Napoleon’s Waterloo, the twenty-three year old composer had been offered the most prestigious post in operatic Italy, music director and composer-in-residence to the (newly-restored) Bourbon monarchy’s Teatro San Carlo in Naples.  With one shrewd eye on an act of political homage, Rossini opened his tenure there with Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.  Though the terms of his Neapolitan contract were demanding – albeit commensurately lucrative – happily for us they were not at all restrictive: duties discharged, he could accept commissions from whomever and wherever he pleased.

The first such instance arose rapidly, when immediately following Elisabetta’s triumphant première in October 1815, he was approached by the management of the Teatro Valle in Rome for whom he wrote Torvaldo e Dorliska, a rather strange Renaissance rescue opera with knightly derring-do.  Whilst this latter was in rehearsal at the Valle in December, Rossini received another Roman commission, this time from the rival Teatro di Torre Argentina, whose owner, Duke Francesco Sforza-Cesarini, wanted an opera buffa, the subject of which he proposed to select himself, and which was left unspecified in the contract Rossini signed on 15th December.  Given that the work was to form the celebratory end-piece of the forthcoming Carnival season and was supposed to be premièred on the 5th February 1816, the fact that Rossini happily signed a contract – with less than seven weeks to go for the composition and rehearsal of a work that hadn’t even been selected at that point – gives some idea not only of the hand-to-mouth, conveyor-belt nature of primo ottocento Italian opera-giving, but also of the composer’s unshakeable belief in his own powers of organisation and invention.

These were fully put to the test when it became clear that the Duke’s attempts to procure a suitable libretto had failed.  Rossini himself then seized the initiative and proposed a subject that could hardly give the ever-vigilant Roman censors qualms, since it had occupied a venerable place on the Italian stage ever since its local première in 1783 in Giovanni Paisiello’s setting, written for the no-nonsense absolute monarch Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg: Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville.  At this point, one may well wonder what problems Rossini foresaw, since the cantankerous and deeply jealous Paisiello guarded his reputation sedulously, and though retired, sat in his native Naples watching everything operatic – including the new-fangled, noisy kid on the block Rossini – with lynx-eyed intensity.  In fact, by 1816 the 75-year old composer was merely one of seven who had already set Beaumarchais’ work – which had itself started life as an opéra-comique before being rewritten as a play in 1772 – though it is unlikely that Rossini would have known any of the other treatments.  But Paisiello’s he did know, and thought it prudent to persuade his Torvaldo librettist, Cesare Sterbini, who had willy-nilly inherited the task of adapting the Beaumarchais, to include a printed preface to the libretto – which all audiences would be accustomed to sit reading in the brilliantly candle-lit auditoria throughout Europe – piously acknowledging Paisiello’s precedence, changing the new work’s title to Almaviva, o l’inutile precauzione in order to avoid odious comparisons and in the process hopefully forestall any trouble from the older composer’s itinerant posse of crazed claquers.  No such luck.

Rossini, who had been contractually billeted with Luigi Zamboni ( the first Figaro ) had no sooner delivered the long first act to the theatre’s copyists on 5th February – on a revised schedule to take account of the work’s première having been postponed to the 20th – than Duke Francesco had a stroke and dropped dead, aged 44.  But the show had to go on, if only for the widow’s benefit.  On the 14th, with Act I in rehearsal and Act II still being written, the news came from Naples that the Teatro San Carlo had burnt down the night before.  Then the tenor singing the ostensible lead role of Almaviva, Manuel Garcia Sr., was proving obdurate in the matter of his second serenade in Act I, “Se il mio nome”, and was proposing instead to accompany himself on the guitar in an aria of his own composition (and eventually did.  One would like to think that it was an attempt to rectify the imbalance whereby the tenor was paid three times more for his singing than Rossini was for his composing; though it’s rather doubtful).

In the event, the first night of Rossini’s new opera was one of the greatest failures in all operatic history, right up there with La traviata and Madama Butterfly.  The composer’s letter home to his mother fills the opening page with just one giant word: “FIASCO”.  Leaving aside the machinations of the various groups of malcontents that had wormed their way into the Argentina’s auditorium that night – both Paisiello partisans and troublemakers paid for by the rival Teatro Valle – the actual performance was bedevilled with accidents, ranging from one of Garcia’s guitar strings snapping, through to Basilio falling over on his face and having to sing his “La calunnia” aria with a handkerchief pressed to his nose to staunch the bleeding, to a plainly psychotic and probably paid-for cat that wandered onstage during the Act I finale, circled the two women singers closely and refused to leave.  The original Rosina, Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi – who retired before she hit thirty and wrote her memoirs – reported a non-stop barrage of jeers, whistles and barracking that started with Rossini’s entrance to lead the orchestra from the fortepiano continuo, and ill-advisedly wearing the hazelnut coloured silk frock-coat with gilt buttons that had been given to him as part of his fee, and culminated in the crowd chanting “Here we are at Sforza-Cesarini’s funeral!”

The composer’s attempt to salute the bravery of his cast under such circumstances by standing to applaud them was construed as a contradictory affront to the audience’s opinion, and met with howls of disapproval.  At the end, Rossini left the theatre rapidly and is reported to have taken to his bed, though the idea that he then simply fell asleep seems highly improbable given the prodigious degree of nervous and physical energy that the composer habitually displayed, and which became more marked as he grew older as a likely sign of manic-depression.  Alas, he was fond of appearing utterly nonchalant in matters artistic, which has misled generations of critics and commentators into taking him at face value.  The truth is to be found in the events of the second performance, which contractually he was obliged to lead, but from which he absented himself by brazenly pulling a sickie: and when half the cast and audience turned up at his door afterwards to celebrate what had passed off, against all expectation, as an absolute triumph, he resorted to some choice obscenities to tell them what they could do with their bravos.

In later life, Rossini became fond of telling people that he had taken just twelve, or thirteen days – depending on whom he was talking to: one of them was Wagner – to write Il barbiere di Siviglia (though Donizetti, himself the composer of over 70 operas, is reported to have said of this “Well, he was so lazy I can quite believe he took that long”).  Given the tightly-dated circumstances of the work’s genesis, it cannot have taken more than 20 – 24 days, which for an opera lasting around 2½ hours is little short of miraculous.  Except, of course, miracles happened regularly chez Rossini: Torvaldo e Dorliska had been written in one month and the expansive L’italiana in Algeri in 27 days.  Such was the man’s irrepressible, almost blazing energy and boundless fecundity of musical thought.  Even so, it has to be noted that all of the secco recitative in Il barbiere was farmed out to assistants and there are, in places, some passages of self-borrowing.  The most famous and extensive of these is, of course, the overture, as thorny a musicological topic as you would doubtless hope to avoid in a programme note.  Suffice to say that the original overture to the work was written on Spanish themes, would have been – as with all Rossini’s comic preludes – entirely in the major key, and sounded unmistakably like the preface to a comedy.  Instead we have the dark, minor-keyed opening, stabbing-accented dramatic curtain raiser written for Aureliano in Palmira and re-used to preface the equally stark tragedy Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra only the year before.  That the original overture was lost is proven by a letter, which, by odd coincidence, was only auctioned off at Sotheby’s here in London in November last year, in which Rossini writes to a long-term musical associate begging him to try and track down the score parts of his missing prelude for the purposes of a projected Parisian new edition.  Alas, the labour remained in vain.

As the 19th Century wore on, and the last vestiges of courtly old-world classicism gave way to the blood-and-thunder school of high romanticism with its emphasis on agony rather than antics, Rossini not only stopped composing opera but lived quite long enough to see most of his works steadily drop out of the repertory, supplanted at first by the rabble-rousing effusions of Verdi, and then, following Rossini’s death in 1868, entirely obliterated by the steady rise of verismo.  By the turn of the 19th Century, nothing of his survived on stage.  Except, of course, Il barbiere di Siviglia, beloved of Beethoven and Berlioz, Verdi and Wagner, and audiences the entire world over.  The reasons for this are not so hard to find, for even if several of Rossini’s operas could be considered superior in terms of either originality – Il turco in Italia – or quality of music – Il viaggio à Reims – or dramatic concentration –Ermione – none of them possesses the sheer, bustling, bristling energy of Il barbiere.  Much of this has to do with Beaumarchais’s source play, easily the finest text Rossini ever set, and itself a piece of precision clockwork chock-full of semi-grotesque amorous incident largely borrowed from the archetypes of Italian commedia dell’arte (think of the show put on in Pagliacci).

But there is also the extraordinarily witty nature of Rossini’s response to the libretto at hand, full of sly emphasis on the nature of operatic performance itself with off-stage voices, disguises, dissimulations, asides to the audience – Figaro speaks to us as much as any of the other characters he controls onstage like a puppet master – and outbursts of both solo and corporate virtuosity often at the most inopportune moments.  Bartolo may be no more than an echo of the senex, the dirty old man figure lusting after a young bride in Roman comedies dating back to Plautus, but Rossini gives him both serious musical status and break-neck patter in his Act I aria, ‘A un dottor’, as well as a faintly touching remembrance of a pre-Rossinian operatic world, all minuets and motionlessness, in the lesson scene at the start of Act II.  Basilio’s ‘La calunnia’ turns into an extended catalogue of Rossini’s choicest musical effects, the whole thing structured as a long progressive trademark crescendo.  And the crazed cataclysm of the Act I finale is the absolute locus classicus of inspired musical mayhem.

Thirty years after Mozart wrote Le nozze di Figaro – the second of Beaumarchais’s three Figaro plays – it’s slightly sobering to encounter the loveless and careworn Countess Almaviva as a young girl, Rosina, in the first, still full of life and sparky defiance.  What a thing is marriage, that the same character who sings Rossini’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ should end up singing Mozart’s ‘Dov’è sono?’ (Perhaps it’s just as well there’s never been a popular setting of the third play, La mère coupable, in which we encounter the poor Countess pregnant by Cherubino, no less.)  Much better to concentrate instead on the dry-eyed, purely comic creation that is Il barbiere di Siviglia, witty, intricate and painted in the brightest of primary colours.  In fact, when you wander out into the hopefully balmy summer evening air in the interval tonight in search of refreshment, raise your glass to Rossini, in advance celebration of next year, when he’ll finally reach 54.

Stephen Jay-Taylor