From the Jaws of Disaster

Article by Anthony Holden

The seventeenth of his thirty-nine operas, written when he was a 23-year-old as exuberant as so much of his music, Il barbiere di Siviglia remains Rossini’s best-known and most popular work, one of the most-performed operas of all time. But it was nearly stillborn. The first night of Il barbiere, in Rome in 1816, was one of musical history’s most celebrated disasters.

Born in 1792 in Pesaro, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, the son of the town trumpeter and a part-time soprano, Rossini was writing accomplished string sonatas by the age of 12, clearly under the benign influence of Haydn and Mozart. His first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract), was premiered in Venice when he was 18; the following three years saw a dozen more, including Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, performed in Venice, Bologna, Rome, Milan and Ferrara. By his early twenties, when he was already cannibalizing his own earlier works in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Rossini was the toast of all Italy, a composer of international renown.

Given the upheavals then afflicting Europe, and the imprisonment of his father in 1799 for his support of Napoleon, Rossini’s younger years had been itinerant; his mother supported them both as a singer while her son studied music in Bologna, before moving on to Venice and then Naples. One of the Neapolitan masters of the moment, with whose work the young Rossini would certainly have been familiar, was another prolific, itinerant Italian composer named Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).

He wrote 94 operas, and twice as many other works, but Paisiello is these days better-known via the catalogues of others. Beethoven composed variations on one of his arias, as did Hummel and Paganini. Mozart is supposed to have asked Lorenzo Da Ponte to write him a libretto for Le Nozze di Figaro because of the success of Paisiello’s opera of its prequel in Beaumarchais’ comic trilogy, Il barbiere di Siviglia. Written in St. Petersburg in 1782, seven years after the play’s premiere in Paris, the opera’s smooth sophistication was soon acclaimed all over Europe.

But musical history has now forgotten the suave Paisiello and his Barbiere, while still celebrating the ebullient Rossini’s 200 years later. At the time, it looked like being the other way round. Paisiello was universally revered and, even more importantly, still alive – at 75, as it transpired, he had less than four months to live – when Rossini had the nerve to write an opera on the same theme as the senior composer’s masterpiece.

No matter that 35 years earlier the mature, 40-year-old Paisiello had himself re-worked Pergolesi’s celebrated intermezzo La serva padrona into an opera of his own. Outraged by the young Rossini’s insolence, Paisiello’s fanatical supporters became intent on revenge.

The subject-matter for Rossini’s new opera was undecided when the 23-year-old composer signed a contract with the Duke Francesci Sforza-Cesarini, owner and impresario of Rome’s Teatro di Torre Argentina, in December 1815. The vogue librettist Jacopo Ferretti, (later to work with Rossini on La cenerentola and Matilde di Shabran), evidently provided a text of which neither the composer nor his patron the Duke approved.

All the indications are that it was Rossini himself who then suggested Il Barbiere to an alternative librettist, Cesare Sterbini. Paisiello’s version had been written ten years before he was born, but still Rossini insisted on a markedly different text, significantly introducing elements of the commedia dell’arte. Out of respect for the great man, moreover, he also insisted on a different title, Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione [‘or, the futile precaution’], and wrote personally to Paisiello, seeking his forgiveness for his impertinence in setting the same French play – which was granted, Rossini later said, though neither letter survives.

What does survive, however, is the elaborate ‘Notice to the Public’ printed on the libretto, which might have served its purpose had it merely pointed out that the title had been changed ‘out of the respect and veneration felt by the composer of the present opera towards the celebrated Paisiello, who has already set this subject-matter to music under its original title’.

But the ‘Notice’ then went on to assert, rather less tactfully, that times had changed since Paisiello’s ‘immortal’ version. Rossini had included new scenes ‘as called for by contemporary theatrical taste’ as well as some choruses ‘required by modern custom and practice’. Given the evolution of opera itself since Paisiello’s heyday, the ‘generous’ public would therefore ‘understand and forgive the author of this new drama, who would not have dared introduce the slightest change into the French work, given the accolades it has received throughout the theatres of Europe, without such unavoidable considerations’.

Sterbini, who presumably wrote this under Rossini’s direction, was protesting too much. The defensive tone of the Notice served merely to incite the paisiellisti who, sensing weakness, grew hell-bent on sabotage.

By his own account, Rossini wrote Il barbiere in thirteen days. This claim has, unsurprisingly, raised scholarly eyebrows; but the fact is that barely six weeks passed between the signature of the contract and the opera’s first performance on 20 February 1816. The overture was recycled from his Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Elisabetta d’Inghilterra’s first aria resurfaces, just a few months later, as Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’.

Conducting from the keyboard in the hazel-coloured, gold-buttoned, Spanish-style jacket that was part of his payment, itself jeered from the outset, Rossini did himself no favours by allowing his original Almaviva – the famous tenor Manuel Garcia, of whom he was in awe – to improvise his opening serenade beneath Rosina’s window. The booing started when Garcia paused to tune his guitar, then grew worse when Rosina responded simply: ‘Segui, o caro, deh segui cosi’ (‘Carry on, my dear, oh do carry on like that’). Figaro’s ‘Largo al factotum’ and his duet with Almaviva were subsequently drowned out by crazed shouting and whistling.

Things got worse when Zenobio Vitarello, making his first entrance as Basilio, tripped on a trap-door, fell flat on his face and cut it badly, almost breaking his nose. The first public rendering of his great aria ‘La callunia’ suffered accordingly, arousing the baying mob yet further. Then a cat wandered onto the stage during the first-act finale; Figaro (Luigi Zamboni) chased it off, but it soon re-entered on the opposite side, ‘hurling itself’ at Bartolo (Bartolommeo Botticelli) with the result that Berta (Elisabetta Loyselet) cavorted all over the stage in a frantic attempt to avoid the creature, whose antics were encouraged by mass miaowing and cheering from the frenzied mob.

A new low was finally reached when the hostile audience, well aware that the Duke who commissioned the opera had died just two weeks earlier, began an incessant chant of ‘Here we are at the Duke’s funeral!’

At the end of the performance, according to an eyewitness, Rossini departed the theatre without any ceremony, slipping out as if he were no more than ‘an indifferent onlooker’. Although his contract stipulated that he conduct the first three performances, he absented himself from the second, pleading ill-health, while in fact (by his own account) pacing up and down in his lodgings, conducting and singing the piece in real time while wondering how the second performance was faring.

By the end of the first act, however, he could bear it no longer. He tried to sleep, but failed, so got dressed and was about to go out when he heard a violent commotion in the street below. Assuming it was an angry mob, about to storm the building, he hurriedly sought refuge in a nearby stable. Here he was eventually found by Garcia, who told him his opera had in fact enjoyed a spectacular success.

‘Va’fanculo to them, their cheers, the lot of it,’ replied Rossini. ‘I’m not going out there!’ Garcia emerged to relay a politer version of this to the crowd, who rewarded him by throwing oranges, one of which hit him in the face, giving him a black eye for the next several performances. Finally, the landlord of the building arrived to beg Rossini to come out; the crowd was already breaking windows, and seemed intent on setting the place on fire. But still he refused to budge. At last the mob dispersed, and Rossini returned to his room – to enjoy little sleep, he said, because of its two broken windows on a freezing winter night.

After that disastrous premiére, in fact, Rossini had made several revisions, not least insisting that Garcia sing his ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’. By the third performance, for which he was back conducting in his now celebrated jacket, his opera was already being hailed as a triumph, soon to eclipse Paisiello’s, and swiftly to assume its proper Beaumarchais title.

Almaviva received only seven performances at the Argentina before the theatre closed at the end of February, and was not heard again in Rome for another five years. Staged in Bologna and Florence towards the end of that same year, already under the title Il barbiere di Siviglia, it reached London in early 1818 and New York (in English) the following year. By November 1825, thanks to Garcia, it enjoyed the distinction of becoming the first opera to be sung in Italian in the United States.

After the London performances at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s), the poet and critic Leigh Hunt described Rossini’s music as ‘full of the finest animal spirits, yet capable of the noblest gravity.’ This succinctly captures the essential Rossini hallmarks still so prized today. At its most characteristic, Rossini’s music is rhythmically vibrant and dazzlingly witty, while capable of moments of high sensuous ardour, even abandon. His contemporaries were wont to compare Rossini’s bubbly music to the champagne of which he was so fond.

Already, in Figaro’s ‘Largo al factotum’ and Basilio’s ‘La callunia’, he is deploying the repeated, gradually mounting crescendo which was to become one of his trademarks, earning him the nickname ‘Signor crescendo’. In the delightful trio towards the end of Act 2, as Figaro vainly tries to distract the besotted lovers before their escape-ladder is removed, he achieves a distinctive new comic effect simply by handing over the customary orchestral repeats of the melody to Figaro himself.

Beaumarchais’ comic tale of two such different men pursing the same spirited woman – one a self-important buffoon, the other a nobleman in disguise – would have appealed to Rossini’s sense of musical humour, not least because the resulting farce pivoted on the genially roguish figure of Figaro, the barber-cum-factotum. Whatever Rossini truly thought of Paisiello, and however long he really took to write Il barbiere, the musicologist Richard Osborne is surely right to suggest that it had been gestating in the young composer’s mind for several years – not least, perhaps, because he knew he could adapt it so much better than Paisiello.

Even Beethoven, when the 30-year-old Rossini met the deaf, declining master in 1822, said to him: ‘Ah, Rossini, above all make more Barbers!’ This may have been a back-handed compliment, but Rossini’s comic work as much as his occasional sorties into dramma (as in Otello, also 1816) influenced Donizetti, Verdi and other masters to the point where he is credited with changing the course of Italian opera.

Some twenty more works followed – most in the same vein, notably La Cenerentola the following year – before Rossini abruptly abandoned opera in 1829 after the heavyweight Guillaume Tell. He was thirty-eight years old – half-way, as it transpired, through his life, the rest of which was spent indulging his sybaritic tendencies in Bologna, Florence and finally Paris, were his salons became legendary. Dogged by depression, and increasing physical ailments, he composed only intermittently, and mostly for private consumption – apart from his memorable sacred pieces Stabat Mater (1841) and the Petite messe solennelle (1867).

Otherwise he lived the life of a bon viveur and accomplished chef, bequeathing us such dishes as Tournedos Rossini on top of his Barber and so many other delights. Shortly before his death in Paris in 1868, at the age of 76, the contented composer confided to a friend: ‘I believe I can assure you that, of my works, the second act of Guglielmo Tell, the third act of Otello, and all of Il Barbiere di Siviglia will certainly endure.’

Classical music critic of The Observer (2002-2008), Anthony Holden has written more than thirty books, including biographies of Tchaikovsky and Lorenzo Da Ponte