Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Giochino Rossini and L’Italiana in Algeri

The son of two musicians, Gioachino Rossini (jo-KEE-no roh-SEE-nee) was born in Pesaro (now in Italy) on February 29, 1792. As has been the case with most great composers, his musical talent was recognized at an early age, and by age twelve he was already singing professionally in Bologna, where he was able to advance his music education at the conservatory. At age eighteen he received his first commission to write an opera, and by the age of twenty-one he had already written two successful comedies, one of which, Il Signor Bruschino, is still performed occasionally. Early in 1813 he received a commission for his first opera seria (serious opera) – Tancredi – a hastily written work which had its premiere February 6, 1813 and was notable for Rossini’s innovative use of the chorus (which previously had not been used in such works) and the minimal use of recitative.

In May of the same year he received a commission for a comic opera to be performed during carnival season in Venice. The company had experienced a cancellation and needed a new work in a hurry. Rather than start from scratch, the company decided to recycle a libretto which had been used before, Angelo Anelli’s L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl – or woman – in Algiers), which had originally been set to music by Mosca in 1808, though to fit Rossini’s style, the librettist made several revisions for the new production. At the time of its origin it had been “ripped from the headlines,” to use a modern term, as there had been a well-publicized incident a few years earlier when a young Italian woman, Antoinietta Frapollo, had been kidnapped and forced to become part of the Sultan’s harem in Algiers. Though the specific incident was no longer front-page news, Venice’s position as an important center of trade had created a strong interest in all things Oriental. (Years later a similar craze for Japanese culture in England was to inspire Gilbert and Sullivan to create The Mikado.)

Working to meet a tight deadline, Rossini farmed out the writing of the recitatives and a couple of short arias, and writing at his usual break-neck speed, he composed the opera in less than a month. The May 22 premiere was a huge popular success, leading the composer to comment, “I thought that when they heard my opera, the Venetians would decide I was crazy. But they have shown themselves to be crazier than I am.” At first Rossini received some criticism for using a story which had previously been set to music, but the audiences and critics soon realized the vast superiority of Rossini’s approach.

Three years later Rossini received similar criticism when he chose to create a new operatic version of The Barber of Seville, which was already the subject of a popular opera by Giovanni Paisiello, but as was the case with L’Italiana, the public soon recognized the superiority of Rossini’s work. This work, which today is Rossini’s most popular opera, drew praise from several famous composers, including Verdi, who acclaimed it as the most beautiful opera buffa (comic opera) in existence. Later the same year, long before Verdi bought Shakespeare to the Italian operatic stage, he composed Otello. He followed this with La Cenerentola (Cinderella), an opera whose popularity has grown in recent years due to its being championed by popular mezzo-sopranos Cecelia Bartoli and Joyce DiDonato.

Like all great opera composers, Rossini was always aware of the importance of integrating the music with the plot. He frequently demanded revisions in the librettos he was given. In one instance he complained to a librettist, “You have provided me with verses but not with situations.”

From 1817 to 1822 he lived in Naples, where he composed many of his most significant works, though none has achieved the lasting popularity of his earlier comic operas. Once again he anticipated Verdi by writing Moses in Egypt, which, like Verdi’s Nabucco, was seen as a covert nationalistic statement.
Having been involved in a number of short-term amorous adventures, he eventually entered into a long-term (though apparently not exclusive) relationship with a singer named Isabella Colbran, whom he married in 1822. Shortly afterward, he and Isabella left Italy and headed to Paris, where he hoped to make his mark on the French music scene. His most notable French opera is Guilaume Tell (William Tell), which premiered in 1829. While this opera is best known for its overture, a virtual symphony in miniature, it contains much gorgeous music and may have had a significant influence on the direction opera was to take afterwards. According to critic William Braun, “Whole sections of operas by Verdi and Wagner would not have been written as they were without Tell.”

Surprisingly, Guillaume Tell turned out to be Rossini’s final opera. For reasons that are not quite clear, his career suddenly came to a halt. Poor health, including venereal disease and depression, may have been the primary reason, but this probably does not tell the entire story. It may be that he was simply burned out and eager to retire once he accumulated sufficient wealth. Opera historian Patrick Dillon argues for a different cause: “The future, he clearly saw, belonged to temperaments far removed from his own. A Classicist at heart, he felt estranged from the encroaching Romanticism of the Parisian scene.” The wild excesses of the “mad scenes” so integral to the operas of emerging composers such as Bellini were not for him.

For nearly forty years Rossini lived on at the grand old man of Italian opera, doing some occasional composing, including a mass, but never again for the stage. He returned to Italy for several years, but eventually settled in Paris for the balance of his life. His constant companion during these years was a woman name Olympe Pelissier, whom he eventually married when his estranged wife passed away.

Though Rossini is seen today as one of the great innovators in Italian music, his apparent lack of interest in new trends caused him to be regarded as a reactionary, and critics decried his lack of seriousness. There exists a transcript of his meeting with Richard Wagner (albeit, from notes taken by Wagner’s colleague) in which he defended the old operatic conventions against the criticisms of the young German, who was taking opera down an entirely different path.

Rossini died in 1868 at the age of 76, apparently of a heart attack. Today he is generally regarded as the greatest Italian composer prior to Verdi (though this position could be challenged by a renewed interest in the works of Donizetti), and his reputation has grown in recent years with a revival of bel canto singing and a greater of understanding of the way in which his operas paved the way for the romantic operas of his successors.

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