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5 march 2023
Jean and Jean-Philippe Thiellay, in their brief 2012 biography, argue that Rossini was a pivotal composer in the Western tradition. The word charnière keeps coming up: "hinge," in this case between 18th-century classicism and 19th-century romanticism.
Rossini is inseparable from his reception, as the authors continually note. Early in his own lifetime, the composer touched off a "Rossinimania" that would have made Andrew Lloyd Webber feel neglected. At one point in the mid-1820s, over half of the performances at Milan's La Scala were of operas by Rossini (98).
But then came a long decline. By 1830, Rossini had retired from writing for the stage, though he was just 37 years old. Of course, it wasn't odd for a great composer to down tools that young. Most, though, also happened to be dead around that age: Mozart, Bellini, Bizet. Rossini would live till 1868, a constant but largely inactive presence on the European cultural scene.
The bel canto style of vocal writing that Rossini mastered also fell from grace; his operas became too formulaic, too undramatic. Long before Rossini's death, Verdi and Wagner came to dominate the opera scene with works that integrated music, psychology, and emotion. Lining up a group of characters and having them sing bravura "numbers" was long passé by the 1860s.
Into the 20th century, Rossini was known for a few comic operas (La Cenerentola, L'Italiana in Algeri) and for truncated versions of the big warhorse Semiramide. And of course for Figaro. "Rossini, en somme, était presque devenu l'homme d'un seul opéra, Le Barbier [de Seville]" (148): Rossini, basically, had almost come to stand for just one opera, The Barber of Seville.
And sometimes just for its overture. In fact, though I'd seen The Barber and Cinderella on stage, I got into Rossini's music in the 2010s via collections of his overtures. I know just enough about music history to be wrong, but I suspect that Rossini's overtures had a significant impact on the course of symphonic music. They are energetic, eccentric, eclectic; they simply "move" like no music before, and little enough since.
And of course Rossini's vocal music captivated Europe and quickly made its way to the Americas. The Thiellays point out that this was not just in the form of staged opera. As Schubert did, Rossini made his mark by selling songs in piano/vocal arrangements that folks could play at home. Rossinimania and pianomania went hand in hand.
The Rossini Renaissance would have to await the late 20th century, notably the creation of the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's home town of Pesaro in 1980. The Thiellays argue that the theater in Pesaro, smaller than many huge capital-city opera houses, is best suited to the Rossini experience. The experts in Pesaro led the way to the re-entry of many restored Rossini hits into the contemporary opera repertory.
As a result, if you live near a big opera center, or are enterprising, or travel to Pesaro every summer, you can now take in quite a bit more of Rossini than people could in most of the past two centuries. It's not like your local high school is going to put on Le Comte Ory, but professional companies now sometimes do; and they might also present La Cambiale di Matrimonio, La Scala di Seta, Il Turco in Italia, Otello, La Gazza Ladra, Mosé in Egitto, Maometto II, and the two magna opera that put a crown to Rossini's stage career, the full Semiramide and the amazing Guillaume Tell.
Via streaming video, I have seen most of these operas recently. Except for the early comic ones, most are too long and suffer from attenuated plots. William Tell is great stuff and my word is it long. But the music is endlessly inventive. Even given his many self-borrowings (the overture to The Barber of Seville is really the overture to Aureliano in Palmira), Rossini composed a metric ton of music; and one could argue that his constant rearrangement of things he'd already written was often as inspired as his original composition.
I can truly say that aside from some longueurs, I have greatly enjoyed everything I've listened to or seen, by Rossini with the strange exception of Il barbiere di Siviglia. It may be that I've just never seen a great production, though I have seen the show on stage several times, plus via streaming and live simulcast. I also own an excellent CD, on Phillips: Neville Marriner conducting Thomas Allen, Agnes Baltsa, and Francisco Araiza (1983). The Barber is usually funny enough, and I've heard the music enough to respect its difficulty and panache. But unlike many of the classics that take me a few listens to "get," I have liked Il barbiere di Siviglia less and less over the years. And it can't be overfamiliarity, because I will listen to any new Carmen or La Bohème at the slightest suggestion.
But La Cenerentola, that to me is the real deal; I strongly agree with the Thiellays when they call Rossini's Cinderella "un chef-dœuvre d'une extrême originalité par l'équilibre parfait entre la comédie et le drame" (47): a masterpiece of the highest originality in its perfect balance between comedy and drama. Every production of La Cenerentola that I've seen has been wonderful, and the CD I have is not just good opera but among the best pieces of recorded music I've ever listened to: Claudio Abbado conducting Teresa Berganza (Deutsche Grammophon, 1972).
Thiellay, Jean, and Jean-Philippe Thiellay. Rossini. n.p.: Actes Sud, 2012.