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‘Born for buffa’: The tricks of the trade that Rossini exploited to become a master of comedy

The Italian composer was a genius at creating silly, surprising and strangely moving comic operas.

By Francesco Izzo (Music scholar and author)

13 April 2015 at 5.42pm | Comment on this article

‘I was born for opera buffa, you know it well! A little technique, a little heart, that’s all.’ With this dedication to the ‘Good God’ in 1863, Rossini signed off his Petite Messe solennelle. At the age of 71, he was nothing short of a living legend. Having retired from operatic composition more than thirty years previously, he understood quite well that his popularity at that point rested to a significant extent on his opere buffe, including Il turco in Italia (1814).

What is it, then, that makes Rossini’s opere buffe so irresistibly entertaining? Writers must be given their fair share of credit, of course; from Felice Romani to Jacopo Ferretti, the composer benefited from the collaboration of some of the finest librettists of his time. The stories on which they drew were often based on pre-existing subjects that had already found their way to the operatic stage in one or more incarnations – for Il turco in Italia Romani adapted Caterino Mazzolà’s 1788 libretto by the same title. Far from resisting the stereotypical aspects of this and other librettos, Rossini embraced them and capitalized on their timeless appeal.

An essential ingredient of opera buffa, of course, is the presence of comic roles for bass – indebted to the time-honoured stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. In keeping with tradition, such roles in Rossini often come in pairs: for example, Don Geronio and Selim in Il turco in Italia. Musically, the comic pair normally consists of two types of bass – a buffo caricato (a performer able to deliver fast patter song and gifted with comic acting skills) and a basso cantante (a voice that sings in a higher range than a deep bass and is able to deliver smooth, legato lines).

The difference between the two is obvious in all their music, even when it seems to be most similar. Take the confrontation between Don Geronio and Selim in Act II, where Selim tries to buy Fiorilla from Geronio, who proudly resists the Turk’s generous offer and then his threats. They sing analogous material, especially in the opening parallel stanzas (‘D’un bell’uso di Turchia’) but there is plenty of room for differentiation through different vocal and acting styles. The effect of two flustered comic basses quarrelling and competing in the delivery of fast patter song is uproarious.

Rossini also played with the convention of his day. It is significant that neither Don Geronio nor Selim sings a conventional double aria when they first appear. Later in Act I, a number that begins as a duet for Fiorilla and Selim (‘Siete Turchi! Non vi credo’) expands into a quartet with the arrival of Narciso and Geronio. The effectiveness of such exercises in formal manipulation is twofold: for one thing, they keep the action moving and shifting in unforeseen directions or at unexpected times; for another, they are intrinsically humorous in that they play with – and ultimately betray – audience expectations.

In Rossini’s opere buffe the categories of comic and serious sometimes blend and overlap; it is often solo arias – especially those for the tenor or the prima donna – that weave threads of dramatic contrast into the fabric of comedy. There are aspects of Rossini’s opere buffe that challenge our notion of what humour and comedy are, pushing us to expand that notion and to blend laughter with other, surprisingly varied emotional responses. It might be for this reason that Rossini’s comedies continue not only to entertain us, but actually to engage us in novel ways; in this respect, if nothing else, we can agree wholeheartedly that he was indeed ‘born for opera buffa’.

This is an edited extract from Francesco Izzo’s article ‘Rossini and Comedy’ in The Royal Opera’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

Il turco in Italia runs 11–27 April 2015. Tickets are still available.

The production is given with generous support from Judith Portrait and The Friends of Covent Garden.

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