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Rossini vs the music industry: How the composer quietly subverted the 1800s mainstream

Straitjacketed by musical and theatrical convention, how did Rossini create one operatic masterpiece, let alone ten?

By Helen Greenwald (Musicologist)

10 September 2014 at 11.18am | Comment on this article

No critic in Rossini’s lifetime espoused a neutral view of the composer, especially in Paris where ‘Rossinistes’ and ‘Anti-Rossinistes’ waged a war of words that kept his name in front of a gossip-thirsty public. Enthusiasts praised the abiding freshness of his music, its wit and dazzling vocality. But detractors eyed Rossini’s immense popularity with suspicion, accusing the composer of being facile, superficial and excessive: ‘theatrical’ in the worst sense of the word.

The situation was fuelled by the composer’s often shameless recycling of his own music, including the famous overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816), originally composed for Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and then re-used in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815).

While Rossini surely took the expedient route on occasion, he was also quick to offer a penetrating justification for his choices. In an 1836 conversation with his friend Antonio Zanolini, he ruminated on the relationship between words and music, stressing music’s role as the abstract ‘moral atmosphere that fills the place in which characters of the drama represent the action’.

Another way to look at Rossini’s artistic decisions is through the lens of the Italian theatrical infrastructure, which was deeply tied to commerce and in the service of both pockets and egos. An opera composer under contract to theatres had little autonomy; he was expected to churn out multiple works each season in a continuous stream of novelties that were immediately fed to publishers who marketed piano-vocal scores barely after the last musical echo died out in the opera house. But the astonishing successes that emerged from this framework defy the seemingly low regard for artistry that such mass production could engender.

The challenge for Rossini (and any of his contemporaries) was to work within this system; respect a capricious audience (which had no compunctions about expressing its reactions spontaneously and loudly, as the composer found at Il barbiere's 1816 premiere); and preserve his ideals. Rossini was a deft player of this game, especially in Naples, where he composed ten operas that memorialized their singers in a succession of virtuoso roles. He was lauded as a superb dramatist who could maximize the potential of any given text; his ‘theatricality’ a product of complete engagement with all the materials, processes and opportunities that the musical stage had to offer.

With Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini turned to a subject that fellow composer Giovanni Paisiello had already set to music in 1782. Comparisons were inevitable, and Stendhal, firmly in the Rossini camp, offers a pungent rebuttal to the expected claims about Paisiello’s superiority: ‘If Rossini was deficient in some of the virtues of Paisiello, he was also completely deficient in the dullness which too often afflicts the latter’s style.’

The alleged weaknesses may have originated in Paisiello’s ingenuous fidelity to Beaumarchais, especially in the opening scene where the composer translated, perhaps too literally, the playwright’s pair of monologues into two discrete musical numbers sung back to back by Almaviva and Figaro. Rossini took a quite different approach, transforming the succession of solo pieces into a hilarious ensemble parody of a stock balcony scene, complete with serenade.

It is just before dawn as Fiorello (Figaro) urges his large band of musicians to be quiet. Could the absurdity of beginning an opera with shushing also be a ‘futile precaution’ to the often very noisy and inattentive early 19th-century audience? Instruments are tuned and Almaviva hopes to awaken Rosina with gentle song: ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’. Here Rossini mocks his own gifts for vocal display in what amounts to a superficial expression of chivalry and little more. What kind of man, intent on wooing a woman (who is still sleeping, no less), hires an orchestra for such an intimate task? Answer: a painfully naive one, who thinks that more is more. But the real punchline of the scene is Rossini’s whimsical homage to theatre itself: Rosina, who continues to sleep despite the noise, is no Juliet and does not appear at the window.

This is an extract from Helen Greenwald's article 'Gioachino Rossini, Man of the Theatre' in The Royal Opera's programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.Helen's article is the first in a series of three written to accompany the three Rossini operas performed this Season. The next article, on Rossini and comedy, will be printed in the programme for Il turco in Italia.

Il barbiere di Siviglia runs 13 September–11 October 2016. Tickets are still available.


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