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Opera Daily 🎶 — For the Love of Rossini
This week's Opera Daily features an OD throwback by mezzo-soprano and guest author Heather Johnson
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For the summer season, I’ll be publishing some popular Opera Daily throwbacks from time to time.
Today’s throwback is all about Rossini — and if you’re new here, you may have missed it.
Let’s get to it.
For the Love of Rossini.
Everyone knows composer Gioachino Rossini’s music, whether they realize it or not. From the “Largo al factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia made famous through numerous commercials to Bugs Bunny to the Long Ranger galloping on his horse to the overture of Guillaume Tell (William Tell), the broad appeal of Rossini's writing is evident to this day.
Born in Pesaro, Italy, in 1792 to musicians (his father was a brass player and his mother a singer), Rossini was a natural whiz with music from a young age (albeit a lazy student otherwise). His musical studies brought him to Bologna at age 14, where he was commissioned to write his first opera Demetrio e Polibio. After that, he was a writing machine. While other composers like Mozart and Beethoven struggled to make a living out of their art, Rossini was successful. It appears he was a prolific, speedy composer and a savvy businessman.
Considered the father of bel canto opera, Rossini wrote 40 operas in 20 years.
27 of which in just seven years from 1812-1819! Unsurprisingly, he was known for giving his operas to the musicians with the ink still wet on the page.
He leaned into the genre in fashion at the time—opera buffa (comic opera)— and quickly mastered the form. He revolutionized opera with his florid writing and embellished melodies, intricate and exciting ensembles, unusual rhythms, and created different musical colors in the orchestra.
While he had great success with his comedies, one of his first real opera seria (serious opera) skyrocketed him to fame. Tancredi, written in 1813 for the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, was an instant success.
The opening aria of the title character, returning to his homeland after being banished, “Di tante palpiti” was huge. It was the equivalent of a Billboard #1 single today. Tancredi (sung by a woman) sings of his joy of being back in the homeland of his love, Amenaide.
🎧 Listening Example (9 minute listen): “Di tante palpiti”, sung here by the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś
Rossini went from contract to contract, writing about 2-3 operas a year from Venice to Milan to Naples to Rome, including hits like L'italiana in Algeri and Il turco in Italia. While writing for the Neapolitan theaters, he met the great singer Isabella Colbran who became his muse and later his wife until he left her in his later years.
His most famous opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia premiered in Rome in 1816. While it had a rough opening, it became the overwhelming hit it still is today when it traveled to other cities. Some of Rossini’s most famous, fun, witty, harmonically, and innovative rhythmic music comes from this jewel.
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “Largo al factotum,” sung here by baritone Sherrill Milnes, is the introduction aria of the Barber himself.
He sings about how amazing and in-demand he is. Eh FIGARO!
Now let’s listen to the second most famous piece from Barbiere "Una voce poco fa" sung by the character Rosina.
It is a show-stopper aria filled with coloratura (very fast-moving notes) and plenty of room for the singer to ornament. This type of aria is typical of Rossini, with a repeat to let the singer show their stuff. Every singer brings something different to the ornamentation and the flare of the character of Rosina.
Here are two Rosina’s, Marilyn Horne and Joyce DiDonato. Both are incredible and quite different from each other.
🎧 Listening Example (6 minute listen): "Una voce poco fa", sung by mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne
🎧 Listening Example (6 minute listen): "Una voce poco fa", sung by mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato
Every singer brings something different to the ornamentation, but Rossini does a lot of the work for the singer.
In his opera L'italiana in Algeri, in Isabella's aria, Rossini includes a bit of a “vocal wink” in the score when she is trying to be flirtatious. In another moment, the character of Isabella is feeling distressed—so Rossini puts an ornament in her melody line that sounds like a sob.
Because of the rapid pace at which he was pumping out operas, Rossini loved borrowing from his other works, taking an overture from one opera and using it with another, using an aria from one opera and using it with another opera.
A great example is two of his most well-known operas: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) and La Cenerentola (Cinderella), which premiered one year after Barbiere. The iconic aria from the end of La Cenerentola, “Non più mesta” where Cenerentola finally gets her prince and sings how her fate, like a lightning bolt, has changed. It is an action-packed, firework-filled coloratura feat for the mezzo to sing at the end of the long night that brings down the curtain.
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): “Non più mesta”, sung by mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča
🎧 Listening Example (3 minute listen): “Non più mesta”, sung by mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli
You may not know that this tune was originally written for Count Almaviva to sing at the end of The Barber of Seville. It is a vocal gymnastic feat for the tenor as it is for the mezzo and is rarely done in performance these days, but when it is, if the tenor can sing it, it’s thrilling!
🎧 Listening example (7 minute listen): “Cessa di più resistere”, sung by tenor Lawrence Brownlee
Rossini developed many musical characteristics that became his signatures but none more than the “Rossini Crescendo”. He uses this technique, creating a long, ever-building crescendo over many bars with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices. He also adds instruments to build the excitement, which is almost always in his overtures and large ensembles. Crescendo is Italian, derived from the word crescere, which means “to grow.”
🎧 Listening example (3 minute listen): “Rossini Crescendo” example, Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice
Rossini is famous for his fast-paced ensembles. Each character sings their own text, all coming together, usually in a mess of comedic chaos about how they are confused and going insane.
Let’s listen to some of the classics.
🎧 Listening Example (4 minute listen): Act 1 finale of Barbiere from the Metropolitan Opera with Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, Peter Mattei, John Del Carlo, John Relyea, and Claudia Waite
🎧 Listening Example (9 minute listen): Act 1 finale of L’italiana in Algeri from Vienna with Cecilia Bartoli, Ildar Abdrazakov, Alessandro Carbelli, Edgardo Rocha, José Coca Loza, Rebeca Olvera and Rosa Bove
Or this masterpiece sextet from La Cenerentola. Like the example from L'italiana, it also plays on fun sounds over rolling the r’s in words to create a fun percussive sound.
🎧 Listening Example (4 minute listen): From the La Scala film version from 1981 with Frederica von Stade, Francisco Araiza, Paolo Montarsolo, Claudio Desderi, and Laura Zannini
👂What to listen for in Rossini comic operas:
💡Tip: Listen to many different interpretations as each one will be unique with its own fireworks and flare.
💬 Talk about Rossini
The point is... a person feels good listening to Rossini. — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
The first characteristic of Rossini’s music is speed — a speed which removes from the soul all the sombre emotions that are so powerfully evoked within us by the slow strains in Mozart. I find also in Rossini a cool freshness, which, measure by measure, makes us smile with delight. — Stendahl, Life of Rossini (1824)
Rossini had a good grasp of the relationship between music and food: "What love is to the heart, appetite is to the stomach. The stomach is the conductor that leads and livens up the great orchestra of our emotions."— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life, and they pass like the bubbles of a bottle of champagne.
Whoever lets them break without having enjoyed them is a complete fool.” — Gioachino Rossini
Want more Rossini? Take a look at For the Love of Rossini, Part Two.
Thank you for reading (and listening),
PS. If you missed last week’s selection, we featured a composer that made everyone feel like his music was written (specifically) for them—you can listen and read here.
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