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Opera Daily: Rossini, the master of serious opera & going out on a high note
Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of Opera Daily. If you missed the Rossini kickoff post from last week, you could find it here. Like last week, this issue is written in partnership with Heather Johnson. As a bonus this week, we will take you behind the scenes of Opera Daily. On Thursday, we’ll share a Listening Session with the two of us where we discuss and debate our favorite Rossini pieces. We will then wrap up Rossini month with a post on Sunday, January 31st, with some highlights (and a hint at next month’s theme).
Let’s dive in and listen to some music from Rossini’s serious opera.
For the Love of Rossini, Part Two.
We started this series by looking at what Rossini is best known for, his comedic writing. It’s his opera seria, or serious operas, though, where we find some of his best writing. In fact, the belief is that his last opera, Guillaume Tell (1829) is his true masterpiece.
Let’s start with Rossini’s Otello which premiered in Naples in 1816. The libretto Rossini used for the opera (by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa) only barely resembles the Shakespeare play or the Verdi opera by the same name. All three main male characters, Otello, Iago, and Rodrigo, are all sung by tenors, making for some pretty incredible tenor moments.
In this duet, Otello and Rodrigo are fighting over Desdemona, and they are using these high notes like swords!
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “Ah, vieni, nel tuo sangue” from Otello sung here by tenors, Lawrence Brownlee and Javier Camarena
In Act III, Desdemona’s “Assisa a piè d’un salice” (also known as the Willow Song) is a haunting, beautiful moment. It is foreshadowing Desdemona’s fate soon to come. Rossini creates a dialogue between the solo harp and Desdemona in this piece.
The third verse of the aria ends with this line:
And never again let the air repeat the sound of my lament.
🎧 Listening Example (10 minute listen): “Assisa a piè d’un salice” from Otello sung here by soprano, Virginia Zeani
Rarely performed, the opera Mosé in Egitto, while not an enormous success when it first premiered in Naples in 1818, the revision the following year produced one of the most famous pieces of the day, the prayer “Dal tuo stellato”. Again, Rossini uses the harp to create a scared moment.
The French writer Stendhal wrote of the piece:
One cannot imagine the thunderbolt that sounded throughout the theater; one would have thought it was crumbling. The spectators in the boxes, standing and leaning out to applaud, cried loudly: “Bello! Bello! O che bello!” I have never seen such fury, nor such a success, all the more so as they were prepared to laugh and mock… After that, deny that music has a direct physical effect upon the nerves! I am almost in tears when I think of this prayer. Speaking of physical effects, a doctor cited “more than 40 attacks of nervous fever, or violent convulsions on the part of young women fond to excess of music”, caused by this piece.
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Mose in Egitto sung here by Mirella Freni, Luciana D'Intinto, Vincenzo La Scola and Samuel Ramey from a concert at Teatro alla Scala, 1996
The last opera Rossini wrote for an Italian audience was Semiramide (after he finished this opera, he moved to Paris, and his remaining operas were in French). This opera allows the singers to display a full range of coloratura fireworks. The famous aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” being a great example of those fireworks! We shared Joan Sutherland singing this aria back in September. It’s too good not to include again here.
🎧 Listening Example (6 minute listen): “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide sung here by dramatic coloratura soprano, Joan Sutherland, 1960
This opera also contains some incredible duets, the most famous of which is “Serbami ognor.” Semiramide is in love with Arsace, who is in love with Azema, but little do they all know that Arsace is Semiramide’s long lost son!
🎧 Listening Example (8 minute listen): “Serbami ognor si fido" from Semiramide sung by soprano, June Anderson and mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne from the Metropolitan Opera, 1990
Rossini was 31 when he moved to Paris. By this point he has 12 years of experience and 30 operas under his belt. Always the innovator, Rossini was ready to stretch himself in terms of creativity and style. He composed several operas for the Paris audience including a French version of his Mosé in Egitto (Moïse et Pharaon) and Le Comte Ory before the premiere of his last opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell).
Guillaume Tell based on the Schiller play, Wilhelm Tell, was a departure from anything he had composed in the past. It was indeed the birth of “Grand Opera” with a huge cast, chorus, dancers, and orchestra.
This first example comes from Act II of which the composer Gaetano Donizetti wrote:
Rossini wrote the first and last acts; God wrote the second.
Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess (a descendent of the Habsburg dynasty), is waiting for Arnold, her Swiss love to appear. While she waits she sings “Sombre forêt” sung perfectly here by Montserrat Caballé. Her incredible ability to “float” high notes is second to none.
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “Sombre forêt” from Guillaume Tell sung by soprano, Montserrat Caballé
Dark forest, wilderness sad and wild,
I prefer you to the splendours of the palace:
It is on the mountains, the place of the storm
That my heart can regain peace;
And only the echo will learn my secrets.
You, the sweet and shy star of the shepherd,
Whose light illuminates my footsteps,
Ah! be also my star and my guide!
Like him, your rays are discrete,
And only the echo will repeat my secrets.
In Act III Gesler, the Austrian governor, forces the Swiss townspeople to celebrate (to their disgust) the 100th anniversary of Austria’s rule over Switzerland by forcing them to pay homage to his hat(!) which he has placed at the top of a pole. Guillaume Tell, and his son Jemmy refuse to do so and are arrested. Then comes the part of the story everyone knows. Tell is ordered to shoot an arrow through an apple placed on Jemmy’s head. Jemmy tells his father to have courage. Tell then sings a gut-wrenching aria to his son, “Sois immobile” (“Stay completely still”).
When you listen to this, if you didn’t know, you might think it was written by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi!
🎧 Listening Example (3 minute listen): “Sois immobile” from Guillaume Tell sung here by baritone, Thomas Hampson
Stay quite still, and bend an imploring knee to the ground.
Call upon God, call upon God, it is he along, my child,
who through the son can save the father.
Stay like that, but look up at the sky,
In threatening this beloved head
this steel tip may startle your eyes.
Move as little as you can, as little as you can….
Jemmy, Jemmy, think of your mother!
She wait for us both!
Act IV opens with Arnold in his father's house, (his father was Melchtal who was killed earlier in the opera by Gesler). Determined to seek revenge for his father’s death, he sings of his ancestral home, saying:
Ancestral home where my eyes opened to the light of the day,
only yesterday your protective shelter offered a father to my love.
I call in vain, o bitter grief!
I call, he no longer hears my voice!
Beloved walls within which my father dwelt,
I come to see you for the last time!
A group of armed Swiss confederates enter and vow to get back at Melchtal by defeating Gesler. Arnold then sings the unbelievably demanding “Amis, Amis, secondez ma vengeance.”
Watch the whole scene from Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) in Munich with American tenor Bryan Hymel as Arnold. Just try not to jump out of your seat at the end!
🎧 Listening Example (9 minute listen): “Asile héréditaire....Amis, amis”
from Guillaume Tell with tenor, Bryan Hymel at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2014
Again, you might think you are listening to Verdi’s famous scene from the opera, Il Trovatore (which we haven’t covered yet, but let’s start here with this aria).
You can see the direct influence of Rossini on Verdi in these “call to arms” arias.
🎧 Listening Example (8 minute listen): “Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore sung by tenor, Luciano Pavarotti
Finally, we had to include the trio sung by Mathilde, Jemmy, and Hedwige (William’s wife) after Mathilde returns Jemmy to his mother. First Mathilde, then Jemmy followed by Hedwige, sing the melody and how happy they are with Jemmy’s return. Hedwige’s desperate cry to save William follows. Finally, ending with the beautiful duet with Hedwige and Mathlide, along with the Swiss women praying for Tell's return.
🎧 Listening Example (6 minute listen): "Je rends à votre amour un fils” with Angela Maria Blasi, Ellie Dehn and Heather Johnson with Opera Orchestra of New York
It’s hard to believe that Rossini lived another 40 years after Guillaume Tell without ever writing another opera. There isn’t a clear answer as to why he never composed for the opera stage again. Rossini did, however, continue composing pieces for voice, piano, chorus and small ensembles. He returned to Bologna, Italy for a bit, but Paris drew him back in 1855 to spend the remainder of his life. His samedi soirs (weekly social gatherings featuring singers, instrumentalists, and composers working in Europe at the time) were the hot ticket in town. A-list celebrities of the day clamored to be invited. Composers such as Franz Liszt, Charles Gounod, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Verdi would attend and even participate. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be there!
Rossini died at the age of 76 in 1868 in his villa in Passy outside of Paris. While he didn’t produce another opera after Guillaume Tell, his influence can be seen throughout the musical world from Liszt to Verdi and even Wagner.
🗣️ Why do you think Rossini stopped composing operas at such a young age, after so much success?
Thank you for reading (and listening), and “see” you Thursday,
Michele & Heather
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