In the catalogue of 'great operatic disasters', the premieres of Il barbiere di Siviglia, La traviata and Madama Butterfly have always had pride of place. This on the not unreasonable ground that each of the victims was destined to become one the world's most popular operas. 'All Italian,' I hear you say. That may have been a factor where the protestors' decibel levels were concerned but the root causes were very different. Madama Butterfly was not ready; La traviata was poorly cast ('I personally don't think last night's verdict will have been the last word' was Verdi's response). As for Il barbiere di Siviglia, well here we have an occasionally bloody tale of new music locking horns with old susceptibilities, of mishap and rent-a-crowd violence.
A case of cock-up and conspiracy. The 23 year-old Naples-based superstar had arrived in Rome in November 1815 to oversee a revival of Il turco in Italia and write a new work for the Teatro Valle. Though a strong cast had been assembled, Torvaldo e Dorliska failed to please at its premiere on December 26. That same day, however, Rossini signed a contract for a second opera, to be performed at the management's much grander Teatro Argentina the following February. It would be based on Beaumarchais's Le barbier de Séville, though out of deference to Paisiello's celebrated setting of 1782 it was to be renamed Almaviva.
Rossini's contract was with Duke Francesco Sforza Cesarini whose family had built the Argentina, Rome's most sumptuously appointed theatre, in 1731. It was a huge drain on the family finances and in winter 1815-16 Sforza Cesarini was feeling more than usually harassed. After the unsuccessful launch of Torvaldo e Dorliska and protracted arguments over the subject and librettist of Rossini's next opera, he ran into problems with a revival of L'italiana in Algeri due to open on 13 January. He wrote of 'spitting blood', of being obliged to 'put a knife to everyone's throat' to get the show on stage. He succeeded, but had to spend the next day with librettist Cesare Sterbini ('gassing with the poet') agreeing a synopsis for the new Rossini opera, hammering out a schedule, and finalising Sterbini's contract. In another letter, Sforza Cesarini writes touchingly of his longing for a quieter life. It was not to be. On February 16, four days before the premiere of Almaviva, he suffered a seizure and died. He was 44.
The terms Sforza Cesarini had offered Rossini were not ungenerous, though it must have been galling for Rossini to see the Figaro, Luigi Zamboni, getting almost twice as much and the Almaviva, Manuel Garcia, being offered three times the amount. Of the first night cast, only the 'altro buffo' Bartolomeo Botticelli, who played Bartolo, and the 'seconda donna' Elisabetta Loyselet, who played Berta, were paid less than the composer.
It is generally assumed that Rossini wrote the piece from a standing start, setting Sterbini's text as it arrived. Given that Sterbini's contract was not signed until January 17, Rossini would have had about three weeks to complete the score: hair-raising to us but not necessarily a problem to a composer who had developed his forms and honed his musical vocabulary early. As Verdi later put it: 'Israel in Egypt in 15 days, Don Giovanni in a month, Il barbiere di Siviglia in 18 days. Those men did not have exhausted blood, were well-balanced natures, had their heads on squarely, and knew what they wanted'. That said, I have no doubt that Rossini had been contemplating Beaumarchais's play for some considerable time - either in its original form or through the refracting medium of Paisiello's setting.
Rossini wrote to the 75 year-old Paisiello assuring him that he was not challenging his revered opera, merely turning to a subject that delighted him, while avoiding where possible 'the exact situations in your libretto'. The theatre also published a lengthy 'Warning to the Public' advising that out of 'respect and veneration' for the 'greatly celebrated Paisiello' the work had been renamed, newly adapted and newly versified. It was, to borrow the opera's subtitle, a futile precaution. Such a harvest of compliments was merely grist to the mill of the Paisiellisti and the bovver boys whose services they engaged. They proceeded to do what factions invariably do when shown deference: they spotted uncertainty and determined to pounce.
Much has been written about the fiasco of tile opera's first night on February 20, 1816, most of it true: the mockery of Spanish-style hazel jacket, the rowdy animosity of the Paisiello lobby, the jeering and catcalls ('Here we are at the funeral of Duke Cesarini'), as one mishap succeeded another. Basilio sang his 'Calumny' aria with a bloodied nose after tripping over a trapdoor; during the Act 1 finale, a cat wandered onstage, declined to leave and was forcibly flung into the wings.
According to the Rosina, Gertrude Righetti Giorgi, Rossini left the theatre 'as though he had been an indifferent onlooker'. The next day he dashed off a letter to his mother: 'Last night my opera was staged and was solemnly booed what mad O what extraordinary things are to be seen in this country. I will tell you that in the midst of it all the music is very fine and already people are talking about its second evening when the music will be heard, something that did not happen last night from the beginning to the end there was a constant noise accompanying the whole performance.'
Rossini was right about the second night. It was a triumph, though he was not there to witness it. He spent the evening pacing his room, imagining the opera's progress scene by scene. He retired early, only to be roused by a glow of torches and uproar in the street. Fearing a mob was about to set fire to the building, he took refuge in a stable block. Garda tried to summon him to acknowledge the adulation. 'F*** their bravos!' was Rossini's blunt rejoinder. 'I'm not coming out.'
He returned to Naples on February 29, his 24th birthday, having directed further performances. He told his mother: 'I wrote to you how my opera was booed, now I can write that on the second evening and all the following performances, they cheered this work of mine with an indescribable fanaticism for which I came out five, six times to receive applause of a totally new kind and that made me cry with pleasure'. It had been a rollercoaster experience for a young obsessive whose later life would confirm manic-depressive elements in his makeup. Is there any wonder that rumours soon began circulating that he intended to retire from operatic composition at the age of 30? II barbiere di Siviglia was not the best loved or most frequently staged of Rossini's works during his lifetime, admired though it was by such luminaries as Beethoven and Verdi. Back in 1816, avant-gardistes familiar with Beethoven's music might have been prepared for a detonation of comic energy of this magnitude; to many, however, Rossini was merely a noisemonger, the Heavy Metal of his age.
Nowadays Il barbiere is regarded as the composer's masterpiece. Though it is more or less indestructible, it is best served by stage directors and conductors shrewd enough to know that, for all its comic rumbustiousness, the opera is a musical and theatrical mechanism of extraordinary sophistication and skill. With Rossini, the best jokes are the musical ones. I t is no coincidence that the work's two finest recordings Gui's Glyndebourne-based version with Bruscantini, de los Angeles and Alva, and Galliera's with Gobbi, Callas and Alva were the products of a culture more at ease with such disciplines than our own.