Rossini: the great operatic genius

Richard Osborne Mon 21st January 2019

As we commemorate 150 years since the composer’s death, Richard Osborne explores how the centenary paved the way for an even greater appreciation of Rossini’s operas 50 years on

Gioachino Rossini, pictured 12 years before his death in 1868 (photo: Bridgeman images)

Gioachino Rossini, pictured 12 years before his death in 1868 (photo: Bridgeman images)

The modern marriage of commerce and commemoration is not the only model where anniversaries are concerned. Back in 1784, three loyal Handelians were so dismayed by the state into which the great man’s reputation had already fallen that they determined to stage a centenary tribute. Using a monument in Westminster Abbey as their Wikipedia, they misinterpreted the date. But no matter. Twenty-five years on from Handel’s death, the epic London Handel Festival was precisely the boost the music needed. Handel’s reputation never looked back.

Bach, too, needed a centenary – specifically the launch in 1850 of the great Bach-Gesellschaft edition of his works – to have the seal put on his musical immortality. ‘What a colossus that man is!’ exclaimed Rossini, one of the edition’s earliest subscribers.

Since then, it has been rarer to find genius, once acknowledged, falling into neglect, though the 1960s were witness to two unusual happenings. First, the double anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s birth and death in 1960-61 brought about a flowering of interest in his music that has yet to abate. Then, in 1968, the centenary of Rossini’s death had the happy effect of both coinciding with and inspiring a revival of interest in his operas, the scale of which is without precedent in modern times.

A LEGEND DEPARTS

Four thousand people crammed into Sainte-Trinité, Paris’s newest and largest church, for Rossini’s funeral in November 1868; and as many again lined the route to his temporary resting place in Père-Lachaise. He was mourned throughout Europe. In London, The Times declared: ‘With him has departed one of the most remarkable geniuses and one of the kindliest spirits of the 19th century.’

It’s easily forgotten that at the time of his death Rossini remained Europe’s most renowned living composer. Nor was he a spent force creatively. His opera-writing days may have been long gone but during the Indian Summer which followed his return to Paris, in 1855 after a long illness, he wrote the 150 exquisitely crafted small pieces he called his ‘Sins of Old Age’. Among these was one last masterpiece, the Petite Messe solennelle, which he completed in 1864, at the age of 72, for private performance in Paris.

A STYLE DEFERRED

The Petite Messe solennelle breathes the spirit of courtlier times. And therein lay the problem. Rossini had been born into a golden age of beautiful singing. It was a phenomenon the castrati had mainly made, both as teachers and performers; and it was this to which Rossini was heir. Like many great cultural blossomings, the age of Italian bel canto, created by Rossini and perpetuated and enriched by Donizetti and Bellini, was relatively short-lived. By the late 1840s a new breed of powerhouse performers had taken charge: tenors parading their stentorian high Cs ‘from the chest’, pianists after the death of Chopin playing pre-fabricated, copyright-clad showpieces on ever more powerful instruments.

Rossini’s problem was that for the next 100 years fewer and fewer singers could cope with his music, or what was left of it, as his 39-strong operatic legacy narrowed to a handful of works: Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rosina’s role transposed up to become a showcase for leggiero sopranos), Guillaume Tell (bawled, foreshortened, and mostly sung in Italian) and Semiramide (an occasional vehicle for star sopranos such as Patti or Melba).

EARLY RECORDINGS

Extracts from those operas, and the Stabat mater, occasionally made their way on to record in the early years of the gramophone. Little of this sounds well today, though Fernando de Lucia’s Count Almaviva recordings, bel canto singing in its purest form, have yet to be equalled. And what would we give now for a bass of Pol Plançon’s pedigree and technique?

An early harbinger of the return of the mezzo-soprano, or contralto with a soprano extension, for which many of Rossini’s leading roles were written, came with the arrival of the Spanish-born phenomenon Conchita Supervía. During the 1934-35 Covent Garden season, staged by Sir Thomas Beecham in uneasy cohabitation with Francis Toye, author of the best-selling but wildly unreliable Rossini: A Study in Tragi-Comedy (London, 1934), Supervía’s Cenerentola mesmerised such patrons as were prepared to listen.

Maria Callas’s Rosina at La Scala in 1956 was disliked, but a year later her EMI Barbiere became the best on record (photo: Bridgeman images)

Maria Callas’s Rosina at La Scala in 1956 was disliked, but a year later her EMI Barbiere became the best on record (photo: Bridgeman images)

A NEW DAWN

Scholarly interest in Rossini’s life and work began to gather pace in the interwar years. Between 1927 and 1929 the composer and musicologist Giuseppe Radiciotti published (largely at his own expense) a handsomely designed, limited-edition, three-volume ‘life, documents and works’. At much the same time, Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin, old-school polymaths who not only conducted and taught but composed, edited and researched, were making important advances of their own.

Italy’s entry into the Second World War sabotaged many of the plans for the 1942 sesquicentenary of Rossini’s birth, though Gui’s much-needed new performing edition of Il barbiere duly appeared.

As the dust settled after the war, a new phenomenon emerged in the form of the 24-year-old Maria Callas, whose playing of Bellini’s Norma in Florence in 1948 set the musical world by its ears. What personality was here, and what technique! It was as if the role’s creator, Giuditta Pasta, had been reborn.

Rossini had to wait for his big Callas moment. This came when she sang the title-role in Armida at the 1952 Maggio Musicale in Florence. The festival – the 1942 retrospective delayed by a decade – revived three neglected comedies (La scala di setaLa pietra del paragone and Le Comte Ory) and three serious operas (TancrediArmida and Guillaume Tell). Vestiges of that Maggio Musicale Armida exist in a technically execrable live recording currently available from Warner Classics, but Callas’s Armida is better sampled in a 1954 RAI recital where she sings the great Act 2 aria ‘D’amore al dolce impero’.

Callas had already astonished her admirers with her portrayal of the vixenish Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia in Rome in 1950. The text was flawed, lacking Fiorilla’s all-important final aria, and remained so when she recorded the role for EMI in 1954. But the work itself had been resurrected. Her Rosina, seen on stage in Milan in 1956, was widely disliked. ‘Excitable, nervous, overpowering,’ said Opera. Yet the 1957 EMI recording, with much the same cast, though with Galliera replacing Giulini as conductor, would quickly establish itself as the best (certainly the most characterful) Il barbiere on record.

Finding coloratura Rossini basses was a near impossibility in the 1950s; a serious drawback given the many important bass roles Rossini wrote, ranging from the comic leads in L’inganno felice and La pietra del paragone (memorably recorded in 1971 with John Reardon in the title-role, Vanguard 12/92, nla) to Mosè in Egitto and beyond.

Meanwhile, the true opera seria tenor was virtually extinct. The problem dated back to Rossini’s time at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (1815-22) when he wrote competing and complementary roles for the quasi-baritonal Andrea Nozzari (creator of such parts as Otello and Pirro in Ermione) and the high coloratura Giovanni David (player of emotional neurotics such as Rodrigo and Oreste). It was a problem that kept many of the Neapolitan opere serie off the stage until the arrival, more than 150 years on, of singers such as Chris Merritt and Rockwell Blake, Bruce Ford and William Matteuzzi.

Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne in Semiramide at San Francisco Opera, 1981 (photo: Robert Cahen/San Francisco Opera Archives)

Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne in Semiramide at San Francisco Opera, 1981 (photo: Robert Cahen/San Francisco Opera Archives)

They in turn were helped by the emergence of a number of high-quality coloratura mezzos, prime among whom was Marilyn Horne. For some years, Horne forged a memorable partnership with soprano Katia Ricciarelli, not least in Tancredi, that vocally exquisite dramatic idyll for which Philip Gossett, greatest of Rossini scholars, had recently unearthed Rossini’s alternative tragic ending.

I vividly recall a 1986 concert staging of the then barely known Bianca e Falliero. Inspired by the age-old theme of young love blighted by parental hate, this is just about the most ferocious piece, vocally and dramatically, Rossini wrote. Ricciarelli was past her best but Horne was in sensational form as the young general Falliero.

SEARCHING OUT TEXT

Not the least of the problems facing the post-war Rossini revival was finding reliable performing editions; a situation that had been complicated by the destruction during the war of much of the archive of printed music belonging to Italy’s principal music publisher Ricordi. Glyndebourne was fortunate to have Vittorio Gui as its music director when it staged and recorded La Cenerentola in 1952, followed by an unforgettable Le Comte Ory. However, when the Wexford Festival decided to revive the very revivable La gazza ladra in 1959, the only parts Ricordi was able to provide came from an eccentrically revised and reorchestrated version by the composer (and director of the Rossini Conservatoire in Pesaro) Riccardo Zandonai. Yet the opera triumphed, not least because of the Pippo of a young ingénue by the name of Janet Baker.

Where an autograph manuscript was readily to hand, an edition would be made, as happened with the 1962 La Scala, Milan revival of Semiramide and its sequel recorded for Decca in 1965, conducted by Richard Bonynge with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. Comparable initiatives followed during the 1970s and ’80s, with Claudio Scimone making a series of important recordings of hitherto forgotten opere serie such as Maometto SecondoErmione and Zelmira.

The last gasp of the bad old days came in 1975 with an EMI recording whose English-language title The Siege of Corinth disguised the fact that this was a badly edited Italian translation of a revision for the French stage of the Neapolitan epic Maometto Secondo. Not that the star of the show Beverly Sills was much concerned. ‘I sometimes think that musicologists are like men who talk about sex but never have any.’ Happily, there has been a long tradition of fruitful collaboration between editors and performers where Rossini is concerned.

THE 1968 CENTENARY

The principal fruits of the 1968 centenary were Herbert Weinstock’s exhaustively documented Rossini: A Biography (Oxford, 1968) and a single LP of rare beauty and worth: Montserrat Caballé’s ‘Rossini Rarities’, a scrupulously researched anthology of arias (and the ornaments with which some leading singers of the time had graced them) from TancrediOtelloArmida, Le siège de Corinthe and the Stabat mater (RCA, 12/68, nla).

RCA was horrified. The costs of transcribing the music and hiring the orchestral parts was likely to be exorbitant; the sales, they feared, negligible. But Caballé, 34 and the new singing sensation of the age, insisted. She would go on to make further distinctive contributions to the Rossini discography, notably the still unsurpassed 1972 HMV recording of Guillaume Tell and the 1975 Philips recording of Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.

The centenary’s greatest legacy, however, would be the inauguration of the idea of a critical edition of Rossini’s entire musical output. Two things had helped make this possible. The first was Rossini’s decision to bequeath the bulk of his estate to the founding of a music academy in his birthplace Pesaro. Established in 1869, it was subdivided in 1940 into a school and a research foundation. The second was the survival of the autograph manuscripts of all but three of Rossini’s 39 operas. An additional – somewhat opera buffa – aspect of the initiative was its being propelled into life by a ferocious and well-publicised spat between Casa Ricordi (Rossini’s preferred publisher since 1814) and a young Italian conductor, Alberto Zedda.

Zedda had studied philosophy at university before wheedling his way as a mature student into the Milan Conservatory where his organ teacher was the multi-tasking Alceo Galliera. When Galliera recorded Il barbiere with Callas and Tito Gobbi in London in 1957 he knew what parts to use and what to avoid. Not so the young Zedda. Charged with conducting a production of the opera at a famous teaching school in Milan, he found himself facing complaints from the orchestra that the Ricordi parts contained mistakes and misattributions (piccolo parts allocated to the oboes and the like) that made them unplayable.

Much embarrassed, Zedda decided to consult the autograph manuscript in Bologna. This was a hazardous business. (As Philip Gossett has said, an autograph manuscript is the source of all truth and the root of all uncertainty.) Zedda knew enough, however, to write a mass of corrections into the hire parts. Ricordi’s response was to fine him for vandalising their property. Nothing daunted, Zedda successfully filed a counterclaim against Ricordi for supplying shoddy material.

Clearly there were no hard feelings, since it was Ricordi who published Zedda’s new critical edition of Il barbiere – the first ever critical edition of an Italian opera – in 1969. Two years later, the edition was recorded by Claudio Abbado, at much the same time as he recorded Zedda’s new edition of La Cenerentola.

However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. When New Grove editor Stanley Sadie, late of this parish, made the bold decision to commission a Rossini volume in the venerable Master Musicians series, one of my earliest tasks was to work out how to deal adequately with the mass of operas that had neither been staged nor reprinted since Rossini’s lifetime. Poring over an 1857 vocal score of Ermione in the British Library, it struck me that this Racine-derived azione tragica – Rossini’s only ‘failure’ in Naples but a piece of which he was inordinately proud – was, indeed, a small masterpiece. ‘Really?’ the cry went up, half doubtful, half excited, when the Master Musicians volume eventually appeared in 1986.

By then a critical edition of Ermione was sufficiently advanced for the work to be staged – always the acid test – at the 1987 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. The opera itself blazed forth, with Marilyn Horne, Chris Merritt, Rockwell Blake and others all making distinctive contributions. Unfortunately, Caballé, now in her fifties and a controversial choice for Ermione, seemed as uncertain of the work as her conductor Gustav Kuhn. The gallery in the lovely small Teatro Rossini was not amused.

Still, Ermione was back, as Mark Elder proved with a blazing concert performance in London in 1992 with Anna Caterina Antonacci as Ermione. The directors of opera houses from five continents were in the Queen Elizabeth Hall that evening, as a result of which several new productions were commissioned, including one by Glyndebourne, also featuring Antonacci, which Warner Vision filmed in 1995 (7/96, nla).

The revival of Il viaggio a Reims under Claudio Abbado at the 1984 Pesaro Festival remains ‘a red-letter event in the annals of Rossini scholarship and performance’ (photo: Studio Ambrosini di Roberto Angelotti)

The revival of Il viaggio a Reims under Claudio Abbado at the 1984 Pesaro Festival remains ‘a red-letter event in the annals of Rossini scholarship and performance’ (photo: Studio Ambrosini di Roberto Angelotti)

RETURN JOURNEY

The rediscovery which perhaps ranks highest in the list of those made since Rossini’s death in 1868 is that of Il viaggio a Reims (‘The Journey to Reims’), the lavish, highly sophisticated entertainment which Rossini created in honour of Charles X’s coronation in France in 1825. It was while on sabbatical from the University of Chicago in Rome in 1977 that Philip Gossett was presented with a pile of manuscript pages by the librarian of the Rome Conservatory. Signed by Rossini, they were marked ‘Several Pieces from the Cantata Il Viaggio a Reims’. In fact, it was the entire work, less the pages Rossini had later reused for his opera Le Comte Ory. The work’s revival (and recording) under the direction of Claudio Abbado at the 1984 Pesaro Festival remains a red-letter event in the annals of Rossini scholarship and performance.

MISSION (MOSTLY) ACCOMPLISHED

By the turn of the century, all Rossini’s 39 operas had been made available in some form or another. There had been a number of important players in this. Erik Smith commissioned and produced for Philips several pioneering recordings, including an Otello with José Carreras and Frederica von Stade and a Mosè in Egitto with Ruggero Raimondi. Patric Schmid and Don White, founders of the Opera Rara label, set in train an even more valuable sequence of recordings of mainly opera seria rarities. And then there was the patronage of the Naxos record company. After making an extraordinarily vivid recording of Il barbiere in Budapest in 1993, they went on to form a close association with the enterprising Rossini in Wildbad festival in southern Germany.

Garsington’s 2002 La gazza ladra was recorded by Chandos (photo: Keith Saunders/Arenapal)

Garsington’s 2002 La gazza ladra was recorded by Chandos (photo: Keith Saunders/Arenapal)

In England, the late Leonard Ingrams made the Garsington Opera Festival an important place of pilgrimage for Rossinians, not least in 2001 when the Fondazione Rossini allowed its new edition of Rossini’s Neapolitan romp La Gazzetta to be staged in Garsington two months before its Italian prima. Alas, the record companies showed little interest. Chandos took the 2002 production of La gazza ladra into the studio but (anathema to Leonard) insisted on its being sung in English.

By now the studio recording of opera, the jewel in the crown of the gramophone in the post-78 era, was going into freefall, as media organisations switched to marketing cost-effective spin-offs of live stage productions on DVD. Some worked, many proved unwatchable.

SACRED AND INSTRUMENTAL

It is not only Rossini’s operas that have tested performers. Genuinely successful recordings of the Stabat mater and the Petite Messe solennelle can be counted on the fingers of just one hand. By far the best account of the Messe, a perfectly judged 1972 Baumburg monastery performance directed from the keyboard by Wolfgang Sawallisch, vanished years ago (RCA, 10/73, nla).

As for the delicious salon music, the Soirées Musicales, and the 150 items of late piano music and songs, the Péchés de vieillesse (‘Sins of Old Age’) , they have suffered the double indignity of deletions – notable recordings of the late piano music by Dino Ciani, Aldo Ciccolini and Bruno Mezzina – and an almost complete lack of critical notice afforded to such things as Naxos’s ongoing project (2008-) of recording the complete Péchés de vieillesse. The fine anthology ‘Rossini Songs’ (Opera Rara, 12/09) is also currently unavailable.

THE SHOW GOES ON

It was Falstaff who said that he was not only witty in himself but the inspirer of wit in others. And so it has been with Rossini, such is the tunefulness and vitality of the best of his music. I imagine I am not alone in being exceptionally fond of Respighi’s La boutique fantasque or Britten’s Rossini-inspired Soirées and Matinées. And is there a more life-enhancing record than ‘Black Dyke Plays Rossini’, first issued by Chandos in 1983?

The bottom line is that, whatever the immensity of Rossini’s larger achievement as a composer – and we’re talking here of the principal architect of 19th-century Italian opera, and a good deal of French and German opera too – his true legacy is that he has helped put a very large smile on the world’s face. And, goodness, has it needed it!

Richard Osborne is widely respected for his extensive research and writings on Rossini; his translation of Ferdinand Hiller’s revelatory ‘Conversations with Rossini’ was published in October by Pallas Athene.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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