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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

The thirty-nine operas of Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

A conspectus of their composition and recordings

Part 2

Back in Naples impresario Barbaja wanted something musically different and scenically spectacular from his contracted composer for the re-opening of the rebuilt San Carlo with its new state of the art stage facilities. Rossini obliged with his 22nd opera, Armida. An included fourteen-minute ballet was good practice for Rossiniís later Paris works where a ballet was de rigueur. In fact Rossini produced his most romantic opera to date in terms of the opulence of the music including three extended love duets. The libretto called for lavish staging including Armidaís palace and enchanted garden. There was to be much comings and disappearances as well as dances by nymphs, cherubs and dragons. The lovers Armida and Rinaldo descend on a cloud that becomes her chariot and, as she waves her wand, turns into her castle. Despite the spectacle of the production, the opera was only moderately well received. The contemporary critical opinion was that the music was Ďtoo Germaní; the implication was that it was too romantic in the manner of Weber. The requirements for the staging of the work restricted its spread although it found favour in Germany. By the end of the 1830s it had disappeared, only re-emerging as a vehicle for Callas at the 1952 Maggio Musicale in Florence. Added to the complications and cost of staging the work is the requirement of six tenors and much high tessitura, albeit with the prospect of doubling. The sole female role is that of Armida. At the premiere Isabella Colbran sang the role. She was shortly to become Rossiniís wife, which may account for the inspiration for some of his most voluptuous music. The well recorded bargain-priced Arts performance (review) under the idiomatic and scholarly baton of Claudio Scimone makes the most of Rossiniís mature music whilst the well cast soloists make the most of their bravura opportunities without succumbing to vocal excess; a highly recommendable recording.

Even by Rossiniís standards the time between the premiere of Armida in Naples and that of Adelaide di Borgogna (No. 23) at the Teatro Argentina in Rome on 27th December 1817, was short. He is thought to have composed the opera in less than three weeks. Aged 25 and with Isabella Colbran, the diva of Naples his mistress, he was certainly working and playing hard. With only slight alteration to the orchestration he re-used the overture from La Cambiale di matrimonia (No. 2) but lavished his efforts on the choral writing. Currently the Fonit Cetra recording conducted by Alberto Zedda is not available, but Opera Rara performed and recorded the work at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival.

Back in Naples, Mosé in Egito (No. 24) was premiered on March 5th 1818. Even the stage facilities at the refurbished San Carlo could not portray a realistic parting of the Red Sea. The work was an immediate success. Mosesís act 3 prayer Díal tuo stellato soglio, with accompanying chorus, has become a firm favourite among basses. Although uneven in some of the solo singing, the 1981 Philips recording with Ruggero Raimondi as Moses, conducted by Claudio Scimone, is a worthy representation of the work. This recording is of the 1819 revision which is somewhat expanded from the 1818 premiere. Rossini made greater revisions when he presented the work in Paris, in French, in 1827 as Moïse et Pharaon (No. 37, see below). Translated into Italian this is the basis of an abridged version of a live Munich performance (Orfeo C5149921) and an earlier studio recording conducted by Gardelli on Hungaroton (HCD 12290-92).

After Mosé Rossiniís only composition that year was his last one act farse, Adina (No. 25). This was a private commission by the son of the Lisbon Chief of Police. Rossini composed the work whilst on a visit to his parents in Bologna in the summer of 1818. It was not staged until 1826.

On return to his Naples base, Rossini presented Ricciardo e Zoraide, (No. 26) on December 3rd. It was the fifth in the sequence of nine opera seria he wrote for that city. Although the libretto has been criticised, Rossiniís music is innovative and dramatic with that written for Colbran and the two Naples tenors, Andrea Nozzari in the role of Agorante and Giovanni David as Ricciardo being both florid and dramatic. The work was well received at its San Carlo premiere, and later revival, as well as when seen in Paris, Lisbon, Munich and elsewhere. It was regularly performed until 1846 when it disappeared from the repertoire until it was revived at Pesaro in 1990. The 1995 Opera Rara recording (review) features the tenors Bruce Ford and William Matteuzzi who portrayed their roles at Pesaro. The two tenors are particularly fine in meeting the demands of their roles as are Nelly Miricioiu as Zoraide and Della Jones as Zomira. A highly recommendable recording whose engineering and conducting matches the quality of the singing.

On March 27th 1819, three months after Ricciardo, Rossini presented Ermione (No. 27) at the San Carlo. The libretto is based on Racineís great tragedy Andromaque. The eminent Rossini scholar, Professor Philip Gossett, considers if Ďone of the finest works in the history of 19th century Italian operaí. The Naples audience were not impressed and it was next heard in a concert performance in 1977. It was staged at Pesaro in 1986 with Montserrat Caballé a formidable heroine. I personally find the work lacks the drama and fluidity of Ricciardo. Nonetheless, I derive much enjoyment from my 1977 Erato recording (ECD 75336) conducted by Scimone and with Cecilia Gasdia as Ermione and featuring the specialist Rossini tenor duo of Chris Merritt and William Matteuzzi.

On 24th April 1819, within a month of the premiere of Ermione, Rossini presented Eduardo e Cristina (No 28) at the Teatro San Benedetto, Venice. In this instance it was not a question of Rossiniís felicitous capacity for speedy tuneful composition. Nineteen of the twenty-six numbers in the opera were taken from earlier works and a previous libretto was revised to accommodate the music! The concoction was a huge success. The audience at the premiere encored several numbers and twenty performances were given in the season. The following year the work transferred to the La Fenice, Veniceís premier house. There were also productions in other cities although by 1840 it had fallen from the repertoire. I know of no recordings of the work.

On his return to Naples in the summer of 1819 Rossini presented La donna del lago (No. 29) on 24th September. It was the first opera to be based on any of Walter Scottís romantic works. Although the most famous in our time is Donizettiís Lucia di Lamermoor, Scottís popularity as a source of operatic libretti expanded rapidly after Rossiniís example. By 1840, a mere 21 years after La donna del lago, there were at least 25 Italian operas based on Scott plus others by German, French and English composers. Although none of Scottís works had been published in Italian at the time, Rossini had read The Lady of the Lake in French translation and been inspired by it. At the premiere on September 24th the opera had a lukewarm reception that warmed at subsequent performances. The work remained in the San Carlo repertory for a further twelve years and within five years of its composition it was heard all over Italy and in Dresden, Munich, Lisbon, Vienna, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Paris and London. The Act 2 rondo, Tanti affeti, roused Naples audiences when sung by Isabella Colbran. By 1860 the work was forgotten until its revival in Florence in 1958. It was performed and recorded live at Pesaro in 1983. The recording features Katia Ricciarelli as Elena, Lucia Valentini Terrani as Malcolm and Samuel Ramey as Douglas in a very affecting overall performance (CBS Masterworks. M2K 39311). The reviewed mid-price Opus Arte DVD (review) is of the rather dark 1992 La Scala staging which lacks any particular Scottish focus. June Anderson sings with good firm tone and coloratura. Her tanti affeti is enthusiastically received. She also duets well with the creamy toned Martine Dupuy in the trousers role of Malcolm. Mutiís conducting draws the best from what is one of Rossiniís most inspired and innovative opera seria scores. There is also an audio recording from this series of La Scala performances (Philips 438-211-2).

Immediately after seeing La donna del lago staged in Naples, Rossini went off on one of his frequent absences to present an opera during the carnival season at La Scala, Milan. Felice Romani was on hand to provide the libretto and Bianca e Falliero (No. 30) was premiered on December 26th 1819. The work was performed thirty times during the season and soon spread throughout Italy and beyond before disappearing after 1846. It was revived at Pesaro in 1986 with Katia Ricciarelli, Marilyn Horne and Chris Merritt. The Fonit Cetra recording from those performances is not currently available. The Opera Rara recording (review) made in November 2000 with Majella Cullagh as the heroine and Jennifer Larmore as her lover is an outstanding success in all respects. The duets between the two exhibit bravura coloratura singing of the highest order. The rest of the cast, conductor and engineering match this standard.

Another twelve months were to pass before Rossini presented his next opera, Maometto II (No. 31). It was premiered in Naples on December 3rd 1820. This interregnum between Rossiniís operatic compositions was connected to personal and political consideration rather than compositional inertia or block. Early in the year he presented an opera by Spontini at the San Carlo and wrote his Messe di Gloria. Isabella Colbran, the lead soprano at the San Carlo, and Rossiniís mistress, who was to sing Anna Erisso at the premiere had to return home to Spain for a period on the death of her father and to arrange the transfer of his estate to her. More importantly civil unrest broke out in Naples with a group of army officers and priests leading an uprising against the King and threatening revolution if he did not proclaim a constitution. Gunboats from Britain arrived in the Bay of Naples and the Austrian army marched in to provide the King with some backbone. Rossini is reputed to have served for a short period in the guardia nazionale during this period. Maometto II was received only modestly in Naples. The recently re-issued Philips 1983 recording (Decca 475 509 2) conducted by Claudio Scimone, with Samuel Ramey in the title role and June Anderson as Anna, reveals a work of considerable dramatic and musical intensity. Rossini rewrote the work as La Siège de Corinthe (No. 36) for his Paris Opera debut in 1826. He also made a shortened version for performances at Veniceís San Benedetto theatre in 1822. This shorter version was performed at the 2002 Bad Wildbad Festival and recorded by Naxos (review). A World Premier Recording, the live concert is well caught by the engineers, vibrantly conducted and with the young singing cast distinguishing themselves.

After the premiere of Maometto, Rossini went to Rome where he had agreed to write a new work for the Teatro Apolloís carnival season. Problems with the libretto left Rossini with little time and he enlisted composer colleague Pacini to assist him by writing three numbers. Matilda di Shabran (No. 32) was presented on 24th February 1821. The work had a mixed reception but quickly spread to other Italian cities. It reached London in 1823 and New York in 1834. Juan Diego Florez saved its premiere at Pesaro in 1996. He jetted in to replace the indisposed scheduled tenor and subsequent stardom. He also sang in a new production at the festival in 2004. It may be that a CD or DVD of the performance will be issued. It would be particularly welcome as a very good all-round cast also included the delectable Annick Massis as Matilde. I know of no other recording.

Back in Naples Rossini found that Barbaja had arranged for the whole of the company of the San Carlo to stage a season in Vienna where Rossini was already the favourite opera composer. Weberís Der Freischutz was included in the San Carlo season alongside six Rossini operas including Zelmira (No. 33) which had been premiered in Naples on February 16th 1822. With Vienna in mind, Rossini took great care with its composition, but the plot did not lend itself to success in Naples. Claudio Scimone praised the score after conducting it in Venice in 1988, performances which form the basis of the Erato studio recording made in London the following year (2292-45419-2). In the recording the three tenors are nicely contrasted and appropriately expressive in the demanding fioritura. On the distaff side Cecilia Gasdia in the name part is well matched by mezzo Bernarda Fink. This recording is bound to be reissued where it will find new competition from Opera Raraís live performance recorded at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004 (ORC 27) and with Antonio Siragusa managing the vocal leaps of the David role of Ilo with ease and welcome tonal beauty. The down-side is the increasing intrusion of vociferous applause as the performance proceeds. The issue includes additional material Rossini composed for Vienna.

On the way to Vienna Rossini and Colbran were married. Under the arrangement Rossini received a dowry equivalent to about £100,000 at todayís values. With this money, together with his fees for the Vienna performances, Rossini was beginning to have the financial security he sought and which would relieve him of the pressures of the hectic compositional life he had, of necessity, lead previously. Barbaja, increasingly aware of Rossiniís asset value was keen to negotiate a new contract to keep the composer attached and committed to Naples whilst allowing him to compose for London and Paris. Rossini, on the other hand was determined not to return to Naples and whilst in Vienna he wrote to the London impresario Benelli proposing a new opera for that city involving his wife as lead soprano. Whilst in Vienna, Rossini was introduced to Beethoven. The great Austrian composer encouraged Rossini to write more comic operas like Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Rossini for his part was appalled by Beethovenís living conditions and financial situation.

The Rossinis left Vienna in July 1822. It was a measure of Rossiniís status that he was invited by Prince Metternich to attend and compose for the Congress of Verona. During several weeksí stay he composed five cantatas as well as attending many receptions. He was introduced to the Austrian Emperor, the Tsar and the Duke of Wellington. From Verona the Rossiniís journeyed to Venice where the composer had agreed to write an opera for La Fenice. His fee was an unprecedented five thousand francs. During this stay Rossini also presented the revised version on Maometto II referred to above.

The new opera for La Fenice was Semiramide (No. 34) based on Voltaireís tragedy. The work was well received at its premiere on February 3rd 1823. It was performed twenty three times that season and quickly spread throughout Italy, Europe and, later, America. After some years of neglect Semiramide was revived at La Scala with Joan Sutherland in the title role. These performances were the stimulus for Deccaís recording, which also features Marilyn Horne in the trousers role of Arsace. (425 481-2). A new critical edition was staged at Pesaro in 1992 and is used in the complete DG recording of the same year featuring Cheryl Studer in the name part, Jennifer Larmore, Samuel Ramey and Frank Lopardo (437 797-2). In Semiramide Rossini elaborated his stylistic vision. It was the last opera he composed for the Italian stage. At age 31 he was ready for new horizons

After spending time in Bologna in the summer of 1823 the Rossinis travelled to London via Paris where the composer was fêted and began negotiating about future work. In London he presented several of his operas although their success was constrained by Colbranís declining vocal state. Rossini did, however, earn considerable remuneration by singing and playing at musical occasions organised by English aristocracy. In Brighton where the Court was in session he sang duets with the King. The proposed London opera, although started, was never completed when Benelli went bankrupt.

The Rossinis returned to Paris, where the composer was appointed Director of the Théâtre Italien. His contract required him to present productions of his own works, and that of other composers, as well as writing new works in French for presentation at The Opéra (The Théâtre de líAcadémie Royale de Musique).

The works in French were a little slow in coming, as Rossini needed to grapple with the prosody of the language and re-align his own compositional style towards that of his new hosts. All this was to take time and whilst there was some impatience at the lack of a new opera from him in French it was recognised that his revitalisation of the Théâtre Italien was demanding of his time. First though was the unavoidable duty of a work to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in Reims Cathedral in June 1825. Called Il viaggio à Reims (a journey to Reims) (No. 35) it was composed to an Italianís libretto and presented at the Théâtre Italien on 19th June. It was hugely successful in three sold-out performances after which Rossini withdrew it considering it purely a pièce díoccasion. The opera plot makes a parody of the stereotypes of the various nationalities who become stranded, through lack of horses, on the way to the Coronation of Carlos X in Reims. Although Rossini reused nine of the numbers in Le Comte Ory (No. 38 below), Il viaggio became lost until scholarly research work found missing numbers in the Santa Cecilia in Rome. By adding these parts to those found in Paris and Vienna, Philip Gossett produced the edition presented at the Pesaro Festival in 1984. DG engineers combined the best of the Pesaro performances to give an outstandingly sung and recorded issue (414 498-2). That should be a part of any collection of Rossiniís operas. There is also available a DVD of a performance at Barcelonaís Grand Liceu in March 2003 conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos (TDK DV-OPVAR)

For his first work in French, Rossini established a tradition later followed by Donizetti and Verdi of revising an earlier work to a new libretto. The first of two such revisions was Le Siège de Corinthe (No. 36). It was premiered to massive acclaim at The Opéra on October 9th 1826. This was Rossiniís second revision of Maometto II. Whilst the first revision, as noted, reduced the length of the work, for the Paris performances Rossini added an overture, several new numbers and the de rigueur ballet. It clocked up no fewer than one hundred performances at The Opéra within thirteen years. It was quickly seen in translation throughout the Italian peninsula as LíAssedio di Corinto. The Paris staging was lavish with the final tableau depicting the sacked and burning Corinth being both viscerally and visually thrilling and horrifying. Francis Toye wrote Ďwith this work Grand Opera was borní. The plot concerning Greeks and Turks was particularly apposite in the Paris of the premiere where the Greek cause found much favour. It needs another spectacular staging to be caught on DVD to bring this French version back into favour. As it is, there is a worthwhile studio recording conducted by Thomas Schippers of the Italian translation in a version prepared for La Scala in 1969 featuring Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett (EMI CMS 64335-2).

Rossiniís second work for The Opéra was Moïse et Pharaon (No. 37). Derived from the Italian Mosé in Egitto, the revised French language libretto involved several name changes and expanded the opera into four acts. The necessary ballet music in act 3 was taken from Armida. As well as new music Rossini also drew from Bianca e Faliero. Moïse et Pharaon was premiered on 6th March 1827 and was received with even greater appreciation than that accorded Le Siège de Corinthe. An Italian translation called Mosé e faraone quickly followed. The newly issued DVD of the 2003 La Scala production conducted by Muti ( to be reviewed) fills a major gap in the availability of Rossiniís works. Although lacking Francophone singers, and having some idiosyncratic stage effects, the recording provides a vivid and well-sung performance of a work that deserves greater circulation.

A month before the premier of Moïse et Pharaon, Rossiniís mother died in Bologna. The composer took her death badly and after bringing his father to Paris he increasingly talked of retirement. By the spring of 1828 the Paris newspapers were speculating about a possible end to his career as an opera composer. In this period he wrote some occasional music and despite having agreed to write Guillaume Tell for The Opéra he first turned his hand to a comic work, Le Comte Ory (No. 38). For this opera he re-used five of the nine pieces in Il viaggio a Reims, and reduced the need for primo voices. First heard on 20th August 1838 Le Comte Ory further consolidated Rossiniís reputation. It was a favourite work of Vittorio Gui, music director of the Glyndebourne Festival, and a recording was made after performances at the Edinburgh Festival in 1954. This scintillating performance kept the work in the public domain and the LP catalogue, along with Il Barbiere and La Cenerentola, until the composerís other works began to be more widely performed and recorded from the mid-1970s. In sonic terms it has largely been superseded by Philipsí highly enjoyable 1988 recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner deriving from performances at the Lyons Opera (review). A more recent audio recording from the Pesaro Festival features Juan Diego Florez. His pinging top notes and ease in the highest register are not enough for my ears to overcome the disadvantages of a live audio performance and an uneven cast (DG 477 5020). More welcome has been the arrival of a DVD of the 1997 Glyndebourne production. It is a wholly delightful performance well caught for the medium by nonpareil video director Brian Large (review).

In 1828 when Rossini began composing Guillaume Tell (No. 39) he was 36 years old and following the death of Beethoven he was the worldís best-known composer. It was to be his last opera despite his living until his 76th year. As Director of Parisís Théâtre Italien, Rossini had a guaranteed annuity for life and had earned considerable sums at the 1822 Vienna Festival and during his visit to London. With good counsel from banker friends he had enough money to live in style. Many have speculated that given his liking for social activities he saw no reason to continue the strained and hectic life he had perforce been leading. There was also the question of his mental resilience and physical state. His marriage was not successful and he was much distressed by his motherís death. His physical state was affected by his chronic gonorrhoea exacerbated by frequent, and futile, stringent treatments and which certainly lead to depression.

Whilst Rossini had hinted at possible retirement during the composition of Guillaume Tell, the work itself shows no signs of any waning of musical creativity, or capacity and concern for detail on his part. It is by far his longest opera, a complete performance lasting nearly four hours. Rossini took excessive care over its libretto, casting and composition. Sections at the end of act 2 where the representatives of the three Cantons assemble and agree to revolt against the tyranny of Governor Gesler draw from Rossini some of his most memorable music in an opera full of melodic and dramatic felicity. Donizetti is reputed to have attributed the rest of Guillaume Tell to Rossini but act 2 to God!

Because of its length there was an early propensity to cut out sections of Guillaume Tell. Within a year it was presented in three abbreviated acts and then act 2 only was given as a curtain-raiser to ballet performances! The opera was first presented in Italian translation at Lucca in 1831 and then at the San Carlo in Naples in 1833. Commendable audio recordings are available in both the original French and Italian translation. The French has Nicolai Gedda and Caballé under Gardelliís baton (CMS 769961-2) whilst the Italian version has Pavarotti and Mirella Freni conducted by Chailly (Decca 417 154-2). Both recordings, on four CDs, feature a full text and tenors with good upward extensions well able to assay the 456 Gs, 93 A flats, 54 B flats, 15 Bs, 19Cs and 2 C sharps required of the role of Arnold. There is also a DVD of the 1988 La Scala performance available (Opus Arte OA LS 3002 D) [review]. The reviewed CD from Orfeo (review), is of a live performance in French given at the Vienna State Opera in 1998. Giuseppe Sabbatiniís tightly focused, but ever musical and tastefully phrased tenor meets the demands of the high notes if not quite having the heft and robust tone the role ideally requires in its most dramatic moments. Nancy Gustafson as Mathilde is less than ideal whilst Thomas Hampson in the title role sings well and Fabio Luisi is the outstanding conductor. All round it is a vibrant performance but misses around 40 minutes of music compared with the studio recordings mentioned. Davis Pountneyís production was not appreciated by many of the audience who voice their disapproval from time to time.

No collection of Rossiniís operatic works would be complete without a collection of overtures from his operas, all of them full of melodic musical invention and unexpected felicities. Ola Rudnerís ABC Classics CD (review) has nine whilst a Double Decca from Chailly manages fourteen (443 850-2). A Philips Duo CD issue of Rossiniís ballet music from Le Siège de Corinthe, Otello, Moïse and Guillaume Tell, along with some of Donizettiís ballet music composed for his Paris works and conducted by Antonio De Almeida is worth hearing (442 533-2).

Also essential are vocal recitals from some of the leading Rossini singers. The dramatic low mezzo Ewa Podles features six arias recorded live at a concert in her native Poland in 1998 (DUX 0124) [review]. She also sings arias from seven of his operas including Semiramide, Maometto II and La donna del lago in a highly enjoyable 1995 studio recording (Naxos 8.553543). Also commendable is fellow mezzo and great exponent of Rossini, Marilyn Horne. She can be heard on an excellent Decca recording titled Heroes and Heroines (476 7089) and which features arias from six operas including extensive excerpts from the rarely heard Líassedio di Corinto. She also features on a CD of alternative arias that Rossini wrote for specific singers and productions after the premiere [review].

The recent tenore di grazia favourite, Juan Diego Florez, sings in some duets with Vesselina Kasarova on her all-Rossini CD (RCA 74321 57131 2) that made the charts in 1999 as did his 2002 solo disc of tenor arias from eight of the composerís works (Decca 470 024 -2). The three Rossini items involving Kasarova and Florez from the RCA issue are repeated on a recommendable disc of duets constructed round the Bulgarian mezzoís previous recordings. (RCA 82876 52929 2) [review]. On the remaining tracks she is joined by Eva Mei and Ramon Vargas in excerpts from the 1995 recording of Tancredi (RCA 09026 68349 2) whilst the duet from Maometto II comes from an RCA disc called Between Friends and focuses on Vargas (RCA 82876 54243 2) (review) Samuel Ramey, with his flexible sonorous bass was a great favourite at Pesaro, and on disc, in a number of Rossini roles. His recital disc on Teldec is well worth searching out (9031-73242-2).

In preparing this conspectus I have been indebted to the following sources:-

  1. Gioachino Rossini. Philip Gossett in The New Grove, Masters of Italian Opera, pp 1-90. Edited Stanley Sadie. Macmillan, London, 1983
  2. Rossini. Charles Osborne. Master Musicians Series. J M Dent. 1987
  3. The Bel Canto Operas. Charles Osborne. Methuen 1994. pp 3-136 and Selective Discography pp 356-359
  4. Innumerable CD booklets and sleeve-notes, often by Philip Gossett who, for the last thirty years or so, has been widely accepted as the foremost Rossini scholar. He, together with Alberto Zedda, conductor and fellow scholar, did much to establish the Rossini Foundation and Festival at Pesaro.

Robert J Farr

16 November 2005

 

 



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