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Old Rococo - The life of Gioacchino Rossini
Various recording dates and venues. Original issue 1992
Picture Format NTSC. 4:3 FF. Colour
Sound, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Subtitles in English for staged excerpts only
NVC ARTS 50-51865-6018-2-1 [83:00]

Experience Classicsonline

For those opera enthusiasts who have seen the NVC Arts DVD titled Verdi, The pursuit of Success and The Burden of Success - subtitled ‘A Major Film on the Life and Work of Giuseppe Verdi’ - (D4226), this issue should come with a health warning. The Verdi film was derived from two 1994 BBC documentary broadcast programmes presented by Mark Elder. The extracts are complete and presented as acted performances albeit, with rudimentary scenery, and with Elder conducting the orchestra of English National Opera of which he was Musical Director. The story is told in between these sung and acted excerpts.

This DVD presentation focuses on a narrative of Rossini’s life, which is true to the title. Actor Brian Blessed, as the composer, speaks this narrative with Timothy Bateson as the voice of Stendhal, Rossini’s biographer. That’s fine. What is less so is that the cover also claims that it features Joan Sutherland and Cecilia Bartoli. It might escape the attentions of Trading Standards in so far as the voices of those two eminent singers are present. But this is a DVD and some purchasers might just assume that they appear in the visual excerpts listed. In fact, while most of the excerpts are illustrated by live performances, others are only by the music and singing with vaguely relevant scenes of the locality or of a supposedly relevant theatre. In the case of the religious pieces these are more often of what might loosely be described as spiritual connotations. The spoken narrative overlays some of the visual excerpts to varying degrees.

I have listed all the Chapter titles above and marked with an asterisk those with a live visual staged performance. Of these both Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola are derived from performances at Glyndebourne and feature as two of the three operas from that source on Warner Entertainment, Three DVDs 50-514422-7848-2-4 (see review). These are adequate rather than inspired staged productions, but the extracts suit their purpose. In terms of singing, the extract from Tancredi with Bernadette Manca Di Nissa’s creamy tone in the wonderful catchy Di tanti palpiti is a marked improvement. Rossini’s somewhat deliberately chaotic finale of act one of L'Italiana in Algeri, in very ornate and colourful costumes, is adequate rather than inspired. The narrative puts these and the earlier opera extracts into the perspective of Rossini’s life and rise to fame, particularly after Tancredi and L'Italiana in Algeri. This was the critical stage of his career when, in 1815 at the young age of twenty-three, he was summoned by impresario Barbaja to be Musical Director of the Royal Theatres of Naples. His first opera for the San Carlo was Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra premiered on 4 October 1815. This subject was particularly appropriate as it also welcomed the return of the King from exile after the overthrow of Napoleon, which had been achieved largely by the English. In this extract, Cecilia Bartoli sings Elisabetta’s Act One aria whilst pictures of the Bay of Naples and the interior of the San Carlo theatre are shown. The narrative diverts to mention Colbran and her place as the diva at the San Carlo and her relationship with Rossini. There are also references to his - later their - travels to Venice, Rome and Milan to present the composer’s works and fulfil new commissions.

It is mentioned that Rossini’s contract at Naples allowed him to work elsewhere. Whilst mentioning Otello, Moses and Lady of the Lake there is no mention of the other Naples opera seria, nine in all. The narrative does state that during his time at Naples Rossini composed fifteen operas. As a matter of detailed accuracy it was nineteen. The narrative and musical extracts move on to Il Barbiere and La Cenerentola, these being operas composed for Rome and each being with visuals from the abovementioned Glyndebourne performances. In between there is singing from the Messa di Gloria as an example of another work Rossini was required to compose for Naples under his contract. The brief pictorial extract from the Messa di Gloria has some fine singing from Francesco Araiza as well as an excellent choral contribution.

The focus of the narrative moves swiftly to Venice where Rossini presented Semiramide in 1823. The story of Babylonian goings-on was the basis for the last opera he composed for presentation in his native country. The voice is that of Joan Sutherland from the Decca recording conducted by Bonynge. The views of the Grand Canal, St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace from across the lagoon are a magnificent backdrop, as are pictures of La Fenice, interior and outside, before it was destroyed by fire in the mid-1990s. Semiramide was the last role Colbran sang on stage as she and Rossini, now man and wife, travelled to Paris and London where the composer was presented to the King and earned vast amounts of money before his return to the French capital.

In Paris, the narrative recounts his appointment and his first operas in French with a woolly picture of an Italian language version of William Tell featuring Chris Merritt. This, at age 37, was Rossini’s last opera. The narrative asks why and offers explanations as well as recounting his fight for the French pension he had been promised, taking six years to sort it out. Years of depression and pain from the urethritis consequent on his gonorrhoea were to follow. He worked in his native Bologna and composed his Stabat Mater for the university of that city. Donizetti conducted the premiere. The performance extract shown was recorded in the venue of the premiere. With the revolution of 1848 Rossini and his wife left Italy never to return. They set up home in France, eventually building a villa at Passé.

With his new wife’s care Rossini started to compose again, The sins of old age, songs with piano performed at the regular soirées at their home. The Aragonese and Adieux à la vie are sung wonderfully by mezzo-soprano Della Jones with Malcolm Martineau at the piano. Both of these are given without overlay of narrative.

The story concludes with sound extracts from the Erato recording of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in a performance in the original form with accompaniment by two pianos. Rossini later orchestrated it. The original was written for the consecration of the Chapel at the home of his friend Countess Pillet-Will in 1863. The word ‘petite’ does not refer to the work’s size, but rather the composer’s self-evaluation of its importance.

As the narrative notes, Rossini died in 1868 at the age of seventy-seven. There were four thousand mourners at his funeral in Paris. He had been showered with honours in France and Italy. Garrulous as George Bernard Shaw may have dubbed him, Old Rococo was his self-deprecatory description. He was the first of a sequence of truly great operatic composers born in and fostered by Italy in the nineteenth century.

Those interested in more detail about the composer and his operas will find it in part one and part two of my Rossini Conspectus on this site.

Robert J Farr

Chapter list
Chapter 1 Il Barbiere di Siviglia *
Chapter 2 Sonata a quattro
Chapter 3 La Cambiale di Matrimonio*
Chapter 4 Il Signor Bruschino*
Chapter 5 Tancredi*
Chapter 6 L'Italiana in Algeri*
Chapter 7 Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra
Chapter 8 Il Barbiere di Siviglia*
Chapter 9 Messa di Gloria*
Chapter 10 La Cenerentola*
Chapter 11 Semiramide
Chapter 12 Guillaume Tell*
Chapter 13 Stabat Mater*
Chapter 14 Aragonese*
Chapter 15 Adieux à la vie*
Chapter 16 Petite Messe Solennelle
Chapter 17 La Cenerentola*
Excerpts illustrated by performance pictures* OR sound only with picture backgrounds.
 


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