Rossini’s Debuts

After overcoming a terrible opening night and vocal enemies, Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville soon became his most widely popular work. Its continued popularity over the years and the familiarity of its score have made it one of the world’s most beloved and famous operas.

Summary of Event

Success in opera was the avenue to fame and fortune for many composers during the nineteenth century. As a public entertainment, opera served mainly to show off the talents of popular singers. In Italy, Italy;opera it was a high-pressure business. Most Italian cities had opera houses, and for their “season”—the expanded carnevale period beginning just after Christmas and ending on Giovedi grasso, the night before Ash Wednesday—these houses provided productions that usually included at least one new work. Impresarios were hired to engage singers, directors, and composers. Barber of Seville, The (Rossini)
Opera;The Barber of Seville[Barber of Seville]
Rossini, Gioacchino
[kw]Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Debuts (Feb. 20, 1816)
[kw]Barber of Seville Debuts, Rossini’s The (Feb. 20, 1816)
[kw]Seville Debuts, Rossini’s The Barber of (Feb. 20, 1816)
[kw]Debuts, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Feb. 20, 1816)
Barber of Seville, The (Rossini)
Opera;The Barber of Seville[Barber of Seville]
Rossini, Gioacchino
[g]Italy;Feb. 20, 1816: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Debuts[0850]
[c]Theater;Feb. 20, 1816: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Debuts[0850]
[c]Music;Feb. 20, 1816: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Debuts[0850]
Sterbini, Cesare
Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de
Paisiello, Giovanni

In the largest opera houses, such as those in Milan, Milan;opera Venice Venice;opera , Rome, Rome;opera and Naples Naples;opera , impresarios wielded great patronage and influence but faced the frustrating temperaments of their artists, while also watching out for local censors Censorship;and opera[Opera] and attempting to remain profitable. Expected to fit their music to the talents of the singers engaged (who were often paid more than they were), composers could become worn-out workhorses, earning attention and a livelihood by turning out several operas each season. Many professional libretto writers were hack poets, though some were skilled at the job. Composers often took whatever texts their contract required. The formulaic nature of operatic structure at the time—display arias, duets, and ensembles, separated by keyboard-accompanied recitative—could work to a certain routine. However, audiences expected good tunes, and creative, imaginative composers had ample room in which to work.

Born in Pesaro, Italy, Gioacchino Rossini launched early into this rewarding but brutalizing business of creating operas. Both his parents were musicians, one an accomplished horn player, the other a singer in local opera companies. Their initial training was furthered in Bologna, where Gioacchino trained as a singer, a pianist, and a cellist, while composing substantial instrumental pieces by his early teens. At fifteen years of age, he composed his first opera, though it was not immediately performed. His debut came at eighteen in Venice Venice;opera with his first opera buffa, or comic opera, the farce La cambiale di matrimonio (1810; The Bill of Marriage). It won him recognition as a gifted and highly original composer with a command of vocal writing, comic style, and orchestral mastery. For Venice, he wrote four more comic operas, one-act pieces, within the next three years, as well as producing a serious opera for Ferrara. In 1812, he had a sensational success at Milan’s Milan;La Scala
Milan;opera prestigious La Scala Theater with his comedy La pietra del paragone (The Touchstone). At the age of twenty, with only two years of experience, Rossini was now a celebrity, the most promising young composer in Italy.

Rossini’s timing was perfect: He came on the operatic scene when the older Italian masters were dead or moribund, while the subsequent masters—such as Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini—were yet to appear, and Giuseppe Verdi Verdi, Giuseppe as well in the future. From 1812 until he left Italy in 1823, Rossini became the most influential and successful composer in Italy, setting the course of Italian opera for the new century.

Rossini expanded his scope spectacularly with his first serious opera, the heroic melodrama Tancredi (1813), composed for Venice’s illustrious La Fenice Theater. Only three months later, he had another comic triumph for another Venetian theater, the madcap L’italiana in Algeri (1813; The Italian Girl in Algiers). Moving back to La Scala in Milan Milan;La Scala , he produced another serious opera, Aureliano in Palmira (1814), followed by a sequel to his last comic opera, Il turco in Italia (1814; The Turk in Italy). This alternation between comic and serious works was dictated by the whims of the impresarios who gave Rossini his commissions, and a new commission from Venice’s La Fenice produced an opera seria disaster in late 1814.

A new turn in Rossini’s career was launched by the powerful impresario Domenico Barbaja, whose widely spread theater operations included the most important houses in Naples Naples;opera . Barbaja contracted Rossini to serve as his Neapolitan music director and to compose operas, using the resources of perhaps the finest company of singers in Europe. Rossini began his work for Barbaja boldly at the great San Carlo Theater with Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra(1815; Elizabeth, Queen of England) in October of 1815. In the title role was Isabella Colbran, previously Barbaja’s mistress, now Rossini’s lover, and later to become his first wife.

Rossini’s contract in Naples allowed him to accept work from houses elsewhere, among them two in Rome. For the Valle Theater, he ground out a tragic opera to a libretto by a local hack, Cesare Sterbini. Sterbini, Cesare Its premiere in December, 1815, was a dismal failure. Then, by default, Sterbini was assigned as librettist for Rossini’s other Roman commission, for the Argentina Theater. Rossini himself chose the subject, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de celebrated play Le Barbier de Séville: Ou, La Précaution inutile (1775; The Barber of Seville: Or, The Useless Precaution, 1776).

It was a brash decision. There had already been some half dozen operatic treatments of Beaucarchais’s play, one of them still popular with audiences at the time. The latter opera was composed in 1782 by Giovanni Paisiello Paisiello, Giovanni , one of the most prolific and admired composers of Italian opera of his day. He was still alive, he had basked in and then survived the favor of Napoleon, and he had many fervent admirers.

Paisiello’s librettist, Giuseppe Petrosellini, had drained all the satire and social criticism out of the play, turning it into simple, if delightful, farce. Rossini insisted on restoring some sharper elements in Sterbini’s Sterbini, Cesare libretto—though not too many. Aware of his boldness, Rossini wrote to the aged Paisiello to assure him graciously that he was not deliberately trying to challenge the older master. Knowing it would appear that way, Rossini titled his opera Almaviva: Ossia, L’inutile precauzione (1816; Almaviva: Or, The Useless Precaution); only after Paisiello’s death, a year later, did Rossini definitively appropriate the older opera’s title, renaming his work Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville).

Rossini always worked in a chaotic and high-speed fashion. He produced the fully orchestrated score of The Barber of Seville in about two weeks, not at all unusual for him. He made his usual recourse to self-borrowings. For example, after discarding the original overture (now lost) on the first night of performance, he appropriated music he had originally written for an earlier opera about a Roman emperor and then revised for another about Queen Elizabeth I, finally and decisively fixing it to The Barber of Seville.

The premiere of Rossini’s opera was disastrous. The theater manager’s death by stroke had delayed the opening. When it finally came, on February 20, 1816, the rabid fans of Paisiello, known as paisiellisti, rallied to jeer the young composer. Absurd accidents plagued the performance. For example, the actor playing Don Basilio fell and broke his nose before he was to sing his big aria, “Calumny”; a cat wandered onto the stage to join the singers at one point. Rossini was rightly philosophical about it all. The following night—with the new overture in place and no cats evident on stage—the audience responded to the opera’s merits and acclaimed the composer.

Quickly, though not instantly, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was taken up not only around Italy but also around Europe, cementing his fame. The original Almaviva had been tenor Manuel Garcia; when Garcia and his family troupe introduced Italian opera to New York City in 1825, Rossini’s hit was their starter. The opera’s currency brought it, nevertheless, much transformation. Rossini himself took the tenor’s dazzling final solo and transferred it the following year to the end of his next Roman opera, La cenerentola (1817; Cinderella). Over the years, sopranos pushed aside the high-range mezzo voice for which Rossini designed the role of Rosina and made it a high coloratura part, filling it with disfiguring embellishments; they also turned a music-lesson scene in act 2 into a blanket opportunity to interpolate all sorts of display solos from other sources.

Rossini ultimately produced a total of ten operas for Naples Naples;opera , including Otello (1816; Othello), Armida (1817), and La donna del lago (1819; The Lady of the Lake), bringing new profundity to his style, as well as six for the houses of other cities (two for La Scala). In 1823, he had a triumph in Vienna with Semiramide. Ready to leave Italy and drawn by greater financial prospects in Paris, Rossini settled there in 1824, writing one Italian opera and four in French, culminating with Guillaume Tell (1829; William Tell). William Tell(Rossini) Then, at thirty-seven, he retired from operatic composition. He continued to compose music for his own pleasure, however, and enjoyed a plush life of celebrity leisure for his remaining thirty-nine years.


Joining Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
[p]Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus;opera music
Le nozze di Figaro (1786; The Marriage of Figaro) as the other supreme Beaumarchais Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de operafication, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville did not deter at least eight other composers from trying their hand at adaptations of the play. Nevertheless, through the years when all of Rossini’s other operas fell into neglect, The Barber of Seville retained its endless popularity and kept the composer’s reputation alive, making possibile its later redemption. The Barber of Seville remains a staple of the opera repertoire.

Further Reading

  • Gossett, Philip. “Rossini.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2d ed. Vol. 21, edited by Stanlie Sadie. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Detailed article with extensive bibliography.
  • John, Nicholas, ed.“The Barber of Seville” and “Moses.” London: John Calder, 1985. Introductory essays with full libretto.
  • Kendall, Alan. Gioacchino Rossini: The Reluctant Hero. London: Victor Gollancz, 1992. Particularly strong analysis of Rossini’s personality.
  • Osborne, Richard. Rossini. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986. Concise biography and listener’s guide to the operas.
  • Robinson, Paul. “Enlightenment and Reaction.” In Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Provocative comparison of Mozart’s and Rossini’s Figaros.
  • Rosselli, John. The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi: The Role of the Impresario. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Fascinating picture of opera as business in Rossini’s day.
  • Stendhal. Life of Rossini. Translated by Richard N. Coe. Rev. ed. New York: Criterion Books, 1970. A pioneering biography, written in 1824 by the now famous novelist, a contemporaneous friend and admirer.
  • Weinstock, Herbert. Rossini: A Biography. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968. The most comprehensive and thorough study.

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Opera;The Barber of Seville[Barber of Seville]
Rossini, Gioacchino