The most popular, successful and influential opera composer of the first half of the 19th century, Gioachino Rossini undertook the titanic task of dragging the cumbersome and moribund forms of 18th-century Italian opera into a new era. In the process, it took him just three weeks of 1816 to create in The Barber of Seville one of the all-time masterpieces of comic opera. That was just one of his 38 stage works in all the major contemporary genres.
Unlike that other giant of 19th century Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi, Rossini chose to take early retirement from the theatrical world – at the age of only 37 – and to devote the remaining 40 years of his life to the other great passion of his life – food. We owe the Tournedos Rossini to his inspiration. The only musical products of his later life were the delightful series of salon pieces which he called Péchés de vieillesse (‘Sins of Old Age’, 1857–68) and two sacred works, the Stabat mater (1841) and his ‘last mortal sin’, the Petite messe solennelle (1863) for two solo voices, two pianos and harmonium.
Born in 1792 in Pesaro, the son of a horn player and a singer, Rossini began to compose as a child, and was commissioned to write his first opera at the age of 15. Further commissions followed; several from the Teatro San Moïse in Venice for a series of one-act farse including The Silken Ladder (1812) and Signor Bruschino (1813). Rossini rarely took more than a month or so to prepare each of his early operas, and between 1810 and 1822 he turned out a steady flow of works, both comic and serious, for production in Venice, Milan, Naples and Rome.
Of these, The Barber of Seville was a disappointing failure at its Rome premiere in 1816, but the following year Rossini bounced back with La Cenerentola (‘Cinderella’), closely followed by La gazza ladra (‘The Thieving Magpie’) for Milan. His greatest opere serie were written for Naples between 1817 and 1822: they included Mosè in Egitto (‘Moses in Egypt’), La donna del lago (‘The Lady of the Lake’), Maometto II and Zelmira. Semiramide, written in 1823, marked the end of Rossini’s Italian career. He was by then so famous that he could no longer resist tempting offers from abroad, and the same year he left for Paris. He had 34 operas to his credit, and was still only 31 years old.
Over the next six years he wrote his final compositions for the Paris stage; they included a revision of Mosè in Egitto as Moïse (1827), Count Ory (1828) and William Tell (1829), his last and arguably finest operatic work. Opera owes to Rossini the evolution of new musical forms in the service of the drama: in particular, the expansion and integration of the function of the chorus; the development of the coloratura aria; the introduction of new subjectmatter to revitalise the stereotypes of opera seria; and the creation of brilliant overtures able to take their place in the concert repertory.
Profile © Wendy Thompson