During his active phase as an opera composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1968) was the most popular composer of operas throughout the Western World. After his premature retirement from the stage at age 37, he was eclipsed in popularity first by Verdi and then by Puccini. For a while the only opera of his to be regularly performed was The Barber of Seville. Beginning in the second half of the last century up until the present his other operas appeared with increasing regularity in all the world’s opera houses. Today only those of Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart are performed more often.
Rossini is one of those rare artists whose existence makes the world a much finer place than it would be had he never lived. Much of the material that follows has appeared separately in different posts here over the past dozen years. Putting it in one place allows the reader/listener to realize the magnitude of Rossini’s achievement.
His first success, written before his 21st birthday was Tancredi. It’s an opera seria based on a play by Voltaire. The finale to the first act could just as well have been attached to a comic opera. But its jauntiness and inventiveness can’t be beat. Tancredi – Act 1 finale
Shortly after the premiere of Tancredi, L’Italiana in Algeri was first performed – both in Venice, but in different theaters. Its first act finale is perhaps the zaniest in all opera. Though another number given below is virtually a match for it. L’Italiana in Algeri act 1 finale
The one Rossini opera that is immune to changing fashion or taste is The Barber of Seville. It is so wacky that even Rossini couldn’t keep it up for the full two acts. It’s last scene is not quite up to the stratospheric level of the rest of the opera. Its first act finale is a perfect conclusion to the insanity that leads up to it. Barber Act 1 finale
Cenerentola was written the year after The Barber (1817). It’s the Cinderella story sans magic. The sextet ‘Siete voi’ occurs towards the end of the second and final act. It’s a tribute to rolled Rs – another invention only Rossini could devise. Cenerentola Sextet
Mosè in Egitto was first performed in 1818. It was revised in 1827 for Paris as Moïse et Pharaon. The French version has an extra act and a ballet. The most well known number from the opera is ‘Dal tuo stellato soglio’ (From your starry throne). The melody is not developed. It just moves from voice to voice until finally everyone sings it. But the tune is so good that the lack of variation doesn’t matter. Not even God could resist this music, so the sea parts. Thalberg included the melody in his piano fantasy on the opera. Paganini wrote a set of variations on the piece. Dal tuo stellato soglio Mosè
Matilde di Shabran first appeared in 1821 in Rome under the direction of Niccolo Paganini. It’s very long – more than three hours. But like almost anything by Rossini it has a lot of good stuff. The best number, in my opinion, is a long ensemble that occurs about 30 minutes before the end of the first act. It’s in two halves. The first is slow and lyrical. The second fast half is so vigorous that it could cause a resurgence of the Dancing Mania. It’s as inventive and distinctive as the first act finale to L’Italiana. Rossini alone among all of humanity could have written it. This excerpt is taken from a Pesaro performance featuring Juan Diego Flórez. Dallo stupore oppresso Matilde di Shabran
Finally, two finales from Rossini swan song to opera, William Tell (1829). The end of act 1 depicts the conflict between the Austrian and Swiss after Tell’s rescue of the shepherd Leuthold. As I’ve commented in an earlier post, the end of Act 1 of Verdi’s Nabucco greatly resembles Rossini’s earlier effort. William Tell Act 1 finale
The end of the opera, when the good guys have won and the bad guys are either dead or dispersed, is a paean to liberty. It too, is not developed, but just repeated. And as with Mosè the tune is so good that the lack of variation again doesn’t matter. William Tell Act 4 finale
Rossini is unique. No matter how many musical geniuses appear, if any, in the future, Rossini’s special space will remain his alone. Listening to his music can only make you feel better.