SFOpera - The Barber of Pesaro

The Barber of Pesaro

“Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music,” Gioachino Rossini once boasted, only partly in jest. He was paying himself a left-handed compliment, the self-acknowledgement of a prodigiously facile gift to pour out music with effortless speed. Remember, it was Rossini who—when told Donizetti had finished a new opera in three weeks—remarked, “Well, he always was a lazy fellow.” After all, it had taken Rossini only thirteen days to produce his comic masterpiece, The Barber of Seville.

Rossini, born in the Adriatic town of Pesaro in 1792, had learned to write in haste in his youth because of financial responsibilities towards family members who were dependent on his ability to make money quickly. In the beginning of his career he seemed, in his own mind at least, to be more of an artisan than an artist. He apparently lacked any loftier ideas about the writing of music; it was a matter of doing what he knew best and did best.

As a carpenter fashions an exquisite piece of cabinetry, so Rossini fashioned an attractive piece of music. That a Chippendale emerged from a mass of woodworkers and a Rossini loomed over such now-forgotten composers as Simone Mayr, Niccolò Zingarelli, and Saverio Mercadante was of little concern to either man at the time. It was a question they left to posterity, and they probably never thought about it at all.

Of all the characters he fashioned, Rossini was closer in attitude and temperament to his ebullient Figaro than to any other. It is hardly a coincidence that Figaro’s bravura aria “Largo al factotum” was one of Rossini’s favorite party turns; he loved to sing it to his own accompaniment at a glittering gathering. He could well have been describing himself: “Make way for the factotum of the city. Rushing to his shop, for dawn is here . . . what pleasure . . . you are indeed the most fortunate of men. Ready for everything by night or by day, always bustling, always in motion. I go like lightning . . . Good fortune always smiles.”

Evviva Rossini, the Barber of Pesaro.

It is better to think of him as a resourceful wheeler-dealer than as the Father Goose of his time, as many have seen him. But to truly appreciate him we have to remember that, along with surface wit and brilliance, he was a bridge from the culture of one century to that of another. Rossini was born into a musical world in transition from Classicism to Romanticism. We most often think of him today as an incomparable composer of comic operas, all of which owe a deeply and frequently acknowledged debt to Mozart, a god-like figure to Rossini. “The angel of music,” he called him.

It goes without saying that Rossini, in turn, would have been enormously pleased could he have lived to hear himself described as “the Italian Mozart.” There is ample reason for so extravagant a claim, for like Mozart, Rossini was a melodist of the highest order and had an unerring feeling for the voice and its possibilities. In their comedies, there is laughter of a tickling, sly, mocking sort rather than the belly-shaking type.

There are marvelous human insights in his works as well, though in Rossini’s operas these never penetrate as deeply and revealingly as in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, for example. Rossini was too often caught on the treadmill of contemporary operatic conventions, becoming prey to the need to borrow from himself and developing stylistic tricks that enabled him to grind out lengths of music to meet a deadline. He paid a price for his facility, but still he soared above the crowd. And again, as in Mozart, there is in Rossini’s music at its best a craft, an elegance, and a well-formed sense of character delineation.

But I said earlier he was a bridge, and there is another crucial side to the man, for Rossini not only looked backward to Classic values, but also forward to Romantic concepts. The Rossini of such giant-stepping operas as Semiramide, Otello, and William Tell helped shape the heroics of his age though his vocal writing and in the way that he gave the opera orchestra a bigger and more complex role than ever before. If we over-emphasized his Classic side and talent for comedy, his more serious nature suffers. The true wonder of Rossini is that he stood astride two cultures and was a master of both.

In all, he wrote thirty-nine operas, two large-scale choral works, and dozens of songs, piano pieces, and ensemble works. Those compositions on which his fame rests were written between the ages of sixteen and thirty-seven, although he lived to be seventy-six. That fact is an important part of his story as well. Rossini spent more than half of his life in a self-imposed exile from the arena that had brought him greater rewards and acclaim during his lifetime than to virtually any other composer of the day—apart from Beethoven.

Many reasons have been advanced for Rossini’s abdication of his throne as king of opera after producing so important a score as William Tell. During Richard Wagner’s first visit to Paris, where Rossini lived the second half of his life, he had complained to Wagner of a decline in singing. Certainly what he saw as a slackening in the art he so passionately loved was part of the reason he stopped writing for the stage so abruptly. But there were other pressing reasons as well.

Rossini had labored long and hard ever since his teens, and by the time of William Tell he was tired, having packed a lifetime’s work into the space of twenty-odd years. Also, during the writing of William Tell, he had developed a nervous condition that gradually became chronic and could well have been venereal. It drained his energy and he found that writing had become increasingly difficult, especially as he had gradually begun to demand more of himself.

Even after his health improved, the joy in working was gone—along with the need to work. By 1855, when Rossini settled for good in Paris, he was a wealthy and respected figure who could afford the luxury of writing music for himself alone. Only one full-scale work came from this later period—the Petite Messe Solennelle—his sole masterpiece written during the years away from the stage. Apart from this amazing and impassioned score, there were only whimsical salon pieces he called Sins of My Old Age, created to amuse and divert his friends and guests.

To the outside world, however, his fame rested on one composition: The Barber of Seville. It was an opera drawn from the same source as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—a trilogy of plays by another real-life Figaro character, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The plays dealt with the intrigues and love affairs in the household of a Spanish nobleman, the Count Almaviva. The Beaumarchais Barber, however, is permeated by social criticism, with the working classes pitted against the aristocracy, while Rossini’s Barber is little more than a favorite commedia dell’arte ploy: a foolish old man attempting to marry his beautiful and young ward who is in love with a handsome young man.

The Barber was the first play in the Beaumarchais trilogy and had been previously set to music by Giovanni Paisiello, an accomplished and popular composer of the generation prior to Rossini’s. Though immediately attracted to the idea of setting The Barber to music, Rossini and his librettist Cesare Sterbini worried that the critics and public would think they were openly challenging the elder Paisiello and be offended by a new Barber.

To avoid such a confrontation, Rossini wrote to the then seventy-year-old Paisiello asking his permission to retrace the same dramatic ground. Much later, Rossini gave his reasons: “I had not wanted to enter into a contest with him, being aware of my inferiority, but had wanted only to treat a subject that delighted me while avoiding as much as possible to exact situations in his libretto.”

Supposedly, Paisiello responded by wishing his younger colleague well. Still, Rossini thought it better to give the first performance of his new work at Rome’s Teatro Argentina as Almaviva, attaching to it the Beaumarchais subtitle “The Useless Precaution.” There was even a sort of apologia printed in the libretto that first night of The Barber, February 20, 1816. Rossini’s fears were justified. When he entered the orchestra pit to take his place at the harpsichord, catcalls and whistles broke out from a group of Paisiello partisans, who were determined to create a debacle. Things went from bad to worse.

The Almaviva was Manuel García, father of the legendary prima donnas Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. He chose not to perform the first aria Rossini wrote for him, but substituted instead his own arrangement of a Spanish melody, sung to his own accompaniment. As he was tuning his guitar, a string broke, provoking laughter and more catcalls. When Figaro entered, also carrying a guitar, the laughter doubled and barely a note of “Largo al factotum” was heard.

The comedy soon became a comedy of errors when the Basilio stumbled over a trap door, fell, and bruised his face badly. He had to sing “La calunnia” with a handkerchief held to a bleeding nose. Next, a cat wandered onstage during the first act finale. Figaro chased it in one direction, Bartolo in another. It would up under Rosina’s skirts, producing total confusion onstage. As the curtain fell, Rossini turned to the audience and shrugged his shoulders. The public thought it a contemptuous gesture and began booing. Hardly a note of music was heard during the noise that continued during the second act.

Oddly enough, Rossini seemed not to have been entirely upset by all the furor. When a group of singers went to his house after the performance to console him, they found the composer sound asleep. Still, Rossini thought it was best to stay away from the theater for the second performance, which seems to have gone without mishap. Later that evening, as Rossini later remembered, “I was sleeping peacefully when I was awakened suddenly by a deafening uproar out in the street, accompanied by a brilliant glow of torches.

“As soon as I got up, I saw that they were coming in my direction. Still half asleep, and remembering the scene of the preceding night, I thought that they were coming to set fire to the building, and I saved myself by going to a stable at the back of the courtyard. But lo, after a few minutes I heard García calling me at the top of his voice. He finally located me. ‘Get a move on, you. Come on, now, listen to those shouts of “Bravo, bravissimo Figaro.” An unprecedented success. The street is full of people. They want to see you.’

“But still heartbroken . . . I answered, ‘Tell them to go to hell, their bravos and all the rest. I’m not coming out of here.’ I don’t know how poor García phrased my refusal to that turbulent throng. In fact, he was hit in the eye by an orange, which gave him a black eye for several days. Meanwhile, the uproar in the street increased more and more.” There were only seven performances during that first run of The Barber in February and March of 1816, and it did not return to Rome for five years. But by the time it did, The Barber had been joyfully embraced by the major cities of Europe, and Rossini’s had become one of the prominent names in the world of opera.

The success of The Barber is doubly remarkable when one remembers that it is in many instances a pastiche. It was not unusual, of course, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for a composer to borrow from himself. Rossini was famous, or infamous if you prefer, in this regard. But in the case of The Barber, even he reached new heights in robbing the graves of earlier works that had not achieved notable fame. The Barber’s overture was originally written in 1813 for Aureliano in Palmira and reused in 1815 for Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. Aureliano also provided material for Almaviva’s first-act aria “Ecco ridente in cielo” and Basilio’s “La calunnia,” while Elisabetta contributed the second half of Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” (an allegro idea, which was likewise derived from Aureliano). The point, however, is not in what he used, but how he used it, and The Barber’s irresistible spontaneity and musical sense of rightness reduces all of its background sources to insignificance.

One final thought before leaving Rossini. He died in 1868 and was given a grand funeral in Paris befitting his enormous fame and the void created by his death. He was laid to rest in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, where Bellini and Chopin had been buried before him. Like Bellini, Rossini’s remains were eventually returned to Italy. In the case of Rossini, however, his body was taken to the church of Santa Croce in Florence, where Italy’s greatest men are interred. The fact that Rossini today rests alongside Galileo and Michelangelo gives a more accurate idea of how his countrymen and the world came to regard him that words ever could.


The late John Ardoin, longtime music critic of the Dallas Morning News, is the author of several books and documentaries on Maria Callas, also Furtwängler Record (1994) and Valery Gergiev and the Kirov (2001). This essay was published in a previous edition of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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