A Life with Rossini
Alberto Zedda, transl. Charles Jernigan
Reviewed by Will Crutchfield
The Italian title of this book – a tossed salad of information, anecdote, and reflection, delightful and infuriating like its author – is Divagazioni Rossiniane. Divagazione means digression or detour. It’s exactly the right title, and the book could perfectly well have been published in English as “Rossinian Digressions” – and yet “A Life with Rossini” is perfect too. First, because it is itself a divagazione from the original, and in that way faithful to its spirit; second, because “life” for Zedda was synonymous with “digression.” Conducting, teaching, editing, writing, administrating (under-discussed in the book, hugely important in the life) – slipping and sliding among these things in no particular sequence, but always “with Rossini” as a lodestar – Alberto Zedda managed to preserve his eccentricity, his curiosity, his stubbornness, and his unquenchable capacity for delight across a career surpassing six decades. He also managed to leave a decisive personal imprint on the world’s understanding of the composer who mattered most to him.
Understanding” might not quite be the word, since the clearest thing that emerges from the book is that Rossini defies understanding in the ordinary sense, and that the author has no appetite for reducing him to understandability. Constant themes in Zedda’s reflections are abstraction, idealization, ambiguity, reticence; just as constant are directness, simplicity,order,even predictability. All the well-known contradictions of Rossini’s art are stated, and contradictory interpretations are added (Rossini offers the widest imaginable range of choice to the musical interpreter; Rossini has a strictly delimited aesthetic language whose boundaries the executant must by no means overstep). There is not the slightest gesture towards reconciling such opposites; instead, off to the next digression. What Zedda presents here is not so much an effort to understand Rossini as a lifelong adventure in feeling him – in trying to experience Rossini with the same energy, restlessness, immediacy, and abundance that flow from his music.
Inevitably he quotes the well-known passage from Rossini’s conversations with Antonio Zanolini about music as the “moral atmosphere filling the space in which the characters of the drama present the action.” Typically, he does so with interpolated parenthetical digressions, but the key point remains Rossini’s: that music expresses all the human fates, hopes, joys, catastrophes, etc., “in an way that is indefinite, yet attractive and penetrating to a degree that neither words nor action could furnish.” One of Zedda’s many paraphrases and elaborations of this central insight:
Rossini’s vocalism knows nothing of the emotional surges which make late Romantic melodrama meaningful and popular, but this deliberate semantic lack favors an extremely large interpretive spectrum which can express anything and its opposite thanks to the ambiguity of a linguistic code which needs minimum variation to migrate from the pathetic to dramatic, from sentimental to comic or from serious to facetious.
If I were to propose any amendment to that, it would be to replace “minimum variation” with “no variation.” As is well known, Rossini can re-purpose the very same music from a comic to a tragic context. It can say…whatever. But so attractively and penetratingly! Rossini is predictable; you know what is going to come next ninety percent of the time. What is not at all predictable is how you will feel when it comes. Zedda spends the whole book as he spent his whole life, cavorting in that enigmatic, undefinable energy.
On a few matters the author consents to pin his subject down, and these are worth underlining. In Zedda’s Rossini, the rhythmic element predominates over all others. Tempo animato predominates over the alternatives of tempo giusto and tempo sostenuto. Melodies are succinct, short, and not subject to development. Vocal passagework is not an outgrowth or adornment of melody but a building-block in its own right, like instrumental ostinatos and patterned crescendos. Repetition whether large or small is a feature, not a bug; cutting it, however easy and seamless the opportunities may appear on the surface, risks making the music seem longer and less interesting. Refusal to express emotion naturalistically does not mean that feeling is absent, or that it is impossible to discern.
These are important insights, and I call attention to them lest they be overwhelmed by some of the airier divagazioni. There are long passages in which, however genuine the enthusiasm that shines through them, it would be perfectly possible to substitute for Rossini’s those of Bach, Wagner, Debussy, or Gershwin without affecting their applicability. But that is part of the package: we feel the enthusiasm and may even be fascinated by it, but when it has gone by we are not sure exactly what points have been made, or what particular things were in Zedda’s mental ear as he wrote them, and so (perhaps like Rossini’s transplantable musical passages?), we could apply them almost anywhere.
It is very difficult for anyone who knew the author to imagine what reading this book will be like for anyone who did not. I knew him well for the last quarter-century of his life, and listened many times, with delight, to his charismatic ramblings over any and all topics. (The very first time I heard him give a lecture, it was supposed to be about editing Il barbiere di Siviglia but turned out to be mostly about Aida and the search for an ideal Radames, plus a little bit about the music Mozart wrote before he became Mozart.) Several people who knew him longer or better, or both, were involved in the compilation of this book and its various translations, and their prefaces give affectionate warning: “interpretations that the author himself does not perceive as answers but frequently as questions … he would not always find the main track again . . . repetitions, inequalities and even contradictions . . . collisions, overlaps . . . .” That’s Alberto.
Charles Jernigan, the excellent translator who knew him only briefly, points out that “as in his thought patterns, Maestro Zedda was a man of many styles in his prose.” Some of those styles are dense to the point of opacity, and some are florid. Early in the autobiographical portion we find ourselves reading about the young conductor as “an eternal neophyte in the search for emotion capable of penetrating the primordial hermeneutic mystery; that unknown logos which I suppose to be like that which in the sublime act of orgonic ecstasy puts man in direct communication with the divine.” I can assure English-speaking readers that it is just as bad in Italian. But Jernigan declares an intent to render the tone and feeling as well as the sense of the original, and he is quite successful in that – including (thankfully) the passages that are “chatty and quite accessible, even gossipy.”
The book is divided into eleven parts, obviously written at different times and for different purposes. The most valuable are probably those near the beginning and the end. The first three sections contain most of the observations on Rossini’s musical nature, character, and dramaturgy, plus a loose autobiographical sketch interlarded with multiple digressions into – well, Rossini of course, but also random reflections on Plato, Nietzsche, Marx, Confalonieri, Michel Onfray, Montaigne, and others. These charm by giving you the feeling that the guy actually did spend time with those authors, and dipped into his reading when he thought he’d found something useful to share, not to brag. The final chapter is a series of interpretive thoughts on seventeen individual Rossini operas – lively, sometimes maddening, always the fruit of genuine engagement with the moment-to-moment substance of the works, never a mere plucking of useful points from their surface.
The fact that he was in a position to make such observations is also the key to why the autobiography is worth attention. From his path-breaking encounter with the corrupt old score of the Barber and the stunning new edition that arose from that collision, through the erection of the dual pillars of the Rossini Renaissance (the Opera omnia still in progress from Ricordi and the Fondazione Rossini; the Rossini Opera Festival that proves every summer how many people all over the world will travel and spend in order to live a few glorious days immersed in Rossini), down to the Indian-summer of a conducting career leading his favorite composer all over the world with the best singers the world has to offer, Zedda was at the absolute center of Rossinian activity for half a century. He lived to see his own esteem for the Swan of Pesaro mutate from a near-eccentric fringe taste to a near-universal consensus conviction, and his labors and collaborations were an enormous factor in bringing that about.
Autobiography is the natural opponent of biography. The latter tries to say how a life unfolded and what happened in it. The former tells what the subject wishes had happened, or what he would like people to think happened, or how he would like things to be thought of by the world at large. The book is salty, not because it tells Alberto’s amorous adventures (way too short for that), but because it needs to be taken with a good deal more than the traditional single grain. There is an impressive sense of willpower in the telling of so many stories whose “other side” is known to so many people still living. I don’t propose to get into disentangling things here; for opera insiders, it will be sufficient to note that the name of Philip Gossett disappears from the book at page 23, even though some of it was clearly written (or revised) after the cataclysmic divorce that shook the Rossini world in 2006. And that’s not the only divagazione that might raise an eyebrow. So – don’t read it for the facts, read it for the fascinating character of the storyteller, and for seeing the long adventure of the Rossini Renaissance through his eyes. The story is both important and enjoyable, and the eyes are keen even when they might be trying to give you the runaround.
The in-between material is a mixed bag. Sections IV and V are about vocalism, vocal types, ornaments and cadenzas, and Rossini’s way of writing for the voice. There is a lot of repetition – the sections could profitably have been edited into one continuous account – and a good deal that is confusing. Zedda puts Rossinian practice usefully into context with well-chosen readings from early writers going back to pre-Baroque times, but when he comes to the main matter, he gives a good deal more space to vague warnings about what Rossinian variations should not be than to clear exposition of what he thinks they should be. He champions the necessity (indeed the “sacrosanct duty”) for singers to add their own inventions to bel canto music, but he is not immune to the mistake of considering “variations” and florid vocalism in general as something added in conscious stages to a presumptive blank slate of the composer’s score. It is much more sensible to regard them as free-floating features of singing itself, gradually codified as composers sought more specificity in their interaction with the “little notes” of vocalists. Rossini played an important role in that codification – but singers did not postpone the discovery that their voices can wiggle around neighbor tones and figurations while awaiting a composer’s implied instructions for doing so.
There is also a contradiction whose non-resolution is problematic. On the one hand he criticizes the ornaments Rossini himself wrote late in life as being too far removed from the era of the operas themselves to which they are applied, and discourages their adoption because “ideal variations ought to respect the style of the discourse into which they are inserted,” and one “ought not to insert musical vocabulary extraneous to the morphology of a language which is so clearly delineated.” On the other, he discourages the use of period models because singers should “add the stimuli derived from their own culture” and “thus adhere to the taste and aesthetic values current today.” What can that mean? That they should integrate the blue notes of jazz or the vocal stylings of Mariah Carey into their Rossini? Don’t think it hasn’t been tried; ask YouTube to introduce you to Filippa Giordano and “Una voce poco fa.” I doubt that’s what Zedda has in mind, but if not that and not period models, then what? (I also wish he had said where he thinks those late Rossini ornaments go awry; studying the same manuscripts, I am struck by the extent to which they ignore later developments and maintain the style found in sources from forty or fifty years earlier when the operas were new.)
Parts VII through IX contain a long series of observations on Rossini’s characteristic dynamic, accent, and articulation markings; peculiarities of his notation; problems of interpretation (especially orchestral) arising from the foregoing; and the making of critical editions. I have the feeling that a good deal of this material derives from sketches made back in the 1970s when Zedda was part of the committee devising the Criteri editoriali for the complete edition launched in 1974, and the reader would be much better served by going directly to the finished product of that labor. The Criteri are a true monument of sensible scholarly reasoning, and of the creative adaptation of traditional editorial norms to the special and fundamentally different problems posed by Italian opera. This praise applies equally to the revised criteria published by the Fondazione in 2015, profiting from four decades’ experience with those problems. Zedda’s sketchy coverage of the same ground does not do him justice, and is riddled with serious errors he surely would have caught if he had proofread the text. (In both the Italian and English versions he misidentifies the notes at which double-basses must switch to a higher octave both for the old three-string bass and for the four-string instruments that replaced them.)
The discussion of performance problems is occasionally interesting, but many of them are explained so cursorily that it is hard to imagine anyone but a conductor who deals with the same issues being able to make sense of the discussion. One point of global interest, though: Zedda was a questioner of received wisdom and of “tradition” when it came to cuts and vocal performance, yet most of the orchestral observations add up to practical reasons for doing things the traditional way. (Typical example: don’t do forte followed by diminuendo, instead do forte followed by sudden pianissimo, because otherwise the voices can’t compete. But Rossini knew both those devices and sometimes used one right after the other as a contrast!). Despite several perceptive remarks about the differences between today’s orchestral instruments and those for which Rossini wrote, he seems notably reluctant to consider whether the problems wouldn’t vanish in an orchestra playing the old ones.
Translation becomes problematic in this part of the book as well. Jernigan deals beautifully and elegantly with the most difficult turns of phrase, but stumbles over terms that have a particular meaning in musical shop-talk. A few are worth mentioning in case they can help English-speaking readers of the book. Italian uses the same word, cadenza, both for the harmonic event we call “cadence” and for the free soloistic embellishment that might under certain circumstances be made there. But in English, “cadenza” only means the embellishment, so it is confusing that it often appears here where “cadence” is meant. Similarly: strong and weak tempi are not different “tempos” but instead the differently-weighted beats of the individual bar. Meanwhile, battute (when it is a plural noun) means what we call “measures” or “bars,” not “beats.” Finally, the verb recitare and its many derivatives generally correspond to our verbs “to act” or “to perform” and their own derivatives, not “to recite.”
But then we are on happier ground to close. Chapter X is headed “Advice to Young Artists,” but it quickly sprouts sly divagazioni that might be subtitled “Advice to Every Administrator or Stage Director Who Got in Alberto’s Way When He Was Trying to Do the Right Thing.” It is a fun read. There is a dizzying and unsparing takedown of the inadequate technical and musical preparation our young singers receive in their school years. It’s spot on – though just when he gets to the point where you hope he’ll say what ought to be done about it, he detours to advise that these same poor souls ought also to be studying foreign languages and “have at least a general knowledge of the questions posed by applied philology and musicology (critical editions and interpretive praxis) and know the major currents in the history of human thought (at least those regarding aesthetics) as well as the history of art (at least regarding the theater).” OK, great, sign me up, but when are they going to learn to sing if they’re already not getting that part done?
Never mind. There are quite appropriate digressions into L’elisir d’amore, La traviata, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Rigoletto, and Le nozze di Figaro on the general subject of arias whose “received” interpretation might be ready for retirement. There is good practical advice from experience. Singers think they are helping themselves by “marking” at rehearsals. Alberto is blunt enough to point out that, first, if they had the needed technique they wouldn’t have to do this, and second, they are making problems for themselves, because when they finally sing out, they also sing at different speeds, need different breaths, and so forth. Hear, hear! One more :”legato” does not mean merely connecting notes, but also that “such sounds need to have the same character and intensity, so as not to create a wavy back-and-forth effect which leaves every sound with an annoying sensation of crescendo-diminuendo”. This is crucial and neglected by a majority. Also blunt: singers who complain about the orchestra playing too loud have usually provoked it themselves by singing too loud. Orchestras respond to what they hear.
And then we arrive to Part XI, the already mentioned series of seventeen essayettes. These are of varied scope, purpose, and level of polish, but almost all of them will have something you didn’t think of before, even if you are a dedicated Rossinian – and we are back to feeling along with Zedda the endless fascination, “indefinite, attractive, penetrating,” of the enigmatic genius who has had the whole world singing his tunes for the last two centuries. Thanks to his acolyte, we know a lot more of those tunes than we might have learned. And thanks to this odd curio of a book, posterity will know a little more about the acolyte, who more than earns the attention.
(c) 2019 American Rossini Society
The American Rossini Society is grateful to Will Crutchfield for this review. “A Life With Rossini” is available from fine booksellers and for members of ARS directly by writing to email@example.com.
For the past decade, Opera Southwest in Albuquerque, New Mexico has been dedicated to bringing the Rossini’s works to the stage. La cambiale di matrimonio is our eighth such offering, and the beginning of a new cycle, exploring the one-act farse. Just as the Teatro San Moisè provided opportunities for young composers to introduce their works to the world, the Opera Southwest Apprentice Artist Program offers young singers the chance to make professional debuts in these works.
Performances run this March 8, 9, 10 at Las Puertas in Albuquerque. Tickets and information available here: https://www.operasouthwest.org/operas/la-cambiale-di-matrimonio
Some reflections on “This is Rossini”
Questo e Rossini!
Aria da camera, Illiria 2018
Maxim Mironov and Richard Barker
Available from www.illiria.de
The recently released CD featuring the artistry of tenor Maxim Mironov accompanied by pianist Richard Barker follows their previous collaboration devoted to Bellini. As with the earlier recording one of its joys is the musicianship these two artists share allowing for a seamless approach to the music.
The recording consists of 16 selections composed by Rossini under diverse circumstances
over a period of many years. Rossini’s non-operatic output was prodigious and the pieces here give some indication of their variety.
Some of these pieces will certainly be familiar and it is interesting to hear Mironov’s interpretation of them. “La Danza” which was a encore favorite of Pavarotti, gets a lighter, yet just as effusive treatment by Mironov. “Canzonetta Spagnuola” was one of the highlights of the concert from Versailles shown in the US on public television in 1985.
Marilyn Horne nearly stole the show at that time (which was quite an achievement considering the rest of the program) and here, too, Maxim gives a spirited, convincing interpretation.
We may have our favorites from the past, but it is refreshing and encouraging to be enchanted anew by these delightful performances.
Before going further we should note the essential contribution of Richard Barker. Not only is he a sensitive accompanist, but just imagine “Mi lagnero tacendo” or “ Adieux a la vie” without him. We won’t spoil it by revealing why it doesn’t work. You need to listen for yourself.
Passive listening is not appropriate for these works. They were after all intended to be heard in a salon or parlor where the audience was quite different from that in an opera house. Careful listeners may even be surprised; The line “Nell’Itale contrade” from “L’esule “ should resonate for non-Rossinian reasons.
Mironov has chosen to include the charming and humorous “La chason du bebe” which in addition to displaying some of Rossini’s humor demonstrates Mironov’s playful side.
There is another collaborator who should be mentioned, but this is only apparent when reading the printed material which is “included” with the CD, and that is the scholar Reto Muller who contributed commentary and research to this project.
While Mironov and Barker appeal directly to the senses, Muller enriches the experience with giving a min-history of aspects of Rossini’s activities that are not generally known.
The the casual Rossini fan may not be aware that Rossini was, in fact, an excellent singer ( although he didn’t appear in his own operas) and was an able pianist as well. Many of us would of course have loved to hear Colbran in “Armida”, but how amazing it would have been to hear Rossini and Colbran sing “Cara perte quest’ amima” from the same opera. There are other anecdotes as well for those who appreciate the cultural background. It seem Sarah Bernhardt herself inspired Rossini to improvise at the piano after she had declaimed a piece by Casimir Delavigne. Oh to have been at THAT gathering!
Much of the source material was provided by the Fondazione Rossini from their extensive collection of manuscripts. But mention must be made of the generosity of Sergio Ragni whose personal trove of Rossini treasures is unparalleled.
There is no insert with the notes included with the CD. Mironov has expressed on social media his desire to “save trees” which is worthy. Instead there is a digital libretto ( and notes) available using the QR code in the CD case. It would have been useful to have a link for those who don’t use a QR reader so that they might download the libretto/booklet from the internet.
The case and notes are decorated with whimsical drawings but are perhaps a tad dark for people with less than perfect eyesight.
All of these are minor quibbles and in no way detract from this wonderful contribution to the Rossini discography We do have a request. Next time it would be wonderful if Mironov would comment on why he made the choices he did. They are excellent and they would allow us to better know the artist behind the voice.
The one you surely know, but the other perhaps not!
For more information follow this link!
Then await excerpts of our interview with her which will be posted here in the near future!
Daniela Barcellona returned to the 2018 Rossini Opera Festival to participate in the closing concert of Petite Messe Solennelle. Daniela was a participant in the early years of the Accademia Rossiniana and subsequently appeared in numerous performances at ROF in most of the iconic Rossini mezzo roles. This season marked her return after what we feel has been too long an absence.
Daniela has always been a supporter of ROF and in that connection we brought you an interview with her when she agreed to be on the honorary board of the Friends of the Rossini Opera Festival. Readers of “Opera Magazine” may remember her “favorite city” profile in the September 2016 issue. Pesaro could not have asked for a better advocate. In connection with her return to ROF we asked her to share with us her thoughts related to staged vs. concert versions of operas, approaches to singing “characters” vs religious works, and how she sees this wonderful Rossini masterpiece.
Daniela recorded her remarks which we bring you here. Our sincere thanks to Catherine L. Farwell who assisted with the transcription.
About concert vs staged versions of operas:
The main difference for me between the concert version of the opera and the stage version,is that the stage version sometimes helps to express and to develop the role.
If there is good scenography (not very contemporary, weird, or similar), if you have a traditional staging then you have the environment that helps to inspire you: the props that surround you, the scenery, and the things you have on stage in general.
In the concert version, of course you don’t have these things, so sometimes everything is in your hands. The audience must understand what is happening through the things you; do the gestures, the expression must be more accentuated.
I prefer the concert version as do most singers instead of bad scenography and bad direction (which is not appropriate, not faithful to the libretto). Such a thing is an obstacle The audience reads the words and the scenery is completely different! This is the main thing. With the concert version you are free and have the responsibility to give the audience the total character. You create your own direction, your own scenery.
Another difference is that in the concert version you are at the front of the stage, very close to the audience. The orchestra is behind the singers so you don’t have the big gap of the orchestra pit. You
are very close to the audience and you can sometimes look them in the eyes. This is very very useful for us. I like this so much because you are you are really in contact with the audience. Sometimes they are very shy and they look away. They feel part of the performance. They are happy and they feel involved. But shy. This is the reason it is amazing for me and the audience can read your expression. We are all together. There is no “distance”
Regarding pieces like Petite Messe Solennelle, Stabat Mater, and Verdi’s Requiem ( all of which she has performed)
They are all religious pieces. The word is very important even if it is in Latin. We have to express to give to the word, the right importance. For example, Agnus Dei, the finale of Petit, is something that implores God, it comes from the soul, very intimate. In a role, you speak from a difference place. When you speak to God it comes from inside you. This is the main difference between a “character role” and the arias and duets in the Verdi Requiem, Stabat Mater, and Petite Messe Solennelle. The way to approach these things are more intimate.
On Petite Messe Solennelle, in particular, and the difference between the two-piano version and the orchestral version.
I think that the Petite Messe Solennelle is a very very intimate piece; it is an example of one-on-one communication between the soul and God. While, perhaps, the Verdi Requiem is something direct, a more brazen style of communication with the Divine.
The Petite Messe Solennelle is something that comes from the soul, from much deeper, and therefore, in certain moments, is much more deeply moving, more intense. Perhaps, the version with the two pianos provides the possibility of offering any more nuances from the vocal point of view. The version with the orchestra, perhaps, is a bit ,how can we say, less intimate, precisely due to the presence of the orchestra and not just the two pianos.
On what the audience should listen for
In my opinion, the audience must pay attention to this thing: that the Petite Messe Solennelle is coming from the soul, speaking to the soul. It has to do with meditation. The Finale with the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God prayer of supplication) is something deeply moving and passionate. It truly gives the idea of imploration : “ Lamb of God – you take away the sins of the world…grant us peace: please give us peace!” This is an imploring prayer to God and at the end of this (work) is very very powerful.
And in fact for me it’s something that gives me also many many emotions, but as a singer I have to give my emotion to the audience and I keep my fingers crossed that I am able to ensure that this happens.
On returning to Pesaro:
I am looking forward to returning to the Rossini Opera Festival. I have always in my heart my first Trancredi there and the many debuts I made at ROF
It will be a big pleasure, because many of my fans, friends,fans of Rossini, of the Rossini Opera Festival, people who follow me all over the world will be there. I feel their “nearness” via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram . I am so happy to meet them again and we have appointments to be together again. Finally, I am happy to be part of this 150 anniversary commemoration with Petite Messe Solennelle closing this edition of the Rossini Opera Festival.
We thank Daniela for sharing these thoughts with us.
After her performance in Pesaro, Daniela and her husband, Alessandro Vitielo will travel to Lunenburg Canada where they will be residents again this year at the Rossini Opera Academy. They continue the tradition of “authentic Rossini training and performance” established by the legendary Alberto Zedda who was at the Academy from its inception until his untimely passing.
We are thrilled to bring contributions from two members of the American Rossini Society. Charles Jernigan has translated the libretto for Adina into English ( download the .pdf file hereAdinalibretto
and Celia Montgomery has provided an illustration ( after you read the libretto you will see the connection with the opera) Thank you to both!
The Rossini Opera Festival has chosen to present “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi as its third major offering this August.
Considering that this opera has appeared all over the world in the first half of this year (as reported by Rossini150 social media), it may at first seem a strange choice.
Can there be such a thing as too many Barbieres?
Janet Johnson, best known for her reconstruction of Il Viaggio a Reims, contributed an article about Barbiere to the “Cambridge Companion to Rossini” in which she points out that the marvelous scene where Basilio (who is supposedly ill in bed) interrupts Rosina’s lesson was recognized in its own time as one of the funniest ever written. Johnson writes extensively of the cultural background for this opera and we recommend you read her article, particularly if you think you know all there is to know about Barbiere.
Alberto Zedda, who is responsible for the critical edition of Barbiere ( and whose curiousit, stubborness, and love for Rossini ) helped validate the need for critical editions and inspired much of what the Rossini Opera Festival was to become, has also weighed in on Barbiere.
In his recently translated book “A Life with Rossini” (Charles Jernigan, translator) Zedda boldly proclaims that Barbiere is a “Revolutionary Manifesto”. So many of Rossini’s operas can be viewed as “subversive” even today, but sometimes one needs to look under the surface to fully appreciate this. After all this is a fantastically entertaining work which sweeps you away with its energy.
Zedda calls Barbiere “an eloquent manifesto of the revolution brought by Rossini to the lyric theater”
Zedda calls Barbiere “an eloquent manifesto of the revolution brought by Rossini to the lyric theater”.. continuing with the observation that that Rossini chose a subject where the contrast between the declining aristocratic world and the nascent democratic one would be the chief motif of the story. Zedda goes on ” the actors in the story are clearly divided into contrasting groups: one is motivated by a spirit which is decidedly modern; the other is guided by an obtuse conservatism…”
Figaro, who ended up being the most popular character in this opera was not originally intended to be the “star” Rossini had at his disposal the legendary tenor Manuel Garcia; To his talent wrote the final “Cessa pui di resistere”. But things have a way of getting out of the composer’s hands. Figaro, although the most recognizable character (how often has “Largo al factotum” been used in everything from cartoons to commercials) is actually “one-upped” by his own admission in the enchanting duet with Rosina (dunque io son). He admits it and Rosina gets the better of the situation without losing her purported innocence.
Bartolo is not quite what he seems. Some productions present him as a lecherous old man just trying to get his hands on Rosina. Rossini’s music (nor the libretto) doesn’t imply this, rather, Bartolo clearly would like to get his hands on her dowry. That is why he is so easily bought off when Almaviva doesn’t demand it at the end. Bartolo is the embodiment of respectability and requires recognition of his station in life. Some productions, such as the delightful one by Peter Kazakas in Washington DC picture Bartolo’s study with a huge library (and a wonderful engraving of Pasta in Tancredi) on his wall.
Zedda concludes (as has been stated elsewhere that in Barbiere Rossini employed a mode of storytelling that needs the intelligent involvement of the listener, whose duty it is to reassemble the signals in the imagination. As a result “The outcomes of a message like that which is intentionally open-ended, can change from one hearing to the next.”
Or, to put it another way.
One can never have too many Barbieres!
For an interesting lecture by Philip Gossett, you might enjoy.
There is also a very old film about Rossini where the premiere of Barbiere is featured. It is absolutely delightful if “suspect” historically.
And finally, if you are going to change the lesson scene, you can’t do better than this! Tancredi in Barbiere, indeed!
Those who have seen Lisette Oropesa perform or have read the many laudatory reviews she has garnered, know she is one of the brightest stars of the opera world. It is very exciting to have her performing at the Rossini Opera Festival this August.
At her Royal Opera House debut, Lisette’s performance of Lucia had the Guardian exclaiming, “[T]he Cuban American soprano is sensationally good. She makes the stratospheric vocal fireworks of her mad scene – accompanied by flute this time, not glass harmonica – sound easy; indeed, her every note is part of a convincing portrayal of a complex character.” Her Violetta at Opera Philadelphia had Philadelphia Magazine saying, “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Lisette Oropesa … or, at least, she’s the name on everybody’s lips who sat through Friday night’s opening performance of Opera Philadelphia’s La Traviata.” And then the review gets even more glowing.
Lisette will be performing at the ROF as the title role in Adina on August 12th, 15th, 18th, and the 21st. Her concert at the Teatro Rossini on August 14th is also not to be missed.
Lisette was gracious enough to grant an interview with Rossini America when she was performing in Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera this past winter. Like the music of Rossini and Donizetti, talking with Lisette is a delight – quick, rapidfire, thrilling, brilliant, dancing, thoughtful, and with a wonderful sense of humor.
With Lucia a singer might have ten or more recordings for inspiration or different approaches, for Rossini’s Adina you don’t have that. Does that make it more difficult to learn? Or can that make it more liberating because you don’t have the overhead of other people’s interpretations?
I don’t actually use a lot of recordings as a crutch. I’m very much a book learner. I research the opera after I’ve started looking at the score. In other words, I begin from the music and then I go from there. Unless it’s a role that’s like Violetta, or even Lucia, because the roles are based on major literary works. And so in the case of Traviata I really did read the book. And I went head-first into the novel but then the problem was I couldn’t look at the music for months because I was depressed. Because the music is so beautiful – and the novel was so sad and depressing. I couldn’t even do my work to learn my music. I kind of learned my lesson from that.
So I try to go music first – especially with a piece by Rossini where it’s all in the score, it’s all there for you. I read it with a piano or whatever. I clunk out my notes. I read through the libretto. I read through the text. I start there. If there are recordings that are kind of the big major recordings, of course, I enjoy them but it’s not how I learn my music.
So I try to go music first – especially with a piece by Rossini where it’s all in the score, it’s all there for you. I read it with a piano or whatever. I clunk out my notes. I read through the libretto. I read through the text. I start there. If there are recordings that are kind of the big major recordings, of course, I enjoy them but it’s not how I learn my music.
So yes, it’s actually kind of nice there aren’t 80,000 recordings out there and somebody going, “Well you know, you should do this cadenza that Sutherland did. ” “And oh but the other Cadenza that Sills did is so much better” and “Oh you should do what Callas does here!” You know what I’m saying? That is out of the picture and that’s nice.
Is this the first time you’ve sung a Rossini opera professionally?
No. I have sung Il Turco in Italia professionally. I studied Barbiere in college and sung Rosina in college. That’s the only other Rossini I’ve done. I’ve never done any of his oratorios either. So this is kind of relatively fresh territory. But I do study a lot of bel canto in general. They always lump together the three bel canto composers. Although I think they’re all ridiculously different and you can tell them all apart when you listen to them.
Rossini has specific things that are unique to him. It feels fresh. It’s fresh territory for me.
What strikes you as the difference between Donizetti and Rossini?
Well Donizetti sounds like….. 9 times out of 10 when you listen to a Verdi opera, especially a bel canto style Verdi opera, you go “That sounds like Donizetti”! So Donizetti came first. Donizetti was the master that pushed towards what Verdi then developed on musically. The structure of the line, the vocal line. The vocal line tends to be very long. The characters have an arc to them. That kind of thing.
Rossini is much more of the coloratura and fioratura which take the most, I think, dramatic importance. More than the legato line. Of course this isn’t true for every Rossini opera but it seems to me, that the more Rossini operas the more you listen to, it’s just more notes. It’s simply more notes. More cadenzas. More high-flying type of coloratura that is extremely difficult. And so that’s why you have a lot more specialized singers singing Rossini.
Then Bellini is kind of the opposite where I feel like Bellini has… the full lyricism, the super-long lines, and much less coloratura. There is coloratura in Bellini but its much less, it’s more in the long line.
Donizetti is kind of in the middle. Rossini wrote many notes. Bellini wrote fewer notes. And Donizetti’s just in the middle of the two. It’s like the story of goldilocks.
Are there any Rossini singers from the past that you admire?
I certainly admire Rossini singers even of today, more than anything. I feel like Rossini today has become… there’s a lot more respect for Rossini and how it should be performed.
And people treat Rossini with great care. I think that’s wonderful. I think that for years people have been doing that with Mozart, people have been doing that with Handel. There are conductors and singers that really specialize in Rossini. For example, Joyce DiDonato – who I just heard sing a fabulous Semiramide at the Royal Opera House. And I listen to Joyce over the years, how she’s honed her technique and made Rossini very, very special.
And people like Larry Brownlee who are also extraordinary Rossini singers. I mean you know Juan Diego. I could list a bunch of people. They make it respectable and it’s not just about showcasing the voice. Of course it’s always about the showcasing the voice. They make it also about showcasing the genius of the composition. It’s not so easy to compose so many notes. I mean i feel that way when I read through Bach. There’s a million notes in Bach. How the hell did you come up with all these melodies and harmonic ideas with so many notes and they all make sense? I find that unbelievable. It has that kind of style that there’s lot of notes but there’s a core to that. It should be treated with care and it takes great expertise to sing really well.
In a lot of ways I’m kind of nervous to sing in Pesaro because I know they expect a very high level of specialization in that repertoire. I’m a lyric coloratura. I sing coloratura rep. I don’t consider myself a “Rossinian”. I’m going to do my best to bring what I with bel canto to the role.
I feel that Rossini takes years and years to really master.
You have a recital at the Teatro Rossini. What’s your approach about deciding what to perform?
My problem is – I’m very… I’m a libra. I’m balanced. I try to find balance. I would never do an entire concert of just bel canto. Or just Mozart. It’s very hard to get me to do that. I’m a buffet singer. I sample a little of this and sample a little of that. Because I feel there’s a lot of things my voice does well and I’d like to explore them in one evening. And I love all the different languages and everything.
So I’m going to have to narrow down from all the stuff that I like, to what would be the most enjoyable over the course of an evening.
Rossini in school was called “The Little German” because he spent so much time studying Mozart and Haydn. When you sing Rossini’s music do you notice the Mozart and Haydn influence?
Yes! Because I feel like there’s a period where Mozart wrote too many notes and got in trouble for that. We’re so lucky as coloratura singers that we get to do this. And not all the singers have the chance to play with so much coloratura. When you’re a coloratura singer and you sing all these different composers who really like to write a lot of notes, it’s not just a mastery of getting all the notes in, because you have to get them all in there. It’s finding a reason for them to exist. Other than there’s 16 notes on the page and this is what you have to do.
Find an expressive reason to sing them and to sing them beautifully and find how to color them. Not only is is it a technical thing but it means something. When I study Mozart and I study Handel or I study bel canto or any kind of coloratura repertoire, I always come with the exact same training which is, “Find the reason behind the note.” The composer wrote it for a reason. It wasn’t just because it was stylistically cool do to this. I mean, sure it was stylistically cool to do it but there’s always more behind it because you’re playing a character. Coloratura means it comes from the heart, it comes from the guts, it comes from whatever, and so that’s one thing nice when you’re a coloratura singer, you get to figure that out and play with that.
“Find the reason behind the note.” The composer wrote it for a reason. It wasn’t just because it was stylistically cool do to this. I mean, sure it was stylistically cool to do it but there’s always more behind it because you’re playing a character. Coloratura means it comes from the heart, it comes from the guts, it comes from whatever, and so that’s one nice thing when you’re a coloratura singer, you get to figure that out and play with that.
Have you been to Pesaro before and if you haven’t, what do you think Pesaro is like?
I think Pesaro is by the sea. Italians love to tell me, “Oh you get to see the sea!” They love the sea. They love the sunshine. Every Italian friend that has been there told me how great Pesaro is.
I assume it’s going to be the most glorious place on earth.
To find out more about Lisette, the Classic Talk duo of Bing and Dennis have an extended interview where Lisette talks about her background, what it’s like to sing opera, and other topics that may be of interest to opera fans.
Future performances for Lisette include:
Violetta in La Traviata at La Fenice, August 25, 28 and September 5, 8, 13, 16
Adina in L’elisir d’amore at Opéra national de Paris, Oct 25, 30 and Nov 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16
For more information, visit https://lisetteoropesa.com/
Rossini comes to Washington DC with an answer to the doctor vacancy, thoughts about a Constitutional Amendment, and of course, the topic of MONEY.
These are all current issues in the capital city of the United States and Rossini might have found it ironic ( or not) that his Il barbiere di Siviglia touches on these issues, each in their own way.
1. A doctor comes to town. Doctor Bartolo is often relegated to the ranks of a secondary character ( after Figaro, Rosina, and Almaviva) but this role affords ample opportunity to present complexity. It will surely happen in this production!
2. How many Americans know the 3rd Amendment to the US Constitution? Very few, most likely. And when they discover that it is ”No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” the reaction is most likely “what?” This issue was a big deal in the world at the time it was written ( 1789) so it is not a surprise that it figures in the plot of Barbiere,
3. And then there is money! “The secret protagonist of the opera: they all talk about it, they are all looking for it.” In the words of Alberto Zedda.
Il barbiere di Siviglia plays at Washington National Opera through May 19th.
The intimate Rossini,
The canard that Rossini quit composing after he wrote William Tell should be put to rest, yet again. Indeed, he no longer wrote for the stage, but the output of his “golden age” contains treasures that deserve to be better known.
In fact, Rossini wrote a good deal of non-operatic music, some actually pre-date Tell. Although the pieces on this Naxos recording do not have the scope and grandeur of his operas, listening to them is like savoring an excellent limoncello after a 29 course meal. Rossini’s dynamic rhythms, easily accessible (and sometimes unforgettable) melodies, and most of all his sophisticated wit are present in many of these offerings. We simply need to listen.
Although this is Volume 8 of the Naxos series of Complete piano music of Gioachino Rossini, it is an excellent introduction to these gems. Much of this music has not been recorded before.
The artist who brings all these diverse works together (and who has made it a labor of love to bring about this series) is pianist Alessandro Marangoni. In addition to being a real advocate for Rossini’s piano music, playing these works with elegance and genuine Rossini style, Marangoni has contributed to the volume ”I Péchés de Vieillesse di Gioachino Rossini” (a cura di Massimo Farnoli, Guida editori), which unfortunately has not appeared in English (yet). RossiniAmerica has an interview with Marangoni elsewhere on this site.
What is a good way to approach this music?
First of all, listen and enjoy! Some of the selections may seem a bit “tame”, “thin”, or indeed brief! This is to be expected as the collection is encyclopedic.
While listening ,we can start to appreciate the fact that perhaps the opera stage was no longer the ideal setting for Rossini’s artistry. If you have ever been fortunate enough to hear chamber music in a private home, you will understand that many of these gems sparkle in an intimate setting; even a small theater is perhaps too big for some of them to work their magic. This recording is a rare example of one that does not make you wish “Oh, if only I was hearing this in a concert hall or an opera house.” Listening at home is a perfect setting.
Marangoni has been most fortunate in his choice of colleagues. Rossini clearly had first rate instrumentalists at his disposal. Listening to these pieces (and the solo instrumental passages in his operas) makes it clear that Rossini’s time offered formidable instrumentalists as well as legendary singers.
Next, after a first listen, be sure to read the program notes by the eminent Rossini scholar, Reto Muller who is as familiar with these pieces as the artists themselves. As a supplement to the program notes we bring a few observations contributed by members of the American Rossini Society: Sean Kelly, Head of music at Omaha, Opera, Patricia B. Brauner, scholar and editor ( Fondazione Rossini and Barenreiter), and Dana Pentia, of the RossiniAmerica editorial board.
1. A breathtaking Prelude, theme and variations for horn and piano written for Eugene Vivier, the most pre-eminent horn player of his day. Muller reminds us that Rossini’s father was also a horn player, and perhaps that helped inspire him to create this piece .
In the words of Sean Kelley ( who was the force behind last year’s much praised Otello for LoftOpera)
“This piece is just wonderful! We all know Rossini’s affinity for the horn, and the many featured moments he give it in his operas ( the solo in Otello is fiendishly difficult). The Prelude, theme and variations are just as whimsical and full of joy as Non piu mesta. It begins with a lovely plaintive melody, perfectly complementing the horn’s tone. The variations are so much fun to play, and the elasticty in the phrases give the artist a moment to relax and regroup before conquering the next mountain of articulated repeated notes, arpeggi and scales. What a delightful piece!”
2. Un mot à Paganini for violin and piano. This is of interest, particularly for those with more than a cursory familiarity with the great violinist’s works. It is very “Paganini-ish”, yet clearly a tribute to, rather than by, this magician of the violin. Reading the notes, one can only wish that Rossini had taken up Paganini’s suggestion to write a sonata based on the Romance from Otello.
3. Rossini has some incredible cello passages in his operas. In this collection there are works for cello and piano written for “the Paganini of the cello”, François Servais, a Belgian. This disk includes two works written for Servais. Concerning one of these, Patricia B. Brauner writes:
“In January of 2017, Reto Mueller sent me a copy of the autograph score of Un mot pour Basse et Piano (track 4), asking if I would verify that Rossini himself wrote the eight measures of music to be inserted after m. 8 of the original twenty-six measure composition. American readers will be interested to know that Servais’s cello, a large Stradivarius bassetto from 1701, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society http://smithsonianchambermusic.org/collection/stradivarius-cello-1701-servais. I was happy to assure Mueller that he was correct about the handwriting.”
In connection with a work for baritone and piano Brauner continues:
“A few days later he sent me ‘a piece almost unknown to Rossini scholars’: L’ultimo pensiero (track 15), published in a 1994 edition by Wolfram Steude (Hendrik Meyer Musikverlag, Dresden) with a photographic facsimile of the three-page autograph. There were some problems with that edition, including misreading the date Rossini wrote beneath his signature and some mistakes in transcribing the music. Since Mueller had told me that Alessandro Marangoni wanted to record this piece, I decided to make my own edition based on the autograph and following Philip Gossett’s guidelines for Works of Gioachino Rossini. Then I learned that Daniela Macchione, who succeeded me as Managing Editor of WGR, had already made an edition for the forthcoming volume of vocal music. We shared and compared our two editions; even in this short and carefully notated piece, there were editorial decisions to be made, such as interpretion of dynamic signs and even matters of which pitch Rossini intended, when the placement of the note is ambiguous. Philip Gossett reviewed our ultimate version. And in the meantime, Reto Mueller had succeeded in locating Cerruti’s heir, who now owns and treasures this precious manuscript, testimony to the relationship between the two men.”
4. An artist that some may remember from her appearances in Il Viaggio a Reims at the 2012 Rossini Opera Festival, is mezzo-soprano, Lilly Jørsted. Here she performs Giovanna d’Arco, a piece which perhaps Rossini’s second wife Olympe Pélissier might have sung in a concert in 1832. Müller refers to this hypothesis in the program notes.
Here are some reflections on this rarely performed piece by Dana Pentia, of RossiniAmerica’s editorial staff.
“The Giovanna D’Arco cantata, written shortly after Rossini stopped composing operas, seems rooted in the heroic operas of Handel with branches pointing up to the future tone poems of R. Strauss. It starts with the vocal line used primarily to narrate the Giovanna’s immediate thoughts, while the piano accompaniment goes deeper into depicting the multilayered complexity of the psychology of the character. A gradual transition from piano “speaking” the intricate realities of that time and space to the voice slowly integrating those conditions happens as the cantata progresses, with the most virtuosic coloratura displayed in second aria “Ah, la fiamma”.
In this cantata Rossini masterfully depicts in less than 20 minutes the complexities of a full length opera, with the character evolving from pensive to engaged, active, willing participant, while the accompaniment provides all the necessary portrayal of internal and external states of being.”
Alessandro Marangoni accompanies all of these soloists, and it would be giving the disc short shrift not to mention his solo contributions to this collection as well. We will explore these when we have a look at the other CDs in this Naxos collection.
Marangoni should be commended for his dedication to this rather neglected body of work and Naxos is to be applauded for bringing us this series of CDs .