It may be safe to say that New York is in the midst of another Rossini revival.
This weekend brought the return of Il Barbiere di Siviglia to the Metropolitan Opera (with noted Rossini soprano Diana Damrau), which is a mere perfunctory footnote to the composer’s riches that have been on display in the city in recent years. In the same weekend, the Juilliard Opera program presented a double-bill of the composer’s La cambiale di matrimonio and La scala di seta; a pairing that repeats on Tuesday and Thursday.
The Collegiate Chorale presented another rarity at Carnegie Hall this winter, and the Met has been on a warpath reviving vital and overlooked pieces like Le comte Ory and Armida. Just an hour upstate, Caramoor has given voice to favorites like Guillaume Tell and Semiramide and looks to a less prominent gem in Ciro in Babilonia this summer.
Rossini composed almost 40 operas that premiered between 1810 and 1829, almost singlehandedly starting the golden age of Italian opera. Yet so few of them receive their due. With that in mind, we’re counting down today the top ten Rossini operas you probably haven’t heard. Thanks to so many adventurous companies, that may actually be an inaccurate title to New Yorkers, but we try to account for that by setting pieces like Otello, Semiramide and Ory on the backburner for the time being. That still leaves plenty to choose from.
Read on for our picks and tell us how many of the below works have you heard? And what are your favorite Rossini operas, overlooked or not? Leave your comments below.
10. La gazzetta (1816)
A satire about the power of the press rings just as relevant today as it did in Rossini’s time. There’s a large amount of music from Il turco in Italia placed into this score, and the original parts in turn were piecemealed into La cenerentola. But it’s really the fast-paced plot that makes this opera about a pompous patriarch placing personal ads on behalf of his daughter, to madcap results. Imagine what Rossini would have cooked up if Craigslist had been around in his time.
9. Bianca e Falliero (1819)
Tell Rosina and Armida to take a breather, the real coloratura game is in this devilishly difficult sing that doesn’t lighten up on the rapid-fire scales and arpeggios. It’s not just for show, either: The libretto centers on the daughter of a Venetian general, her other military paramour and her unwanted senatorial fiancé, and with an overabundance of emotions and an opulent setting, what would such an opera be without vocal excess?
8. L’inganno felice (1812)
One of Rossini’s earliest works (which just celebrated its 200th birthday last month) was also a rip-roaring success that gave the young composer a series of commissions for Venice’s Teatro San Moisè and gained him an international profile with productions around Europe over the next eight years. And there’s proof positive as to why. A Handelian plot with hidden identities bubbles into a balance of comic froth and dramatic substance that, while owing much to his forebears, is still one of the first operas to be called uniquely Rossinian.
7. Il signor Bruschino (1813)
In 1812, Rossini had his first stab at a full-length opera, Demetrio e Polibio. It was an object lesson for the composer (not helped by a ridiculous libretto) but contained some strong moments. Its best, a wooing love duet “Questo cor ti giura amore,” was incorporated into Rossini’s one-act, Il signor Bruschino, the following year to solid effect. The work also boasts a typically Rossinian overture and is the apex of the composer’s one-act comedies while foreshadowing the realism of his future full-length buffas, as Metropolitan Opera audiences heard in the 1932-33 season when it had its first and only run with the company.
6. Ermione (1819)
Rossini was one of those rare composers who, like Mozart, had a superb talent for both comic and serious works. Ermione exemplifies the latter category, though as the composer himself remarked on the piece, “It is my little Guillaume Tell in Italian; and it will not see the light of day until after my death.” Thankfully, the Rossini revival at the end of the last century intervened, and we now have several recordings of one of opera’s greatest freak-out scenes.
5. Zelmira (1822)
The 19th-century French writer Stendhal wrote that Zelmira, "more than any opera of Rossini, indicated to Belini the road which it was good to take. This opera prolongs the tender cantabile of Tancredi, emulates the noble recitatives of Ermione and is the forerunner of the pathetic part of Tell." He goes on to compare this opera to Beethoven’s music as a work that is wholly charming but challenges the listener over its course. Along the way, there are also allusions to the tantalizing trio from Le Comte Ory and showcase arias like “Terra Amica” are downright Mozartean.
4. Maometto II (1820)
Widely regarded as Rossini’s most ambitious opera, Maometto II had a rocky gestation and was toned down for its Venetian and Parisian premieres following a lukewarm reception in Naples. However, almost two centuries later, the work still packs an auditory punch with a full dramatic scope and forward-thinking musical idioms besting even that of Guillaume Tell’s. Its nonexistent track record in the U.S. will change this summer when Santa Fe Opera presents a new critical edition from the University of Chicago, thanks in no small part to scholar and musicologist Philip Gossett.
3. Matilde di Shabran (1821)
Move over Rite of Spring: The premiere of this opera in Rome (conducted by, of all people, Niccolo Paganini) prompted a street fight between fans and critics of the composer. What was so revolutionary? Expert Richard Osborne calls it “one of Rossini’s most unpredictable, if at times undeniably brilliant scores” that charts flaring tempers, flagrant passion and the potential for a double murder-suicide by taking a fatal fall or jump. Such a leap is metaphorical to this high-flying work that has gained a recent champion in Juan Diego Flórez.
2. La donna del lago (1819)
Let’s hope that the rumors of an upcoming Met debut for this work are true. As seen in a recent New York City Opera run, the emotions and lyricism tantamount to Rossini’s genius are quite potent in this work, the first of a cavalcade of operas to be based on the writings of Sir Walter Scott (another bel canto triumph, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, would soon follow). It’s also a sumptuous showcase for female voices, and unsurprisingly the titular lady of the lake was written for Rossini’s then-lover (and soon to be wife) and muse, Isabella Colbran.
1. Moïse et Pharaon (1827)
This may be the most familiar work on this list to many readers who saw Collegiate Chorale’s concert performance of the same this December. And for those who marveled at the precursor of Das Rheingold in the finale to Guillaume Tell at Caramoor last summer will see—as both Alex Ross and David Shengold pointed out—another Ring reference, here a point to the finale of Götterdämmerung. As the composer said upon meeting Wagner, “So I made music of the future without knowing it.” Wagner’s reply was “There, Maestro, you made music for all time. And that is the best.” And if the finale to Tell is exhibit A, then the epilogue of Moïse et Pharaon is a close, commendable B.