FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Before Verdi There Was Rossini
Monday, October 24, 2016 - 09:59 AM
PARMA, Italy—I am in this wonderful city that celebrates Giuseppe Verdi for a month each October with a festival of his works, but my mind is also on Gioachino Rossini, whose works L’Italiana in Algeri and Guillaume Tell are in repertory right now at the Metropolitan Opera. On Oct. 29, it will be possible to enjoy a musical marathon at the Met as both works will be performed that day. I will be there.
I have said before in this space that I think Rossini (1792-1868) is the most undervalued of all opera composers. There are a few reasons for this. One is that he was famous for the facility with which he wrote music and it came to be assumed that his works could not have been very good if he could “dash them off.” Also, because he wrote several brilliant comic operas, these were considered inferior to “high” art. And his genial style and wit meant that he was not taken seriously by some critics and opinion leaders. He was supportive of Wagner when that composer faced harsh criticism in Paris but, in return, the German composer thought of Rossini as a lightweight.
While in Parma I have reflected on how Verdi thought of Rossini and realize that he not only admired the older master but — I surmise — learned lessons from Rossini operas and used them in his own works.
When Verdi was studying privately in Milan (June 1832-July 1835) he saw La gazza ladra and Otello. These might have been the first Rossini operas he saw and heard. By this point, Rossini had retired from composing opera and was living in Paris. No doubt Verdi realized, with Rossini’s Otello, that Shakespeare could be a fertile source for opera subjects and resulted in his Macbeth, Falstaff and Otello.
The two men met in Bologna in June 1842, and Verdi quickly admired his older colleague. Verdi was able to discuss with Rossini his many operas and it seems that he particularly came to learn a lot about L’Italiana in Algeri, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and what was known in Italian as Guglielmo Tell.
He later said that “I cannot believe that there is another opera that has a greater abundance of musical ideas, comic verve and truthfulness of declamation than Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which must be the greatest comic opera there is. I admire Tell, but how many other sublime things there are in his other operas.”
I think Italiana is Rossini’s most effective comedy because it is not a broad farce but really about something — Italian identity in the face of foreign domination. It premiered in Venice on May 22, 1813 (coincidentally, the day Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig). In this period, much of Europe was at war, with Napoleon’s France invading much of the continent and being repulsed by the Hapsburgs in Austria, the Prussians, Swedes and the Russians. Wagner’s own father died on a battlefield in October 1813, just as Verdi was being born in Busseto.
Italy would not become a republic for another 48 years and Venice, where Italiana premiered, was contested between France, which occupied it, and Austria, which ultimately took it as part of the spoils of victory. It was audacious of Rossini to present an opera about a resourceful Italian woman (representing Italy itself) who is held hostage in Algiers by a ruler who wants her in his harem. Isabella cleverly finds her way out and frees Italian slaves in the process, getting them all on a ship and back to Livorno.
To encourage them to resist, Isabella exhorts them to “Pensa alla Patria” (think of your homeland) and sings a rousingly patriotic song that must have been controversial at a time when the Venetian audience was under siege. Here, Marilyn Horne sings the aria:
Right now at the Met, Isabella is being sung by the excellent Sicilian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato. While Horne brought great charm to this aria, Pizzolato performs it with great seriousness and invests it with a sense of italianità that is in keeping with the lyrics. Verdi surely heeded these words as he led the battle for the unification of Italy in the 1840s and 1850s. Nabucco, with its chorus of Hebrew slaves, is directly descended politically from Italiana.
Rossini said that Verdi had a character that was “melancolicamente serio” and would never be able to write a semi-serious opera, not to mention an opera buffa such as l’Elisir d’Amore. Yet he greatly admired Verdi, not only the early political operas, but was among the few to support Don Carlos when it was new. Rossini wrote to publisher Tito Ricordi that “only Verdi is able to compose a Grand-opéra (my other colleagues should forgive me for saying this).” It was Rossini who created the template of Grand-opéra with its sweeping story, large cast, powerful choruses, dance music and great length. Here is the Pierre Audi production in Amsterdam that is now in New York. Watch and enjoy it, but it is no replacement for hearing it live at the Met, which you should do if at all possible:
One of the most exciting of solo arias is “Asile Héréditaire,” sung here by Bryan Hymel.
After listening to it, then ponder “Ah si ben mio….di quella pira," sung by Luciano Pavarotti, and I think you will find it not only exhilarating but, in the best sense, derivative.
After the death of Rossini on Nov. 13, 1868, Verdi wrote in a letter “Un gran nome è scomparso dal mondo! Era la riputazione la più estesa, la più popolare dell’epoca nostra, ed era gloria italiana!” ("A great name is lost to the world. It had the widest reputation and was the most popular of our time, and was Italian glory!”) On Nov. 20, 1868, Verdi had the idea to write a messa per Rossini in which leading Italian composers, starting with Saverio Mercadante, would collectively write this Requiem. Thirteen composers were selected (though not Mercadante), with Verdi due to write the concluding passage, the Libera me, Domine for chorus and soprano soloist. The music was composed but the Requiem was never performed, for many political and economic reasons, as it was supposed to be at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. It was done, finally, on Sept. 11, 1988, in the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, conducted by Helmut Rilling. Verdi used the Libera me, Domine, with a few changes, in his famous Requiem mass of 1874 dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni. Listen to it and reflect on how Verdi honored Rossini in music: