Before Verdi There Was Rossini

Monday, October 24, 2016 - 09:59 AM

Statue of Verdi in Piazza Verdi in Busseto, Italy (Fred Plotkin)

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:


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Comments [5]

Martin Dawkins from Clearwater, FL

I'm a rock and folk musician but I love The Thieving Magpie La Gazza Ladra. (its an opera semiseria). Don't forget that one. I like to see how different producers solve the problem of making the bird sing. Haha.

Nov. 10 2016 11:03 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Oh thanks Fred. Rossini wrote such graceful music and it is too bad we only think of Il Barbiere as opera buffa. It is so much more. He wrote so many beautiful operas.
The finale of William Tell is glorious.

Oct. 25 2016 01:36 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Luckily for us not living in New York City, PBS broadcast Verdi's "Mass for Rossini" with Helmut Rilling the Stuttgart Kantorei and the New York Philharmonic's American premiere in 1989 with soprano Gabriela Benackova, mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, tenor James Walker, baritone Jacob Will and bass Brian Matthews. I taped it and I was delighted and amazed how much Verdi's contemporaries almost --- almost --- sounded like Verdi. The only other composer-contributor that I knew of was Bazzini of "Dance of the Goblins" fame, who contributed the "Dies Irae". I think this was one of the many landmark performance in the history of music in America.

Oct. 25 2016 06:54 AM

Hi Fred,
Thank you for the great article as always.
I too am a great fan-atic of Rossini and I well remember the Bi Centennial concert in the then Avery Fisher Hall for his birth.I believe it was organised by Marilyn Horne.
This great artist really went out on a limb for Rossini in the 70's 80's and even up to the end of the century and I will forever think of her as Mrs. Rossini.
If you ever caught a great concert on PBS in the 90's called 'Rossini at Versailles'---that was the greatest Rossini singing bar none ever!
I personally had a big party in my apartment for him on his Big birthday!

Oct. 24 2016 05:08 PM
Richard Pairaudeau from Madrid

Dear Mr Plotkin,

As always, an interesting and instructive article. It has to be said that Rossini's 'Otello' gives Shakespeare a fairly wide berth on a number of counts! However, it may well be that the younger composer realized the possibilities that the Bard's work offered opera composers. One thing Verdi may have got from Rossini was the the use of a full range of tempi and orchestra colour, where the other bel canto masters can get bogged down in long stretches of mezzo piano moderato. (However, as I am attending a performance of 'Norma' this evening I should perhaps check my generalization!)

Oct. 24 2016 11:39 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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