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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

One Overture, Three Operas

In our previous post I explored the sequence of four different overtures written by Beethoven for his only opera, Fidelio. Each time the opera was revised, he wrote a new overture for the piece, resulting in the three Leonore overtures and the Fidelio overture, which was written for the final, definitive version.

In one of his routines the wonderful Victor Borge drew the connection between Beethoven, who wrote multiple overtures for one opera, and Gioachino Rossini, who used the same overture for multiple operas. This delightful fact has always amused me - yes I know I need to get out more - so in this article I want to talk about Rossini's recycling of a single overture for no less than three operas in three years. It's an overture which is now one his best-known, but it has a mysterious history. [listen]

If you know this music it almost certainly conjures up the sensation of a light-hearted comedy, because it's so closely associated with Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville. Many of my generation will recall the hysterical Warner Brothers cartoon treatment of this music as well, with Bugs Bunny giving Elmer Fudd the haircut of his life. (You can watch it here.) This is the overture to The Barber of Seville; it precedes the opera in the theatre and is often heard in concerts under this title.

But Victor Borge was right. Rossini premiered The Barber of Seville in Rome in 1816, but for this new piece he re-used an overture the Roman audience wouldn't have heard, one he used for a completely different opera premiered in Naples the year before. And for that opera he recycled an overture the Naples audience wouldn't have heard, written for an opera premiered in Milan two years before that. So let's go back to Milan in 1813.

The young Gioachino Rossini (c. 1815)

From our perspective, it's hard to get a true grasp on Rossini's life and career. He composed 39 operas in 20 years, from 1810 to 1829. He then lived for nearly 40 more years writing light pieces but no more operas, living off the profits of his most popular works and giving fabulous dinner parties. Today only three of his operas are a part of the regular operatic canon: The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Barber of Seville, and Cenerentola. Others are heard less-frequently, still others virtually never. Some are only remembered by their overtures when the rest of the opera is almost never performed, such as The Silken Ladder, Tancredi, The Thieving Magpie, Semiramide and William Tell.

39 operas in 20 years sounds like a leisurely average of two operas a year, but like Giuseppe Verdi, Rossini had his "galley years" early in his career when he churned out a large number of pieces rapidly. In 1812, he premiered five new operas in three cities; in 1813 he produced another four new operas in three theatres in two cities. The last of these was Aureliano in Palmira (Aurelian in Palmyra) which was premiered at La Scala in Milan on 26 December, 1813.

Aureliano in Palmira was Rossini's 12th opera. It's the work for which the famous Barber overture was originally composed and it's hard to imagine two more dissimilar scenarios. Aureliano tells a story which is solidly based on Roman history. The main characters are Zenobia, queen of Palmyra (modern day Syria), and her lover, Arsace, Prince of Persia (modern day Iran). They stand against the incursions of the emperor Aurelian into Palmyra, who seeks to dominate Zenobia politically and personally, as he also loves her. The situation is only resolved when Aurelian recognises the nobility of his enemies and withdraws his claims on both Palmyra and its queen in return for their oath of allegiance to Rome.

Aurelian, the principal tenor, is a divided man, and in the music Rossini goes to great trouble to show the his assertive, external side, and his tender, humane side in the music. [listen]

The two central characters of the drama, though, are Zenobia and Arsace. The role of Arsace is, according to the Viking Opera Guide, the only leading role Rossini composed for a castrato, and Arsace was written specifically for the famous castrato Giambattista Velluti. According to legend, Velluti is supposed to have added so much ornamentation that Rossini didn't recognise his own music, but the facts indicate that Velluti embellished the part with the composer's blessing. This duet for Zenobia and Arsace comes near the end of the second and final act. [listen]

Giambattista Velluti (1830)

The decidedly low-key ending ("low-key" in terms of power and passion) seems to indicate Rossini was rushing to finish the piece, and there are sections of the work like this which suggest he wasn't terribly excited by the libretto. It provides the opportunity for everyone to sing how magnanimous the emperor is in forgiving his enemies, but we're left craving a really glorious conclusion.

Aureliano in Palmira has much going for it - strong situations, and a lovely mix of heroic and gentle music - but it was overshadowed by its immediate predecessors, The Italian Girl in Algiers and Tancredi. Apart from re-using the overture, several numbers were used again in later operas, including The Barber of Seville.

In 1814 Rossini produced two new operas: The Turk in Italy for Milan (a sequel to The Italian Girl in Algiers), and the now-forgotten Sigismondo for Venice. Then in 1815 he began a long association with the city of Naples which lasted until 1822. His first opera for Naples was premiered at the Teatro San Carlo on 4 October, 1815, and it opened with the overture written for Aureliano in Palmira. In Aureliano it introduced a story from Ancient Rome; here it introduces a story from Elizabethan England.

As with Aureliano, so with this opera it's difficult for us to divorce the overture in our minds from its associations with The Barber of Seville. But it's interesting that in adapting the overture from Aureliano to this new piece, Rossini made some small but fascinating changes. Some of the melodies are slightly altered, some of the harmonies are different, and the instrumentation is also different, perhaps reflecting the fact that Naples had a larger orchestra. This plethora of versions - Rossini changed it yet again when using it for Barber of Seville - has meant that even today orchestral performance materials alter in small but significant ways from edition to edition, meaning you can't always be sure which version you're hearing.

The opera for Naples in 1815 was called Elisabetta regina d'Inghilterra (Elizabeth Queen of England). Like Aureliano in Palmira it's a serious, dramatic opera in two acts with a happy ending, light years away from the froth and bubble of the Barber. The theatre management in Naples provided Rossini with a superb cast, a large orchestra and a mixed chorus; in most of his earlier operas only a male chorus had been available. The title role of Elizabeth I was created by the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, one of the most famous singers of the day. Before long Colbran and Rossini were living together; they eventually married in 1822. The marriage wasn't a happy one and they were legally separated in 1836, although Colbran continued to share a house with Rossini's father until her death in 1845.

Reiter: Isabella Colbran (c, 1835)

In 1815 though she was at the height of her powers and Elisabetta was the first of a sequence of operas in which Rossini composed major roles for her. The opera contains a lot of music reworked from earlier scores, not just the overture. The Viking Opera Guide suggests that it seems "as if Rossini wished to present himself to the Neapolitan public by offering a selection of the best music from operas unlikely to be revived in Naples."

For the famous queen's (and the famous soprano's) first entrance, Rossini composed a brilliant set-piece with chorus for his future wife. If you're familiar with Rosina's famous aria in The Barber of Seville you'll hear parts of it in embryonic form here. [listen]

Like the earlier Aureliano in Palmira, the Elizabethan opera is concerned with a monarch who loves someone who does not love her in return, and concludes happily when the monarch places duty over love, renouncing their own feelings. In this case Elizabeth's love of the Earl of Leicester is thwarted by his secret marriage, and threatened by the treachery of the Duke of Norfolk. Though loosely based on history much of the plot is not historical, but regardless of this, the big set pieces are impressive. This is the anguished end of the first act in which Elizabeth's fury sees the man she loves and his wife arrested. In the final few bars you may notice Rossini uses music from the end of the famous overture. [listen]

The term opera seria (serious opera) is one we usually associate with the Baroque, as epitomised by composers such as Vivaldi, Handel and their countless contemporaries. But a Romantic era form of opera seria was popular in the early 19th century, and Elisabetta is a perfect example of this. Many of Rossini's early operas were called opera seria, and like their Baroque counterparts they nearly always had happy endings after tense, dramatic and sometimes convoluted plots.

The final scene of Elisabetta begins when the queen visits Leicester in prison. Although she loves him, she has condemned him to death. It reminds us of so many romantic operas where final scenes are set in prisons and which we just know are going to end tragically; think of Il trovatore, Maria Stuarda, even Tosca. But here, while the drama is intense - Norfolk attempts to murder the queen but is thwarted - the plot spins rapidly to see Elizabeth condemn the treacherous Norfolk and pardon Leicester and his faithful wife. In rejecting her own happiness in the cause of duty, the queen is given brilliant coloratura passages in the exultant ending which sees the court sing her praises. [listen]

Rossini's operas for Naples were interspersed with pieces written for other cities in the second decade of the century. After writing Elisabetta, he produced operas for Rome as well as Naples, and among those for Rome were two for which he is most readily remembered today: Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in 1816, and Cenerentola (Cinderella) in 1817.

The Barber of Seville is so famous today that it's hard to believe it was an enormous and infamous flop on its opening night. It joins the ranks of many works which are now regarded as central to the canon but which had disastrous premieres; think of Beethoven's and Tchaikovsky's violin concertos, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and Bizet's Carmen.

But with Rossini's Barber, it wasn't so much the piece but its subject. The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution was originally a French play written by Pierre Beaumarchais in 1773, the decade before the French Revolution. It was one of a trilogy of socially radical plays, the second of which was called The Marriage of Figaro.

Pierre Beaumarchais (c. 1755)

The second play was of course famously made an opera by Mozart in 1786, but four years earlier, in St Petersburg in 1782, the Barber had been set as an opera by Giovanni Paisiello. Paisiello's wasn't the first operatic treatment of the Barber but it rapidly became famous across Europe. It was Paisiello's greatest success, and much loved. This meant that when Rossini presented his own operatic version, the opera-loving public was affronted that someone would dare to challenge the iconic status of the earlier work. Paisiello himself was apparently insulted that someone would dare challenge him, and his supporters infiltrated the premiere of Rossini's opera in Rome on 20 February, 1816. Not only did catcalls come from the audience throughout the performance but several accidents took place on stage. This was despite the fact that Rossini (and his librettist Cesare Sterbini) called their opera Almaviva, or The Useless Precaution rather than The Barber of Seville to try to differentiate it from Paisiello's work.

Le Brun: Giovanni Paisiello (1791)

It seems though, that opposition to Rossini's effrontery rapidly evaporated. From the second performance the sheer quality of the piece won the audience over and it has never been out the repertoire since. It is in fact the oldest Italian opera to have had an unbroken performance history and is regarded by many as the greatest comic opera ever written. [listen]

Composers who reuse, rework or revise material from one work to another are often criticised for this. At best they're called lazy; at worst, dishonest. Such attitudes are of course nonsense. Writing two, three, four or even five new operas in a year in the early 19th century for cities where one city would never have heard the music written for elsewhere obviously led Rossini - and just about every other composer - to take shortcuts. The development of ideas (say, from Elizabeth's aria to Rosina's) is fascinating, showing Rossini's evolution of ideas quite apart from anything else.

And to us, who think of the Barber overture as indissolubly connected with that brilliant comic opera, it's amazing to realise that Rossini (and his public) could see this music as being completely appropriate to introduce a serious opera about a Roman emperor, or another about an English queen. To finish we'll hear the sparkling conclusion of the Barber. It's Rossini panache at its best. [listen]

Teatro Argentina, Rome, venue for the premiere of Rossini's Barber.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2015.

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