Gioachino Rossini’s straightforward approach to his music could scarcely be in greater contrast to the turbulent times in which he lived. Born in northern Italy in 1792, just a couple of months after the death of Mozart, with whom he was often compared, Rossini was a gifted child of musical parents; but his father made life complicated for them by being a French Revolution sympathizer. The arrival of a certain Napoleon on the scene did nothing to ease matters, so Rossini was constantly on the move (and not only during his lifetime: his remains were ultimately moved from France to Florence).
By the time he was 38, Rossini had become the most popular Italian opera composer, and more or less retired at that tender age, (just half way through his life, as it turned out) having written 39 operas, almost all comic. He had a gift for composing them at great speed, something which is clearly evident in the music itself, as well as shamelessly sifting in passages from his other works when appropriate, thereby earning him a reputation for being lazy; an image which was enhanced by composing in bed and frequently leaving everything to the last minute. It has possibly led to him being under-rated, even light. It served him well, though: by the time he died, he had amassed a vast fortune from his ability to follow his doctrine ‘Let us not forget, Italians, that enjoyment must be the purpose of this art. Simple melody – clear rhythm.’
The purpose of these modest jottings is to enthuse; and so to be less than polite, as I was in an earlier post, about Rossini’s most famous comic opera, ‘The Barber of Seville‘ was hasty and self-defeating. All my foolish prejudice showed, however, was that I had been unlucky with the performances I had attended until very recently. The importance of a good and slick production with accomplished singers occupying the lead roles of Figaro and Rosina is everything here. Anything found wanting in these areas leaves the comedy flat and dull. Do it well, and you will serve your first-timers a yearning for more.
The ‘Largo al factotum‘ aria is well known, so instead I want to indulge in the artistry of the American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, in Rosina’s aria ‘Una Voce poco fa‘. (Her brief introduction is a neat reflection of how Rossini packed everything in.) These few minutes are delivered so effortlessly that you could be forgiven for missing the mastery. Many singers have recorded this, but DiDonato’s version hits the mark: it has brilliant technique, breath control and pitch. It is almost tantalizing. She appears to get you ready before launching into passages of astonishing virtuosity (just after 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00). When you have listened to it for a second time, and I urge you to do so, you will have to marvel at the extraordinary gift in a human voice. The temptation in this piece can be for the singer to embellish it with too much ‘coloratura‘, the art of adding notes or vocal acrobatics to enhance the finished article; but too much can rob you of the tune, and Rossini did not approve of it either, preferring his singers to stick to the script. This recording is not just highly accomplished, but pure joy too.
Music was not Rossini’s greatest passion. That slot was taken by food. A beef tournedos, pan-fried in butter, served on a crouton with a hefty topping of foie gras, and finished with slices of black truffle and Madeira sauce, combine to form the dish known as Tournedos Rossini. No wonder he needed the money.