An Essay by Lars Gebhardt

The night before the morning after

The world premiere of Rossini’s THE BARBER OF SEVILLE is the stuff of legend. Dramatic advisor Lars Gebhardt describes the birth pangs of an international triumph.

At the tender age of 20 Gioacchino Rossini is already a busy composer, in 1812 writing no less than six operas, which were staged in Venice, Milan and Naples as well as Rome. Rossini’s work rate is remarkable: no sooner has his TORVALDO E DORLISKA received its premiere at the Teatro Valle in Rome than he is accepting a commission from a rival opera house: Francesco Sforza Cesarini, impresario of the Teatro Argentina, is casting about desperately for another comic opera to shore up his programme. Rossini signs the contract on 26th December, the parties settling on the operatic version of a story that has already aired successfully in theatres – Beaumarchais’s comedy “Le barbier de Séville”. It is not until 29th January that Rossini is handed the definitive libretto and he throws himself into composing the work in short order, drawing on numbers from his earlier operas –standard practice at the time. In three short weeks the company is ready for the premiere.

Change is in the air and everywhere to be seen. Rossini’s frantic work rate, the machine-like proficiency of his orchestral accompaniment and the exaggeratedly ornamental singing roles reflect a world in a state of flux. All of Europe is feeling the strain of a new order, with borders, outlooks and technologies all evolving at helter-skelter pace. No sooner have the new ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité made the leap from France to the rest of the continent than the royal houses of Europe are trying to turn back the clock. France restores the Bourbon dynasty and the delegates to the Congress of Vienna adjust the internal boundaries of the old Europe. Since Rossini’s birth in 1792 in the northern Italian town of Pesaro Italy has been changing political horses almost annually. It is a period of uncertainty and insecurity. With people migrating to the cities the role of the aristocracy is dwindling. Society’s new burghers are now determining the shape that cities and businesses will take.

Public life is thriving and with it the competition. The owners of private theatres and opera houses are under pressure to present their audiences with ever newer sensations, and the innovations of the young Rossini are a perfect fit. He is the re-mixer par excellence of old material. He is the great renewer – from within – of an opera buffa that has reached an innovative cul-de-sac. Although Rossini can often be found drawing on familiar material, he also goes to extremes, delivering a finished product laced with musical absurdities and virtuoso singing roles. In February 1816 Cesarini is hoping for one such triumph at his Teatro Argentina, but the premiere is an absolute disaster. Unhappy at the way Rossini had written new pieces for the two rival houses in very quick succession, the impresario of the Teatro Valle hires anti-claqueurs to disrupt the premiere by booing and hissing during the songs and drowning out the music. They are aided by the lameness of the performance itself: making his first entrance, the actor playing Don Basilio trips over a floor flap, leaving him with a torn and bloody nose for the rest of the evening. According to an eye-witness: “The good audience gleefully beheld the bloodshed, no less happily than its ancestors had on the terraces of the Coliseum. The public laughed, clapped, called out for repeat performances. In short, it was a fiasco.” In the midst of all this a cat sprang onto the stage, jumping from singer to singer, accompanied by loud miaowing from the audience. The work was reduced to a concert of caterwauling, whistling and booing. The young maestro was not present at the follow-up performance, such was his mortification at the tumult.

And now the audience hears, sees and is amazed at the brilliance of the brand-new composition. Six months later, in Bologna, the opera receives its second airing and the triumphant international career of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE is launched.


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Adventsverlosung: Das 10. Fensterchen

Before Tobias Kratzer's third production of INTERMEZZO premieres on our stage in April 2024, you can win his debut production for your home DVD collection in today's Advent calendar: Alexander von Zemlinsky's DER ZWERG.

In today's Advent calendar window, we are giving away two DVDs of the Naxos recording of Alexander von Zemlinsky's opera DER ZWERG, which was nominated for the GRAMMY in the "Best Opera Recording" category and is one of the most successful new DVD productions of recent years. If you would like to take part in the prize draw, please send an e-mail today to with the subject line "The 10th window".

A vain, superficial princess - a dwarf artist: the protagonists could hardly be more different, but the story only becomes a tragedy when the dwarf, unaware of his appearance, misinterprets the mockery of court society as a sign of honour and the princess's coquetry as proof of love. When he finally recognises himself in the mirror, he cannot escape the glances of the others - and collapses dead. This fairy tale about an outsider has had biographical parallels in mind since its premiere: Zemlinsky was small and rather slight in stature and suffered from his brief but passionate affair with Alma Schindler for the rest of his life. A quarter of a century of trauma management passed between the liaison in Vienna and the first performance in Cologne, during which the once renowned artist gradually found himself sidelined: too avant-garde for the traditionalists, too traditional for the avant-garde ... Experience David Butt Philip, Mick Morris Mehnert, Elena Tsallagova and Emily Magee in the main roles under the musical direction of Sir Donald Runnicles in a production by Tobias Kratzer.

We would like to thank the Naxos label for the great collaboration of recent years, which - in addition to Zemlinsky's DER ZWERG - has documented recordings of DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE, FRANCESCA DA RIMINI, DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, DER SCHATZGRÄBER and DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG, as well as ARABELLA and ANTIKRIST in the course of 2024.

Closing date: 10 December 2023, the winners will be informed by email on 11 December 2023. The DVDs will then be sent by post. Legal recourse is excluded.