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.