Happy 53rd Birthday, Rossini! (?!?)

By Benjamin K. Roe


Classical New England celebrates the birthday of the Italian composer with a full day of infectious wit and fun, including a preview of Boston Lyric Opera's upcoming production of The Barber of Seville.

To hear the program, click on "Listen" above.

The point is... a person feels good listening to Rossini. All you feel like after listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland. Ode to Joy indeed. The man didn't even have a sense of humor. I tell you... there is more of the Sublime in the snare-drum part of the La Gazza Ladra than in the whole Ninth Symphony.
-- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

Gioachino Rossini via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s clear up the first issue right away: According to the calendar, there should be 53 candles on the cake we baked for Giaocchino Rossini, born on February 29th, 1792. (Blame the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar: 1600 and 2000 were Leap Years, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not!)

It may not matter all that much to us, but it certainly would have to Rossini, arguably the most famous, beloved, and wealthiest of composers after the death of Beethoven and the rise of Richard Wagner.

And perhaps the most superstitious: As author David Dubal notes,

To the casual observer, Rossini must have seemed blithely carefree, but in reality he was hopelessly neurotic, plagued by nervous ailments and superstitions of all sorts, including the fact that he was born on February 29th. When taking his first train ride in 1836, he fainted from fear.

Rossini had good reason to be nervous. He grew up seeing his political-activist father go in and out of jail. He was apprenticed to become a butcher and blacksmith in his native town of Pesaro, only to be saved by his fine boy-soprano voice. Perhaps a bit too fine; Rossini was literally a knife’s edge away from becoming a castrato before his parents relented. They opted instead to send him to Bologna to pursue a musical career with a mature pen instead of an immature throat.

That proved to be the most logical decision of Rossini’s profoundly illogical, albeit brilliant, career. According to his biographers, Rossini himself liked to say that he only cried on three occasions: “The night my earliest opera failed; the day I watched a truffled turkey go overboard on a boating-party luncheon, and the first time I heard Paganini play the violin.”

His earliest opera might have failed, but it didn’t take long for Rossini to have an all-time hit on his hands: The Barber of Seville, premiered in Rome in 1816, and on anyone’s short list of Greatest. Operas. Ever. Or, as NPR Guide author Ted Libbey puts it:

It has held the stage continuously since its premiere in 1816, making it the oldest work never to have fallen out of the repertory. The libretto is among the finest Rossini set, and it inspired a score full of musical riches that remains as fresh today as on the day it was first heard. That Rossini was a week shy of his 24th birthday when that happened make The Barber of Seville only that much more of a miracle.

A miracle, in fact, that quickly spread to three continents, thanks to the efforts of “the tenor of Seville,” Manuel García. The Sevillian-born García, (the original Count Almaviva in both Rossini’s opera and Mozart’s “sequel”: The Marriage of Figaro) took Rossini’s works to the New World, leading his family troupe in what’s thought to be the first American performances of Italian opera in both New York City and in Mexico. Their opera of choice? The Barber, naturally!

If Manuel García was the first, then John Tessier will be the very latest to take on the comedic role of the lusty-but-witless Count, in the new Boston Lyric Opera production that opens on March 9th.

Tessier’s take on Rossini, along with BLO cast members Sarah Coburn (Rosina), Jonathan Beyer (Figaro), and conductor David Angus will capped off our day-long celebration of the wit, grace, and genius of Rossini, as they joined Cathy Fuller for a special “preview performance” of highlights from the composer’s immortal composition. To hear it, just click on "Listen" in the upper left-hand corner.

For all of his talk about loathing work and loving the good life – the soireées musicales chez Rossini were the toast of Paris – Rossini was an extraordinarily gifted and prodigiously hard worker. In the space of less than 20 years, Rossini composed no fewer than 38 full-length operas, a body of work – and inspiration – unrivalled by the composers of his day.

And in our day, Rossini’s musical gifts remain as infectious as ever. We truly do feel good listening to him. What is it about Rossini’s music that is as warm and inviting as the Mediterranean Sun? Author David Dubal suggests an answer:

Rossini’s music is crystal clear: his constructions are tight; the harmony is clever and diatonic; above all the melodies are easy to remember. Rossini was the first tunesmith; one might even say that he was the inventor of the pop song. He caught the ear of a growing middle-class public with music that appealed as never before to a mass audience.

Or, as Rossini himself once said: “Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music.”


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