Anyone remember the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of “Le Siège de Corinthe,” mounted for Beverly Sills in 1975? She had already made her European debut at La Scala with the same opera in 1969. It was presented in a version that would horrify modern musicologists concerned with the “purity” of Rossini’s intentions. Nevertheless, it was a triumph for Sills.
Rossini (born in the 18th century: 1792) took as role models both the comic and serious aspects of Mozartean opera. It is thus very interesting to note the hierarchy of importance in opera in that century:
1) the ruler/patron
2) the audience
3) the singer(s)
4) the libretto
5) the composer
Betcha (apologies to Sarah Palin) didn’t know that, nor did I until I did some research recently. So you see, the composer is the low man on that totem pole. The fee for composing an opera was one-third the fee paid to the tenor!
Rossini was a practical man of the theater, and he didn’t hesitate to adapt his works to fit the conditions in which they were being done. The same “Siege of Corinth” was itself a reworking of an earlier Rossini opera (“Maometto II,” 1820) that hadn’t made much impact in Italy. After Rossini moved to Paris, he changed the locales and voice parts and made it into a French opera in 1826, where it was received enthusiastically. One critic even admitted that it contained “music too noble to be forgotten.” One can see what the “usual” fate of music must have been! After it succeeded in Paris, it was re-imported to Italy, renamed “L’assiedo di Corinto,” (1828) and became a successful Italian opera.
I used to devalue Rossini’s opera, perhaps because of the ubiquitous “William Tell” overture, or the relentless allegros alternating between (seemingly) endless tonic and dominant chords with little digressions of interest, or the zany antics of the best-known comic operas “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (well served in Bugs Bunny’s “The Civilian Barber”) and “La Cenerentola.” Comedy doesn’t come easily to me. However, in these as well as his “serious” operas, there are canny symmetries and sophisticated structures that are part of the art of any good composer.
Unfortunately, it’s those very things that tend to disappear in the “mutilations” to which these works are often subjected. In a sense, the operas themselves become “castrati,” virtuoso vehicles that have splendid, but perhaps unbalanced qualities due to anatomical alteration.
Rossini himself railed against some of the more extravagant liberties that primadonnas (and tenors) took with his arias. He felt that by composing the florid parts directly, there would be less opportunity for ornamentation. But, he was wrong. And the opera culture in which he worked still thrived on display and the cult of the singer. So, he went with it.
The operas are difficult because of the vocal demands, requiring a perfect legato, not too heavy vocal color, and extreme agility for the rapid-note passages. The growth in the size of (most often American) opera houses often causes singers to “push” in order to be heard. A great deal of personal charm and acting ability are also needed to be convincing in the sometimes thin stories.
As the Metropolitan prepares its 2010 revival of Rossini’s “Armida” for modern diva Renee Fleming, perhaps you will attend with some of these thoughts in the back of your mind.
“Musical taste is always renewed, at almost constant, fixed intervals,” as Stendahl said.
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs