Rossini And His Period

[Sidenote: ROSSINI.]

Innovators in art, whether corrupters or improvers, are always sure to

meet with opposition from a certain number of persons who have formed

their tastes in some particular style which has long been a source of

delight to them, and to interfere with which is to shock all their

artistic sympathies. How often have we seen poets of one generation not

ignored, but condemned and vilified b
the critics and even by the poets

themselves of the generation preceding it. Musicians seem to suffer even

more than poets from this injustice of those who having contracted a

special and narrow admiration for the works of their own particular

epoch, will see no merit in the productions of any newer school that may

arrive. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson have one and all been attacked,

and their poetic merit denied by those who in several instances had

given excellent proofs of their ability to appreciate poetry. Almost

every distinguished composer of the last fifty years has met with the

same fate, not always at the hands of the ignorant public, for it is

this ignorant public with its naïve, uncritical admiration, which has

sometimes been the first to do justice to the critic-reviled poets and

composers, but at those of musicians and of educated amateurs.

Ignorance, prejudice, malice, are the causes too often assigned for the

non-appreciation of the artist of to-day by the art-lover, partly of

to-day, but above all of yesterday. It should be remembered however,

that there is a conservatism in taste as in politics, and that both have

their advantages, though the lovers of noise and of revolution may be

unable to see them; that the extension of the suffrage, the excessive

use of imagery, the special cultivation of brilliant orchestral effects,

may, in the eyes of many, really seem injurious to the true interests of

government, poetry and music; finally that as in old age we find men

still keeping more or less to the costumes of their prime, and as the

man who during the best days of his life has habituated himself to drink

port, does not suddenly acquire a taste for claret, or vice versâ,--so

those who had accustomed their musical stomachs to the soft strains of

Paisiello and Cimarosa, could not enjoy the sparkling, stimulating

music of Rossini. So afterwards to the Rossinians, Donizetti poured

forth nothing but what was insipid and frivolous; Bellini was languid

and lackadaisical; Meyerbeer with his restlessness and violence, his new

instruments, his drum songs, trumpet songs, fencing and pistol songs,

tinder-box music, skating scenes and panoramic effects, was a noisy

charlatan; Verdi, with his abruptness, his occasional vulgarity and

his general melodramatic style, a mere musical Fitzball.

It most not be supposed, however, that I believe in the constant

progress of art; that I look upon Meyerbeer as equal to Weber, or Weber

as superior to Mozart. It is quite certain that Rossini has not been

approached in facility, in richness of invention, in gaiety, in

brilliancy, in constructiveness, or in true dramatic power by any of the

Italian, French, or German theatrical composers who have succeeded him,

though nearly all have imitated him one way or another: I will exclude

Weber alone, an original genius, belonging entirely to Germany[80] and

to himself. It is, at least, quite certain that Rossini is by far the

greatest of the series of Italian composers, which begins with himself

and seems to have ended with Verdi; and yet, while neither Verdi nor

Bellini, nor Donizetti, were at all justly appreciated in this country

when they first made their appearance, Rossini was--not merely sneered

at and pooh-poohed; he was for a long time condemned and abused every

where, and on the production of some of his finest works was hissed and

hooted in the theatres of his native land. But the human heart is not so

black as it is sometimes painted, and the Italian audiences who whistled

and screeched at the Barber of Seville did so chiefly because they did

not like it. It was not the sort of music which had hitherto given them

pleasure, and therefore they were not pleased.


Rossini had already composed several operas for various Italian theatres

(among which may be particularly mentioned L'Italiana in Algeri,

written for Venice in 1813, the composer having then just attained his

majority) when the Barbiere di Siviglia was produced at Rome for the

Carnival of 1816. The singers were Vitarelli, Boticelli, Zamboni, Garcia

and Mesdames Giorgi-Righetti, and Rossi. A number of different versions

of the circumstances which attended, preceded, and followed the

representation of this opera, have been published, but the account

furnished by Madame Giorgi-Righetti, who introduced the music of Rossini

to the world, is the one most to be relied upon and which I shall adopt.

I may first of all remind the reader that a very interesting life of

Rossini, written with great verve and spirit, full of acute

observations, but also full of misstatements and errors of all

kinds,[81] has been published by Stendhal, who was more than its

translator, but not its author. Stendhal's "Vie de Rossini" is founded

on a work by the Abbé Carpani. To what extent the ingenious author of

the treatise De l'Amour, and of the admirable novel La Charteuse de

Parme, is indebted to the Abbé, I cannot say; but if he borrowed from

him his supposed facts, and his opinions as a musician, he owes him all

the worst portion of his book. The brothers Escudier have also published

a "Vie de Rossini," which is chiefly valuable for the list of his

works, and the dates of their production.


To return to the Barber of Seville, of which the subject was

librsuggested to Rossini by the author of the libretto, Sterbini.

Sterbini proposed to arrange it for music in a new form; Rossini

acquiesced, and the librettists went to work. The report was soon spread

that Rossini was about to reset Paisiello's libretto. For this some

accused Rossini of presumption, while others said that in taking

Paisiello's subject he was behaving meanly and unjustly. This was

absurd, for all Metastasio's lyrical dramas have been set to music by

numbers of composers; but this fact was not likely to be taken into

consideration by Rossini's enemies. Paisiello himself took part in the

intrigues against the young composer, and wrote a letter from Naples,

begging one of his friends at Rome to leave nothing undone that could

contribute to the failure of the second Barber. When the night of

representation, at the Argentina Theatre, arrived, Rossini's enemies

were all at their posts, declaring openly what they hoped and intended

should be the fate of the new opera. His friends, on the other hand,

were not nearly so decided, remembering, as they did, the

uncomplimentary manner in which Rossini's Torvaldo had been received

only a short time before. The composer, says Madame Giorgi-Righetti "was

weak enough to allow Garcia to sing beneath Rosina's balcony a Spanish

melody of his own arrangement. Garcia maintained, that as the scene was

in Spain the Spanish melody would give the drama an appropriate local

colour; but, unfortunately, the artist who reasoned so well, and who was

such an excellent singer, forgot to tune his guitar before appearing on

the stage as "Almaviva." He began the operation in the presence of the

public. A string broke. The vocalist proceeded to replace it; but before

he could do so, laughter and hisses were heard from all parts of the

house. The Spanish air, when Garcia was at last ready to sing it, did

not please the Italian audience, and the pit listened to it just enough

to be able to give an ironical imitation of it afterwards.

The introduction to Figaro's air seemed to be liked; but when Zamboni

entered, with another guitar in his hand, a loud laugh was set up, and

not a phrase of Largo al factotum was heard. When Rosina made her

appearance in the balcony, the public were quite prepared to applaud

Madame Giorgi-Righetti in an air which they thought they had a right to

expect from her; but only hearing her utter a phrase which led to

nothing, the expressions of disapprobation recommenced. The duet between

"Almaviva" and "Figaro" was accompanied throughout with hissing and

shouting. The fate of the work seemed now decided.

At length Rosina came on, and sang the cavatina which had so long been

looked for. Madame Giorgi-Righetti was young, had a fresh beautiful

voice, and was a great favourite with the Roman public. Three long

rounds of applause followed the conclusion of her air, and gave some

hope that the opera might yet be saved. Rossini, who was at the

orchestral piano, bowed to the public, then turned towards the singer,

and whispered "oh natura!"

This happy moment did not last, and the hisses recommenced with the duet

between Figaro and Rosina. The noise increased, and it was impossible to

hear a note of the finale. When the curtain fell Rossini turned towards

the public, shrugged his shoulders and clapped his hands. The audience

were deeply offended by this openly-expressed contempt for their

opinion, but they made no reply at the time.

The vengeance was reserved for the second act, of which not a note

passed the orchestra. The hubbub was so great, that nothing like it was

ever heard at any theatre. Rossini in the meanwhile remained perfectly

calm, and afterwards went home as composed as if the work, received in

so insulting a manner, had been the production of some other musician.

After changing their clothes, Madame Giorgi-Righetti, Garcia, Zamboni,

and Botticelli, went to his house to console him in his misfortune. They

found him fast asleep.


The next day he wrote the delightful cavatina, Ecco ridente il cielo,

to replace Garcia's unfortunate Spanish air. The melody of the new solo

was borrowed from the opening chorus of Aureliano in Palmira, written

by Rossini in 1814, for Milan, and produced without success; the said

chorus having itself figured before in the same composer's Ciro in

Babilonia, also unfavourably received. Garcia read his cavatina as

it was written, and sang it the same evening. Rossini, having now made

the only alteration he thought necessary, went back to bed, and

pretended to be ill, that he might not have to take his place in the

evening at the piano.

At the second performance, the Romans seemed disposed to listen to the

work of which they had really heard nothing the night before. This was

all that was needed to ensure the opera's triumphant success. Many of

the pieces were applauded; but still no enthusiasm was exhibited. The

music, however, pleased more and more with each succeeding

representation, until at last the climax was reached, and Il Barbiere

produced those transports of admiration among the Romans with which it

was afterwards received in every town in Italy, and in due time

throughout Europe. It must be added, that a great many connoisseurs at

Rome were struck from the first moment with the innumerable beauties of

Rossini's score, and went to his house to congratulate him on its

excellence. As for Rossini, he was not at all surprised at the change

which took place in public opinion. He was as certain of the success of

his work the first night, when it was being hooted, as he was a week

afterwards, when every one applauded it to the skies.


In Paris, more than three years afterwards, with Garcia still playing

the part of "Almaviva," and with Madame Ronzi de Begnis as "Rosina,"

Il Barbiere was not much better received than on its first production

at Rome. It was less astonishing that it should fail before an audience

of Parisians (at that time quite unacquainted with Rossini's style) than

before a highly musical public like that of Rome. In each case, the work

of Paisiello was made the excuse for condemning that of Rossini; but

Rossini's Barber was not treated with indignity at the Italian Theatre

of Paris. It was simply listened to very coldly. Every one was saying,

that after Paisiello's opera it was nothing, that the two were not to be

compared, &c., when, fortunately, some one proposed that Paisiello's

Barber should be revived. Paer, the director of the music, and who is

said to have been rendered very uneasy by Rossini's Italian successes,

thought that to crush Rossini by means of his predecessor, was no bad

idea. The St. Petersburgh Barber of 1788 was brought out; but it was

found that he had grown old and feeble; or, rather, the simplicity of

the style was no longer admired, and the artists who had already lost

the traditions of the school, were unable to sing the music with any

effect. Rossini's Barber has now been before the world for nearly half

a century, and we all know whether it is old-fashioned; whether the airs

are tedious; whether the form of the concerted pieces, and of the grand

finale, leaves anything to be desired; whether the instrumentation is

poor; whether, in short, on any one point, any subsequent work of the

same kind even by Rossini himself, has surpassed, equalled, or even

approached it. But the thirty years of Paisiello's Barber bore heavily

upon the poor old man, and he was found sadly wanting in that gaiety and

brilliancy which have given such celebrity to Rossini's hero, and after

which Beaumarchais's sparkling epigrammatic dialogue appears almost

dull.[82] Paisiello's opera was a complete failure. And when Rossini's

Barbiere was brought out again, every one was struck by the contrast.

It profited by the very artifice which was to have destroyed it, and

Rossini's enemies took care for the future not to establish comparisons

between Rossini and Paisiello. Madame Ronzi de Begnis, too, had been

replaced very advantageously by Madame Fodor. With two such admirable

singers as Fodor and Garcia in the parts of "Rosina" and "Almaviva,"

with Pellegrini as "Figaro," and Begnis as "Basil," the success of the

opera increased with each representation: and though certain musical

quid-nuncs continued to shake their heads when Rossini's name was

mentioned in a drawing-room, his reputation with the great body of the

theatrical public was now fully established.

The tirana composed by Garcia Se il mio nome saper voi bramate,

which he appears to have abandoned after the unfavourable manner in

which it was received at Rome, was afterwards re-introduced into the

Barber by Rubini.

The whole of the Barber of Seville was composed from beginning to end

in a month. Ecco ridente il cielo (the air adapted from Aureliano in

Palmira) was, as already mentioned, added after the first

representation. The overture, moreover, had been previously written for

Aureliano in Palmira, and (after the failure of that work) had been

prefixed to Elizabetta regina d'Inghilterra which met with some

success, thanks to the admirable singing of Mademoiselle Colbran, in the

principal character.

* * * * *

Rossini took his failures very easily, and with the calm confidence of a

man who knew he could do better things and that the public would

appreciate them. When his Sigismondo was violently hissed at Venice he

sent a letter to his mother with a picture of a large fiasco,

(bottle). His Torvaldo e Dorliska, which was brought out soon

afterwards, was also hissed, but not so much.


This time Rossini sent his mother a picture of a fiaschetto (little


* * * * *

The motive of the allegro in the trio of the last act of (to return

for a moment to) the Barber of Seville, is, as most of my readers are

probably aware, simply an arrangement of the bass air sung by "Simon,"

in Haydn's Seasons. The comic air, sung by "Berta," the duenna, is a

Russian dance tune, which was very fashionable in Rome, in 1816. Rossini

is said to have introduced it into the Barber of Seville, out of

compliment to some Russian lady.

* * * * *

Rossini's first opera la Pietra del Paragone, was written when he was

seventeen years of age, for the Scala at Milan, where it was produced in

the autumn of 1812. He introduced the best pieces out of this work into

the Cenerentola, which was brought out five years afterwards at Rome.

Besides la Pietra del Paragone, he laid il Turco in Italia, and la

Gazzetta under contribution to enrich the score of Cinderella. The

air Miei rampolli, the duet un Soave non so chè, the drinking chorus

and the burlesque proclamation of the baron belonged originally to la

Pietra del Paragone; the sestett, the stretta of the finale, the

duet zitto, zitto, to the Turco in Italia, (produced at Milan in

1814), Miei rampolli had also been inserted in la Gazzetta.

The principal female part in the Cenerentola, though written for a

contralto, has generally, (like those of Rosina and Isabella, and also

written for contraltos), been sung by sopranos, such as Madame Fodor,

Madame Cinti, Madame Sontag, &c. When sung by Mademoiselle Alboni, these

parts are executed in every respect in conformity with the composer's


* * * * *


Rossini's first serious opera, or at least the first of those by which

his name became known throughout Europe, was Tancredi, written for

Venice in 1813, the year after la Pietra del Paragone. In this opera,

we find indicated, if not fully carried out, all those admirable changes

in the composition of the lyric drama which were imputed to him by his

adversaries as so many artistic crimes. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, in his

objections to Rossini's music, strange and almost inexplicable as they

appear, yet only says in somewhat different language what is advanced by

Rossini's admirers, in proof of his great merit. The connoisseur of a

past epoch describes the changes introduced by Rossini into dramatic

music, for an enemy, fairly enough; only he regards as detestable

innovations what others have accepted as admirable reforms. It appeared

to Rossini that the number of airs written for the so-called lyric

dramas of his youth, delayed the action to a most wearisome extent. In

Tancredi, concerted pieces in which the dramatic action is kept up,

are introduced in situations where formerly there would have been only

monologues. In Tancredi the bass has little to do, but more than in

the operas of the old-school, where he was kept quite in the back

ground, the ultima parte being seldom heard except in ensembles. By

degrees the bass was brought forward, until at last he became an

indispensable and frequently the principal character in all tragic

operas. In the old opera the number of characters was limited and

choruses were seldom introduced. Think, then, how an amateur of the

simple, quiet old school must have been shocked by a thoroughly

Rossinian opera, such as Semiramide, with its brilliant, sonorous

instrumentation, its prominent part for the bass or baritone, its long

elaborate finale, and above all its military band on the stage! Mozart

had already anticipated every resource that has since been adopted by

Rossini, but to Rossini belongs, nevertheless, the merit of having

brought the lyric drama to perfection on the Italian stage, and forty

and even thirty years ago it was to Rossini that its supposed

degradation was attributed.

"So great a change," says Lord Mount Edgcumbe, "has taken place in the

character of the (operatic) dramas, in the style of the music and its

performance, that I cannot help enlarging on that subject before I

proceed further. One of the most material alterations is, that the grand

distinction between serious and comic operas is nearly at an end, the

separation of the singers for their performance, entirely so.[83] Not

only do the same sing in both, but a new species of drama has arisen, a

kind of mongrel between them called semi seria, which bears the same

analogy to the other two that that nondescript melodrama does to the

legitimate tragedy and comedy of the English stage."

And of which style specimens may be found in Shakespeare's plays and in

Mozart's Don Giovanni! The union of the serious and the comic in the

same lyric work was an innovation of Mozart's, like almost all the

innovations attributed by Lord Mount Edgcumbe to Rossini. Indeed, nearly

all the operatic reforms of the last three-quarters of a century that

have endured, have had Mozart for their originator.


"The construction of these newly invented pieces," continues Lord Mount

Edgcumbe, "is essentially different from the old. The dialogue which

used to be carried on in recitative, and which in Metastasio's operas,

is often so beautiful and interesting, is now cut up (and rendered

unintelligible, if it were worth listening to), into pezzi concertati,

or long singing conversations, which present a tedious succession of

unconnected, ever-changing motivos, having nothing to do with each

other: and if a satisfactory air is for a moment introduced, which the

ear would like to dwell upon, to hear modulated, varied and again

returned to, it is broken off before it is well understood, by a sudden

transition into a totally different melody, time and key, and recurs no

more; so that no impression can be made or recollection of it preserved.

Single songs are almost exploded ... even the prima donna who would

formerly have complained at having less than three or four airs allotted

to her, is now satisfied with one trifling cavatina for a whole


* * * * *

Lord Mount Edgcumbe has hitherto given a tolerably true account of the

reforms introduced by Rossini into the operatic music of Italy; only,

instead of calling Rossini's concerted pieces and finales, "a tedious

succession of unconnected, ever-changing motivos," he ought to describe

them as highly interesting, well connected and eminently dramatic. He

goes on to condemn Rossini for his new distribution of characters, and

especially for his employment of bass voices in chief parts "to the

manifest injury of melody and total subversion of harmony, in which the

lowest part is their peculiar province." Here, however, it occurs to

Lord Mount Edgcumbe, and he thereupon expresses his surprise, "that the

principal characters in two of Mozart's operas should have been written

for basses."

* * * * *

When the above curious, and in its way valuable, strictures on Rossini's

music were penned, not only Tancredi, but also Il Barbiere,

Otello, La Cenerentola, Mosè in Egitto, La Gazza Ladra, and

other of his works had been produced. Il Barbiere succeeded at once

in England, and Lord Mount Edgcumbe tells us that for many years after

the first introduction of Rossini's works into England "so entirely did

he engross the stage, that the operas of no other master were ever to be

heard, with the exception of those of Mozart; and of his only Don

Giovanni and le Nozze di Figaro were often repeated.... Every other

composer, past and present, was totally put aside, and these two alone

named or thought of." Rossini, then, if wrongly applauded, was at least

applauded in good company. It appears from Mr. Ebers's "Seven years of

the King's Theatre," that of all the operas produced from 1821 to 1828,

nearly half were Rossini's, or in exact numbers fourteen out of

thirty-four, but it must be remembered that the majority of these were

constantly repeated, whereas most of the others were brought out only

for a few nights and then laid aside. During the period in question the

composer whose works, next to Rossini, were most often represented, was

Mozart with Don Giovanni, Le Nozze, La Clemenza di Tito, and Cosi

fan Tutti. The other operas included in the repertoire were by Paer,

Mayer, Zingarelli, Spontini, (la Vestale), Mercadante, Meyerbeer, (Il

Crociato in Egitto) &c.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: TANCREDI.]

Our consideration of the causes of Rossini's success, and want of

success, has led us far away from the first representation of Tancredi

at the theatre of La Fenice. Its success was so great, that each of its

melodies became for the Venetians a second "Carnival of Venice;" and

even in the law courts, the judges are said to have been obliged to

direct the ushers to stop the singing of Di tanti palpiti, and Mi

rivedrai te rivedrò.

"I thought after hearing my opera, that the Venetians would think me

mad," said Rossini. "Not at all; I found they were much madder than I

was." Tancredi was followed by Aureliano, produced at Milan in 1814,

and, as has already been mentioned, without success. The introduction,

however, containing the chorus from which Almaviva's cavatina was

adapted, is said to have been one of Rossini's finest pieces. Otello,

the second of Rossini's important serious operas, was produced in 1816

at Naples (Del Fondo Theatre). The principal female part, as in the

now-forgotten Elizabetta, and as in a great number of subsequent

works, was written for Mademoiselle Colbran. The other parts were

sustained by Benedetti, Nozzari, and the celebrated Davide.

* * * * *

In Otello, Rossini continued the reforms which he had commenced in

Tancredi. He made each dramatic scene one continued piece of music,

used recitative but sparingly, and when he employed it, accompanied it

for the first time in Italy, with the full band. The piano was now

banished from the orchestra, forty-two years after it had been banished

by Gluck from the orchestras of France.

Davide, in the part of Otello," created the greatest enthusiasm. The

following account of his performance is given by a French critic, M.

Edouard Bertin, in a letter from Venice, dated 1823:--

[Sidenote: OTELLO.]

"Davide excites among the dilettanti of this town an enthusiasm and

delight which could scarcely be conceived without having been witnessed.

He is a singer of the new school, full of mannerism, affectation, and

display, abusing, like Martin, his magnificent voice with its prodigious

compass (three octaves comprised between four B flats). He crushes the

principal motive of an air beneath the luxuriance of his ornamentation,

and which has no other merit than that of difficulty conquered. But he

is also a singer full of warmth, verve, expression, energy, and

musical sentiment; alone he can fill up and give life to a scene; it is

impossible for another singer to carry away an audience as he does, and

when he will only be simple, he is admirable; he is the Rossini of song.

He is a great singer; the greatest I ever heard. Doubtless, the manner

in which Garcia plays and sings the part of "Otello" is preferable,

taking it altogether, to that of Davide. It is purer, more severe, more

constantly dramatic; but with all his faults Davide produces more

effect, a great deal more effect. There is something in him, I cannot

say what, which, even when he is ridiculous, commands, enhances

attention. He never leaves you cold; and when he does not move you, he

astonishes you; in a word, before hearing him, I did not know what the

power of singing really was. The enthusiasm he excites is without

limits. In fact, his faults are not faults for Italians, who in their

opera seria do not employ what the French call the tragic style, and

who scarcely understand us, when we tell them that a waltz or quadrille

movement is out of place in the mouth of a Cæsar, an Assur, or an

Otello. With them the essential thing is to please: they are only

difficult on this point, and their indifference as to all the rest is

really inconceivable: here is an example of it. Davide, considering

apparently that the final duet of Otello did not sufficiently show off

his voice, determined to substitute for it a duet from Armida (Amor

possente nome), which is very pretty, but anything rather than severe.

As it was impossible to kill Desdemona to such a tune, the Moor, after

giving way to the most violent jealousy, sheathes his dagger, and begins

in the most tender and graceful manner his duet with Desdemona, at the

conclusion of which he takes her politely by the hand, and retires,

amidst the applause and bravos of the public, who seem to think it quite

natural that the piece should finish in this manner, or, rather, that it

should not finish at all: for after this beautiful dénouement, the

action is about as far advanced as it was in the first scene. We do not

in France carry our love of music so far as to tolerate such absurdities

as these, and perhaps we are right."

Lord Byron saw Otello at Venice, soon after its first production. He

speaks of it in one of his letters, dated 1818, in which he condemns

the libretto, but expresses his admiration of the music.

La Gazza Ladra was written for Milan, and brought out at the theatre

of "La Scala," in 1817. Four years afterwards it was produced in London

in the spring, and Paris in the autumn. The part of "Ninetta,"

afterwards so favourite a character with Sontag, Malibran, and Grisi,

was sung in 1821 by Madame Camporese in London, by Madame Fodor in

Paris. Camporese's performance was of the greatest merit, and highly

successful. Fodor's is said to have been perfection. The part of

"Pippo," originally written for a contralto, used at one time to be sung

at the English and French theatres by a baritone or bass. It was not

until some years after La Gazza Ladra was produced, that a contralto

(except for first parts), was considered an indispensable member of an

opera company.

Madame Fodor was not an Italian, but a Russian. She was married to a

Frenchman, M. Mainvielle, and, before visiting Italy, and, until her

début, had studied chiefly in Paris. Her Italian tour is said to have

greatly improved her style, which, when she first appeared in London, in

1816, left much to be desired. Camporese was of good birth, and was

married to a member of the Guistiniani family. She cultivated singing in

the first instance only as an accomplishment; but was obliged by

circumstances to make it her profession. In Italy she sang only at

concerts, and it was not until her arrival in England that she appeared

on the stage. She seems to have possessed very varied powers; appearing

at one time as "Zerlina" to Ronzi's "Donna Anna;" at another, as "Donna

Anna," to Fodor's "Zerlina."

[Sidenote: LA GAZZA LADRA.]

La Gazza Ladra is known to be founded on a French melo-drama, La Pie

Voleuse, of which the capabilities for operatic "setting," were first

discovered by Paer. Paer had seen Mademoiselle Jenny Vertpré in La Pie

Voleuse. He bought the play, and sent it to his librettist in ordinary

at Milan, with marginal notes, showing how it ought to be divided for

musical purposes. The opera book intended by Paer for himself was

offered to Rossini, and by him was made the groundwork of one of his

most brilliant productions.

La Gazza Ladra marks another step in Rossini's progress as a composer,

and accordingly we find Lord Mount Edgcumbe saying, soon after its

production in England:--"Of all the operas of Rossini that have been

performed here, that of la Gazza Ladra is most peculiarly liable to

all the objections I have made to the new style of drama, of which it is

the most striking example." The only opera of Rossini's which Lord Mount

Edgcumbe seems really to have liked was Aureliano in Palmira, written

in the composer's earliest style, and which failed.

"Its finales," (Lord Mount Edgcumbe is speaking of La Gazza Ladra)

"and many of its very numerous pezzi concertati, are uncommonly loud,

and the lavish use made of the noisy instruments, appears, to my

judgment, singularly inappropriate to the subject; which, though it

might have been rendered touching, is far from calling for such warlike

accompaniments. Nothing can be more absurd than the manner in which this

simple story is represented in the Italian piece, or than to be a young

peasant servant girl, led to trial and execution, under a guard of

soldiers, with military music." The quintett of La Gazza Ladra, is,

indeed, open to a few objections from a dramatic point of view.

"Ninetta" is afraid of compromising her father; but "Fernando" has

already given himself up to the authorities, in order to save his

daughter--in whose defence he does not say a word. An explanation seems

necessary, but then the drama would be at an end. There would be no

quintett, and we should lose one of Rossini's finest pieces. Would it be

worth while to destroy this quintett, in order to make the opera end

like the French melo-drama, and as the French operatic version of La

Gazza Ladra also terminates?

I have already spoken of La Cenerentola, produced in 1817 at Rome.

This admirable work has of late years been much neglected. The last time

it was heard in England at Her Majesty's Theatre, Madame Alboni played

the principal part, and excited the greatest enthusiasm by her execution

of the final air, Non piu mesta (the model of so many solos for the

prima donna, introduced with or without reason, at the end of

subsequent operas); but the cast was a very imperfect one, and the

performance on the whole (as usual, of late years, at this theatre)

very unsatisfactory.

[Sidenote: MOSE IN EGITTO.]

Mosè in Egitto was produced at the San Carlo[84] Theatre, at Naples,

in 1818; the principal female part being written again for Mademoiselle

Colbran. In this work, two leading parts, those of "Faraoni" and "Mosè,"

were assigned to basses. The once proscribed, or, at least contemned

basso, was, for the first time brought forward, and honoured with full

recognition in an Italian opera seria. The story of the Red Sea, and

of the chorus sung on its banks, has often been told; but I will repeat

it in a few words, for the benefit of those readers who may not have met

with it before. The Passage of the Red Sea was intended to be

particularly grand; but, instead of producing the effect anticipated, it

was received every night with laughter. The two first acts were always

applauded; but the Red Sea was a decided obstacle to the success of the

third. Tottola, the librettist, came to Rossini one morning, with a

prayer for the Israelites, which he fancied, if the composer would set

it to music, might save the conclusion of the opera. Rossini, who was in

bed at the time, saw at once the importance of the suggestion, wrote on

the spur of the moment, and in a few minutes, the magnificent Del tuo

stellato soglio. It was performed the same evening, and excited

transports of admiration. The scene of the Red Sea, instead of being

looked forward to as a source of hilarity, became now the chief

"attraction" of the opera. The performance of the prayer produced a sort

of frenzy among the audience, and a certain Neapolitan doctor, whose

name has not transpired, told either Stendhal or the Abbé Carpani (on

whose Letters, as before mentioned, Beyle's "Vie de Rossini par

Stendhal" is founded), that the number of nervous indispositions among

the ladies of Naples was increased in a remarkable manner by the change

of key, from the minor to the major, in the last verse.

Mosè was brought out in London, as an oratorio, in the beginning of

1822. Probably, dramatic action was absolutely necessary for its

success; at all events, it failed as an oratorio. The same year it was

produced as an opera at the King's Theatre; but with a complete

transformation in the libretto, and under the title of Pietro

l'Eremita. The opera attracted throughout the season, and no work of

Rossini's was ever more successful on its first production in this

country. The subscribers to the King's Theatre were in ecstacies with

it, and one of the most distinguished supporters of the theatre, after

assuring the manager that he deserved well of this country, offered to

testify his gratitude by proposing him at White's!

[Sidenote: MOSE IN EGITTO.]

In the autumn of the same year Mosè was produced at the Italian Opera

of Paris, and in 1827, a French version of it was brought out at the

Académie. The Red Sea appears to have been a source of trouble

everywhere. At the Académie, forty-five thousand francs were sunk in it,

and to so little effect, or rather with such bad effect, that the

machinists' and decorators' waves had to be suppressed after the first

evening. In London the Red Sea became merely a river. The river,

however, failed quite as egregiously as the larger body of water, and

had to be drained off before the second performance took place.

Mosè is quite long enough and sufficiently complete in its original

form. Several pieces, however, out of other operas, by Rossini, were

added to it in the London version of the work. In Paris, in accordance

with the absurd custom (if it be not even a law) at the Académie, Mosè

could not be represented without the introduction of a ballet. The

necessary dance music was taken from Ciro in Babilonia and Armida,

and the opera was further strengthened as it was thought (weakened as it

turned out), by the introduction of a new air for Mademoiselle Cinti,

and several new choruses.

The Mosè of the Académie, with its four acts of music (one more than

the original opera) was found far too long. It was admired, and for a

little while applauded; but when it had once wearied the public, it was

in vain that the directors reduced its dimensions. It became smaller and

smaller, until it at last disappeared.

Zelmira, written originally for Vienna, and which is said to have

contained Madame Colbran Rossini's best part, was produced at Naples in

1822. The composer and his favourite prima donna were married in the

spring of the same year at Castelnaso, near Bologna.

"The recitatives of Zelmira" says Carpani, in his Le Rossinane ossia

lettere musico-teatrali, "are the best and most dramatic that the

Italian school has produced; their eloquence is equal to that of the

most beautiful airs, and the spectator, equally charmed and surprised,

listens to them from one end to the other. These recitatives are

sustained by the orchestra; Otello, Mosè in Egitto, are written

after the same system, but I will not attribute to Rossini the honour of

a discovery which belongs to our neighbours. Although the French Opera

is still barbarous from a vocal point of view, there are some points

about it which may be advantageously borrowed. The introduction of

accompanied recitative is of the greatest importance for our opera

seria, which, in the hands of the Mayers, Paers, the Rossinis, has at

last become dramatic."

Zelmira was brought out in London in 1824, under the direction of

Rossini himself, and with Madame Colbran Rossini in the principal part.

The reception of the composer, when he made his appearance in the

orchestra, was most enthusiastic, and at the end of the opera, he was

called on to the stage, which, in England, was, then, quite a novel



At the same time, all possible attention was paid to Rossini, in

private, by the most distinguished persons in the country. He was

invited by George IV. to the Pavilion at Brighton, and the King gave

orders that when his guest entered the music room, his private band

should play the overture to the Barber of Seville. The overture being

concluded, his Majesty asked Rossini what piece he would like to hear

next. The composer named God save the King.

The music of Zelmira was greatly admired by connoisseurs, but made no

impression on the public, and though Madame Colbran-Rossini's

performance is said to have been admirable, it must be remembered that

she had already passed the zenith of her powers. Born in Madrid, in

1785, she appears to have retired from the stage, as far as Italy was

concerned, in 1823, after the production of Semiramide. At least, I

find no account of her having sung anywhere after the season of 1824, in

London, though her name appears in the list of the celebrated company

assembled the same year by Barbaja, at Vienna. Mademoiselle Colbran

figures among the sopranos with Mesdames Mainvielle-Fodor, Féron, Esther

Mombelli,[85] Dardanelli, Sontag, Unger, Giuditta, Grisi, and Grimbaun.

The contraltos of this unrivalled troupe were Mesdames

Cesare-Cantarelli and Eckerlin; the tenors, Davide, Nozzari, Donzelli,

Rubini, and Cicimarra; the basses, Lablache, Bassi, Ambroggi,

Tamburini, and Bolticelli. Rossini had undertaken to write an opera

entitled Ugo rè d'Italia, for the King's Theatre. The engagement had

been made at the beginning of the season, in January, and the work was

repeatedly announced for performance, when, at the end of May, it was

said to be only half finished. He had, at this time, quarrelled with the

management, and accepted the post of director at the Italian Opera of

Paris. The end of Ugo rè d'Italia is said by Mr. Ebers to have been,

that the score, as far as it was written, was deposited with Messrs.

Ransom, the bankers. Messrs. Ransom, however, have informed me, that

they never had a score of Rossini's in their possession.

* * * * *

After Rossini's departure from London, his Semiramide, produced at

Venice only the year before, was brought out with Madame Pasta, in the

principal character. The part of "Semiramide" had been played at the

Fenice Theatre, by Madame Colbran; it was the last Rossini wrote for

his wife, and Semiramide was the last opera he composed for Italy.

When we meet with Rossini again, it will be at the Académie Royale of

Paris, as the composer of the Siege of Corinth, Count Ory, and

William Tell.


The first great representative of "Semiramide" was Pasta, who has

probably never been surpassed in that character. After performing it

with admirable success in London, she resumed in it the year afterwards,

1825, at the Italian Opera of Paris. Madame Pasta had already gained

great celebrity by her representation of "Tancredi" and of "Romeo," but

in Semiramide, she seems, for the first time, to have exhibited her

genius in all its fulness.[86]

The original "Arsace" was Madame Mariani, the first great "Arsace,"

Madame Pisaroni.

Since the first production of Semiramide, thirty years ago, all the

most distinguished sopranos and contraltos of the day have loved to

appear in that admirable work.

Among the "Semiramides," I may mention in particular Pasta, Grisi,

Viardot-Garcia, and Cruvelli. Although not usually given to singers who

particularly excel in the execution of light delicate music, the part of

"Semiramide" was also sung with success by Madame Sontag (Paris, 1829),

and Madame Bosio (St. Petersburgh, 1855).

Among the "Arsaces," may be cited Pisaroni, Brambilla, and Alboni.

Malibran, with her versatile comprehensive genius, appeared both as

"Arsace" and as "Semiramide," and was equally fortunate in each of these

very different impersonations.

I will now say a few words respecting those of the singers just named,

whose names are more especially associated with Rossini's earliest

successes in England.

Madame Pasta having appeared in Paris with success in 1816, was engaged

with her husband, Signor Pasta (an unsuccessful tenor), for the

following season at the King's Theatre. She made no great impression

that year, and was quite eclipsed by Fodor and Camporese, who were

members of the same company. The young singer, not discouraged, but

convinced that she had much to learn, returned to Italy, where she

studied unremittingly for four years. She reappeared at the Italian

Opera of Paris in 1821, as "Desdemona," in Rossini's Otello, then for

the first time produced in France. Her success was complete, but her

performance does not appear to have excited that enthusiasm which was

afterwards caused by her representation of "Medea," in Mayer's opera of

that name. In Medea, however, Pasta was everything; in Otello, she

had to share her triumph with Garcia, Bordogni, and Levasseur. From this

time, the new tragic vocalist gained constantly in public estimation.

Medea was laid aside; but Pasta gained fresh applause in every new

part she undertook, and especially in Tancredi and Semiramide.

[Sidenote: PASTA.]

Pasta made her second appearance at the King's Theatre in 1824, in the

character of "Desdemona." Her performance, from a histrionic as well as

from a vocal point of view, was most admirable; and the habitués could

scarcely persuade themselves that this was the singer who had come

before them four years previously, and had gone away without leaving a

regret behind. When Rossini's last Italian opera was produced, the same

season, the character of "Semiramide" was assigned to Madame Pasta, who

now sang it for the first time. She had already represented the part of

"Tancredi," and her three great Rossinian impersonations raised her

reputation to the highest point. In London, Madame Pasta did not appear

as "Medea" until 1826, when she already enjoyed the greatest celebrity.

It was found at the King's Theatre, as at the Italian Opera of Paris,

that Mayer's simple and frequently insipid music was not tolerable,

after the brilliant dramatic compositions of Rossini; but Pasta's

delineation of "Medea's" thirst for vengeance and despair, is said to

have been sublime.

A story is told of a distinguished critic persuading himself, that with

such a power of pourtraying "Medea's" emotions, Madame Pasta must

possess "Medea's" features; but for some such natural conformity he

seems to have thought it impossible that she could at once, by

intuition, enter profoundly and sympathetically into all "Medea's"

inmost feelings. Much might be said in favour of the critic's theory; it

is unnecessary to say a word in favour of a performance by which such a

theory could be suggested. We are told, that the believer in the

personal resemblance between Pasta and "Medea" was sent a journey of

seventy miles to see a visionary portrait of "Medea," recovered from the

ruins of Herculaneum. To rush off on such a journey with such an object,

may not have been very reasonable; to cause the journey to be

undertaken, was perfectly silly. Probably, it was a joke of our friend


* * * * *

[Sidenote: PISARONI.]

Madame Pisaroni made her début in Italy in the year 1811, when she was

eighteen years of age. She at first came out as a soprano, but two years

afterwards, a severe illness having changed the nature of her voice, she

appeared in all the most celebrated parts, written for the musicos or

sopranists, who were now beginning to die out, and to be replaced by

ladies with contralto voices. Madame Pisaroni was not only not

beautiful, she was hideously ugly; I have seen her portrait, and am not

exaggerating. Lord Mount Edgcumbe tells us, that another favourite

contralto of the day Mariani (Rossini's original Arsace) was Pisaroni's

rival "in voice, singing, and ugliness;" adding, that "in the two first

qualities, she was certainly her inferior; though in the last it was

difficult to know to which the preference should be given." But the

anti-pathetic, revolting, almost insulting features of the great

contralto, were forgotten as soon as she began to sing. As the hideous

Wilkes boasted that he was "only a quarter of an hour behind the

handsomest man in Europe," so Madame Pisaroni might have said, that she

had only to deliver one phrase of music to place herself on a level with

the most personally prepossessing vocalist of the day. This

extraordinary singer on gaining a contralto, did not lose her original

soprano voice. After her illness, she is said to have possessed three

octaves (between four C's), but her best notes were now in the contralto

register. In airs, in concerted pieces, in recitative, she was equally

admirable. To sustain a high note, and then dazzle the audience with a

rapid descending scale of two octaves, was for her an easy means of

triumph. Altogether, her execution seems never to have been surpassed.

After making her début in Paris as "Arsace," Madame Pisaroni resumed

that part in 1829, under great difficulties. The frightfully ugly

"Arsace" had to appear side by side with a charmingly pretty

"Semiramide,"--the soprano part of the opera being taken by Mademoiselle

Sontag. But in the hour of danger the poor contralto was saved by her

thoroughly beautiful singing, and Pisaroni and Sontag, who as a vocalist

also left nothing to desire, were equally applauded. In London, Pisaroni

appears to have confined herself intentionally to the representation of

male characters, appearing as "Arsace," "Malcolm," in La Donna del

Lago, and "Tancredi;" but in Paris she played the principal female part

in L'Italiana in Algeri, and what is more, played it with wonderful


* * * * *

The great part of "Arsace" was also that in which Mademoiselle Brambilla

made her début in England in the year 1827. Brambilla, who was a pupil

of the conservatory of Milan, had never appeared on any stage; but

though her acting is said to have been indifferent, her lovely voice,

her already excellent style, her youth and her great beauty, ensured

her success.

"She has the finest eyes, the sweetest voice, and the best disposition

in the world," said a certain cardinal of the youthful Brambilla, "if

she is discovered to possess any other merits, the safety of the

Catholic Church will require her excommunication." After singing in

London several years, and revisiting Italy, Brambilla was engaged in

Paris, where she again chose the part of "Arsace," for her début.

Many of our readers will probably remember that "Arsace" was also the

character in which Mademoiselle Alboni made her first appearance in

England, and on this side of the Alps. Until the opening night of the

Royal Italian Opera, 1847, the English public had never heard of

Mademoiselle Alboni; but she had only to sing the first phrase of her

part, to call forth unanimous applause, and before the evening was at an

end, she had quite established herself in the position which she has

ever since held.

[Sidenote: SONTAG.]

Sontag and Malibran both made their first appearance in England as

"Rosina," in the Barber of Seville. Several points of similarity might

be pointed out between the romantic careers of these two wonderfully

successful and wonderfully unfortunate vocalists. Mademoiselle Garcia

first appeared on the stage at Naples, when she was eight years old.

Mademoiselle Sontag was in her sixth year when she came out at

Frankfort. Each spent her childhood and youth in singing and acting, and

each, after obtaining a full measure of success, made an apparently

brilliant marriage, and was thought to have quitted the stage. Both,

however, re-appeared, one after a very short interval, the other, after

a retirement of something like twenty years. The position of

Mademoiselle Garcia's husband, M. Malibran, was as nothing, compared to

that of Count Rossi, who married Mademoiselle Sontag; the former was a

French merchant, established (not very firmly, as it afterwards

appeared) at New York; the latter was the Sardinian Ambassador at the

court of Vienna; but on the other hand, the Countess Rossi's end was far

more tragic, or rather more miserable and horrible than that of Madame

Malibran, itself sufficiently painful and heart-rending.

Though Rosina appears to have been one of Mademoiselle Sontag's best, if

not absolutely her best part, she also appeared to great advantage

during her brief career in London and Paris, in two other Rossinian

characters, "Desdemona" and "Semiramide." In her own country she was

known as one of the most admirable representatives of "Agatha," in Der

Freischütz, and she sang "Agatha's" great scena frequently, and

always with immense success, at concerts, in London. She also appeared

as "Donna Anna," in Don Giovanni, (from the pleasing, graceful

character of her talent, one would have fancied the part of "Zerlina"

better suited to her), but in Italian opera all her triumphs were gained

in the works of Rossini.

[Sidenote: MALIBRAN.]

When Marietta Garcia made her début in London, in the Barber of

Seville, she was, seriously, only just beginning her career, and was at

that time but seventeen years of age. She appeared the same year in

Paris, as the heroine in Torvaldo e Dorliska (Rossini's

"fiaschetto," now quite forgotten) and was then taken by her father on

that disastrous American tour which ended with her marriage. Having

crossed the Atlantic, Garcia converted his family into a complete opera

company, of which he himself was the tenor and the excellent musical

director (if there had only been a little more to direct). The daughter

was the prima donna, the mother had to content herself with secondary

parts, the son officiated as baritone and bass. In America, under a good

master, but with strange subordinates, and a wretched entourage,

Mademoiselle Garcia accustomed herself to represent operatic characters

of every kind. One evening, when an uncultivated American orchestra was

massacring Mozart's master-piece, Garcia, the "Don Giovanni" of the

evening, became so indignant that he rushed, sword in hand, to the foot

lights, and compelled the musicians to re-commence the finale to the

first act, which they executed the second time with care, if not with

skill. This was a severe school in which poor Marietta was being formed;

but without it we should probably never have heard of her appearing one

night as "Desdemona" or as "Arsace," the next as "Otello," or as

"Semiramide;" nor of her gaining fresh laurels with equal certainty in

the Sonnambula

and in Norma. But we have at present only to do with that period of

operatic history, during which, Rossini's supremacy on the Italian stage

was unquestioned. Towards 1830, we find two new composers appearing,

who, if they, to some extent, displaced their great predecessor, at the

same time followed in his steps. For some dozen years, Rossini had been

the sole support, indeed, the very life of Italian opera. Naturally, his

works were not without their fruit, and a great part of Donizetti's and

Bellini's music may be said to belong to Rossini, inasmuch as Rossini

was clearly Donizetti's and Bellini's progenitor.