Personalities | Gioachino Rossini | Early Romantic | Opera

1792–1868, Italian

By the age of 14, Gioachino Rossini could play the violin, cello, harpsichord and horn, and had written a buffo-style cavatina, a short solo song. In 1806, Rossini was studying at the Bologna Conservatory and wrote his first opera, Demetrio e Polibio. The next year he produced his first professional work – La cambiale di matrimonio (‘The Bill of Marriage’).

A Runaway Success

The lyrical charm of Rossini’s music soon made him a runaway success. His L’inganno felice (‘The Happy Deception’, 1812) and a commission from La Scala, Milan, La pietra del paragone (‘The Touchstone’, 1812) entranced opera audiences, who loved their graceful melodies, amusing characters and ingenious plots. At barely 20 years of age, Gioachino Rossini was made.

A Profusion of Operas

In the next 17 years, until he retired, a profusion of operas flowed from Rossini’s pen. He produced four in the six months between November 1812 and May 1813. One of these, the darkly dramatic Tancredi (1813), made Rossini internationally famous. The opera’s appeal owed much to his sensitive handling of heroic virtues, and innovative orchestration, most particularly his use of woodwind instruments to track the vocal line and give it added expressiveness. For Rossini, Tancredi was a venture into sombre territory, but with his next work, L’italiana in Algeri (‘The Italian Girl in Algiers’, 1813) he returned to the operatic romp, full of subterfuge, false identities and impudent ruses.

A Lively Masterpiece

Rossini was now in great demand not only by audiences, but also by opera-house managements. In around 1814 the composer accepted a six-year contract from Domenico Barbaia (1778–1841) as music director of the Teatro San Carlo and the Teatro del Fondo in Naples. It was in Naples that Rossini unveiled his great masterpiece, Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’, 1816). This was Rossini at his witty, vivacious best, in an opera full of fun, lively, inventive orchestration and catchy melodies.

A Tragic Alternative

Yet this same year, Rossini unveiled a total contrast – his Otello (1816), a dark tale of love, jealousy and betrayal based on one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. The part of the doomed heroine, Desdemona, was written for Rossini’s wife, Isabella Colbran, who specialized in tragic roles. The violent ending of Otello, in which Otello murders Desdemona was considered too disturbing for audiences, who preferred problems solved and happiness ever after. As a result, Rossini had to concoct a happy ending when Otello was premiered in Rome.

A Prolific and Popular Composer

Nevertheless, Rossini was all the rage – the most popular opera composer of his day and the most prolific, with 25 operas to his credit in the 10 years since Tancredi won him international fame. He was still only 31 when he left Italy to take up a post in Paris as director of the Théâtre Italien. At this time, in the early 1820s, grand opéra was beginning to...

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