Born to two musicians in 1792, Gioachino Rossini was easily able to immerse himself in learning about music and theatre from a very young age. By the time he was 15, Rossini had already learned to play three instruments, sung in public, and even composed an opera series. His youth was spent in Italy composing and performing music and revolutionizing the traditional Italian opera buffa with embellished melodies, animated ensembles and new rhythms and dynamic effects.
After becoming bored with the Italians, Rossini chose to move to Paris in 1823 where he received a warm welcome. Rossini composed his final opera in 1829 and by this time had written one opera for each of the 38 years of his life. While he would continue to produce a handful of religious and instrumental works, the second half of Rossini’s life was spent largely in a self-imposed isolation. This relative solitude allowed the maestro to cultivate his other hobbies, such as playing piano and cooking, which he would pursue until his death in 1868.
The Europe in which Gioachino Rossini spent his life was a continent on the peak of modernization. At the time Rossini was born, the United States of America had been an independent country for four years, and before he celebrated his tenth birthday, the composer had lived through the French Revolution. At age 20, the Napoleonic Wars were nearing their end and the Industrial Revolution was running at full-steam, churning out inventions and innovations in areas such as textiles, steam power, and iron production, and bringing with it numerous problems for human welfare, such as extensive pollution and harsh child-labor. Although Rossini’s father was imprisoned for his support of Napoleon’s failed claim to empire, the life of the composer himself seems to have been somewhat untouched by the political and economic tensions felt elsewhere in Europe at the time. Perhaps we ought to think of Rossini’s comic operas as a means used by the upper-class for distracting themselves from the social problems all around them.
At the time of his death, Rossini left the world with a powerful legacy in his music having composed a total of 279 works over his lifetime. These works consist of 23 instrumental pieces, 18 cantatas, 10 sacred works, 38 secular pieces, 40 operas and theatrical works, and a collection of 150 vocal and solo piano salon pieces intended for private performance in Rossini’s sitting room. Given this prolific output, it comes as no surprise that a number of Rossini’s compositions have become famous components of the early Romantic canon. Perhaps the most well-known of these are the operas Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Guillaume Tell (William Tell), whose melodies have frequently featured in both film and television and are known to the young and old alike.
Despite what its grandiose music may lead you to believe, Rossini claimed to have composed The Barber of Seville in a matter of just a few weeks!
In a morning visit paid to the composer, it is claimed that Sir Arthur Sullivan observed Rossini working on a small piece of music. When asked what the music was for, Rossini is said to have gravely answered, “It’s my dog’s birthday and I write a little piece for him every year.”
Some final thoughts on Fidelio from Hal France…
Opening night is at hand! Here are a few thoughts from Michael Rose’s excellent book “The Birth of An Opera.” This book details the creative process of fifteen great operas.
These excerpts speak to Beethoven’s choice of subject, historical events that affected the 1805 premiere and the evolution of the piece. Enjoy and enjoy the upcoming performances of this fascinating opera.
“What he needed, in fact demanded, was a subject he could approach ‘with love and tenderness” that he could relate to the lofty if sometimes imprecise ideals of the dawning romantic movement.”
The 1805 Premiere
“By now the Empress, the Austrian nobility, the wealthy patricians, the great bankers and merchants, virtually the entire public on which the opera house relied for support, had fled the capital. A week before the premiere, the defenseless city capitulated to Napoleon, and on the next day the Emperor of the French hoisted the tricolor surmounted by a golden eagle on the Palace. And so it came about that the audience at the first performance was thin and heavily sprinkled with French officers in uniform, “more familiar with the thunder of cannon than with sublime musical conceptions.”
Evolution of the piece
“It was as much as anything the character of the composition that was to be changed. The original Fidelio, written by a young man building on the conventions of an essentially French tradition, is about personal relationships and personal courage, and the drama that arises from them. The 1806 version had disturbed the calculated structure of the original but not changed the basic message. But by 1814 the composer’s view had expanded beyond the purely personal to encompass a wider vision of humanity. Beethoven was an idealist, and during the years that separated the first Fidelio from its final version, the hopes of freedom that had swept across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution had been all but lost in the flood of French imperialism.”
Today, we share these quotes representing perspectives on the opera from two conductors, past and present.
The conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler observed, not long after the defeat of Nazism, “that now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty to their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage.”
These quotes come from the article written by the American art critic and philosopher, Arthur Danto in Fidelio: Lenore: Jun Kaneko. Arthur Danto was an American art critic, philosopher, long-time art critic for the Nation and Johnsonian Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at Columbia University.
“Jun Kaneko’s brilliant production is for our time and for all times.”
“…the miracle of Kaneko’s design is that he has found an architectural metaphor for the duality of good and evil by dividing the gridded space of the stage between white and black.”
“The white space to the audience’s left is the space of love and freedom, the black space for oppression, the suppression of truth and the torment of undeserved penal brutality. The white space is the realm of marriage, the black space of the miscarriage of justice. Marriage, because it is through spiritual union that love is fulfilled in the form of life the characters live.”
Music Director Corrado Rovaris premiered the production designed by Jun Kaneko at Opera Company of Philadelphia in 2009. When speaking about Fidelio, he said, “The work begins almost as an opera buffa, opening with the portrayal of the jailer’s family: little by little, the opera becomes more dramatic and somber as it depicts dark, mysterious danger and evil.”
“ At the most insidious moment, when the drama is most bleak and death seems inescapable, the composer makes us long for salvation. That possibility is planted like a seed in the midst of the deepest despair, and it is quietly developed, a loaded secret triumphantly revealed. They will live, they will be free and the climax contains a promise for all humanity. This is Beethoven.”
It is with pleasure I join in this spring and share a few thoughts on the coming production directed by Michael Shell, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury and designed by Jun Kaneko.
Beethoven’s Fidelio stands large in the repertoire as the sole operatic work of this extraordinary composer. It is a model for the use of orchestra in a serious drama and a powerful reflection of its revolutionary times. Philosopher Arthur Danto in the book Fidelio/Leonore/Jun Kaneko characterizes this as “a time when the Rights of Man became recognized as a political reality and the storming of the bastille an iconic event.” Beethoven was determined to be a voice for a changing and hopeful world. In Fidelio he accomplished a large part of his mission.
The ultimate completion of the opera as we know it was a long and arduous one. Spanning nearly ten years from its first version premiered in 1805 to the definitive third version in 1814, Fidelio is a study of the composer’s legendary perseverance.
Irving Kolodin in his book: “The Interior Beethoven” writes, “it was inherent in the condition of being born Beethoven that a problem existed in order to be solved.” Even by Beethoven’s rigorous standards, this opera presented extraordinary challenges. According to his personal assistant Anton Schindler, “ This child of his intellect had caused him more than any other (of his works) the greatest birth pangs as well as the greatest vexation, and that therefore it was the one dearest to him.”
After it’s second failure in 1806, the work sat nearly eight years until a third performance opportunity and a new partner in Viennese court librettist, Georg Friedrich Treitschke came along in 1814. Treitschke is credited with re-structuring the opera and helping the composer achieve his message. He also helped pave the way for a fresh look by the public when he wrote in June of 1814 “The libretto and music are not to be confused with the opera of the same name which was performed several years ago at the Theater an der Wien…. The whole piece has been remodeled in accordance with altered notions of theatrical effectiveness, and more than half of it has been newly composed.”
Historical accounts and quotes such as these present us an opportunity to learn more and enrich our experience. I will share a few more in subsequent blogs. I have found the book “Fidelio/Leonore/Jun Kaneko published by the Jun Kaneko Studio to be rich in interesting articles and images.
Super Mezzo Soprano Jennifer Rivera (and Opera Omaha’s Nero in the upcoming Agrippina) blogs in Huffington Post about what you need to know about opera before you start your SuperBowl partying!
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