Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Triumph of Rossini

“So many things must be done right for an opera to turn out well that its amazing any of them succeed at all… Once their [composer's and librettist's] initial job is done, the creation then gets handed over to a whole other set of people who can mess it up… The list of pitfalls goes on… It’s endless, and daunting.” – Wendy Lesser (on opera in The Threepenny Review)

Wendy Lesser's observation on the "daunting" challenges of producing opera are, if I may be so bold to say, being met this month here in Roanoke. And like any overwhelming challenge, success is its own reward. That our audience turnout looks to be the highest since our production of The Pirates of Penzance two seasons ago only heightens our anticipation as we approach opening night.

Here's a preview of the program note I wrote for our production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) running this weekend.

Never before had music been known to bombard the listener with so rich, so glittering, so spontaneous, so original a succession of new and tantalizing sensations.

Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen-name, Stendhal) wrote his monograph, The Life of Rossini, in 1823, when the composer was at the height of his considerable fame, and it is full of florid accolades like the above epigram. Indeed, the craze for Italian opera across continental Europe was so great that the generation of Bel Canto composers (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini) entirely over-shadowed efforts by German-language contemporaries as eminent as Beethoven, Weber and Schubert. While Beethoven’s Fidelio (OR, 2008) and Weber’s Die Freischütz hold their own in the repertoire, Schubert’s aspirations were so frustrated he was forced to live vicariously through his Lieder (Art-songs). They include a famous send-up of a bel canto “rage” aria, mocking one of Rossini’s most influential impresarios, Barbaja.

Like Mozart, Rossini possessed an apparently inherent gift for felicitous melody. And like Mozart, Rossini was prodigious from an early age: he completed a dozen opera by his 21st year. (Cenerentola was the 20th of some 40). Yet the comparisons between the two geniuses were not all favorable. One of Rossini’s nicknames, Il Tedeschino (“the Little German”), was derogatively applied to his use of so-called “Germanic” harmony. To be fair, his Mediterranean contemporaries had already criticized Mozart for the same “obstruction” of melody with harmony too “rich and strange” for the stage. Audiences and academics alike have since corrected that misperception over the intervening centuries, as neither Mozart’s nor Rossini’s operas have ever fallen out of favor.

And Rossini’s fame has never been greater than it is today. While Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a perennial “Top Ten” on opera’s most-performed list, Rossini’s other masterworks have been slow to appear on certain stages. The Metropolitan Opera did not present La Cenerentola until 1997 (just two years before OR’s most recent production in 1999). The MET’s premiere production of La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) joined their repertory just last month; recent seasons have seen highly anticipated and acclaimed MET premieres of Armida and Le Comte Ory.

What accounts for Rossini’s enduring popularity? Along with an unerring sense of melody, Rossini’s gifts as a master of musical theatre include a harmonic language perfectly balanced to his characters and their dramatic situations. Like Mozart, Rossini excels at the musical ensemble – a form original to the operatic stage – and the brilliant deployment of various combinations expertly serve the theatrical pace. Rossini’s knack for form and musical architecture is especially apparent in La Cenerentola. As Stendhal puts it, in one of his colorful bon mots:
he knows how to husband his listener’s attention, shielding it lovingly against the danger of vain distractions, only to hurl it with greater impetus upon the traces of what is really essential.

Rossini’s overtures maintain a special place in the concert repertory of orchestras even outside the opera house, and La Cenerentola’s Sinfonia is an exemplary model. Adumbrating themes we will recognize within the drama, it contains the first of several notable instances of the so-called “Rossini crescendo.” Deceptively simple in appearance, both on the page and to the ear, this device involves a series of repetitions: each phrase builds momentum as it grows in dynamic range from the softest piano to a thrilling fortissimo. Like a force of nature, this irrepressible surge of energy is no less impressive for the predictability of its outcome. Examples abound in the score, with particularly effective episodes in the first act quintet and finale, and the second act sextet. While the vocal fireworks and buffo antics distinguish the individual characters’ solo arias, it is in the ensembles in which Rossini shows himself Mozart’s operatic successor. The duet between Dandini and Don Magnifico near the top of Act 2 is another unerring example of Rossini’s synthesis of musical comedy with dramatic verisimilitude.

What distinguishes Rossini’s Cinderella from the countless variations of the fairy tale is found in its subtitle: La Cenerentola ossia La bontà in trionfa. Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant. Eschewing the supernatural elements of Fairy Godmother, transforming pumpkins, and the like, Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti have given us a masterpiece of humanity, with all its warts, foibles, and enduring virtues. Cinderella does not need to be “the fairest of them all,” because she has goodness in abundance. She sings her acts of mercy, and like a benevolent diva, maintains a spirit of humility. Through Rossini’s incomparable dramma giocoso, this “once upon a time / in a land far-away” story comes to life for us like no other version of the immortal tale can: through the power of its music.

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