in: News & Features

March 30, 2013

Hooking Up Through 19th-Century Social Media

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rossini3wHow much more up-to-date can the plot of a theatrical comedy be than one that involves looking for love in the social media?  To be sure, Rossini’s La Gazzetta (New England Conservatory presents the American premiere of the new critical edition featuring the world premiere of the newly discovered Act I quintet on April 6-9 at Boston’s Paramount Theater) does not offer hook-ups via Facebook or eHarmony, but it does use the personals column in a newspaper something like the Boston Phoenix or the Village Voice to advertise for a husband. And the plot is even older than the 1816 libretto that Giuseppe Palombo wrote for Rossini, itself a reworking of a 1763 comedy by Carlo Goldoni.

There is one wrinkle here that is not normally part of the “personals” page: the search for a husband is being carried out not by the prospective bride, Lisetta, but by her father, Don Pomponio, a self-important peacock of a man who fancies his daughter being sought by men from all over the world (and who looks down on the innkeeper that she herself loves). Three singers form the core of many Italian opera plots—a soprano, a tenor, and a baritone.  Almost always the soprano loves the tenor and vice versa, while the lower-voiced male singer is either a romantic rival or a father opposing the match. This basic pattern works in both tragic and comic opera, though the latter usually involves other characters too, for great comic interaction. (La Gazzetta is atypical in this respect: the soprano loves the baritone, and her father, the comic villain, is a buffo bass.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) is far better known today for his comic operas, especially The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola (Cinderella), but in his own day he was also hailed as a master of tragic opera who developed the structural conventions for the arias, duets, and larger ensembles that were taken up by all the composers of the bel canto school well into the career of Verdi near mid-century.

Among his 39 operas, roughly half are designated by a title that suggests serious intentions: melodramma tragico or eroico or semiserio, or at least the simple dramma. On the whole these fell out of the repertory for a good century while a number of the comic operas—above all, the bubbling Barber of Seville, held the stage firmly. One reason for these diverse fates may be that the conventions of Rossini’s time preferred a happy ending, so that in one production of  Otello in Rome, the ending was bowdlerized to keep Desdemona alive at the end. And in Tancredi, Rossini offered a happy ending at the premiere in Venice, but for a production a month later in Ferrara, he created a tragic ending more closely following the source play by Voltaire. Not surprisingly, modern singers, like Marilyn Horne, greatly preferred the more dramatically coherent version.

Rossini’s brilliant energy and lively drive made his music ideal for fast-moving comedy, from the earliest one-act farces, which he started composing in his late teens.

This week the opera program of the New England Conservatory offers four performances of an all-but unknown comic opera by Rossini, composed when he was at the peak of his comic powers (seven months after The Barber of Seville and four months before La Cenerentola).  Moreover, La Gazzetta (The Newspaper) has many utterly delicious moments and, in the role of the father, a brilliant comic creation. Richard Osborne, in his study of Rossini in the Master Musicians series of books, refers to the “whirlwind plot” of La Gazzetta as “feather-light” and “one of the most eminently revivable of Rossini’s operas.”

How, then, is it possible that it was so completely lost that there was only one further production in Rossini’s lifetime and few if any before the publication of the critical edition in the last decade?

One issue mentioned by Osborne is the fact that much of the recitative is in the Neapolitan dialect for the lead actor, Carlo Casaccia, an audience favorite. That might raise issues with an Italian audience outside of Naples, but today, with supertitles, few audience members are likely  to give two seconds’ thought to the dialect beyond the humor of the character himself.

Modern scholarship has shown that many of the numbers in La Gazzetta are reworkings of passages from earlier Rossini operas. Rossini prided himself on his fundamental laziness, and some censorious critics may object to hearing music already heard elsewhere.

But Philip Gossett, our leading Rossini scholar for decades, points out that Rossini’s practice is by no means simply a matter of sloth. Often, when entering a new market—the principal operatic centers were Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples, and Paris—Rossini liked to test the waters with an opera that included pieces borrowed (and sometimes partly rewritten) from operas that had been successful elsewhere. He could not simply produce an existing opera in the new locale because contracts for a featured opera almost invariably specified new work to a new libretto.  And often he would sometimes carry out this “test” with two operas, one serious and one comic.

Until the autumn of 1815, Rossini’s operas had been commissioned for northern Italian theaters. Naples may have seemed to be a risk, requiring audience testing. For his first opera for Naples, he composed a dramma dealing with Elisabeth, Queen of England, with material borrowed from three of his earlier operas. Similarly, with La Gazzetta the following year, he used music that had been used in other operas—though in this case, some of the music is so well known (The Barber of Seville, The Turk in Italy, and Torvaldo e Dorliska) that we can hardly overlook the fact that we have heard it elsewhere. Some critics may consider this reuse a moral flaw of some kind, but to Rossini it was simply a businesslike approach to dealing with the operatic world of his day. After all, an opera performed in Milan would be entirely unknown in Naples in a time without recording technology or video high-definition broadcasts to carry a new piece far and wide.

Among the borrowings in La Gazzetta, the overture will be familiar to many listeners, but here it is because Rossini reused it in a later opera—Cenerentola, which has become extremely popular in recent decades.  But other borrowings include a second-act trio from La pietra del paragone (1812), a quintet from Il Turco in Italia (1814), and a beautiful Largo from the “semiserious” drama Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815). But by far the most familiar music occurs as part of the newly discovered quintet, where Rossini uses, with substantial rewriting to include a new contrapuntal line, part of the first act finale of The Barber of Seville.

But surely the major reason for the relative absence of this opera from the repertory was a great hole in the middle of Act I, where the libretto contained the text for a significant quintet for which there was no music in any of the original musical sources available to Philip Gossett and Fabrizio Scipione while preparing the critical edition. It was not even clear whether Rossini had ever set those words to music—but some of the recitative leading into and out of the quintet was essential for understanding the plot!

For the critical edition, prepared in 2001, Gossett composed one of the recitatives introducing the missing quintet—just as Rossini’s own assistants had done, in composing the recitatives for this opera, as well as Barber, Cinderella, and certainly many others).  And that is how the opera appeared in the critical edition published by the Fondazione Rossini.

Rehearsal candid (Anthony Hurbut for NEC)

Stage director Joshua Major and conductor Joseph Rescigno coach NEC students Leroy Davis, David Daehan Lee and Jimmy Dornier (Anthony Hurlbut for NEC)

Happily the gap in Act I can now be filled in. A few years after the edition was published, a librarian at the Palermo Conservatory found a volume containing several overlooked manuscripts in Rossini’s hand. All but one was easily recognized, but the unknown item was a quintet that bore no heading to indicate what opera it was part of. When it was sent to Philip Gossett to see what he might make of it, he realized from the text that this was the long-lost quintet from La Gazzetta.

Gossett now believes that Rossini probably removed the quintet from the original production out of sheer necessity for reasons of length. Nothing in the Carlo Casaccia’s part would have been cut: he was the big draw for the audience! So out went the quintet.  A dozen years later, when a performance was being planned in Palermo, Rossini must have sent the detached quintet to that opera house in case it could be reinstated in the opera. Apparently it was not performed and the manuscript never found its way back to the composer.

So local audiences will be the first anywhere to hear this important quintet, which fills out the madcap plot of the first act (it is even more madcap in the second act, but at least the music has always been there) on April 6, 7, 8, and 9 at the Paramount Theater, 559 Washington Street (at 8pm on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday; 3pm on Sunday). Joshua Major is the stage director, and Joseph Rescigno conducts. Gossett was present for early rehearsals and will return from his home base in Chicago for the final days of rehearsal and to give a lecture before the first performance on April 6th. He has already expressed great enthusiasm for the musical preparation and theatrical approach to this lively and rather farcical plot (in which characters appear, at various times as Quakers [!] and as Turks) in trying to resolve the romantic complications generated by a personals ad in the local gazette.

Phillip Gosset will deliver a free lecture on April 3rd at 5:00 at NEC’s Pierce Hall.

$20/$16 for students & seniors. WGBH members: 2 for 1
Tickets: http://bit.ly/TgVeNr

See related review here.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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