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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 5785

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


An important step in Rossini's early career was his connection with the widely known impresario of the San Carlo, Naples, Barbaja. He was under contract to produce two new operas annually, to rearrange all old scores, and to conduct at all of the theatres ruled by this manager. He was to receive two hundred ducats a month, and a share in the profits of the bank of the San Carlo gambling-saloon. His first opera composed here was "Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra," which was received with a genuine Neapolitan furore. Rossini was feted and caressed by the ardent dilettanti of this city to his heart's content, and was such an idol of the "fickle fair" that his career on more than one occasion narrowly escaped an untimely close, from the prejudice of jealous spouses. The composer was very vain of his handsome person, and boasted of his escapades d'amour. Many, too, will recall his mot, spoken to a beauty standing between himself and the Duke of Wellington: "Madame, how happy should you be to find yourself placed between the two greatest men in Europe!"

One of Rossini's adventures at Naples has in it something of romance. He was sitting in his chamber, humming one of his own operatic airs, when the ugliest Mercury he had ever seen entered and gave him a note, then instantly withdrew. This, of course, was a tender invitation, and an assignation at a romantic spot in the suburb. On arriving Rossini sang his aria for a signal, and from the gate of a charming park surrounding a small villa appeared his beautiful and unknown inamorata. On parting it was agreed that the same messenger should bring notice of the second appointment. Rossini suspected that the lady, in disguise, was her own envoy, and verified the guess by following the light-footed page. He then discovered that she was the wife of a wealthy Sicilian, widely noted for her beauty, and one of the reigning toasts. On renewing his visit, he had barely arrived at the gate of the park, when a carbine-bullet grazed his head, and two masked assailants sprang toward him with drawn rapiers, a proceeding which left Rossini no option but to take to his heels, as he was unarmed.

During the composer's residence at Naples he was made acquainted with many of the most powerful princes and nobles of Europe, and his name became a recognized factor in European music, though his works were not widely known outside of his native land. His reputation for genius spread by report, for all who came in contact with the brilliant, handsome Rossini were charmed. That which placed his European fame on a solid basis was the production of "Il Barbiere di Seviglia" at Rome during the carnival season of 1816.

Years before Rossini had thought of setting the sparkling comedy of Beaumarchais to music, and Sterbini, the author of the libretto used by Paisiello, had proposed to rearrange the story. Rossini, indeed, ha

d been so complaisant as to write to the older composer for permission to set fresh music to the comedy; a concession not needed, for the plays of Metastasio had been used by different musicians without scruple. Paisiello intrigued against the new opera, and organized a conspiracy to kill it on the first night. Sterbini made the libretto totally different from the other, and Rossini finished the music in thirteen days, during which he never left the house. "Not even did I get shaved," he said to a friend. "It seems strange that through the 'Barber' you should have gone without shaving." "If I had shaved," Rossini explained, "I should have gone out; and, if I had gone out, I should not have come back in time."

The first performance was a curious scene. The Argentina Theatre was packed with friends and foes. One of the greatest of tenors, Garcia, the father of Malibran and Pauline Viardot, sang Almaviva. Rossini had been weak enough to allow Garcia to sing a Spanish melody for a serenade, for the latter urged the necessity of vivid national and local color. The tenor had forgotten to tune his guitar, and in the operation on the stage a string broke. This gave the signal for a tumult of ironical laughter and hisses. The same hostile atmosphere continued during the evening. Even Madame Georgi-Righetti, a great favorite of the Romans, was coldly received by the audience. In short, the opera seemed likely to be damned.

When the singers went to condole with Rossini, they found him enjoying a luxurious supper with the gusto of the gourmet that he was. Settled in his knowledge that he had written a masterpiece, he could not be disturbed by unjust clamor. The next night the fickle Romans made ample amends, for the opera was concluded amid the warmest applause, even from the friends of Paisiello.

Rossini's "Il Barbiere," within six months, was performed on nearly every stage in Europe, and received universally with great admiration. It was only in Paris, two years afterward, that there was some coldness in its reception. Every one said that after Paisiello's music on the same subject it was nothing, when it was suggested that Paisiello's should be revived. So the St. Petersburg "Barbiere" of 1788 was produced, and beside Rossini's it proved so dull, stupid, and antiquated that the public instantly recognized the beauties of the work which they had persuaded themselves to ignore. Yet for this work, which placed the reputation of the young composer on a lofty pedestal, he received only two thousand francs.

Our composer took his failures with great phlegm and good nature, based, perhaps, on an invincible self-confidence. When his "Sigismonde" had been hissed at Venice, he sent his mother a fiasco (bottle). In the last instance he sent her, on the morning succeeding the first performance, a letter with a picture of a fiaschetto (little bottle).

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