Rossini’s early operas

L’occasione fa il maestro – Rossini’s early operas.

If a composer ever sprang fully-armed from music college it was Rossini. His first opera was written before 1809, and between leaving Bologna’s Accademia Filarmonica in 1810 and his 21st birthday in February 1813, he wrote five short one-act operas (called farse) as well as four full-length ones. These culminate in Tancredi, Rossini’s first mature masterpiece and the work that established him as the most important Italian opera composer of the day. So Rossini reached an early maturity that even Mozart had not emulated, though he too wrote ten operatic works before his 21st birthday.

Of Rossini’s thirty-nine operas, all written by 1829 (though he lived until 1868), Il barbiere di Siviglia is rather too frequently performed at the expense of the rest. For the characters in Il barbiere are not more sharply deliniated, and their music is not more subtle and brilliant than those in the earlier pieces. Indeed, listening to the ‘juvenalia’ feels like eavesdropping on a great master’s perfectly executed sketches for larger masterpiees. Although the music can at first sound the-same-only-different to better-known Rossini (some of it really is the same only different), on subsequent hearings the breadth of the young composer’s dramatic skill becomes apparent. He seems unable to write without an irresistible energy, a brilliant technique, a deftness of word-setting and an unerring sureness of characterisation.

L’occasione fa il ladro is the fourth of the five early farse written for the Teatro San Moisè in Venice. It was premiered at the end of 1812, an astounding year which also saw the premieres of L’inganno felice (the second San Moisè farsa), Ciro in Babilonia (a two act Lenten opera for Ferrara), La scala di seta (the third farsa), Demetrio e Publio (the student work) and La pietra di paragone (a two-act comedy for La Scala, Milan). When we hear that Rossini wrote the music for L’occasione in eleven days it is less surprising that he was so prolific, but it might confound the accusation that he was lazy – which probably arose later on from his habit of self-borrowing and his early retirement. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with pinching a good idea from oneself.

In the early years of the 19th century there were several Venetian theatres regularly performing opera. The great Teatro la Fenice, then quite new, was given over to performing serious works, so the others tended to compete by producing comedy. One such theatre was the San Moisè, and farse were popular there from 1797 to 1818 (when the theatre was closed due to a prevailing economic crisis). A typical evening in a Venetian theatre might consist of two farse and two ballets (though one of the latter might be replaced by an instrumental piece). Mercifully we prefer shorter entertainments these days.

Rossini’s five short farse are all well-paced, keeping up a perfect musical balance between sheer vitality and more leisurely cavatinas. L’occasione more or less conforms to patterns that Rossini used in all the early farse. They all have small casts – from five to eight characters. L’occasione has six: two pairs of lovers; Berenice and Alberto (soprano and tenor) and Ernestina and Parmenione (mezzo and baritone), an older man (baritone), here the prima donna’s uncle Eusebius, and Parmenione’s servant, Martino (bass). The first couple sing the lyrical music, while the other lover has an excellent patter-style aria and a couple of wonderfully serious/comic duets, one with each girl; there is a splendid folk-song style aria for the servant. The uncle gets nothing except the two main ensembles (perhaps Rossini didn’t think much of the singer) and the seconda donna only has a duet with her husband-to-be apart from the central and final ensembles.

The baritone, Don Parmenione, is the central character of the piece, he is the one who takes the occasione of the title and has the most substantial role: the opening as well as the three comic ‘patter’ numbers, his own aria and the duet with Ernestina in part I and the extended number with Berenice in Part II and, of course, both finales. Rossini wrote this role for a certain Luigi Pacini, an apparently eccentric and versatile actor, and in so doing created one of the early great buffo baritone parts, certainly one with as much genuine humour as than that later great role, Bartolo in Il barbiere.

Musically these early operas also share a basic musical plan. This, so well-formed in so comparatively inexperienced a composer, was to form the basic structure for Act I of many of Rossini’s later comic operas. It is a sort-of concertina-ed dramma giocoso form. Here it is described with direct reference to L’occasione fa il ladro (the nine numbers are indicated):

A short sinfonia (1) consists of a short andante and a vibrant allegro marked tempesta. This stormy allegro had already been used in La pietra del paragone, Rossini’s previous opera premiered only two months earlier, and was to reappear in the second act of Il barbiere. Its arc-like shape, opening with a lengthy and typical crescendo, calms down in a lengthy decrescendo and moves attacca into the introduction (2), an extended number starting with a duet between Parmenione and Martino, moving on to a short cantabile arrival aria for Count Alberto. This tenor cavatina immediately carves out the character of Alberto. A forerunner of Almaviva in Il barbiere (who also has a cavatina as his opening solo), he is passionate, slightly desperate and obsessed with the idea of being in love – indeed he claims a personal hot-line to Cupid. But the aria is not wallowed in, it moves directly into a lively trio for the three men. Soon after Alberto vanishes into the night with the wrong suitcase, Parmenione launches into the wonderful patter aria (3) that concludes the first extended scene of the opera and sets us up for the highly practical joke that is to follow. Transported to the bride’s home, we find out what is happening, and guess what is about to happen (it does). The first number in the new venue is a cantabile aria (4) for the prima donna, as beautiful as the tenor’s previous one and perhaps intended to balance that one, but uncannily like Rosina’s Una voce poco fa…, it has a forthright cabaletta section. It perfectly sums up her character, a sense of fearful anticipation, and a determination to get her own way (just like Rosina). The next number is an apparently light-hearted but in fact rather alarming duet (5) for Parmenione and Ernestina – they begin to fall in love. It is immediately complimented by a completely contrasted duet between Alberto and Berenice; like their solos it is slower and more contemplative, more legato, than the other characters’ music. He is dismayed at being told by her (untruthfully) that she is not the bride, because he has fallen in love with her at first sight. She is secretly delighted – she knows this is the man for her but ‘dare not tell him yet’. The finale of part one, and the central number of the opera, follows straight on with Parmenione rather enjoying himself and the others distinctly uncomfortable.

In the second part Alberto has another aria (6), again lyrical but more forthright (he is becoming a tougher character), which leads straight on to a duet (7) – the most extended number in the opera – for Berenice and Parmenione, in which Berenice fails to find out who Parmenione really is; anyway they both lose their tempers in a delicious and cumulatively exasperated fashion. Martino is no help in his comic bass aria (8), as he successfully avoids explaining to Eusebius and Ernestina who his master is. He, though a cameo part, is beautifully characterized; as a classic servant in the Leporello mould, he is more street-wise than his master, yet unhappy with his lot and unable to break away. His aria stands in a similar position in the piece as Berta’s (also the servant) in Il barbiere. Berenice tries and again fails to get the two bridegrooms to explain themselves in a trio (9) followed by a duet. By this time one may feel as if this could merrily run and run, but it is only a one act piece, so Rossini goes for a rather sudden ending. We are the only characters who know exactly what has been going on, so no more explanation is necessary.

There is very economical use of recitative in this opera, one of the reasons the piece bowls along so freshly. Another is the prevalence of ensemble over the more static aria; the ensembles are more fun and longer than the arias, but nothing in the piece is slow. Later Rossini expanded in all directions but, for example, in Il barbiere, you will not find numbers back-to-back like you do here. From the duet between Parmenione and Ernestina to the end of part one the music is continuous. And in the second part there is the basic pattern of aria-duet-aria, followed by a sectional finale consisting of trio-duet-tutti. Rossini was a composer who seized his occasioni (and not only to be a ladro), and it is good to have our own occasione to catch and admire him as a very young man, turning out these beguiling melodies and ensembles with such apparent ease.

Guildhall School of Music and Drama programme, 1994