Rossini wrote some of music’s most masterful and lovable operas. His gift for comic and tragic forms was matched by a relish for characterisation, qualities that are always evident in his overtures. La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) is perhaps the most famous, one of the world’s most popular concert openers. Guillaume Tell, with its overture in four movements, includes a scene for five solo cellos. La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) opens with an overture of charm and élan, and Le siège de Corinthe is dramatic and colourful. All of Rossini’s overtures display sparkling themes, rich lyricism and theatrical excitement.
Gioachino Antonio Rossini, one of the most successful and popular operatic composers of his time, was born in Pesaro in 1792, five months after the marriage of his parents. His father, a brass-player, had a modest career, disturbed by the political changes of the period as the French replaced the Austrians in Northern Italy. Rossini’s mother was a singer and as a boy Rossini appeared with his father in the pit orchestra and from time to time as a singer with his mother on stage, going on to work as a keyboard-player in the opera orchestra.
Rossini’s early studies in music were with his father and mother, and with other teachers through the generosity of rich patrons. In childhood he had already started to show ability as a composer and his experience in the opera-house bore natural fruit in a remarkable and meteoric career that began in 1810 with the production of La cambiale di matrimonio in Venice.
There followed a series of operas, comic and tragic, ending with Semiramide in Venice in 1823, the last of his operas for Italy. There had been attractive offers from abroad, and successful visits to Vienna and to London, but he now turned his attention to Paris. Under the Bourbon King Charles X Rossini staged French versions of earlier works and in 1829 Guillaume Tell. A contract for further operas came to nothing when the King was replaced in the revolution of 1830 by Louis-Philippe, although eventually, after some six years, Rossini was able to have his agreed annuity restored. With matters settled in France, in 1836 he returned to Italy and in spite of ill health concerned himself with the affairs of the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. The revolutionary disturbances there in 1848, activities with which he had little sympathy, seemed to threaten him and his second wife, Olympe Pélissier, whom he had married in 1846, after the death of his first wife, the singer Isabella Colbran, from whom he had been legally separated since 1837. For his own safety he moved first to Florence, but in 1855, partly in a search for better health, returned to Paris. In that city and a few years later at his new villa at Passy he passed the rest of his life.
The form of Rossini’s operatic overtures developed into a structure that still allowed a great deal of subtle variety in its working. Some of his overtures proved interchangeable, according to the practical needs of the day in the career of a very busy and practical composer, while overtures like that for Guillaume Tell are closely associated with the events of the opera that follows. His mature overtures generally start with a slow introduction, preceded by a call to our attention and followed by an abridged sonata-allegro movement, a lively first theme, a transition, a second theme in the dominant or related key and a crescendo. before the recapitulation of the two themes.
Rossini wrote La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) for performance in Milan in 1817. Ninetta, a servant in the house of a rich farmer, hopes to marry the farmer’s son, Giannetto, returning from the war. She tries to shelter her father, who has deserted from the army, and is troubled by the attentions of the mayor. A missing spoon and the evidence of a pedlar, who has bought a piece of silver from Ninetta, sold to raise money for her father, lead to accusations of theft and imprisonment. She is tried and found guilty, to be saved from death at the last minute by the discovery of the culprit, the thieving magpie of the title. The brilliant overture, a well-known concert opener, starts with the sound of the side-drum in an introduction marked Maestoso marziale. An Allegro follows, with an E minor first subject introduced by the oboe and a second subject entrusted to a clarinet, the themes finally recapitulated, following Rossini’s usual practice.
The last of Rossini’s opera written for Italy, Semiramide, the title rôle written for Isabella Colbran, now Rossini’s wife, was first staged at La Fenice in Venice in 1823 and was soon taken up by other Italian theatres. The libretto was based on Voltaire’s Sémiramis. Queen Semiramis of Babylon has, with Assur, a prince, secured the murder of her husband, King Ninus. Her son, however, has escaped death and is now, as Arsace, a successful commander of the Assyrian army, his identity unknown to his mother. He is called back to Babylon, is in love with Princess Azema and unwilling to support Assur in the latter’s bid for the throne. Semiramis falls in love with him and declares him king and her consort, while Azema will marry Idreno, an Indian king. King Ninus’s ghost warns of crimes to be expiated and the high priest Oroe tells Arsace of the crime committed by his mother and Assur. Arsace, in the tomb of his father, meets King Ninus’s murderers, and seeking to strike Assur, kills Semiramis. He is finally declared King. Rossini’s overture makes use of elements that will appear in the opera. There is a drum roll and a sense of urgency as tension mounts, to be interrupted by the tranquillity of a hymn-like Andantino for four horns, later to be heard in the third scene choral oath of loyalty to Semiramis. The following Allegro makes further use of material from the opera, with a first subject that is to be heard again as priests tentatively enter the gloomy temple.
Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (Elizabeth, Queen of England) was first staged at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1815. Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, has contracted a secret marriage with the Scottish Matilde, who turns out to be the daughter of Elizabeth’s rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. She and her brother Henry come to the English court, disguised as Scottish hostages. Leicester confides in the Duke of Norfolk, who uses the information to discredit him. Leicester and Matilde are imprisoned, but eventually released and pardoned by the Queen, who resolves to devote herself to affairs of state rather than of the heart. This was Rossini’s first opera for the San Carlo. The familiar overture was used again by Rossini for Il barbiere di Siviglia, and follows Rossini’s usual pattern, starting with a slower introduction, marked Andante maestoso, followed by a shift to the minor key for the Allegro vivo first theme and its answering major-key second theme, both recapitulated.
Otello (Othello) was first performed in Naples at the Teatro del Fondo in 1816, with a libretto by the dilettante Marchese Francesco Berio di Salsa that makes a number of unfortunate changes in the Shakespeare’s original play, if that was in fact its source. Othello, given Venetian citizenship by the Doge in recognition of his services against the Turks, has married Desdemona secretly, forced to secrecy by the hostility of her father to the match. Rodrigo is in love with Desdemona and Iago is jealous of Othello’s success. A politically advantageous marriage is arranged between Desdemona and Rodrigo, and she is now forced to admit her union with Othello. Her father curses her. Rodrigo is jealous, as is Othello, each suspecting the other and finally joining in a duel. Othello’s jealousy is fed by Iago, in particular with a letter from Desdemona that he has intercepted. In her bed-room Desdemona confides in Emilia. Othello becomes angrier at her protestations of innocence and kills her, while the death of Rodrigo that he has ordered Iago to effect has ended with the dying confession and death of Iago. Othello stabs himself. The overture has a slower introduction, marked Andante, and an Allegro that introduces two contrasting themes, the second entrusted first to the clarinet.
Le siège de Corinthe (The Siege of Corinth) is a reworking of the earlier Maometto II for Paris, where it was first performed in 1826. The opera is moved from the Venetian colony of Negroponte to Corinth, suiting contemporary circumstances of the Greek War of Independence. It remains a story of love and and duty, with Pamyre, daughter of the Greek governor of Corinth, in love with Mahomet, commander of the opposing Turkish forces, but promised by her father to a young Greek officer. Mahomet is victorious, but Pamyre, reconciled with her father, has killed herself. The overture, which, unusually for Rossini, borrows from Simon Mayr’s Atalia, is introduced by a brief Allegro vivace followed by a Marche lugubre grecque, leading to an Allegro assai, with two contrasting themes, the second more dramatic in contour.
In 1804 Rossini wrote a set of six String Sonatas, for two violins, cello and double bass, commissioned by Agostino Triossi, a well-to-do landowner, living at Conventello, near Ravenna. These were to be played by Triossi on the double bass, with his cousins playing first violin and cello and Rossini himself taking the rather more demanding second violin part. A further commission from Triossi brought a D major Overture, known to many as Sinfonia al Conventello. The work is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes and clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, one trombone and strings, presumably representing the forces immediate available at Conventello. The slow introduction is followed by a faster section, with a first theme that was later used in the opera Il Signor Bruschino.
Ermione (Hermione) , based on Racine’s Andromaque and on Euripides, was first mounted at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1819. Andromache, widow of the Trojan Hector, is a prisoner of Pyrrhus, who is in love with her, and intends to reject his betrothed Hermione. To save her son Astyanax, Andromache is induced to marry Pyrrhus, whereupon Hermione takes her revenge by ordering Orestes to murder him, which he does, only to be disowned by her, once the deed is done, and to be pursued, at her behest, by Furies. The opera achieved no great success and has never held any permanent place in international operatic repertoire. Its overture, however, includes a Trojan prisoners’ chorus. In their dungeon the Trojans lament their fate: Troia! qual fosti un dì!/Di te che resta ancor?/Ahi! qual balen sparì/Il prisco tuo splendor! (Troy! How great you once were!/ And what is still left of you?/ Ah, how suddenly/ your ancient splendour vanished!).
Rossini’s last opera, written for the Paris Opéra, Guillaume Tell (William Tell) makes great demands on performers, notably the high tenor rôle of Arnold Melchthal, and, with its relative length, on audiences. It opens with an overture in four movements, setting the pastoral Swiss scene with five solo cellos and proceeding to a storm, a traditional herdsman’s call, the ranz des vaches, a trumpetcall and a rapid summons to Swiss patriots that has become all too familiar in other hippodromic contexts. Austrian domination of Switzerland had brought resistance. Arnold Melchthal, a Swiss conspirator, had served in the Austrian army and is in love with the Habsburg Princess Mathilde. Tell saves the herdsman Leuthold from the pursuing Austrians, who take old Melchthal hostage. With Walter Furst he tries to persuade Arnold to join the resistance against the Austrians and supporters gather to swear loyalty to their cause. The killing of old Melchthal forces Arnold to part from Mathilde. The governor Gesler enforces celebration of a hundred years of Austrian rule and Tell, recognised as the one who helped Leuthold, is arrested, with his son, before he can carry a message urging immediate revolt. Tell is forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, which he does. With William Tell now imprisoned, Arnold takes on the leadership of the revolt, which ends with victory for the patriots and the death of Gesler, shot by William Tell.
Eduardo e Cristina was written in 1819 and first performed in Venice at the Teatro Benedetto. The opera is principally a pastiche, using material from other works, supplemented by a few new numbers. It deals with the romance of Cristina and a Swedish soldier, Eduardo, their secret marriage, and Eduardo’s final triumph, after suffering imprisonment by the Swedish king. The overture is occasionally heard in the concert-hall. It starts with a slower introduction, leading to an Allegro brillante, its two principal themes highly characteristic of the composer.
Rossini’s one-act farsa, L’inganno felice (The Happy Deception), with a libretto by Giuseppe Foppa, was first performed at the Teatro San Moisè in Venice on 8 January 1812. Isabella, the wronged and banished wife of Duke Bertrando, long supposed dead, has in fact been rescued from the sea by the villager Tarabotto. The Duke, with his wicked confidant Ormondo and the latter’s henchman Batone, comes to the village, where the duplicity of the villains is revealed. The opera, among Rossini’s earlier works, is set in a mining village. Foppa also provided the libretto for Rossini’s La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) and Il Signor Bruschino, and, with less success, for Sigismondo. After an introductory passage, the overture launches into a livelier melody and material that includes characteristic dramatic elements. The second theme of the Allegro is taken from the Sinfonia in D of 1808, and the overture was used again for Ciro in Babilonia, staged in Ferrara in March of the same year.
La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) dates from the same year and is a collaboration again with the librettist Giuseppe Foppa, after a French original. It was first performed at the Teatro San Moisè in Venice on 9 May 1812. Giulia’s secret marriage to her lover Dorvil is happily revealed when she engineers the marriage of her guardian’s chosen husband for her, Dorvil’s friend Blansac, with her cousin Lucilla. The opera starts with a popular overture, a frequent concert opener, drawn from this early example of Rossini’s skill in handling comedy of this kind. The overture follows a familiar pattern, after the startling opening bars. An Andantino oboe melody leads the way to a brilliant Allegro, its two themes returning in recapitulation before the final chords.
Rossini’s first opera, Demetrio e Polibio (Demetrius and Polybius) was written in 1808. A dramma serio in two acts, it was first performed at the Teatro Valle in Rome on 18 May 1812. It deals with the enmity between the kings of Syria and Parthia and the love of their daughter and son. The overture summons attention at the start, followed by a gently lyrical bassoon melody which leads to the livelier principal melody, stated first by the oboe, and the second subject, entrusted to the bassoon. Diabelli, for a piano reduction published in Vienna, found it necessary to make certain adjustments to regularise the form of the recapitulation.
The third of Rossini’s operas with a libretto by Foppa was Il Signor Bruschino, a one-act farsa giocosa first staged on January 1813 at the Teatro San Moisè in Venice. Sofia and Florville are in love, but Sofia’s guardian, Gaudenzio Strappapuppole, is against the match. He is an enemy of Florville’s father and when matters seem easier, with the latter’s death, he presents a further obstacle, having promised Sofia to the son of his old friend Signor Bruschino. Florville impersonates young Bruschino, who has been detained for an unpaid tavern bill, which Florville has actually settled on his behalf, and the complications that arise when old Bruschino appears are eventually solved when Signor Bruschino is induced to accept Florville as his son, for the present purposes, although well aware of the whole situation. A witty comedy, Il Signor Bruschino, ossia Il figlio per azzardo (Signor Bruschino, or The Son by Chance) opens with an overture to match, with the novel feature of music stands tapped by the violin bow as part of the thematic material. Otherwise the form of the overture brings two contrasting themes, the first taken over from the early Sinfonia ‘al Conventello’, the second, in the dominant key, introduced, as usual by wind instruments, and returning in the tonic key in the final recapitulation of the two themes.
From 1806 to 1809 Rossini was a student at the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna. His Sinfonia in D major, known as the Sinfonia di Bologna, was written 1808, one of a group of juvenilia largely eclipsed by the Six String Sonatas, written a few years before for his patron Agostino Triossi. The Sinfonia di Bologna provides, in its second subject, a subsidiary theme for the overture to L’inganno felice.
In addition to the three farse set by Rossini, Foppa also provided the libretto for Sigismondo, a dramma in two acts, first staged without contemporary success at the Venice Teatro La Fenice in December 1814. The plot concerns Sigismondo, King of Poland and his wife, Aldamira, daughter of the King of Bohemia, and the bad advice of Sigismondo’s chief minister, Ladislao, who accuses the Queen of infidelity, leading to her condemnation to death. Posing as her sister, she is brought back to the palace and eventually acknowledged by Sigismondo as his faithful wife and Queen, with her final reinstatement when Sigismondo is confronted by the reality of the situation. The overture has an introductory section that includes an impressive oboe solo and the first theme of the Allegro was later used in the overture to Otello. The opera provided other material for later re-use. --Keith Anderson
This is this month’s “Pure Audio” Blu-ray release from Naxos (they had originally planned two such releases a month). Some of the overtures have been available on a Naxos standard CD, but look at the running time of this disc—and it’s only Volume 1!
The recordings were made in Prague in 2011 and 2012, and the orchestra has won a number of prizes for its performances and recordings for many different labels. The Prague Sinfonia Orchestra was established to cover the larger symphonic repertory during the 16th tour of North America by the Prague Chamber Orchestra. Their conductor Christian Benda has recorded the complete overtures of both Schubert and Rossini, and has conducted the orchestra for such vocalists as Renee Fleming and Simon Estes.
Rossini had a gift for musical characterisation of the figures in his operas, and these qualities are found in his overtures. In general they all have more theatrical excitement and rich melodies than most overtures. This lengthy program of 15 of them opens with one of the best known, The Thieving Magpie. It’s been used frequently as a symphony concert opener. There is a sizable paragraph on each one of the overtures in the very complete note booklet. The two longest ones are Semiramide and William Tell at over 11 and 12 minutes. These are sparkling performances of enjoyable works in a hi-res form that will appeal to all audiophiles, plus the unusual length. The choir joins the orchestra on a couple of them.
You don’t need to display the video screen in order to play the Blu-ray. You can just hit the track advance button a couple of times and it will eventually start playing the first track. You also don’t need to display the screen in order to select between the DTS-HD 5.1 track and the PCM Stereo option—you can just use the colored buttons on your deck’s remote control and see what setting you have on your preamp or receiver display. With their ability to store five times more data than standard DVDs, the audio-only Blu-rays can offer lossless audio and as high as 96K/24-bit even on the surround tracks. (Naxos chose not to bother with 192K, I think wisely.) © Audiophile Audition
Complete Overtures Vol. 1
1. La gazza ladra: Overture 09:47
2. Semiramide: Overture 12:25
3. Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Act I: Sinfonia 07:27
4. Otello, ossia Il moro di Venezia, Act I: Sinfonia 08:32
5. Le siege de Corinthe: Overture 09:32
6. Sinfonia, “al Conventello” 04:01
7. Ermione, Act I: Sinfonia – Troia! qual fosti un di!* 08:04
8. Guillaume Tell: Overture 11:34
9. Eduardo e Cristina: Overture 09:14
10. L’inganno felice: Overture 06:01
11. La scala di seta: Overture 06:00
12. Demetrio e Polibio: Overture 06:31
13. Il Signor Bruschino: Sinfonia 04:48
14. Sinfonia in D major, “Bologna” 05:2
15. Sigismondo: Overture 08:28