Odes to joy

Robert Thicknesse on Rossini’s extraordinary de-cluttering of the musical atmosphere

On Opera

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Of all the Great Bores spawned by the pandemic, few can be more insufferable than those people who went to Venice and then deluged you with crappy pictures of some tragic deserted piazza, accompanied by poorly encrypted encomia about how lucky Venice was to have them.

A similar fate befell the blameless old joint — a crowd of pseudo-cultural creeps descending like elitist locusts — in 1814, after the French slunk out, having looted it dry since 1797. The place was shabby and ruinous: the population had shrunk by tens of thousands as the young legged it en masse, the harbours were silted up, pot-hounds haunted the weed-infested campi, wood rotted and paint peeled and it smelt frightful.

And yet in this purposeless backwater, a wonderful thing had happened: a composer barely out of his teens had, effectively from thin air, since 1812 been spinning into existence the thing we now call “Italian opera”.

Gioachino Rossini is (you might be surprised to hear) a bit of a poser for the opera world. Yes, his comedies are the summer soundtrack at those country-opera jamborees where the curdled cream of the Temple and Leadenhall Street let down their thinning hair (kicking off now with Il turco in Italia at Glyndebourne, followed by more at the Grange Festival and Garsington, etc).

Superficial, frivolous, opportunistic, mercenary, this Rossini recycled the same old formulae through dozens of identikit operas

The Barber of Seville is always playing somewhere: Jonathan Miller’s pre-Flood ENO production remains about the only true banker for a company forever snuffling around the entrance to shit creek. And yet nobody ever seems to have much to say about the man himself, nor his music: those of my dear colleagues — staggering about lost in perfumed dreams of Wagner and Szymanowski — who don’t actually hold their noses as they scamper across the road to avoid the bumptious fellow treat him with haughty disdain, and our opera houses, busy pumping out furious PR about how opera is “life-changing” (like a terrible motorbike accident), tend to present his works with exquisite condescension.

Superficial, frivolous, opportunistic, mercenary, this Rossini recycled the same old formulae through dozens of identikit operas, using about as many chords as Marc Bolan, then jacked it in at the age of 37 to spend the next thirty years in bed scarfing foie gras and counting his dough. Sure, the pitiful tastes of a deluded audience must be thrown the odd sop — and be immediately punished with some crushingly earnest Stravinsky.

This is, of course, fathomlessly stupid, as you would expect; one sometimes wonders whether anyone in the opera world is equipped with ears. Rossini’s comedies may be the sorbet that makes the weightier bits of opera digestible (though in fact he quit comedy at the age of 25 and wrote only serious dramas — also rather miraculous, as it happens — thereafter), but in their espousal of musical joy as a genuine moral force in its own right they have a decently profound point to make: it’s their not doing it in a serious way that flummoxes opera grandees, beset by a gnawing need to present themselves as grown-up and sophisticated to a world that annoyingly persists in finding their product irredeemably silly.

I was reminded of this while watching the lad’s Signor Bruschino — the fourth of his Venetian soufflés, written when Rossini was all of 20 — from Munich. It’s a standard, mildly idiotic script of the sort that has been around since Plautus: young love winning through against absurdist oldster opposition, sweetly redone as a black-and-white movie romance. (Freed from tiresome live audiences, opera has found entirely new ways of making and transmitting itself: easily the nicest legacy of the plague).

The effect lies in Rossini’s extraordinary de-cluttering of the musical atmosphere, based on the simple notion that song both feeds and expresses the soul. The little orchestra chugs or strums away while an unsupported voice performs almost lazy, effortless arabesques in mid-air above it.

You suddenly realise these tumbling notes themselves are the means of communication, as eloquent as those unstemmable words of Shakespeare’s; when the lovebirds share their delicate, unhurried, circling duet, it’s not the trifling moon-spoon-June words but the notes, happily unmediated by any significant brain activity, that pour the contents of their hearts with artless candour into each other’s — and into ours. If that isn’t the whole point of opera, what is?

While filleting out Mozart’s style for a later age, Rossini codified Wolfy’s old drama-building techniques into a system based on pacing and rhythm, a hidden skeleton-frame over which to stretch his many-jointed scenes: pleasingly, these underpin not only everything that Verdi was still writing 50 years later, but also such startling stuff as Wagner’s Tannhäuser (don’t tell the Master’s minions, committed anti-Rossinians to a man, or they will become angry and sad).

While filleting out Mozart’s style for a later age, Rossini codified Wolfy’s old drama-building techniques into a system based on pacing and rhythm

The furious rhythmic whirlwinds of giddily accelerating end-pieces, childish pranks of nonsense burbled at high speed, overtures sparkling with bouncy orchestral lightning (try The Silken Ladder, another Venetian confection, for six minutes of Rossinian heaven) — these 90-minute japes created the musical armoury that would storm all Europe within a couple of years, making the young composer the “new Napoleon” of Stendhal’s awestruck biography.

Talking of which, Rossini’s useful Venetian job meant he narrowly escaped conscription into Boney’s army — in which he would probably have wound up a pile of butcher’s offal on the banks of the Berezina in 1812. Just a thought.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover