An Opera Without Heroes | Playbill

By 1815, the 23-year-old Gioacchino Rossini was the dominant force in opera in Italy, with fourteen

operas already to his credit. That year, he was appointed music director of the Teatro San Carlo

in Naples, with a contract requiring him to write two operas annually while allowing him to free-lance

at other theaters.

The San Carlo was fertile ground for the young composer: the orchestra was

superb, a well-trained mixed chorus was in residence, and the finest singers in the world were placed

at Rossini’s disposal, in particular the great tragedienne-soprano Isabella Colbran (who was

to become his first wife) and tenors Giovanni David, Manuel Garcia, and Andrea Nozzari. Between

1815 and 1822 he composed nine serious operas for Naples.

Operas by Gluck, Mozart and Spontini were regularly performed in Naples,

so the audience was the most sophisticated in Italy. As a result, Rossini felt free to experiment.

He gave the orchestra more prominence (to the degree that he was accused of being “Germanic”); he

did away with secco recitative, replacing it with instrumental underpinning that kept

the drama flowing; he broke away from the comfortable recitative-aria-cabaletta format, composing

longer ensembles and expanding the usual forms with interjections from the chorus and/or other

characters. In Mosè in Egitto, he eliminated the overture and introduced pages

of purely declamatory singing. The through-composed final act of his Otello (1816) ended

with a death onstage, and while this was not the first time such a horror had been thrust upon a Neapolitan

audience (the first had come six months earlier, with Carafa’s Gabriella di Vergy, in which

the heroine, having been handed an urn containing her lover’s still-beating heart, expires on

the spot), it still astounded. (Later audiences demanded a happy ending to Otello, and

Rossini supplied it!)

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