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!)