Rossini – Overture to The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia)

by Max Derrickson

Gioachino (Antonio) Rossini     (b in Pesaro, Italy on February 29, 1792; d in Paris, November 13, 1868)

Overture to The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia)

Rossini was the world’s favorite opera composer until perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century.  Having tutored himself on Mozart’s exquisite operatic models, Rossini’s own exceptional standards for operatic writing then in turn inspired so many others to come, including Verdi, Puccini and Wagner.  And yet within this long tradition of opera geniuses, Rossini is undeniably the finest composer of the splendid genre of theater music called opera buffa – operas rich in light-hearted and comic antics, and filled with singable tunes.

Rossini was a speedy composer and a savvy business man.  By the time he wrote his final opera, Guilluame Tell, in 1829, Rossini was a mere 37 years old, with 40 successful operas behind him, and was independently wealthy.  And then he simply retired.  Except for some chamber works, and two serious religious works (also masterpieces), the last 36 years of Rossini’s life were spent in relative seclusion and in pursuit of various hobbies including, among others, cooking and speculations in fish culture.  His rather abrupt retirement from the opera house at the peak of his genius has never been fully explained, but the legacy of his extraordinary composing continues to resonate.  Aside from his great operas themselves that are still often performed, he nearly single-handedly transformed the operatic overture into a discreet and flourishing work of art in its own right.
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Rossini wrote his first successful opera at the age of 16.  His 17th, The Barber of Seville, was premiered in Rome in 1816 when the composer was just 24.  It may be his greatest opera.  Certainly Verdi thought so: “For abundance of real musical ideas, for comic verve, and for truthful declamation, [it] is the finest opera buffa in existence.”  The libretto was based on the story by the French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1775), and like the play, the opera is notable for its perennial themes, giddy wordplay, mad-capped action and lively characters.  The addition of Rossini’s hallmark musical technique of creating a long, insistent build-up of orchestral sound over a repeating figure (ostinato) helps propel the action into wonderful and hilarious climaxes.  These “tempests in teapots
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An interesting historical note to the Overture is that the original was lost shortly after the premiere.  Rossini, well supplied with an old chest filled with musical snippets, full operas and manuscripts, reputedly then rummaged about in his chest and borrowed another of his earlier opera’s overtures for the Barber.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the Overture that we’ve come to know as The Barber of Seville bears no thematic resemblance to the opera that follows it.  Despite its quirky parentage, its superbness in form and melody has successfully quieted all complaints.