Giocchino Rossini: Overture to “La Gazza Ladra”

Seeing that today’s composer is once again Rossini, you might think I have some sort of obsession with him or his works. Rather, I think my fixation is more on music that makes me happy, that buoys my spirits, that takes my breath away. Rossini’s pieces do that for me, and therefore never lose their freshness for that reason.

Like most of my early musical education, my discovery of this piece goes back to the Mankowski family, whose son Paul was a big influence on my musical and intellectual development in high school. In 1972, when I told him that I liked The Barber of Seville he suggested I buy a recording of the overtures from a number of Rossini’s other operas. It was on the Vox or Nonesuch label–ergo, cheap—and contained the overture to William Tell, The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Barber, and today’s feature La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie). The orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, did a serviceable job. This music is so joyous, familiar, and often played, that even the Navy SEAL Band could probably squeeze out a fairly good rendition of them.

The overture to La Gazza Ladra starts out sounding like a militaristic march with snare drums, and trumpet blasts. Eventually, the strings come in, almost with the feeling of a strong wind or cyclone that blows all that away. Next the orchestra begins playing the theme, which has a kind of eastern mystical feeling about it. Eventually this gives way to a device that Rossini often used, the temporale or storm. He captures the feeling of a gale-force storm by using fast violin runs, trumpet and trombone blasts, and the crash of tympanis. The storm eventually blows off, and the orchestra returns to recap the theme. Rossini then brings back the storm again, slightly shorter this time. The theme comes back again, but altered. It now sounds more like a ballet or a waltz and has almost an oom-pah-pah feeling to it. The momentum starts to grow. Rossini adds piccolos, triangles, woodwinds to perk things up. It starts to sound more Italian and joyous and happy all the way to the ending.

When the movie, A Clockwork Orange came out in the summer of 1972, I desperately wanted to see it. Being only 17 at the time, however, I was turned away at the box office since it had an “X” rating. I read the book and bought the soundtrack, however, which also had an abridged version of the overture to La Gazza Ladra on it.

I did not actually get to see A Clockwork Orange until about 15 or 20 years later, when as an adult I rented it and watched it at home. What I saw upset me. It turns out that Kurbrick, the director, used this joyous overture as the background music to a stylized gang-rape. You know what? I’m glad I didn’t see it when it came out. I dread to think what demented associations would have formed in my own adolescent mind.

There is a kind of flawed logic here. The director wants to show the evils of fascism and how it crushes down the creative impulse in people. The people then do incredibly violent and destructive things, perverting art in the process. (Recently, I saw an interview with a Libyan man after NATO forces started its mission to oust Muammar al-Gaddafi. The man said that now that Gaddafi was gone and the populace was no longer oppressed, people were starting to treat each other kindly.)  But it’s one thing to comment on the soul crushing nature of fascism, and quite another to turn it into a ballet. Do you need to actually create that same perversion on screen? Are movies really the right place to try to make such subtle points? Movies, being visual, are much more immediate and leave a much more lasting impression on the mind. During the Reagan era, for example, someone once criticized his press secretary of propaganda. In one photo-op they arranged for the president to cut a ribbon on a new nursing home, even though Reagan had just cut funds for senior care. The press secretary, when the contradiction was brought to his attention said he didn’t care. The visual message is what got across and what stuck with people.

I’m not sure why Kubrick did this to the overture to La Gazza Ladra. To me, music is very powerful, and that is why it needs to be kept as far away from politics as possible. Fortunately, I can still partake of the joy in this piece. I wonder if Kubrick was able to.

Gioacchino Rossini: Mi par d’esser con la testa from The Barber of Seville

This, the last aria from the Barber of Seville that I’m going to write about never ceases to amaze me. It did so when I first heard it about 27 years ago in high school, and did yesterday when I gave it a spin on my old turn table. It makes me think of a line from the movie, Amadeus. Mozart, speaking about his opera Le Nozze di Figaro says that opera is the only art form in which you can have four different people speaking at the same time, each presenting a different point of view or even having an argument. What’s more, what in real life would appear pandemonium, in opera sounds heavenly.

The piece in which Rossini illustrates this fact, Mi par d’essere con la testa is a quintet for Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, Basilio and Bartolo. Almaviva has succeeded in infiltrating Don Bartolo’s house by pretending he is a drunken soldier who has been billeted there. Don Bartolo won’t have any of it: he says he ahs a letter that exempts him receiving billets. As he goes to produce it, Almaviva slips Rosina a love note. Bartolo catches sight of it. Almaviva makes Bartolo drop his letter and Rosina drops hers. He then manages to mix them up handing back to Bartolo nothing more than a laundry list.

Rosina’s presence inflames Almaviva which makes Bartolo suspicious, then angry and the doctor again tries to get the count to leave. Almaviva starts to threaten him with a sword, telling him he will kill him when Figaro arrives. The barber and Rosina try to calm the two suitors down, but they all become so loud that the local police come knocking at the door. They enter and demand to know what is going on as the din has attracted a crowd in front of the house.

Bartolo explains that he is affronted in his own house by a drunken soldier. The police chief is about to cart Almaviva away, when the count secretly shows him a letter that reveal his true identity–Count Almaviva, a nobleman. At this, the police chief is thunderstruck. Back then, nobles were inviolate. The others sing in wonderment at how something suddenly struck dumb the police chief. When he comes to his senses, he tells them to stop arguing. When Bartolo tries to get him to arrest Almaviva, the chief implies that if he doesn’t drop it, he might have to arrest him. That would have been within his powers.

This confuses everyone even more and they begin to sing:

Mi par d’esser con la testa
in un orrida fucina.
alternando questo e quello
pesantissimo martello
fa con un barbara armonia
mure e volte rimbombar, si
I feel as if I’ve stuck my head
into some dreadful smithy
Alternating one with the other
The heavy hammer blows
Make a barbarous harmony
That shakes the walls and rafters

To me this piece demonstrates one and for all Rossini’s mastery of matching his music to the words. Again, like La Calunnia it starts out soft. In the background the violins play quick triplets, punctuated by a triangle which imitates the sound of the crashing hammers. It is funny, clever, upbeat, and incredible as each voice surfaces for an instant and then is drowned out by another.

You know how the opera ends: After more intrigue and humorous scenes in which he and Figaro dupe Bartolo, Almaviva gets the girl. Not because his is any better a person, but because he could pay more than Bartolo. Maybe it’s more fitting that he is younger than Bartolo, but that’s not the main theme. The theme is that Figaro-a common barber-is more clever than any of them.

Gioacchino Rossini: La Calunnia from The Barber of Seville

On the surface, The Barber of Seville might appear a puff piece. It seems to lack dramatic tension; it’s filled with buffoonery; the music, even that sung by the “bad guys” is upbeat. Superficial? Has it really nothing to say to us nearly 200 years later?

Nowadays, it seems, we no longer poke fun at the rich. In fact, we baby boomers in the U.S. have taken crass materialism to new heights. Once, for example, while sitting in the cafeteria of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I espied a well-groomed man in his early forties-lawyer-type-reading a book entitled “How to Write a Screenplay.”  A friend of his came up and said,  “Ah, the Yuppie’s lottery ticket.” We’ve probably all heard the urban myth of some friend of a friend who sold a script to a studio for six figures.

So what chord could Rossini strike in us? Let’s look at the character of Dr. Bartolo. The doctor, an aged wealthy man, lusts after his young ward, Rosina. In the light of the Clinton Jennifer Flowers-Paula Jones-Monica Lewinsky debacle, Rossini seems right on the money. Rich and powerful men think themselves above the law (Dominique Strauss-Kahn); that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac (Henry Kissinger). And just why are the babes drawn to them?

Dr. Bartolo has his own servant, Don Basilio-Rosina’s music teacher-whom he enlists to keep her from falling into Count Almaviva’s hands. When they learn that the count is in town, and that he has designs on Rosina, Bartolo asks Basilio what he can do to thwart him. Basilio suggests they use slander to destroy the count’s reputation. All he has to do is start a rumor about Almaviva and eventually the people of Seville will rise up to throw him out of town. Basilio explains how slander works in the great aria, La Calunnia, which shows just how accurate a finger Beaumarchais had on the pulse of his own time and once again displays Rossini’s mastery at matching his music to the words:

La Calunnia e un venticello
un’aurette assai gentile
Che insensible, sottile
Incomincia a sursurar
Slander is a little breeze
A very nice little breeze
Which subtly, imperceptibly
Begins to murmur

Basilio starts out quietly enunciating every syllable and sounding so innocent. He continues on about how the rumors start inflaming the minds of the hearers, who in turn repeat it, embroidering on the story and embellishing the perfidy. As he sings, his voice grows louder, the syllables more rapid. By the end he’s almost shouting as he tells how the townspeople will rise up like an earthquake or a storm and hound the Count out of town.

Sound far-fetched? On hearing it again the other day, the Tea Party and GOP slander of Obama and the democratic agenda came to mind. From the start of Obama’s administration, there were rumors he was a Muslim, not an American citizen, that he was a racist, and worst of all, a socialist. These rumors were repeated and used to fan the fire of the ill-will of people who were quite legitimately upset with what had happened to the country. However, the calumny was used to target a president who had nothing to do with what got us here, and it has been used to fan the hatred against him, disrespect him, and do the absolute opposite of what he’s trying to do to fix the economy. All in all, it’s quite cynical.

Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum all must have have taken a lesson from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

After Don Basilio sings his aria about the power of rumor and slander he says to Dr. Bartolo “Well, what do you think?” Bartolo replies, “That may well be so, but were losing time,” and he just dumps the plan. Too bad we didn’t have someone like that around seven years ago.

Gioacchino Rossini: “All’idea de quel metallo” from “The Barber of Seville”

“Money! Makes the world go round! The world go round!  The world go round!”

Beaumarchais’ play, The Barber of Seville premiered at the Comédie Française in 1775. After a few inauspicious performances, it soon became a huge success, and French majors everywhere are eternally grateful. Because of its renown, no less than thirteen different composers turned it into operas before and after Rossini’s version. Some of these composers had crowds of supporters, almost like today’s football and basketball fans. Considering the fiasco which occurred at the first performance of Rossini’s opera, reportedly caused by the supporters of a rival composer’s version, however, these supporters seem more akin to the modern European football hooligans.

We moderns complain of the liberties Asian countries take with intellectual property rights. In Rossini’s time, though, the practice of plagiarism was almost as rampant as today. Beaumarchais, for example, used themes he borrowed from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte for the Barber. He also must have known about the existence of a French novel of the 1600s by Scarron called La Precaution Inutile. One of the more successful version of the Barber, written in 1782 by Giovanni Paisiello, is still known. Rossini paid homage to Paisiello in the preface to his Barber, and even called his work L’Inutile Precauzione (The Useless Precaution), which was the subtitle of Beaumarchais’ play. He also had his librettist come up with an entirely new libretto to avoid any charges of plagiarism.

Still, Rossini’s use of the theme again caused great consternation among Paisiello’s supporters, who disrupted the opera’s premier in Rome at the Teatro Argentino. The hooligans did not throw potatoes studded with razor blades, but they did let a cat loose on the stage and leave a trap door open so that one of the characters would trip over it. The Roman audience laughed, hooted, and whistled throughout the performance, while Rossini sat playing the harpsichord accompaniment throughout. At the end, the composer saluted the soloists, and feigning indifference, went home to sleep.

Rossini avoided its second performance, which the critics hailed as a triumph and at the end of the third, which he did attend, the crowd escorted him back to his house with a torch-lit procession. This is remarkable considering that the Roman audiences of the time were known to be the most demanding and critical of new works of music in all of Europe. Could you imagine something like this happening today?

There is a funny description of Rossini that people used to tell, that went like this: “Rossini only cried three times in his life–once when he heard Carafa (the Caruso of his day) sing; once at the premiere of the Barber of Seville, and the third at a picnic when the truffled chicken fell into the river.” This refers to the fact that after he retired from opera at the age of 36, he became a bon vivant and gourmand for his remaining 40 years. The Barber raised him to such a stature and eventually made him so rich that he could coast for the rest of his life.

Which brings me back to today’s piece. This duet between the tenor, Count Almaviva, and the baritone, Figaro, focuses on the wonder effect that gold has on people. Almaviva tells Figaro that he needs his help in winning Rosina’s heart. He is prepared to pay Figaro handsomely. “In gold?” Figaro asks. When the Count says yes, Figaro starts to work on the spot. He starts the duet thus:

You can’t imagine
What a prodigious effect on my will
To gratify your wishes
The sweet idea of gold has.At the mere sight of that portentous
All-powerful metal
My mind becomes
A spouting volcano of ideas.
Ah, non sapete
i simpatici effetti prodigiosi
che, ad appagare il mio signor Lindoro,
produce in me la dolce idea dell’oro.
All’idea di quel metallo
portentoso, onnipossente,
un vulcano la mia mente
incomincia a diventar.

Figaro proves his mettle by coming up with a plan to introduce Count Almaviva into the house of Don Bartolo–where he is the barber–so the Count can win Rosina’s love. Almaviva, he sings, must disguise himself as a soldier, which is believable since a regiment has just arrived in town. Almaviva sings his praises. Figaro more or less sings: “I’m just getting warmed up. Wait till you see what ideas gold gives me.” Then Figaro tells him to procure a billeting order from the colonel of the regiment, who just happens to be Almaviva’s friend, to stay at Don Bartolo’s house. When he arrives with the billet, Almaviva must act drunk to avoid suspicion. Almaviva protests having to act like a common drunk, but accepts after Figaro says it will work. They both sing back and forth until the end, Almaviva extolling Figaro’s cleverness and Figaro gloating over the full purse he soon will have.

I wonder whether this scene sums up some of Rossini’s own feelings and explains a bit his own behavior after he retired. Perhaps he identified with Figaro and the little guy. Despite Rossini’s reputation at the time, the Duke who owned the Teatro Argentino and contracted with him to write the Barber paid him only 1/3 of what the lead singer made for his performance. In addition, he only gave Rossini one month to write the opera! Could it be that after being bled for his ideas by the aristocracy himself, he just decided he’d had enough? Maybe this is why we chortle at Figaro’s avariciousness.

Gioacchino Rossini: “Ecco Ridente” from “The Barber of Seville”

Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville after Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, though it is actually the prequel to it. Both works come from the French playwright, Beaumarchais, who called himself deBeaumarchais, an aristocratic title that he could claim because of a piece of land that his wife inherited. In 18th century France, this gave him a certain cache and air of respectability that a person of his class and profession (a clockmaker) could never hope to enjoy. The 18th century started off pretty well for the aristocracy, but by its end, King George III of England had lost the colonies and France’s Louis and Marie Antoinette had a very close shave in one of the bloodiest revolutions in European history. Beaumarchais’ plays were seen as dangerous because they poked fun at the nobility and upper classes of the day and portrayed common people as much more clever and sympathetic than those who claimed privilege based on birth or divine lineage.

Certainly in The Barber of Seville, the young swell, Count Almaviva, comes off as something of a simp. The opera opens on a street in Seville, where the count’s servant, Fiorello, has just entered followed by a band of musicians he has hired for Almaviva. The Count use them to accompany him as he serenades under the balcony of Rosina, a beautiful maiden in the charge of the curmudgeonly, Dr. Bartolo, who has designs on her. His song, “Ecco Ridente” is a sweet tenor’s love song to Rosina where he notes the smiling dawn, which is breaking while his beloved still sleeps. He implores her to wake before sunrise and asks Cupid to lessen the sting of the arrow which has struck him. Though saccharine and sentimental, it still is a pretty aria. I can’t decide however whether it is designed to make him look like a twit or generally sympathetic.

Rosina fails to appear, so Almaviva dismisses the musicians, paying them off handsomely in gold. They are so amazed by his generosity that they burst into a song of effusive thanks. Almaviva, worried that they might be discovered, starts to shush them. When they continue with even more vigor he starts singing back to shut up. They continue and he yells at them (still singing) “Oh you damned fools. Get out of here. You curs! Away with you!” Thereby he shows his true colors as an aristocrat.

After the musician finally leave, Figaro enters singing his famous Largo al factotum, which was the subject of my previous post.

When I heard this piece in high school, I couldn’t believe how funny this scene was. Everyone I had known growing up had made fun of opera. You know the old joke: “In opera when someone gets stabbed, instead of bleeding, they sing.” And of course, we all thought it was an art form for the upper-crusties. Little did I know that there existed an opera that actually made fun of the upper classes and in which the little guy, Figaro, is cleverer than they. Coming from humble origins myself-the son of immigrants who worked in factories and as a domestic–that probably explains why I was taken with the Barber of Seville.

Gioacchino Rossini: “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville

I’m going to shift gears from writing about the passionate and romantic piano concertos that formed the subject of most of my several previous entries. Maybe this change results from a comment that my friend John Kim made, when I told him about all the gushing Romantic pieces that I listened to in high school. He said, “weren’t there any fun things you listened to?” In fact there was–The Barber of Seville. So this week, I’m going to write about several arias from this opera.

A while back, here, I wrote about its overture, which I first heard used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. For some reason I was able to memorize it, and I would use it to break the monotony of the hundreds of laps we had to swim each day on the swim team. I used to be able to whistle it as well. I learned to whistle from my father, who always seemed to have a tune on his lips. I wonder if this is genetic: my daughter when she was in middle school was often reprimanded for whistling tunes in the hall and sometimes during class at school.

The Barber of Seville probably ranks as one of the most well known and popular of all operas. Rossini actually composed 36 operas from the age of 18 until 37, many of the overtures to which also get considerable airplay. (And which have been pirated–remember the theme from the Lone Ranger? It’s actually from the overture to his opera William Tell.) But the Barber which Rossini composed at the age of 24, was his ne plus ultra. Had he composed only this one piece, his reputation probably would the same.

Rossini started out as a cellist and composer, and was especially influenced by Mozart. He had a great ear for melody, of course, but he also understood the human voice. Nowhere does this show than in the The Barber of Seville in which the arias and grouping of the vocalists–duos, trios, quartets–are so masterfully composed that they soar and amaze.

What the Barber also shows is that Rossini additionally possessed a superb sense of humor coupled with a zest for life. Much of this comes out in his characters, but particularly in the pieces given to the role of Figaro, that is the barber of this work.

The aria Largo al Factotum introduces Figaro’s entrance on the stage. Figaro is a “fixer,” who by the end of the opera will help Count Almaviva, his old employer (from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), capture the heart of the maiden, Rosina. We don’t know of the connection between the Figaro and the Count, who has just finished paying off some musician when the barber arrives. Figaro appears singing a perky, boasting aria in which he talks about how much he loves his job as a barber and go-between. The job keeps him hopping-he shaves the faces of the rich young bloods, prepares wigs for them and for the rich young ladies and bleeds everyone-but it has its perks, especially among the young ladies, “la, la, la, la!”
The words are funny, true, but what makes it so incredible is that the baritone must sing it faster and faster as he nears the end. You normally think of the deep bass voice as being serious, but at one point, he sings in falsetto, imitating the ladies calling him for his services. And of course, there is the familiar: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” which, even if you know nothing about opera, you probably have sung once in your life.

My high school friend, Paul Mankowski, whose family introduced me to many works of classical music, told me that the Barber of Seville was a good place to start listening to opera. He was the one who told me that this aria by Figaro was called Largo al Factotum, which means “make way for the jack-of-all-trades.” He also recommended a recording of it, which, since it costs a whopping $15.99 in 1972, I persuaded my parents to buy it for me as a birthday present that year. They were puzzled, but complied.

Around the time I received my copy of it, Paul told me he had recently heard the Barber on a Saturday broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco. During Largo al Factotum aria, the soloist actually started singing lines in English that made fun of the other singers. That caught my attention. It showed me that this serious stuff called “classical music” actually had some humorous soul who practiced it.

Needless to say, this was one of the best birthday presents I ever received, and giving it a spin today to refresh my memory, I find that it still makes me smile.

Giaocchino Rossini: Overture to the Barber of Seville

It comes as a revelation to me that my love of classical music is due in a large part to television. This amuses me, because in its early days lots of controversy surrouned TV, which is very similar to that we hear about the Internet today. Educators at first said it would serve as a great tool to bring learning and culture into every living room in the land. The cultural elite warned that it would harm the arts by becoming an entertainment medium, thereby detracting the public from traditional cultural outlets like theatre, ballet, and the symphony.

Having been born in 1955, I was a member of the audience during those “golden years,” and thinking back I rember a lot of experimentation. The Ernie Kovacs Show once had a sketch set to the music of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Leonard Berstein gave a series of Young People Concerts. Though nowadays few people think of TV as anything but an entertainment medium, it has brought profound cultural changes to people the world over. In addition, with the widespread use of videocam corders, millions of people have a tool for recording and reflecting upon important events in their lives. (Think of the Rodney King video).

One Saturday, back in those “golden years” I saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon called “The Bunny of Seville.” Elmer Fudd chases Bugs into an opera house where Rossini’s Barber of Seville is being performed. The cartoon is scored to the Overture which has three or four distinct sections. In one, Bugs pretends he’s a barber and while lathering Elmer up, builds a fruit salad that totally covers his face. In another section, Bugs, dressed like Carmen Miranda, sings an enticing song that makes Elmer go weak-kneed. It is still my favorite cartoon to this day.

And though some people may call it a desecration of high art, it made me love this piece of music, and later in high school, The Barber of Seville became the first opera I ever bought.

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