Why has there been such a sudden interest in rare Rossini lately? I have to admit, I’m not very interested in Rossini’s operas, which are more about showy vocalism and less about telling a story. I guess that’s why, of the three Bel Canto composers, I love Bellini’s music the most. Bellini was notorious for spending days (sometimes weeks) slowly and methodically composing vocal lines for his singers. With Bellini’s music, the words are inseparable from the text and every florid run or cadenza has a purpose. A REAL purpose. This is not always the case with Rossini.
In his panning of Renee Fleming’s star turn as “Armida” at the Metropolitan Opera last year, critic Zachary Woolfe wrote, “Armida’s charms, irresistible to most of the men in the opera, are vocally driven. Her elaborate coloratura—the runs, trills and other fancy stuff—parallels her dazzling illusions—the soldiers’ love, a magic garden. It’s impossible to create the character, in other words, without singing the notes.” Okay. I’ll buy it. But I feel like this excuse is used far too often with Rossini - and it is merely opera critics and musicologists grasping at straws. Lest anyone forget, Rossini CONSTANTLY recycled bits of music, or would take pieces from his other existing operas, and use them in later works. Case in point: “Non piu mesta” from “La Cenerentola” was originally the tenor’s finale aria in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (see the video above.) How could anyone justify the music in “Cenerentola” being character specific if it was composed for a completely different character in a completely different opera?
I think the sudden resurgence of interest in Rossini probably boils down to three basic points: A) Rossini’s music is easy-listening and full of crowd-pleasing set-piece arias that are guaranteed to delight audiences. B) We’re in the age of singing as an Olympic event and audiences love singers who can “show off” their voices with trills, runs, and cadenzas. C) We have more Rossini singers these days. With their attractive looks and medium-size yet flexible voices, singers such as Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, Lawrence Brownlee, and Joyce DiDonato are bona fide opera stars who can nail every note in a Rossini line like it’s no one else’s business. The audience loves them and they are guaranteed to sell out at the box office every time.
Alas, for those of us who still believe in opera as theater, this latest bout of Rossini-mania is further proof that opera goers would just as soon watch a sing-off than a night of gripping lyric-theater.