183. Tancredi (Rossini)

  • Melodramma eroico in 2 acts
  • Composer: Gioachino Rossini
  • Libretto: Gaetano Rossi, after Voltaire’s Tancrède
  • First performed: Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 6 February 1813

ARGIRIO, leader of the SenateTenorPietro Todràn
AMENAIDE, his daughterSopranoElisabetta Manfredini-Guarmani
TANCREDI, an exiled Syracusan soldierContraltoAdelaide Melanotte-Montresor
ORBAZZANO, head of a noble family, at war with the family of ArgirioBassLuciano Bianchi
ISAURA, Amenaide’s friendContraltoTeresa Marchesi
ROGGIERO, Tancredi’s squireMezzoCarolina Sivelli

SETTING: Syracuse, 1005

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Napoleon is dead, but a new conqueror has already shown himself to the world,” Stendhal proclaimed. “From Moscow to Naples, from London to Vienna, from Paris to Calcutta, his name is constantly on every tongue. The fame of this man knows no bounds save those of civilization itself…”

That famous conqueror was Rossini, the most popular and influential opera composer of his day. He was the model for Italian opera from bel canto to Verdi, while French opéra-comique, grand opéra, and opéra-bouffe show his influence. His operas are seminal.

Rossini began his operatic career at 18 with La cambiale di matrimonio (Venice, 1810), the first of five one-act farse in the line of Cimarosa. The best of these is Il signor Bruschino (1813), with its infamous overture where musicians tap their bows on the stands. Il pietra di paragone (Milan, 1812) was another early success; Stendhal thought it his best work.

The young composer’s breakthrough came in 1813, with the opera seria Tancredi and the buffa L’italiana in Algeri. Tancredi is a melancholy work with one foot still in the old world of 18th century opera seria. The vocal disposition is typical of the genre: the tenor is an old man; the virile male lead is sung by a woman, a contralto. Audiences still associated the alto voice with heroism. A decade or so before, the role would certainly have been sung by a castrato; indeed Rossini composed for a musico later that year (Aureliano in Palmira). The chief musical unit is the aria or duet, often with chorus; the concerted pieces typical of his later Naples period are reserved for the Act I finale.

Old-fashioned though it may seem today, Tancredi was, Henry Sutherland Edwards noted, “new, strikingly new, in the year 1813, when Mozart’s great operas had scarcely been heard out of Germany”. With the coda Rossini, the musician developed and established the structure for bel canto opera of the next two decades or more (a lingua franca, if not italiana). Every composer in Italy, as Pacini admitted, had to imitate Rossini to succeed.

  • A formal overture or a short prelude setting the mood
  • Introduzione e cavatina: A choral movement at the start of the opera, setting the scene and characterizing the participants, with the melodic interest largely in the orchestra
  • Bring on a principal, who would have a slow aria leading to dialogue with the chorus (initiating the plot) and then a cabaletta with choral accompaniment
  • The main action is then divided into substantial scenes, each framed around a single dramatic event involving a small group of characters. After the main issue has been stated, or suggested by the music, one of the characters meditates upon it. Some new force is brought upon the issue, either through stage action, or through a character changing their mind. In the climax which follows, the issue is resolved, usually by one demonstrative action. The mood is thereby changed.
  • The main drama is articulated through the musical design of the scena, which in its musical structure mirrors the progression from meditation to action. Each principal singer has at least one such scena. Though it originated in the bipartite (slow–fast) aria form popular in the late 18th century, Rossini expanded its structure by adding a long introductory recitative and interpolating an extra section (the tempo di mezzo) between the lyrical reflection of the cantabile [the opening section of an aria or the second section of a three-movement duet, invariably cast in a slow, expressive style, and often featuring a cadenza] and the brilliant action of the cabaletta [thefinal section, usually quick and brilliant; repeated, with the same words, after a brief orchestral ritornello, and with improvised embellishments]. The andante tended to have two quatrains, tonically static. The cabaletta, also in simple binary form, could be in an unrelated key, tending towards the end to display. The romanza was normally in a single movement.
  • The duet was normally in three-part form. In a fast opening section, the first singer might be given a line decorating a regular melody, answered by a second singer with a similar (or the same) melody. Modulation to a new key, by way of dialogue between the singers, could then introduce a middle section in contrasting tempo (if andante, with the singers in lyrical 3rds or 6ths). This would give way (perhaps after some dramatic interruption) to a double cabaletta, with both voices singing the same music successively.
  • The central finale evolved out of the ensemble of perplexity in opera buffa, when the comic confusions of the plot would be at their height. Early 19th-century Italian opera tended to project the interest towards the end of the act, creating a multi-movement scene in which an orchestral melody might be taken through a sequence of keys; a Largo Concertato with complex part-writing; and a final brilliant stretto.

(Source: John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997, pp. 147–48.)

Rossini, Emanuele Senici believes, had a “prodigious capacity for rationalising and codifying a number of disparate dramatic and musical solutions already explored by his predecessors, and then employing them with single-minded attention to coherence, balance and clarity” (Cambridge Companion to Rossini).

Audiences, Edwards notes, were used to “dialogue … carried on for interminable periods in recitative”; choruses were rarely introduced; and concerted pieces were reserved for the conclusion of an act. (Salieri, though, had already introduced many of these innovations in Europa riconosciuta, where he applied the principles of Gluckian reform opera to Italian opera seria with great success.) “For much declamation he substituted singing; for endless monologues and duologues, ensembles connected and supported by a brilliant orchestra.”

Rossini’s novelties were too much for some; cantankerous old Lord Mount Edgcumbe complained that “the construction of these newly invented pieces is essentially different from the old”. Instead of Metastasio’s “beautiful and interesting” recitative, dialogue was cut up into pezzi concertati, “a tedious succession of unconnected, ever-changing motivos having nothing to do with each other”. Nor were there as many arias; “even the prima donna, who would formerly have complained at having less than three or four airs allotted to her, is now satisfied with one trifling cavatina for a whole opera”.

Harmony before Rossini was meagre, Edwards notes, and orchestration was rudimentary: clarinets were only admitted into Italian orchestras on condition of being kept quiet; bassoons were used only to strengthen the basses; and brass instruments (except horns) were all but proscribed. When Rossini brought drums, trumpets, and military bands into the opera house, he was accused of being too learned, too German. A decade later, critics joked that he would end up more German than Beethoven.

Tancredi is set in Syracuse, Sicily, in the early eleventh century. Tancredi, an exiled member of the former royal house, loves the senator Argirio’s daughter Amenaide, against her father’s wishes. Amenaide’s secret letter to Tancredi is intercepted; all believe she wrote it to the leader of the Moorish army threatening the city. This is a fatal dramatic flaw: If she bothered to explain, the opera would be over much sooner, and all the characters would be spared much heartache.

The overture is borrowed from La pietra del paragone. Act I opens in Argirio’s palace. The threat of invasion from the Moors has brought the warring houses of Argirio and Orbazzano together, and the factions swear friendship (Coro d’Introduzione: ‘Pace, onore, fede, amore’ and Duettino: ‘Se amista verace e pura’). Orbazzano will lead the Syracusan army against the Moors; as a sign of reconciliation, he will marry Amenaide. She, though, is secretly betrothed to Tancredi, born into the royal family and exiled when Sicily became a republic. A chorus (‘Più dolci e placide’) welcomes the entrance of the prima donna. In her cavatina (‘Come è dolce all’alma mia’), Amenaide wonders when her lover Tancredi will return. She begs her father in vain to put off the marriage until the next day.

The scene changes to the palace garden. Tancredi and his followers arrive by boat; the exile has come to defend Syracuse, but also longs to see Amenaide. Tancredi’s entrance aria is the opera’s most famous number; at its time, Stendhal thought, the most performed aria in the world. Composed on 18th century lines, it consists of a melancholy recitative where Tancredi reflects on his country’s ingratitude; the thought of Amenaide inspires his valour (cavatina: ‘Tu che accendi questo core’), and he hopes his suffering will have its reward (cabaletta: ‘Di tanti palpiti’).

The day before the first performance, the Tancredi announced that she was unhappy with the song Rossini had written for her. If the audience hissed the lead character’s entrance, Rossini worried, all would be over with the opera. That evening, inspiration came to him. In the time it took his servant to cook and prepare his evening rice, the fertile composer had written the opera – hence its nickname, the aria dei rizzi.

Edwards writes: “All Venice sang the airs from Tancredi, the gondoliers made them into serenades; Rossini was followed by them wherever he went. It is said that they used even to be introduced in the law courts, and that the judges had more than once to stop the humming of ‘mi rivedrai, te revedro’. ‘I thought when they heard my opera,’ said Rossini, ‘that the Venetians would think me mad. But I found that they were much madder than I was.’”

The wedding has been arranged for noon; Argirio orders Amenaide to marry Orbazzano (‘Pensa che sei mia figlia’). Solamir, the Moorish leader, surrounds the city and demands her hand; Tancredi is in Messina, and, Argirio fears, bent on revenge. The two lovers meet. Tancredi has come in search of Amenaide or his death, but she urges him to flee for his own safety. The duet (‘L’aura che intorno spiri’) is surprisingly affecting; touched with melancholy, and almost Mozartean in its delicacy.

In a public square near the city walls, nobles assemble for the wedding (‘Amori scendete’), and soldiers assemble, ready for Orbazzano to lead them to war. Tancredi, keeping his identity secret, offers his sword in Syracuse’s defence. Amenaide begs her father to call off the wedding, since she cannot love Orbazzano. The bridegroom accuses her of treason; he produces the letter she wrote to Tancredi, summoning him here, but which he believes was written to Solamir. Sextet of stupefaction (‘Ciel, che feci?’). Amenaide protests her innocence, but Argirio and Tancredi reject her. A sextet of perplexity (‘Tutti m’odiato’) leads to a powerful stretta as the nobles call for her death.

Act II opens in a gallery in Argirio’s castle. All the Senate except Argirio have condemned Amenaide. In a moving scene (‘Ah! segnar invano io tento’), her father hesitates to sign the death warrant, torn between the conflicting demands of paternal love and duty, but finally adds his name. Alone, Isaura hopes Heaven will comfort Amenaide in her grief (‘Tu che i miseri conforti’).

The prison scene opens with a sombre prelude. Amenaide resolves to die for Tancredi, even though he thinks her unfaithful. Her cavatina (‘No, che il morir non è’) is a melancholy andante. Tancredi offers himself as Amenaide’s champion in mortal combat with Orbazzano, even though he thinks her guilty. There follows a duet for Tancredi and Argirio (‘Ah se de’ mali miei’); it contains a lovely andante (both men reflect they should hate Amenaide, but cannot), and ends in an exciting martial allegro as Tancredi prepares to fight. Next comes a big scene for the prima donna (‘Giusto Dio che umile adoro’). In a beautiful andante, Amenaide prays to God to protect Tancredi; the chorus bring the welcome news that her champion has triumphed, slain her accuser, and vindicated her; she expresses her joy in a heavily ornamented cabaletta.

The scene changes to the main square of Syracuse, where the people celebrate Tancredi’s triumph (‘Plaudite, o popoli’). Victory cannot comfort Tancredi; he still believes Amenaide faithless, and resolves to die far away from this accursed land. A duet for the two lovers (‘Lasciami: non t’ascolto) brings matters to a head. Tancredi tells her to depart from his sight, while she tells him to take back the gift of her life (allegro); in a beautiful andantino, both reflect on their misery, singing in unison; they reproach each other for causing their suffering (cabaletta). The scene closes with an aria di sorbetto, a sign for the audience to buy icecream; Roggiero’s ‘Torni alfin’ is attractive and simple.

Tancredi has retired to live as a hermit in a cave; amidst wild nature, he will dwell on his beloved traitress. (All very Early Romantic!) In his Gran Scena e Cavatina (‘Ah! che scordar non so’), he laments that he still loves Amenaide, and cannot forget her. His brown study is interrupted by the chorus (‘Regna il terror’); the city is under threat from the Moors, and the people look to Tancredi to guide them. Amenaide and the other principals discover Tancredi. He reproaches her for disturbing the tranquility of his solitude; she collapses, and he leaves for the battlefield. The aria (‘Perchè turbar la calma’) is musically effective but dramatically poorly motivated; why doesn’t she speak? The opera originally ended with a happy ending: Tancredi learns that Amenaide is innocent, and her father gives his approval to their marriage. A delightful vaudeville (‘Tra quei soave palpiti’) finishes the work. For Ferrara a month later, Rossini composed a tragic ending: Tancredi defeats the Saracens, but is mortally wounded.

Tancredi was an enormous popular success. Henceforward, Rossini had no more rivals in Italy; Venice and Milan, Rome and Naples were the only cities that could hope to engage him. Tancredi was soon translated into 12 languages and performed throughout Europe and the Americas.

L’italiana – still popular today – introduces the typical Rossinian heroine – feminist and feisty – who easily outwits her male antagonists. The highlight of the work is the Act I finale where the characters can only express their confusion in onomatopoeia: cawing like crows, the ‘din din din’ of the hammer, or the ‘bum bum’ of the cannon. More opere buffe followed, among them Rossini’s two most popular works: Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in 1816 and La Cenerentola in 1817.

Stendhal preferred Rossini’s early works; the more they resembled Cimarosa, the better. “Light, lively, amusing, never wearisome but seldom exalted — Rossini would appear to have been brought into this world for the express purpose of conjuring up visions of ecstatic delight in the commonplace soul of the Average Man.”

Rossini composed nine opere serie for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the leading opera stage in Italy, and (in Richard Osborne’s words) Rossini’s private operatic laboratory. Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815) is by far the weakest of the nine, but one of the first Italian operas on a Tudor theme, a vein exploited by Donizetti. The others are Armida (1817), his most sensuous opera; the Biblical epic Mosè in Egitto, and Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818); Ermione (1819), a failure in its day, now critically admired; La donna del lago (1819), based on Walter Scott; the grandiose Maometto II (1820); and Zelmira (1822).

The operas featured the superstars of Italian opera: the soprano Isabella Colbran (later Signora Rossini), the tenors Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari, and the bass Michele Benedetti. His “extraordinary achievement”, Philip Gossett wrote, “was to open the world of Italian opera to orchestral forces, powers of expression, choral participation and structural possibilities unimagined there before him”. One thinks, for instance, of the trios in Armida (for three tenors) and La donna del lago, the quartets in Mosè and Ricciardo e Zoraide, the enormous Terzettone in Maometto II, or the finale to La donna del lago.

Around this time, too, Rossini composed Otello (1816), very loosely based on Shakespeare, whose third act Meyerbeer admired for its un-Rossini-like beauties: declamation, impassioned recitative, and local colour; La gazza ladra (1817), a semiseria whose village setting, wrongly accused heroine, and naturalism served as a model for Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi; Bianca e Falliero (1819), a more conventional work, but with an excellent quartet; and Matilde di Shabran (1821), where he applied the techniques of the Naples opera seria to comic opera. Rossini ended his Italian career with Semiramide (1823), a Babylonian drama of murder, incest, and revenge.

Rossini moved to Paris in 1824 to become musical director of the Théâtre des Italiens, with a royal commission to compose five operas a year.  He composed only five operas for Paris – three of them recycling earlier operas – and then retired to eat, preside over salons, and commit his sins of old age. He composed a pièce d’occasion for the coronation of Charles X, Il viaggio a Reims (1825), with its brilliant Gran pezzo concertato a 14 voci; parts of the score were reused in Le Comte Ory (1828). French adaptations of earlier works – Le siege de Corinthe (1826), based on Maometto II, and Moïse et Pharaon (1827) – were useful preparation for his final opera: Guillaume Tell (1829), widely regarded as his masterpiece. Ageing and ill, Rossini retired from the opera stage at 37, worn out by syphilis and manic depression. He settled in Paris, and died there in 1868.

Italian musicologist Giuseppe Radiciotti considered Rossini “the greatest Italian composer of the nineteenth century, one of the most remarkable geniuses by whom humanity is honoured”. The gifted Rossini was one of the rarest and most complete musicians, Clément proclaimed after the composer’s death. Meyerbeer or Weber might be compared to miners who, pick in hand, extract precious metal from the bowels of the earth; Rossini was an abundant source of gold and diamonds. Like the great poets Shakespeare, Corneille, Molière and Racine, he was equally at home intragedy and comedy. Every nuance, every feeling was expressed in his work, where one finds both the Papatacci trio (in L’italiana in Algeri) and the patriotic trio of Guillaume Tell.

Other musicians, however, viewed Rossini with disdain. Wagner considered Rossini an opportunist and a populist, writing ear-tickling melodies for the public. Berlioz objected to “Rossini’s melodic cynicism, his contempt for dramatic expression and fitness, his perpetual repetition of the same form of cadence, his eternal puerile crescendo and barbarous big drum”. The Italian was a “trimmer”, a “great abscess” with “the air of a retired satyr”; his music was “all artifice, knowledge of the world, sharp practice, and public manipulation, and no true feeling”.

As singing styles changed, Rossini’s once-popular operas fell from the repertoire; audiences wanted music drama rather than vehicles for melody. (“One of the greatest masters of claptrap that ever lived,” Shaw wrote. “His moral deficiencies as an artist were quite extraordinary.”) By the early twentieth century, they were dead and buried.  His operas were considered unsingable, composed for bel canto voices that no longer existed: agile voices that could run up and down scales, turn somersaults, and throw off pinging high notes with aplomb. (“To read through one opera of Rossini is exhilarating; to read a dozen is depressing and wearisome,” Dent thought.)

A Rossini renaissance began in the 1950s with productions of the rarer opera serie and semiserie; in 1980, the composer’s hometown of Pesaro began a yearly festival performing new critical editions of his works. Works that seemed as lumbering as dinosaurs, wiped out by Wagner and verismo, revealed themselves to be not merely alive but beautiful. Today, Rossini’s place in the operatic firmament is secure.

Works consulted

  • Hector Berlioz, Evenings in the Orchestra, trans. C.R. Fortescue, Penguin Books, 1963
  • Henri Blaze de Bury, “Compositeurs contemporains – Rossini, sa Vie et ses Œuvres – I. – La jeunesse de Rossini et ses premiers opéras”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1854
  • Edward J. Dent, The Rise of Romantic Opera, ed. Winton Dean, Cambridge University Press, 1976
  • Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
  • Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
  • Emanuele Senici (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rossini, Cambridge University Press, 2004
  • Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824
  • John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997

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