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Largo al factotum... PDF Print E-mail

Rossini poring over scores and the stove. Applauded by audiences throughout most of Europe in his years of glory, and stalked by impresarios, he was obsessed by culinary fantasies during his long nervous illness, for almost all the second half of his life, from 1829 to 1868. Was the composer compulsively turning out operas the same overweight man who could not finish his Stabat Mater?
Senile sloth was simply the other face of youthful overactivity. He composed the Barbiere di Siviglia in less than twenty days. The plot is well known, thanks to Paisiello’s successful opera in 1782, and to its dizzying music, which stumbles crazily towards the end. Even the overture was recycled casually from Aureliano in Palmira, through Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.
Everybody was talking about Rossini after the Barbiere appeared, even Giuseppe Mazzini and Giacomo Leopardi. Like Figaro, everyone calls for him, everyone wants him, even Beethoven, who is said to have greeted the composer from Pesaro, when they left each other after meeting in 1822, with the words “above all, lots of Barbiere”. Two years later Hegel confessed he found Rossini’s Figaro “much more attractive than Mozart’s”. The great philosopher was almost ashamed to admit it! Everybody was humming Figaro’s and Rosina’s arias. But just imagine – at the first night, on 20 February 1816 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome, the audience booed and whistled. But the next time the impetuous Largo al factotum and the skittish Una voce poco fa were greeted enthusiastically.
Was this a revolution? In actual fact the comic side of the Barbiere, “effervescent like a good champagne”, as Massimo Mila wrote in his 1969 review of a production at the Scala Theatre in Milan, conducted by Claudio Abbado, poses no threat to the established order. All the agitation fizzles to nothing – a firework show of notes, an irresistible crescendo that leaves the listener dazed.
A political conservative (in 1823 he wrote a cantata entitled La Santa Alleanza for Metternich), Rossini was also a conservative in aesthetics. The music is lightweight, the rhythm has verve and motifs in crescendo are obsessively repeated. Then there’s dressing up too and the young fellow steals the girl from the old man. All the tricks of the old comic theatre are dusted off and given fresh life. The Barbiere is a perfect theatrical mechanism. This explains how it is still going strong after almost two hundred years. In the free, self-contained space of the theatre plots and personages don’t age, paradoxically because on the stage life is reduced to a masked game.

Luca Segalla