November 21, 2016

"Mrs. Spoilsport": how Rossini's second wife saved his life

"We are unwell... it is from eating too much.... the Maestro and I live to eat ... and we acquit ourselves of this duty religiously." --
Olympe Pélissier (painting by Vernet, 1830)

The Maestro? That would be Gioachino Rossini.

The writer of the amazing description above? Meet Rossini's second wife, the woman he jokingly referred to as "Mrs. Spoilsport (Madame Rabatjoie) No. 2".

Here's another quote: "I am neither proud nor gracious. I am a fat woman who is occupied from morning to evening with digesting." Wow...

In a previous post I introduced you to the composer's first wife, the glamorous opera singer Isabella Colbran. Now I'll tell you a little about Olympe Pélissier: model for paintings by Horace Vernet, courtesan whose lovers included the writer Honoré de Balzac and, by turns, Rossini's nurse, cook, lover and, ultimately, wife. You don't really know Rossini until you know the women he lived with!

Rossini's first marriage ended in a way that does not reflect much credit on either party. After Colbran's voice gave out, forcing an end to her career as a prima donna, Rossini was still traveling constantly, overseeing productions and just generally living the life of a musical celebrity. Isabella chafed at her forced retirement. She was discouraged at being virtually abandoned to live with her husband's father, Giuseppe Rossini. She was bored out of her skull, a problem leading to the downward spiral of compulsive gambling and the loss of a personal fortune. She was driven to taking private voice students in an attempt to replenish her funds. For his part, Rossini left her behind when he departed for Paris in 1830; he would not see her again for four years. He was seven years younger than Colbran, her gambling disgusted him, and he had no trouble finding available women to satisfy his prodigious sexual appetite.

That appetite contributed to a sorry state of declining physical and emotional health. It seems apparent that Rossini suffered from what would be called bi-polar disorder today. The writer Antonio Zanolini described the composer's mood swings as fluctuating violently from upbeat and joking to bitterness and exhausted despair. In addition, he was beset with chronic ailments requiring the long-term use of a catheter, and the application of leeches to treat hemorrhoids.

(Yeah, that's pretty gross. That's a visual image we could all do without, and a bit of irony in light of Figaro's cheerful reference to leeches in his "Largo al factotum".)

Enter Olympe in the fall of 1832. An attractive woman in her 30's, she already had a colorful history in Parisian society behind her. She was born out of wedlock to an unmarried woman. Though her mother married a certain Monsieur Pélissier (who adopted Olympe), it was assumed from the girl's childhood that she would follow her mother's "career path" with a collection of wealthy "protectors". After gaining Rossini's attention and becoming part of his circle, Olympe found herself immersed in the world of music for the first time, quickly developing a taste for Bellini and Donizetti in addition, of course, to Rossini.

Rossini found that, given his new lover's less-than-respectable backstory, awkward situations arose when introducing Olympe in elite social circles. No less a ladies' man than the pianist and composer Franz Liszt said of Mlle. Pélissier, in a letter to his mistress the Countess d'Agoult, that 'she pleases me". The Countess, however, was not impressed. Rossini had Olympe act as hostess at the musical soirees he presented in Milan during the late 1830's, but d'Agoult said that women of standing in polite society stayed away from them.

Rossini and Pélissier lived together as man and wife without being married as long as Isabella lived on in retirement. When Rossini received news in 1845 that Colbran was on her death-bed, he and Olympe traveled to her villa at Castenaso to pay respects. Olympe waited in an ante-room while Rossini spent a few final minutes with his first wife, saying the things that needed to be said.

Ten months later, Olympe and Rossini entered into matrimony, a happy event to be followed by dark days of misery. Giaochino Rossini spent the next several years in near-fatal physical and mental health, often on the brink of collapse. During the late forties and early fifties, Herbert Weinstock (whose excellent biography Rossini is the source of the biographical details here) notes that the composer spent up to eight months of each year combating his weakened state with ineffective cures. There were prolonged periods in which he reported that, due to what he termed "hydrophobia", food had lost all flavor; at times, he sobbed uncontrollably; he told a friend of his "constantly increasing mental impotence"; he was often confined to bed.

Through it all, on good days when he felt up to socializing, and on bad days when he could barely hang on, Olympe Pélissier Rossini was as devoted and caring as a wife could be. He likely owed his life to her.

Rossini appears to have touched bottom in 1855. He reported to a Signor Mordani that he had been unable to sleep for more that five minutes at a time for over a year. "Death is better than living this way", he concluded.

Given all this, opera-lovers shouldn't wonder at Rossini's having retired from composition so early in life. The reality of his frailty belies the common perception that his retirement was an uninterrupted period marked by witty banter, rich food and the Good Life. Rossini also intimated to a few people in his circle that the changing nature of musical style left him feeling alienated and disenfranchised, as though he had outlived his time artistically. He complained to colleagues of the increasingly "learned" quality in Italian music. He was repelled by the mid-century trend toward violent and bloody subjects such as Verdi's Il Trovatore. It's also true that he had no need to make a living at composition; his fortune was large and secure, managed by trusted financiers.

But in time, Olympe's care proved effective. In 1856 the clouds of illness and depression began to lift. By the following year, Rossini returned to writing music, though certainly with no intention of another opera. He wrote a piano prelude and six songs for voice and piano, the collection called Musique Anodine. The dedication is especially touching:

I offer these modest songs to my dear wife Olympe as a simple testimonial of gratitude for the affectionate, intelligent care of which she was prodigal during my overlong and terrible illness. (April 15, 1857)

As life with Olympe settled into something more stable in Paris, more music came, including the famous Petit Messe Solennelle in 1864. Following Rossini's death in 1868, Olympe remained in their Paris residence for another decade until her death at age 81.

Isabella Colbran may have been his Muse for a short while, but Olympe Pélissier was his protector and companion; her devotion saw him through years of crisis. She deserves the thanks of those of us who love her husband's music.

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