November 3, 2016

The woman who deprived the world of more Barber of Sevilles.

...or would that more correctly be "Barbers of Seville"? I'm not sure. This isn't a grammar blog, okay?
Isabella Rossini nee Colbran (1785-1865)

In my last post, I briefly mentioned Beethoven's admiration for The Barber of Seville. The young Rossini went to visit the famous German composer in 1822 (a year, as we shall see, that was important to Rossini in other ways). In 1860, he described the meeting to Richard Wagner, who also held Rossini in high esteem, as incongrous as that may strike us now. Assuming that Rossini's account of his conversation with Beethoven was accurate all those decades later, this was what the master had to say (my source for this translation is Herbert Weinstock's excellent biography of Rossini):

"Ah, Rossini, you are the composer of Il Barbiere di Siviglia? I congratulate you; it is an excellent opera buffa. I read it with pleasure (Beethoven was stone deaf by this time), and it delights me. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to do anything but opera buffa; wanting to succeed in another genre would be trying to force your destiny."

The composer of Fidelio went on to throw shade on Rossini's dramatic works, including Otello and Tancredi. The conversation ended shortly after; owing to the cumbersome problem of Rossini's writing everything he wanted to say in Beethoven's conversation books. As the Italian made his way to the door of Beethoven's apartment, there was one final admonition:

"Above all, make a lot of Barbers."

And yet, in 1822 Rossini was in the middle of a twelve-year stretch during which he ignored comedies and wrote only dramas. This period began immediately after Barber of Seville in 1816 and lasted until the composition of Le Comte Ory in 1828. The closest he came to a comedy was Il Viaggio a Reims, called a "dramma giocoso"; it was a monumental flop.

What happened? A woman happened. And what a woman she was!

Before there was "Bennifer" (Affleck + Lopez) or "Brangelina" (Pitt + Jolie), there was "Gioachabella". Now, I wouldn't say that Gioachino Rossini and Isabella Colbran were history's first celebrity couple - "Marcopatra" down in Egypt pre-dated them by several centuries - but the story of their affair and short-lived marriage did provide a template of sorts for modern tabloid lovers: an affair, a wedding, and a separation.

And it's Colbran who directly altered the course, albeit temporarily, of Rossini's career. It's Colbran who caused her lover-turned-husband to turn away from sparkling comedies. Two centuries later, their story still smolders with the faint smoky residue of notoriety, super-stardom, a gambling addiction and ultimate dysfunction.

Isabella Colbran was a native of Madrid. By age 20 she was not only rocketing to international stardom as a soprano sfogata (an archaic term for a mezzo-soprano capable of singing the E or even F above high C), she was a figure of glamour as well; a 19th-century "it girl". The writer Stendhal described her with frank admiration:

"She was a beauty of the most imposing sort: with large features that are superb on the stage, magnificent stature, blazing eyes..., a forest of the most beautiful jet-black hair and ... an instinct for tragedy. 

If this description reminds opera buffs of Maria Callas at the height of her career, I get that. She must have been something.

She could sing, too! In 1807, when Colbran was just 22 years old, a critic wrote this of her abilities:

"The organ of her voice is truly an enchantment for smoothness, for strength, and for prodigious extension of tones: from the bass G to the high E - that is, for almost three octaves - it makes itself heard in a progression always even in mellowness and energy." 

She was also known for an astounding command of coloratura: rapid runs, trills and leaps were tossed off with spectacular effect.This Spanish bundle of talent also composed a bit, writing four collections of songs for voice and piano.
At the start of her career she came under the wing of Domenico Barbaja, an influential opera impresario. It's widely assumed that she was his mistress as well. So Rossini's first relationship with her was professional: the San Carlo opera commissioned him to write a historical drama as a showcase vehicle for Colbran. This was Elisabeth, Queen of England, which debuted in October, 1815 - just four months before Barber.

Rossini put a lot of care into Elisabeth, a shamelessly fictional account of Queen Elizabetrh's love life. He dispensed with the custom of secco recitativo, the type of sung dialogue accompanied by keyboard, although the device was to remain in Barber. Even more notably, the composer attempted to put the kaibosh on the kind of distortions resulting from singers and their out-of-control "improvised" ornamentations. Rossini carefully notated every roulade, leap and trill, expecting vocalists to adhere to his intentions.

The result was a spectacular, giddy, enthusiastic success. Colbran's celebrity reached new heights and southern Italy warmed to Rossini as never before. (NOTE: interestingly, one of Elizabeth's arias in the first act was "recycled" by the composer as the second theme in Rosina's "Barber" aria "Una voce poco fa". Rossini was an inveterate "recycler" of his own material.)

Is it any wonder that the 24-year old Rossini fell hard for the beautiful diva, who was seven years older? She clearly became his lover, a reality that appears not to have caused hard feelings with Signor Barbaja, who arranged for several new works by Rossini.

A series of Colbran vehicles ensued in quick succession, and NONE of them were comedies; Colbran was less Carol Burnett and more Cate Blanchett on stage. Armida (1817) was followed by Moses in Egypt (1818), Ricciardo and Zoraide (1818), Hermione (1818), The Lady of the Lake (1819) Mehmed II (1820), Zelmira (1822), and Semiramide (1823).

Interspersed among these Colbran-centric operas were a few works not involving her but, oddly, all of these were dramas. Rossini was to give the world only one more comedy before his abrupt and mysterious retirement at age 37: Count Ory (1828). If Beethoven was disappointed, he never expressed it for posterity.

Composer and diva were a serious couple by 1820, their committment out in the open. When Colbran's father passed away in the spring of 1820, Rossini secretly arranged for an elaborate sculpture to be created as a monument in his memory. He requested that it depict Isabella weeping at the graveside and a musician "chanting his glories". This artwork was a surprise for his lover.

It was inevitable that a marriage would take place. Gioachino and Isabella were wed shortly after the last performance of Zelmira on March 16, 1822. The opera world being then what it always has been and remains today, the ink was hardly dry on the marriage contract before gossips began dishing dirt on the famous couple. People said that this was no marriage, it was a business deal. It's true that the union increased Rossini's wealth considerably, with a dowry worth six figures in today's economy
 as well as real estate, villas and other assets. Cruel jokes were made about Colbran, including lengthy lists of former lovers, and her "advanced age"; though she was just 37, estimates went as high as 50; obviously, she was a viewed as a 19th-century "cougar", as we would put it these days.

The marriage lasted about eight years before a permanent separation. What went wrong? The same stresses that always afflict professional couples working in the arts: too much time away from each other. With Rossini constantly on the road supervising operas, they grew apart. As for Colbran, her career ground to a halt as her once-splendid voice gave way to the wear and tear of too much virtuosic singing in too short a time. Her vocal estate severly degraded, she could no longer appear in public. She distracted herself by a serioius gambling problem; a prior pastime was now a compulsion.

Soon, Rossini was to forego public life as well, retreating to a lavish apartment in Paris to live out his days as a divorce survivor, gourmand and lively commentator on the arts scene.

Here's the thing: of the operas that followed The Barber of Seville, none have approached Figaro's story in popularity or status in the standard international repertoire. True, Armida, The Lady of the Lake and especially Semiramide have had their champions in revivals, and Rossini's final work, the gargantual epic William Tell is currently being done at the Metropolitan Opera.

But on balance, the "Colbran factor" steered Gioachino Rossini from the area in which his genius (most would agree) shone most brightly: the farce and hilarity of comic opera.

The lesson here? Perhaps it's that when Beethoven tells you what kind of talent you have in music... should listen.

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