Feverish Composition: Writing La pietra del paragone
Patricia B. Brauner
This article was first published (in Swedish)
in the program book for the production of La pietra del paragone at Läckö
Lidköping, July 2006. An earlier version appeared in the program book of the Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2002.
"In somma, vuoi tu finirla, o no?" ("Well then, do you want to finish it, or not?") says Giocondo to Macrobio after their duet (N. 2). The line might well refer to the undoubtedly hectic weeks in the summer of 1812, when Rossini fell ill with a recurring fever during the composition of La pietra del paragone. It was Rossini's first commission for Milan's Teatro alla Scala, the principal theater of one of Italy's major cultural centers. The young composer was already gaining a reputation in Venice, where L'inganno felice had been a splendid success in January at the Teatro San Moisè. The San Moisè's impresario immediately commissioned three more farse from Rossini, including La scala di seta for May, and he had also accepted a commission from Venice's Teatro La Fenice for a serious opera, Tancredi, which would premiere 6 February 1813.
At the beginning of July Rossini arrived in Milan from Venice to begin work on Pietra. The librettist, Luigi Romanelli, and Rossini were as usual working close to the scheduled opening date of 19 September. On 11 July Rossini wrote his mother that he had written the Introduction to Act I and Clarice's Cavatina (N. 3), which he declared to be "buona musica."(1) On 21 August the delegate director of La Scala, Carlo Brentano de Grianty, informed the government that "Signor Romanelli has already consigned almost the entire drama [...] to the composer Signor Maestro Rossini, and that this latter has already written it and sent it to the copyist Bordoni to extract the parts." (2)
This notice illuminates the process of producing an opera in the early nineteenth century. The librettist and composer worked concurrently, with the composer setting portions of the text as he received them from the librettist. Like all of Rossini's operas, La pietra del paragone was written for the specific cast already involved in the theater's season. In a letter of June, 1815, Rossini wrote to a poet concerning a proposed libretto for a new work for Rome: "Listen. Donzelli a tenor with big lungs, youth, and a good figure. Galli you know. Remorini has a good voice but does not display common sense. The lady I don't know. Choose some fine old plot, or find one that meets my needs, which are: for the tenor a heroic-comic role. For Galli an exaggerated character. For Remorini the opposite, as the second bass." (3)
La pietra del paragone gives a good example of music tailored to singers. The two seconde donne, the Baronessa Aspasia and Donna Fulvia, were sung at the premiere by Carolina Zerbini and Orsola Fei, respectively. Both roles are soprano parts with similar ranges, but Zerbini's must have been a lesser voice. Except for a passage in the Introduction where Rossini seems to have been confused about which role each singer was to portray, the music Rossini wrote for Fulvia lies generally higher in the range than the Baronessa's and is more demanding, with sustained high notes and even a brief solo number (N. 15, "Pubblico fu l'oltraggio"), while for the Baronessa, who appears only in ensembles, he took care to keep the tessitura consistently below that of Fulvia and never to give her an exposed passage in the upper part of her range.
The prima donna, Maria Marcolini, the contralto who created the role of Clarice, had sung the heroine Ernestina in Rossini's L'equivoco stravagante, premiered in Bologna in October 1811 and withdrawn on the censor's orders after only three performances. In L'equivoco Ernestina sings her final, heroic aria disguised as an army captain. Marcolini would keep this aria in her repertoire, inserting it as a showpiece into other operas, and Romanelli and Rossini indulged her by integrating it in La pietra del paragone (N. 17). (The reuse of substantial musical ideas from earlier works is not uncommon at this time, and examples of Rossini's self-borrowing abound throughout his career.)
Brentano de Grianty's letter also tells us that Rossini had already sent his music to a copyist who would extract the parts. The most urgent need was for the singers' music, since they had to learn their roles. Their parts would contain the vocal line, the bass line, and perhaps occasional cues for a prominent instrument or another singer's text. Since Rossini's compositional method was first to compose the bass line, the vocal parts, and the first violin or other prominent melody part, singer's parts could be copied from this 'skeleton score' even before the piece was orchestrated. Indeed, a letter of 10 September lists numbers still to be composed or orchestrated, while the completely orchestrated pieces had already been sent to the copyist for the extraction of the instrumental parts. Although ten numbers or portions of them were still unfinished ten days before the planned opening, most of the numbers in Act I, including all the ensembles except for the opening section of the Finale, had been composed and largely orchestrated, and in Act II, the Introduction, Finale, and ensembles had also been composed and all but the Quintet orchestrated. Four unwritten arias, simpler to compose than ensembles, are for four different soloists--Macrobio (N. 8), Giocondo (N. 13), Fulvia (N. 15), and the Count (N. 18)--and thus do not leave any one singer with a large amount of music to learn; the unfinished trio of the first Finale is brief.
But all was not well with Rossini. He wrote to his mother on 29 August assuring her that he did not have the supposed malady of which she had heard rumors, but on 9 September he confessed that "I have had an accursedly bad cold that has given me two powerful fevers; but now I have none because I used your famous Chinese remedy."(4) Again, this assurance was not entirely truthful, for on 10 September Rossini was still feverish, and Brentano de Grianty asked the Minister for permission to postpone the opening of La pietra del paragone: "Let us suppose then, that Maestro Rossini may be without fever in five or six days: at least three or four days of convalescence: no fewer than eight or ten days to complete the missing portions of his opera: four or six days of rehearsals, and it adds up to almost a month."(5) In fact, the opera was completed and staged only a week late, four days earlier than the best estimate.
Even though Rossini managed to write and orchestrate the missing numbers, he apparently was unable to complete the recitatives. In the only extant autograph score earlier than Pietra, that of La scala di seta, all the secco recitatives are in Rossini's hand and appear to have been composed consecutively, perhaps all at one time. In the autograph of La pietra del paragone, on the other hand, the first-act recitatives (with the exception of two pages) are in Rossini's hand, but those in the second act are in the hands of several other people. The practice of subcontracting recitatives was common, and after Rossini's reputation was established with La pietra del paragone, he normally did not compose the recitatives in his comic operas. While the recitatives in the Pietra manuscript do not offer clear evidence of being either copies or composing scores, the most likely hypothesis is that Rossini had left composition of the recitatives for the end and could not finish them.
At some point during those anxious days between 10 and 26 September, Rossini again wrote to tell his mother he was very well, and that "I have composed a Finale [for Act I] that made me sweat blood. But it won't be blood that will be seen the first night but [...] it's better to see what the public thinks." Despite the turmoil of La pietra del paragone's gestation, the Milanese public loved it, and "crowds came from Parma, Piacenza, Bergamo, Brescia, and all the towns within ten leagues of Milan. Rossini was the leading personage of the country." (6)
(1) Gioachino Rossini, Lettere e documenti,
edited by Bruno Cagli and Sergio Ragni (Pesaro, 1992-2004), IIIa:22.
(2) Lettere¸ I:34.
(3) Lettere, I:93.
(4) Lettere, IIIa:25.
(5) Lettere, I:37-38.
(6) The manuscript, edited by Anders Wiklund in Edizione critica delle opere di Gioachino Rossini (Pesaro, 1991), is preserved in Stiftelsen Musikkulturens främjande (Nydahl collection) in Stockholm.
(7) Lettere, IIIa:26.
(8) Stendhal, Vie de Rossini (Paris, 1854), 72.
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