The Neapolitan Nine: Rossini's Serious Operas

Friday 11 May 2018

Although Gioachino Rossini
is one of the most performed opera composers, it’s only in recent years his
more virtuosic and dramatic operas (otherwise known as opera seria) have moved
to a higher rotation on our stages. Rossini composed the following operas whilst
residing in Naples between the years 1815 and 1822. At the time, Naples was
considered a musical hub for some of the finest European musicians and he wrote
with those virtuosi in mind. Now known and grouped together as the Neapolitan
Nine, these productions are incredible difficult to cast due to the demanding
nature of the music. In our Rossini:
Fireworks!
 performances, English Touring Opera features arias from many of the operas below, so let’s
take a closer look at some of these pieces and why they are a must hear!

1. Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra (1815)When writing Elisabetta, Rossini recycled a lot of his own music from previous works. However it would have sounded fresh to the people of Naples, as it is unlikely that Rossini’s previous operas had reached the city. One of the melodies came from his piece Aureliano in Palmira, and this formed the basis of the overture (it also went on to be the foundation of The Barber of Seville overture). The opera is in two acts, with a libretto written by Giovanni Schmidt, which is based on the play The Page of Leicester by Carlo Federici. The title translates as Elizabeth, Queen of England, and is a historical opera that is based around royal politics and the tragedy surrounding themes of betrayal and death.
ETO will be touring Elisabetta in our Spring 2019 tour.Recommended listening: ’Della cieca fortuna‘.

2. Otello (1816)One of Rossini’s more well-known serious operas, Otello, is not actually based on Shakespeare’s play, Othello, as you may think. Instead, the opera is based on a French adaptation of the story, with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi. Rossini’s Otello was a cornerstone for serious opera, as he explored a new flowing dramatic style, and this new way of writing influenced many opera composers to come (including Verdi). As well as tackling themes of revenge, deceit and death, the opera didn’t have a happy ending, which was unusual for early 19th century operas.

Recommended listening: Assisa a’ pie d’un salice

3. Armida (1817)

Based on scenes from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, Rossini’s opera Armida presents underlying themes of anger, desire, and seduction. The libretto was written by Giovanni Schmidt, and follows the sorceress Armida, as she begins her quest to enslaving some of the best soldiers from the Crusaders. The opera has many twists and turns, and there is a dichotomy of love and war, which is threaded throughout the story.

Recommended listening: Dov’E… Dove si cela?’ 

4. Mose in Egitto (1818)
Based on the 1760 play L’Osiride, by Francesco Ringhieri, Mose in Egitto is a three-act opera that focuses on the Hebrews’ journey to the Promised Land. Largely based around themes of religion and power, Mose in Egitto is an effective interpretation of a well-known Bible story. In 1827 Rossini revised the work with the new title: Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge (Moses and Pharoah, or The Crossing of the Red Sea). It is unlikely you’ll see the original opera, as the revived version is easier for companies to access and perform.

Recommended listening: Dal tuo stellato soglio’ 

5. Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818)
Composed in the same year as Mose in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide is a two-act opera that is full of drama, love and historical symbolism. Based on Niccolò Forteguerri’s epic poem Il Ricciardetto, this opera is adventurous in both its story and its music.

Recommended listening: S’ella mi e ognore fedele 

6. Ermione (1819)Ermione is one of Rossini’s tragic operas. It has an Italian libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, and is based on the play Andromaque by Jean Racine. Although many of Rossini’s operas were successful when he was alive, Ermione was suddenly withdrawn from theatre after only seven performances. It is still largely unknown today as to why this was, but some have speculated it was because of the musical structure and style. This opera remained unperformed for over one hundred years after Rossini’s death. The tale follows tragic themes of suicide, jealousy and unrequited love.

Recommended listening: 
A cosi trista immagine’. 

7. La donna del lago (1819)
Known as The Lady of the Lake in English, this opera marked another shift in Rossini’s compositional style. Based on the narrative poem of the same name by Sir Walter Scott, this piece developed Rossini’s romantic style further. Again, this is another opera that was not very popular when first premiered, and it wasn’t until the mid-1950s when La donna del lago was accepted by European audiences. It’s now a popular and often performed work. Unrequited love is the central theme of this opera, with King James V instantly falling in love with Elena, however she rejects his advances, and keeps her distance from him. It’s also one of Joyce DiDonato’s signature roles.

Recommended listening:
Mura felici’.

8. Maometto II (1820)
Based in the 1470s when the Turks and Venetians were at war, Maometto II is dramatic both in its story and within the music. Based around the war, nationality and protecting family honour, the piece ends with a dramatic death in a family tomb. This opera is certainly deserving of more of an audience than it currently enjoys, so if you ever find it’s on at a theatre, it is a must see!

Recommended listening:
Non Temer: d’un basso affetto’. 

 9. Zelmira (1822)
The last opera in Rossini’s ‘Neapolitan Nine’ is based on the French play Zelmire by de Belloy. This opera is complicated in its plot, but is largely based around the characters of Zelmira, and her father Polidoro. The premise of this plot is that Zelmira’s failed suitor tried to assassinate her father and take the throne, however he failed and was killed. Out of all the operas listed, Zelmira actually has a happy ending, as our protagonist and her father are finally reunited with their family after being locked up as prisoners. This complex opera is dramatic, exciting, and full of some of Rossini’s most dynamic writing.

Recommended listening: Riedi al soglio, irata stella’.

Discover more: whatson.englishtouringopera.org.uk

© Alex Burns 2018
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