Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; 2018 sees the 150th anniversary of his death, but the same century-and-a-half anniversary of his last major work took place in 1979! A leap-year birthday, he became famous in his early 20s after only five actual 29 February birthdays, and retired from composing – bar a few smaller-scale works – in 1829 aged officially 9, but actually 37, by which time he had written no less than 38 operas. Subsequently he became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos.
His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6) and in 1817 he completed no’ less than three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain . geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.
Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write one which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.
Rossini’s operas tend to fall into two categories – Opera Serio or ‘serious’ operas (such as Semiramide, whose overture MSO performed last November) and Opera Buffa or ‘comic’ operas. Some, a mixture of seria and buffa, are known as dramma giocoso (from which we get our word ‘jocose’ – ‘given to jocularity’) and L’ltaliana in Algeri falls into this category .
Written, it is said, in a mere eighteen days by the 21-year-old Rossini, the opera is unusual in that the composer made the decisi’n to ask a colleague to write all the recitatives, which no doubt accelerated the composition process. Its premiere took place in Venice on 22 May 1813, the very day upon which one
Richard Wagner was born in ·Leipzig, and a fortnight after the birth of Johannes Brahms in Hamburg. The Italian Girl was an instant success, although Rossini still continued to revise it as it made its way round Europe, finally reaching London in 1819. The plot concerns the Bey Mustafa who, bored with his harem, instructs his Italian servant Haly (Ali) to find him an Italian girl, but Ali’s find, a shipwreck victim called Isabella, is more than a match for him, and she succeeds not only in humiliating him but also in reconciling him with his favourite consort, Elvira.
As with The Thieving Magpie overture above, Rossini wrote an original overture rather than recycling other material, and The Italian Girl has become one of his most popular. The slow introduction begins with deadpan pizzicato upper-strings but a note of humour arrives soon with several nods in the direction of the shock tactics employed by Haydn in his Surprise Symphony (No 94). The surprise chords continue into the start of the Allegro, where the woodwind begin to distinguish themselves with rapid tonguing in a characteristically perky opening theme, shortly taken up by the strings. A short example of Rossini’s trademark crescendi leads us to the first crisis involving scything scale-passages and trumpet fanfares . Soon a neat little bridge passage in the cellos leads us to the crisply elegant second subject, introduced by the oboe and answered by the flute, then a conversation between first and second violins and woodwind heralds a fully-fledged crescendo lasting eighteen bars and culminating in a dramatic climax. A short recitative for the firsts takes us into the recap of the main themes and finally a triumphant Coda.