Italian Opera Begins with Rossini
Our next stop is at the doorstep of Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868), who wrote thirty-nine operas, as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs and some instrumental and piano pieces. While his best known opera may be the 1816 The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia), his best known work is the overture to William Tell (Guillaume Tell).
Ludwig van Beethoven may have put it best in correspondence, when he said “Ah, Rossini. So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature.”
Speaking of The Barber of Seville, the comic tour de force will always be the aria “Largo al factotum.” Here we have an excellent rendition of the aria by the great baritone, Sherrill Milnes.
Then came Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), whose operas La Sonnambula (1831) and Norma (1835) still are performed regularly as staples in grand opera repetoires. In Norma, the lovely “Casta Diva” features a lilting flute solo in the opening bars that leads into one of the loveliest lyric soprano arias ever written.
Gaetano Donizetti followed (1797-1848) with his major works of L’Elisir d’Amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and Don Pascale (1843); L’Elisir and Don Pascale are considered to be a comic operas, while Lucia is a tragic or grand opera.
One of the most lyric of tenor arias is from L’Elisir d’Amore, “Una Furtive Lagrima,” here sung exquisitely by Enrico Caruso.
Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti are all considered to be writers of bel canto operas.
The distinctions between grand opera and comic opera do not seem relevant to the critical reviews, then or now.