Monday, 29 February 2016

TODAY IN BIRTHDAYS: GIOACHINO ROSSINI - LEAP YEAR BABY

Gioachino Rossini
February’s aria of the month goes to “Dal tuo stellato soglio” (Upon your starry throne) from Act III of master of the opera buffa and “Signor Crescendo" Gioachino Rossini’s epic biblical opera Mosè in Egitto[1] / Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge (Moses in Egypt/Moses and Pharaoh, or The Crossing of the Red Sea).

The aria, featuring a prayer sung by a chorus of Jews (the opera’s theme being loosely related to the biblical tale of Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea) was considered unrivaled amongst opera aficionados at the height of the 19th century.

The powerful prayer, led by the Hebrew prophet Moses, who leads the chorus in a brief sermon upon the banks of the Red Sea in the Opera’s third act, was actually an addition to maestro Rossini’s 1819 revision of the work. The aria itself was an immediate and ravishing success. According to 19th century writer and Rossini biographer Stendhal (aka Marie-Henri Beyle) “Dal Tuo…” apparently had some serious psychophysiological effects on a slew of demoiselles in the opera theater's audience, which he describes via a discussion with "noted Neapolitan physician" Dr. Cotugno in his work “Life of Rossini”:

“Cotugno, the most celebrated doctor in Naples, once remarked to me during the furore which first greeted Mosè in Egitto: Among the many and glorious titles which may be showered upon your hero, one should include that of murderer. I could quote you more than forty cases of brain-fever or of violent nervous convulsions among young ladies with an over-ardent passion for music, brought on exclusively by the Jews' Prayer in the third act, with its extraordinary change of key…”

Of course, by modern standards, this cringe worthy display of hysterics sounds both preposterous and reminiscent of the urban legends surrounding the audiences of a certain late-twentieth century cinematic masterpiece, who, according to popular folklore, also succumbed to suffering attacks of syncope and cardiac arrest[2] - I am referring, of course, to the premiere(s) of virtually all of the films belonging to the Exorcist franchise (or, come to think of it, almost any other artistic depiction of the matters of heaven and hell, for that matter), but what it does succeed in conveying to both contemporary and modern melophiles is the accurate portrayal of it's composer as a force to be reckoned with. Such grandiose tales of legend as regaled by Cotugno only serve to underscore Rossini’s placehold as a major contender (albeit a controversial one) in 19th century operatic circles.

Fun Fact: February’s aria of the month was selected in celebration of the 224th birthday of composer Gioachino Rossini, a famous leap year baby who, in 1864, on his 72nd birthday, humorously organized a grand celebration in Paris for his “18th" birthday. He died, 19 years “young,” in November of 1868.

Buon compleanno!

The celebrated prayer from Act III of Mosè in Egitto:


Footnotes:
[1]Mosè in Egitto in fact went through two revisions: a ‘minor’ one in 1819 (it was this in this revision that the aria “Dal tuo stellato soglio” would be added to the opera); and a rather grand retooling in 1827 with a new selection of music and a ballet added to the work. This, in addition to setting the opera to a French Libretto prompted Rossini to title the work in French: “Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge.” Although both the 1819 version of the opera and it’s 1827 successor contain the aria in question, the latter revision was considered by contemporary audiences as an altogether separate opera from it’s predecessor.

[2]This is not to suggest that the "extraordinary change of key" to which Dr. Cotungno refers is anything but gooseflesh inducing, which it undeniably is.
-Rose.

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