Rossini, the art of laughing beyond humanity

Ho la testa, o è andata via?
Sono a questo, o all’altro mondo?

Have I my head, or is it gone?
Am I in this, or in the other world?

 This is dedicated to the memory of Nicole Good Monhaupt, who loved both the Opéra de Chambre and the French language. I will sadly miss our discussions about a turn of phrase and about finding fitting words for an idea.

Il Signor Bruschino was composed early in 1813, in the middle of an exhilarating period for young Rossini. Everything began in 1810, when the budding musician’s mother asked two of her fellow singers to introduce her eighteen-year old son to the impresario of the theatre San Moisé in Venice. It was the Giustinian family’s little theatre, specialized in one-act farces lasting roughly an hour and a half, a popular genre, easy of access, imported from France – and Venice was part of the French Empire. They were ideally suited to test a would-be composer of operas. After La cambiale di matrimonio proved a success, Rossini soon received commissions for four such little operas: L’inganno felice, L’occasione fa il ladro, La Scala di seta, and Bruschino. Five little masterpieces in which we see Rossini rapidly develop the legacy of Cimarosa and Paisiello, launching his singers into the most difficult of roles abounding in runs and dizzying syllabifications, while enhancing the orchestra with colour and rhythmic momentum that resulted from his being steeped in Haydn and Mozart. It was also during this time that the première of his first long ‘opéra bouffe’ La pietra del paragone took place at La Scala in Milan. In Bruschino, then, we are dealing with a Rossini whose career is about to take off: we can envisage him plunged in rehearsals of his first serious masterpiece Tancredi, which was going to be performed ten days later at La Fenice, Venice’s most important theatre. Bruschino marks his farewell to the world of the farce but also the emergence of a particular comic mechanism that Stendhal called happy madness or ‘comique absolu’.

Let us try to explain step by step this state of joyful excitement into which Rossini’s music transports us time and again, bewitching us like children playing the same game a thousand times over. First of all, in order to produce a farce that can be set to music, the librettist has to make the original comedy undergo a radical simplification: this involves eliminating characters, whole scenes and subplots, reducing it to its basic framework, its pure dramatic mechanism. This is what Giuseppe Foppa does with Le fils par hazard, by a certain Allisan de Chazet: all that remains are a couple of young lovers surrounded by a pack of neurotic adults. The newly wealthy guardian Gaudenzio, formerly a farmer (given the name of ‘Strappapuppole’, one who tears unwanted mushrooms out of the earth under the olive-trees), is a narcissist who is too engrossed with himself to be able to control the situation; the innkeeper Filiberto, obsessed by the idea of recuperating his credit, can only talk about money; the totally foolish police officer is so used to being plunged in paperwork that he cannot see anything going on in the real world. As for Bruschino, he is a tired and disillusioned father. Instead of words and arguments, all we hear is a series of imprecations and automatic reflexes. The Officer mechanically repeats Oh, niente (‘ça n’est pas dolosif’, in the original), while Bruschino’s body and language are marked by his conflict with his debauched son in an almost Freudian manner: he limps, suffers from gout, and obsessively repeats the phrase Uh! Che caldo!, ingeniously unfitted to the atmosphere. Everyone hears and reiterates his own neurosis. Deprived of all trimmings and reduced to their essence, these characters are ready for cooking by Rossini’s music. Bruschino, who is accused of being a degenerate father and who is a victim of the deception that forces him to recognize as his own a son that isn’t his, experiments with a condition for which our composer has a predilection: a crisis of knowledge and a confused mind that befuddles everyone. To be sure, changing identities, or role swapping, is part of the perennial stock and trade of comedy, but it is deployed in an original, truly musical manner by Rossini, who relishes increasing the resulting crisis to the point where the characters are under such pressure that they can only do one thing: cease being human, stop trying to understand, and become musical mechanisms.

It’s quite simple: the recitative brings the positions out into the open, the words here are human and the dialogue is just about normal. When the orchestra begins to play, the atmosphere warms up, but we are still in the very human situation where characters respond emotionally to events. The wheel turns faster and faster until a fortissimo, generally a suspended chord in the dominant, announces that the curtain is about to be torn. Then words are no longer words, but syllables bouncing forth between cascades of notes; the orchestra builds irresistible crescendos, repeating a phrase while adding various instruments to it and shortening it until it is reduced to a joyfully recurring cadence. On stage, language is no longer human or reasonable, every one has become music and has entered an ‘other’ world that is completely removed from reality. If it is given us here on earth to approach a paradise consisting of pure musical pleasure, then the objective has been reached. This is precisely what ‘comique absolu’ – in the sense of Latin ab-solutus, free of all constraints and devoid of all reference – is about. Once the piece is has been played, the recitative returns – as though nothing had happened – and the path is resumed while waiting for the next crescendo.

The most effective path emerges from the characters’ confrontation, which explains why Bruschino abounds in ensembles, whereas there are but few solos (except for the beautiful Ah donate il caro sposo, composed for the prima donna, with the English horn lending it a special colour). This allows Rossini to freeze his disoriented humans in adagios of stupor, or, instead, to whip them into a frenzy of musical non-sense. It is a mechanism to be found everywhere, but its energy peaks, on stage and in the orchestra, when poor Bruschino comes face-to-face with a ‘son’ he has never seen and, above all, when the Police decrees (of all things!) that the fellow really is his son.

The final turn of events has a surprise in store for us: the sudden appearance of a character who was the cause of all these complications, even though he has done nothing. Bruschino junior, the debauched son, to every one’s astonishment turns up to the tune of a march in minor. He too is nothing but music; it only takes a few bars for his repentance to fray and dissolve into pure rhythm: Sono pentito-tito-tito-tito. It is the last time before the joyous finale that breath is suspended.

Such is the miracle that is effected by Rossini in his early farces and that will constitute the backbone of his dramatic art: one never tires of reliving his elegant game of entering and exiting paradise, stopping and starting again. It suggests nostalgia for a world of lost innocence, a beneficial experience of lightness, the joy of rediscovering over and over that it is possible to touch heaven while laughing.

by Riccardo Mascia / trad. MB