Quick. How many Mozart operas can you name? Magic Flute, Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Abduction. Five. Pretty good. How about Puccini? Boheme, Tosca, Butterfly, Turandot, Gianni Schicchi. Also a solid five. Donizetti? L'Elisir, Don Pasquale, Lucia. Three, not bad. Strauss? Salome, Rosenkavalier, Die Fledermaus, Ariadne Auf Naxos? Well, that's an average of two operas per Strauss so I'll let that slide. Beethoven? Just Fidelio? Well he only wrote the one, so that's a hundred percent. And I'm not just listing off the operas I can name off the top of my head, these are the operas that each of these composers have listed on Operabase's top fifty most frequently performed operas.
There are certain one-hit wonders in the opera world. Bizet with Carmen, Leoncavallo with Pagliacci, Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana, and even Strauss with Die Fledermaus. Generally these composers, popular though their individual hits may be, don't get listed as among the greatest opera composers ever. Generally you need a few more than one opera to make that list. Mozart makes it. He's got five in the top fifty. So does Puccini. Verdi has ten. What about Rossini? He's a popular opera composer and renowned as a pretty good one too, right? Well it turns out that although he's the fifth-most commonly performed composer of operas, and regarded as one of the greats, he is just barely on the verge of being a one-hit wonder. Most of his popularity is contained within two operas. Il Barbriere Di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. L'Italiana In Algeri is his next most popular, and within the last five seasons, according to Operabase, it only saw one more production than Bizet's second most popular, The Pearl Fishers. And after that? Il Viaggio A Reims is produced even less than Lehar's Das Land des Lachelns, which I'd never even heard of until I started doing research for this blog post!
What I find interesting here is that Rossini is an acclaimed opera composer, but only two of his operas are in common rotation (and La Cenerentola somehow ranks behind Verdi's Otello and Wagner's Flying Dutchman despite the fact that it's a great deal easier to produce). At the same time, Rossini doesn't get the same treatment as the one-hit wonders. Everyone knows he wrote more than the two operas, and many people can surely even name them. But they're rarely ever produced. (Also, Operabase lists Le Petit Messe Solenelle as an opera, and as Rossini's eighth-most performed work, in between Guillaume Tell and Le Comte Ory.)
This explains the general perception of Rossini as a composer of primarily frivolous comedies, even though throughout his career, his operas covered a wide range of genres, from comedy, to melodrama, to that weird state of things where it feels like it should be a tragedy but nobody dies, to even full on tragedy. It's just that the two most famous happen to be comedies. In fact, the first not-comedy on the list is Guillaume Tell and number seven. Tancredi and Otello follow ranking at ten and twelve respectively. In fact, some of the most famous Rossini excerpts (though not full operas) are from the dramas he wrote for Isabella Colbran. Otello, Armida, Semiramide, La Donna Del Lago, and so on. Not a single comedy among them. Rossini was very good at drama. I consider La Donna Del Lago and Armida to be among his best works, both musically and dramatically. It's sort of similar to the reputation Sullivan gets, the difference being that Sullivan's oeuvre is indeed ninety-percent comedies, and so any of his operas drawn at random is likely to be one, while Rossini's got a fairly even spread. It's just by chance that the two of his operas that bubbled to the top happen to be comedies. For some reason, Mozart doesn't have this reputation, despite the fact that all five of his operas that rank in the top fifty are comedies -- more than twice as many comedies as Rossini has in the top fifty! But then I guess one of those comedies being Don Giovanni does put an edge on things.
I didn't really have a point with this blog post. Just some musings on Rossini, because today happens to be his birthday, and if I don't strike now, I won't get to make a birthday post for him for another four years. Funny how the guy wrote all his operas (nearly forty of them) before his tenth birthday. And they say Mozart was a child prodigy.