If there were nothing notable about it, New England Conservatory Opera’s upcoming production of Rossini’s “La Gazzetta” would still be a significant event. The 1816 comic opera is virtually unknown, despite the fact that it was composed between two of Rossini’s masterpieces, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and “La Cenerentola.”
But the production has much more going for it. It is the US premiere of the critical edition of the opera, published in 2002. Even more notable, it will include what is in all likelihood the world premiere of an Act 1 vocal quintet that was discovered only in 2011. Audience members will, for the first time, be able to hear “La Gazzetta” in its complete form.
The man responsible for making the piece whole is Philip Gossett, professor emeritus of music at the University of Chicago, co-editor of the critical edition, and leading expert on 19th-century Italian opera. Gossett discovered the lost quintet and is consulting with NEC on its production. When he speaks about “La Gazzetta,” he does so with both a deep love of Rossini’s music and a scholar’s penchant for plunging deep into the historical details about how Rossini composed, and what his audiences expected.
The reasons for the opera’s obscurity, Gossett said in a recent interview, have to do with the composer’s habit of borrowing from his own works. “When Rossini went to a new place, he first presented himself in works that were derived from other works. What he tended to do was to look at previous music he had written that was not known in that place.” (Listeners who hear the NEC production of “La Gazzetta” may recognize its overture: Rossini would reuse it in “La Cenerentola.”)
For “La Gazzetta,” which was written for the Teatro de’ Fiorentini in Naples, Rossini drew considerably on music he had written for “Il Turco in Italia” and “La Pietra del Paragone.” The self-borrowing gave it “a fairly bad reputation . . . and there were very few performances in the 19th century.” Yet, Gossett continued, “it’s a very funny opera, lots of things happen. And the things that he chooses from other works to introduce here are among the best things he wrote.”
“La Gazzetta” centers on Don Pomponio, a grandiloquent Neapolitan who, while in Paris, places an ad about his daughter Lisetta in a newspaper, hoping to marry her off. But Lisetta has already fallen in love with Filippo, who runs the inn where the two are staying. Meanwhile, a traveler named Alberto falls for another girl, Doralice, believing that she is the one in the ad. Confusion and hilarity ensue.
The opera was tailored to the Neapolitan audiences, especially the part of Don Pomponio. The part was written for a famous comic actor named Carlo Casaccia. “Everyone loved him,” Gossett said. “The result is that there is much more recitative in this piece than in just about any other opera, partly because everyone was going to hear Mr. Casaccia do his thing, which was always in [Neapolitan] dialect.” (Interestingly, Rossini wrote none of the music for the recitatives, leaving the task to his assistants.)
In fact, it’s the large quantity of recitative that may explain why the quintet went AWOL in the first place. The text for the quintet is present in the original printed libretto, but no music had surfaced at the time Gossett and his co-editor prepared the critical edition of “La Gazzetta” in 2002. It wasn’t clear whether Rossini had even composed music for it. Gossett speculates that the opera was so long with all the recitative that Rossini decided to drop it from the opera. Also missing were the recitatives leading into and out of the quintet. (Gossett composed those himself.)
Yet in 2011, a manuscript was turned up in the Conservatory of Palermo that had never been properly catalogued. The librarian sent its contents to Gossett. Among them was a piece in Rossini’s hand, simply labeled “Quintetto.” “As soon as I saw it,” Gossett said, “I knew what it was.”
A close examination of the music of the quintet opens a window onto Rossini’s creative process. It’s in three parts, the first of which seems to have been newly composed for “La Gazzetta.” The second and third parts both make use of music from other operas, “La Scala di Seta” and “Il Barbiere,” respectively. Yet in each case the material is reworked and refashioned, so that the results have audible roots in the earlier works yet also sound new and different.
What the quintet shows, Gossett said, is that even when he plunders his own work, Rossini isn’t mechanically repeating himself. Instead, “he’s paying attention to the details of this particular performance of this piece.”
With the quintet restored, and a large hole in the opera now closed, Gossett is confident that “La Gazzetta” is now musically complete. He noted that since today’s listeners are less troubled by the self-borrowing, “I think that it is an opera that is easy for a viewer to understand and appreciate — much more now than it may have been in the 19th century.”