Rossini is serious business for Anna Bonitatibus. The mezzo-soprano is a passionate advocate for the composer, having sung in a number of his operas, but having also conducted a huge amount of research into his life. We met shortly after the opening night of Semiramide at Covent Garden – the first time the Royal Opera has staged it in over a century. It was a bittersweet moment as it’s an opera which has long fascinated her, so she is naturally disappointed never to have sung the title role on stage. A few years ago, Bonitatibus engaged in a long project delving into the historical character and her many operatic incarnations.

Anna Bonitatibus © Frank Bonitatibus
Anna Bonitatibus
© Frank Bonitatibus

She feels responsible for the revival of interest. “Italian artists and composers made a big monument of this woman. I was curious to find the point of contact between the way she was represented in the arts and the real woman.” She wags a finger. “There is no trace of incest in the real story. There are many other sides to her than superficial gossip. Semiramis took the crown – her son was too young when she was widowed – and she became the ‘regent queen’. She didn’t allow herself to be called queen until her son was old enough to rule.”

When Rossini wrote Semiramide in 1823 – his final opera seria for Italy – Isabella Colbran had already sung three other versions. Just after Rossini had arrived in Naples in 1815, Colbran was singing Nasolini’s La morte di Semiramide. She requested new music for the Act 1 finale and Rossini composed it, adapting an aria from La cambiale di matrimonio, an early example of his ability for recycling. Colbran became Rossini’s muse and they married in 1822. “Everything Rossini wrote for Isabella was opera seria. She was eight years older than him. By the time she came to sing Semiramide at La Fenice, she had contracted gonorrhea from Rossini and was already in a bad state. So the part was written for what she could sing at the time, with no top Cs. She was absolutely a soprano and not a mezzo! She was a kind of Callas – a tall woman with a striking face and lots of personality and great theatrical qualities. Semiramide was her last new role.

Anna Bonitatibus as Semiramide © Frank Bonitatibus
Anna Bonitatibus as Semiramide
© Frank Bonitatibus

“We know that in Napoli pitch was pretty low but in Venice, where Semiramide premiered, it was pretty high, which can explain why the part of Arsace lies so low. The fact that Rossini didn’t give Semiramide a top C and the way the music was written – in this opera the coloratura is very often descending rather than going up – helps you understand many things about the first interpreter and her situation.”

I suggest that Semiramide is Rossini’s greatest Italian opera seria of all, but some of the naysayers on opening night at Covent Garden found it long and musically tedious. Bonitatibus blames attitudes of German musicology towards Italian bel canto, attitudes that persist today with “fussy” Regietheater. “The problem with Semiramide is the way in which it has been represented. If you push the story towards murder and incest you are not being true to the libretto or to the music. If directors are afraid of Norma or Semiramide because they are static, then they have problems; the music is massively beautiful. If you look at the score and the dynamics, it is not static at all. Please, directors, look at the music, otherwise just get a CD and use it as a movie soundtrack.

Anna Bonitatibus © Frank Bonitatibus
Anna Bonitatibus
© Frank Bonitatibus

“Rossini played the game of false modesty,” Bonitatibus explains, “saying very little about his music because he said what he had to say with his music. Rossini met Wagner in 1864 when he went to Paris for Tannhäuser. According to Edmond Michotte, we know that they had a very interesting conversation about musical form. Wagner told Rossini that ‘closed form’ – separate arias, duets – was finished and Rossini, denigrating himself, confessed that he was only born for opera buffa! Yet he wrote about 40 operas and most of them were opera seria rather than comic operas. Opera seria was Wagnerian in structure – just look at Semiramide. How can people who are intolerant of the long first act of Semiramide approach five hours of Wagner without flinching a muscle?! It’s packed with great music. Every two bars you have a new melody.

I ask why Rossini – so incredibly successful – retired from composing opera so early (he was just 37 when his final opera Guillaume Tell premiered). “I’m still working that out,” Bonitatibus muses. “The more I learn, the greater the question marks. I admire when a gentleman or a lady knows the moment to retire gracefully. Rossini did it early. He was tired. Can you imagine writing five operas a year for 20 years? And travelling around Europe? It must have been exhausting. Also, opera was developing so fast, but Rossini had no need to demonstrate what new things he could do. However, listen to his Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age) composed in retirement. This is the true testament of Rossini – they’re impressionistic, almost like Debussy. ‘I’m writing music not because I need to do it but because I can’t do without it,’ which explains that the composer in him was always there.

“Italians called Rossini il Tedeschino – the Little German – but why? Because he was responsible for writing vertical rather than horizontal scores, with full orchestrations. Rossini loved horns and even in his early operas he used four of them in his scores, evoking nature. Guillaume Tell is the apotheosis of this.

“And Rossini was probably the only composer – along with Verdi, who comes a little bit later – who gave ‘good’ characters and ‘evil’ characters the same sort of beautiful music. It was the most wonderful development. Assur’s music is as beautiful as Semiramide’s, possibly even more. His duet with Arsace is incredible. This is Rossini’s aesthetic – that the bad and the good have the same music. Verdi developed this; some of the best music in Don Carlo is the duet between the two basses.”

Anna Bonitatibus (Tancredi) © Marc Vanappelghem | Opéra de Lausanne
Anna Bonitatibus (Tancredi)
© Marc Vanappelghem | Opéra de Lausanne

Rossini could also challenge his public. “Tancredi originally had a happy ending, but Luigi Lechi persuaded Rossini to rewrite it and have a tragic finale where the hero dies. This was the first time we see such a thing on the Italian stage. It was a shock for people to see Rossini kill his hero and it was badly received and the finale tragico was not used for years.”

I remark that Rossini’s music seems so difficult to sing. You can hear singers get away with things in Puccini, but if someone is not able to sing Rossini well, it stands out like a sore thumb. “It’s some of the most difficult music to sing,” she nods. “The challenge is to show how perfect his melodies are, written on the perfect harmonic structure.

“Rossini was a big admirer of castrato technique, although he only ever wrote for one – Giambattista Velluti in Aureliano in Palmira. Orchestras were much less loud and voices didn’t need to be as big in those days. When you see the theatres where his early operas were performed, such as the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice where L'italiana in Algeri premiered, there really was no need to scream. And at this time, they adapted the opera while it was being performed. If they didn’t sing well they would cut an aria, or intersperse another aria. Nowadays, we do the composers true service by being true to the scores. Composers in Rossini’s day were often victims of singers. When Rossini put on Barbiere, Manuel Garcia [who sang Almaviva] took three times Rossini’s salary. The tenor was the star. Now, composers are victims of directors! I am an anti-diva... I am at the service of the music.

Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella) in <i>L'italiana in Algeri</i> © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella) in L'italiana in Algeri
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

“We shouldn’t allow opera orchestras to play so loud with the pitch so high,” she remarks. I suggest that use of period instruments should therefore help Rossini singers. “Can you put that in capital letters, please?!” Bonitatibus exclaims. “Since Neanderthal times, the human shape hasn’t changed much. We’ve got a bit taller but we’re pretty much the same as 200 years ago, but orchestras have changed enormously. We live in an amplified world which escapes my intelligence... everything must be louder! When you seen Venetian theatres, they weren’t that big or that loud.”

I wonder if young singers are properly prepared in Rossini technique. “Are they ready to sing Rossini? They don’t know Rossini! When young singers ask me what they should sing in auditions, I ask them what they’ve prepared. Do you really think you can get a contract with “Non so più”?! No, you should sing something difficult, the most difficult that you can sing while still controlling your nerves. This is what will open doors and make an impact.”

For Bonitatibus, the role of the interpreter is key. “I don’t like it when singers copy the ornaments from, say, Callas singing “Una voce poco fa” – this is wrong. You need to find your own way in order to make the aria fresh. Listening is important, but not imitation. You need to stamp your personality on the music.” This Italian mezzo stamps her personality on everything, but in the most charming way.


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