Although he lived to the ripe old age of 76, Gioachino Rossini technically only had 19 birthdays. How so? He was born on 29th February 1792, a leap year baby, although I’m sure that didn’t stop Rossini – one of life’s bon viveurs and a true gourmand – from celebrating on the nearest available date each year! He was also one of life’s great wits, evident not only from his sparkling comic operas but also from his amusing bon mots. “Wagner has lovely moments,” he once quipped, “but some terrible quarters of an hour!” 

Gioachino Rossini
© Public domain

Another – “Give me a laundry bill and I will set it to music” – seems to reinforce the impression that composition came easily to Rossini… although he wasn’t always terribly good with deadlines. One frustrated impresario, awaiting the yet-to-be-composed overture to La gazza ladra, locked Rossini in an attic with four stagehands, instructing them to throw the freshly composed pages out of the window so the copyists below could transcribe them. In the absence of any sheets of manuscript, the stagehands were instructed to throw Rossini out of the window instead.

Rossini was, nonetheless, incredibly productive, composing some 40 operas within the space of just 17 years. And then he stopped. When Guillaume Tell premiered in 1829, Rossini (only 37) drew the curtain down on his operatic career. In his long “retirement”, he wrote some sacred music and several albums of chamber music, songs and piano miniatures to be performed at his Parisian salons under the humorous title Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age). 

1Il barbiere di Siviglia

One of Rossini’s evergreen comedies, The Barber of Seville suffered a fiasco at its premiere, mainly due to supporters of Giovanni Paisiello who had already written an opera to the same story. But it’s wonderfully witty and packed full of brilliant tunes, none better than the factotum Figaro’s aria where he introduced himself to the audience. 

2La Cenerentola

Rossini’s take on the Cinderella fairy tale is a little different to the story you were read as a child, but the essence is the same: humble young lady, treated like a servant by her stepsisters, falls in love with a prince. When the plot plays out and she and the prince are married, Cinders – or Angelina as she is known here – forgives her stepsisters and father for their cruelty. The opera’s subtitle is La bontà in trionfo (Goodness Triumphant) after all…

3L’italiana in Algeri

In this Rossini comedy, Isabella, the Italian lady of the title, has sailed to Algiers to rescue her lover, Lindoro, who is a slave of the Bey Mustafà. She is accompanied by Taddeo, who rather fancies Isabella himself. Act 1 concludes with an ensemble of confusion, Rossini has his characters sing lots of onomatopoeic sounds to depict bells ringing, crows cawing and cannons booming – all very silly, but lots of fun and a masterclass in the art of the Rossini crescendo. 

4Guillaume Tell 

Many Rossini operas open with a famous overture and none are more famous than William Tell, the tale of the Swiss freedom fighter. The overture is in four sections: a dawn prelude for five solo cellos; a raging storm; a Ranz des vaches, or call to the cows, where a cor anglais imitates a cowherd’s piping; and a galloping finale, depicting the Swiss soldiers' victorious battle to liberate their homeland from their Austrian oppressors. 


Not all Rossini’s operas are comedies! To illustrate his many excellent opera seria, here is his breakthrough work, Tancredi, composed for the Teatro La Fenice in 1813. Tancredi is a trousers role, written for Adelaide Malanotte-Montresor, and the aria “Di tanti palpiti” is one of Rossini’s most brilliant. 


Despite its toe-tapping overture, Rossini’s Semiramide is serious business. Semiramide, Queen of the Babylonians, has conspired to poison her husband, King Nino. Plagued by guilt she names the young officer Arsace as her heir, unaware that he is her long-lost son who has sworn vengeance for Nino's murder. Their Act 1 duet is one of the opera’s highlights, performed here by the great duo of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. 


Rossini’s Otello isn’t performed as often as Verdi’s more famous creation, not least because it contains four demanding tenor roles. Here, two of today’s finest Rossini tenors, Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee, spar as Otello and Rodrigo in an angry exchange which Desdemona tries to diffuse. 

8Le Comte Ory

Back to opera buffa and the comic capers come thick and fast in Le Comte Ory, a French farce which sees the Count, in hot pursuit of the Countess Adèle, gain entry to her castle disguised as a nun – along with his band of followers. Much silliness ensues, particularly when the “nuns” crack open the wine they've found in the cellar. 

9Petite messe solennelle

“Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. Not much technique, a little bit of heart, that's all. Blessings to you and grant me Paradise.”

Thus runs Rossini’s inscription on the last page of the score of his Petite messe solennelle (which is neither particularly little nor solemn), originally scored for piano and wheezy harmonium. It is one of those late retirement works (composed in 1863) and is a charmer. 

10La danza

The little patter song La danza is from Rossini’s collection Soirées musicales. A Neapolitan tarantella, it has a lively rhythm and is a popular encore number to leave audiences with smiles on their faces, as here with Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano at Wigmore Hall.