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Note Perfect

Part critic, part detective, U. of C. opera scholar Philip Gossett has some scores to settle


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In 1968 La Scala in Milan, the mother church of Italian opera, presented Gioacchino Rossini's The Siege of Corinth to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer's death. Philip Gossett--world-renowned musicologist, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and adviser to some of opera's best-known impresarios and singers--thought the production was a travesty. The company made cuts in the music he calls "absurd," and it hired Beverly Sills to sing the role of the heroine. Her voice was "much, much, much too high for the part," so she had to sing some of the music an octave above what was scored. "We know that when singers needed to have things fixed for them in the score in the 19th century you fixed them," he says. "But you did it within certain limits!"

When the Metropolitan Opera performed The Siege of Corinth a few years later--the celebrated occasion of Sills's long-overdue Met debut--Gossett was asked to give a talk about the opera at the New York Public Library the day before. Never a diplomat, he laid out the shortcomings of the production, in front of an audience that contained every music critic in town. "Afterwards," he says. "Beverly gave an interview in which she complained that "some so-called musicologists remind me of middle-aged men who talk about sex.' And that was Beverly Sills on Phil Gossett."

But if anyone knows what he's talking about when it comes to Rossini, it's Gossett, editor of critical editions of Rossini's works, as well as critical editions of Giuseppe Verdi's works and scads of articles and reviews. "It's great to sit down and have a conversation with someone like Phil," says diva Marilyn Horne, a Rossini proselytizer. "Nobody else knows the things he knows, especially in the detail in which he knows them."

Gossett's editorial team occupies a small office in the U. of C. humanities building that's full of posters, heaps of music, bookshelves, computers, and students. He picks up the enormous score of Rossini's last and most intimidating opera, William Tell, which comes in five volumes, and shows it off with near-paternal pride. Each volume contains commentaries, details, sources, and line-by-line documentation. The publishers, G. Ricordi and the Rossini Foundation, try to keep the cost of the piano-vocal scores down--L'Italiana in Algeri will set you back only about $25--but the price of a full score ranges from $200 to $350 a volume. Scholarship doesn't come cheap.

So far there are critical editions of 11 operas, two volumes of cantatas, and two volumes of "Sins of My Old Age," a collection of songs, piano pieces, and chamber works published only after Rossini's death. Several more volumes are ready to go. The whole Rossini set, including the 40 operas and other works, will ultimately come to 70 volumes. Gossett says offhandedly, "I will not live to see it."

Born in 1941 in New York, Gossett listened to the weekly broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera starting at a very young age. He began taking piano lessons when he was five, and by the time he was in high school was studying piano at the Juilliard and spending his Saturday afternoons taking in operas from the standing-room section of the old Met. "Even then my favorite was Italian opera," he says.

But he never believed music could be a career, and as an undergraduate at Amherst College he discovered physics, which seemed to have more possibilities. He kept up with his music, serving as accompanist for the Smith-Amherst Glee Club, but then he had to make a choice between touring Europe with the glee club and accepting a fellowship to the oceanographic institute at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "I decided it was time to get serious. So I went to Woods Hole, and I spent two months solving partial differential equations. And after two months I decided that if I never saw a partial differential equation again in my life it would be too soon."

With the blessings of his physics adviser he took a year off to take music courses at Columbia University, paying his way with a church organist-choirmaster job and various other gigs. By the end of the year he'd decided to go to graduate school at Princeton to study music history. He wound up studying virtually everything but Italian opera, though when it came time for his dissertation he returned to his first love.

It was 1965, and his professors "looked at me as if I was nuts--no serious scholar was interested in Italian opera!" Undaunted, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study how Italian opera composers and their music developed when they went to France, a trek every significant 19th-century composer made.

He decided to start by looking over the music of the prolific and occasionally profligate Gioacchino Rossini. He'd composed 40 operas, but in 1965 was known for exactly one, The Barber of Seville--and that in a debased version with the music of the heroine, originally a mezzo, transposed upward so that sopranos like Beverly Sills could sing it. His only other well-known music consisted of a couple of overtures, particularly that of William Tell, the theme of numerous cartoons and the Lone Ranger.

Rossini's music is characterized by a heavy use of coloratura--fancy, fast-moving, and highly ornamental vocal runs and trills. Singing it requires a well-developed and flexible vocal technique, something not easy to come by. When Gossett started working many people thought that the kind of singers who could perform such music properly had died out shortly after Rossini retired.

Gossett began with the first opera Rossini wrote for the Academie Royale de Musique in Paris, The Siege of Corinth, written in French and based on one of his Italian works, Maometto II. He discovered that various scores of the same opera were different. "I tried to look at Maometto II. I called up one score, and it had a tragic ending. And then I called up another score--and it had a happy ending!"

The same thing was true of the next opera he studied. Gossett was hooked, both by the puzzle and by the "beautiful, beautiful music." He gave up trying to research a variety of Italian composers. "I realized that I had more than enough to do simply to work on Rossini's music. The challenge lay in discovering which version of a given work was Rossini's original, which changes he had made, which cuts he had approved, which variations he had offered. The problem was that, although Rossini was a major composer, virtually nothing was known about his works--and there were no tools to help scholars learn something about them. I had no way of judging the history of any given work--of dating the various scores, of learning who prepared them and why."

The most intriguing clues he found lay in the librettos, the "plays" the composer had set to music. "For every performance in the first half of the 19th century they used to print a new libretto. It was as if Lyric Opera, instead of selling a standard libretto, would actually print the libretto that had the text they were going to sing--reflecting all the cuts, the changes, the interpolations. They did that regularly in the 19th century, but no one had ever figured out how to use this as a tool for learning something about the history of the work."

Rossini's works are particularly difficult to sort out, because his operas were given so many productions in different theaters and he was forever making revisions. "Rossini was working in the theater day by day, just the way a modern Broadway composer might work," says Gossett. Sometimes Rossini, pressed for time, would even assign a piece to another composer, then later replace it with his own version.

The problem was made more difficult by the fact that changes in operas in the 19th century--when opera tended to be seen as entertainment rather than art--were often made whether the composer was involved or not. It's tantamount to sacrilege to change so much as a fermata in a score by Richard Wagner, but earlier operas were treated much more casually. Sometimes the score was changed to suit local tastes. Sometimes an impresario would just plop in a number by another composer. And if theaters wanted to perform, say, The Siege of Corinth and didn't have a soprano or a bass who could handle the music, they would simply alter the score to suit the voices of the singers they did have. Sometimes it's difficult to look at a libretto and figure out what's by Rossini and what's by some other hand. Sometimes his originals got lost altogether.

At this point in his detective work, Gossett says, he realized two major things. "First, that this was wonderful music, and music which, for the most part, had never been heard in living memory. The second thing was that even if a theater had wanted to perform it, there was no way for them to find music written in a form that was reasonably authentic--every score was different from every other score."

Determining what's authentic might seem to be only a question of details

Gossett put in two years traveling around Europe, visiting libraries, looking through their catalogs, and digging up autographs (manuscripts in the composer's own handwriting). He found a lost cantata here, a missing aria there. At the end of the two years, he says, "I had a pretty good handle on where Rossini's sources were." And he was convinced that a series of critical editions was needed.

A critical edition represents an attempt to reconstruct and present a composer's original intentions for his music, before performance practices, less-talented performers, and tradition got to them. Today's audiences, trained by the likes of Wagner--who, according to Gossett, "tried to control every note being sung"--expect to hear the music essentially as it was written, performed consistently in an authentic style.

Obviously the numerous versions of pieces that Rossini wrote could make for difficult choices. But, says Gossett, "If Rossini did it, we include it. There isn't a right version or a wrong one. Often the original version is better, because it comes from genuine artistic conviction, not from the particular needs of a particular later singer. But sometimes the later version is a definite improvement."

The critical editions also make note of pieces that Rossini didn't write. "In the Paris Opera there are some manuscripts of Rossini's Moise that have added music. At first we didn't know from where it came. Later study of contemporary documentation, newspaper reports, etcetera made clear it was added by Michele Carafa for a performance at the opera in 1862--without Rossini's participation. So now we know. And when we do the critical edition of Moise we will mention this revision, but we won't include the music in our score."

Critical editions are particularly important to today's musicians, who often sing and play music from several centuries, from pre-Renaissance to contemporary, and can't carry all the stylistic niceties in their heads. "Italian composers in the 19th century didn't expect their operas to be printed," says Gossett. "It just wasn't the habit. You might print reductions for piano, but never a full score. So they prepared their full scores in ways that depended upon performers knowing the style and what to do--the way a pop singer today doesn't need to be told every detail about the way of performing a song in a style he's accustomed to. But a 20th-century musician--who plays Berg one night and Monteverdi another night, and Wagner a third, Verdi, Puccini, and then a Rossini opera--doesn't have that kind of detailed knowledge of every style. So you've got to give them more information, which means an editor has to fill in a great deal in the way of dynamic levels, articulation, and so on. The scores give us some hints--generally, they give us pretty good hints. But we have to fill things in. We use square brackets to show where the editors have added something. You've got to figure out what it is that the composer wanted--and try to get it right, make it consistent, have a certain kind of coherence."

It was exquisite timing that shortly after Gossett returned to America in the late 60s he met the driving force behind what was to become a Rossini revival: the phenomenal mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who has an extraordinarily wide vocal range, a distinctive color, or timbre, to her voice, outstanding musicianship, and the ability to toss off the most intricate coloratura passages as if they were no more complicated than "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She was well-suited to the Rossini repertoire, and she wanted to sing it. And as she grew in star power, opera companies around the world were forced to take a look at this unfamiliar music.

Horne gave Gossett a special project. She wanted to sing the title role in Rossini's Crusader yarn Tancredi, but she didn't like the sappy happy ending that tradition had attached to it. Could he find her the tragic ending she'd heard existed?

Gossett promised to try, but it wasn't until after he began working with the Rossini Foundation in 1971 that he came up with anything. The Rossini Foundation, heir to the composer's estate, including many of his manuscripts, had worked out a deal with music publisher G. Ricordi to put together critical editions of Rossini's operas, with Gossett as editor in chief. "One day we receive a letter at the foundation. It's from a man by the name of Count Giacomo Lechi in Brescia. And Count Lechi says, "I've been looking around my family's collection here, and I find something that looks to be a Rossini autograph, but we don't know what it is. Can you help us?' And he sends a photocopy of it. And the foundation sends it to me and says, "What is this?' I take a look at it, and I say, "Oh my God! It's the tragic finale of Tancredi!' Over the transom, so to speak!"

Rossini had written the happy ending for the first performance, in Venice in February 1813, changing the ending of Voltaire's tragedy on which the opera was based. "Tragic endings were very unusual in Italian opera at the time," says Gossett. "The idea of concluding an opera with a very slow death scene, accompanied by strings alone and a clarinet, was unheard of. It was typical to bring everyone onstage for a happy, upbeat vaudeville conclusion--everyone sings the tune once, and the others say, 'Oh joy'--or a big, splashy number for the prima donna. A month later the opera was given again in Ferrara, and the lover of the prima donna--Luigi Lechi, a literary figure in his own right--prepared a new conclusions preserving Voltaire's tragic ending. Rossini set it to music. It was not appreciated by the public, and he withdrew it. It was never used again in the 19th century, and the music, for all purposes, disappeared. But Rossini gave his autograph manuscript to Lechi, from whose heirs we obtained the photocopy."

Gossett put in a call to Horne to tell her of the extraordinary find. She immediately decided to do the opera with the new ending, and before long had a performance commitment from the Houston Opera. "The lost ending to Tancredi is the greatest gift he ever gave me," she says.

Gossett promised to prepare a critical edition, which required a lot more digging. He strides across his office to a bookcase and yanks out a piano score of the opera, in which the instrumental parts have been reduced to a line playable by one pianist. He eagerly points out new details he found in various versions of the opera--including vocal ornaments for the part of Tancredi--some of them discovered in Brussels, some in New York, some in Paris. "We're talking about pieces of this opera turning up from all over the world!" he says. "Here's another piece, written for the opening season. These are pieces added for a performance in Ferrara in 1813, including the tragic ending. Then he redoes it in Milan in 1813. Then he adds more pieces. During the 1820s a great singer asked Rossini to write a new aria for her. Rossini said he would, but didn't. So she chose an aria by another composer and said, OK, Rossini, you wouldn't write me a new aria--write me variations for this old aria. And he did! So what we have here is an aria added to Tancredi from an opera by Nicolini, with two sets of variations by Rossini. This is Nicolini's musical line, and look what Rossini's done with it!"

In the late 60s few people cared. "In 1968, when we began this work, in all of America the only opera they performed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rossini's death was The Barber of Seville," says Gossett. Marilyn Horne, who began singing Rossini in the mid-60s, says, "I had to lift my first Semiramide score from the Los Angeles library. In those days I had to really scrounge to find things."

But slowly things began to change. Conductor Claudio Abbado had great success at La Scala in December 1969 with a cleaned-up version of The Barber of Seville that restored the mezzo-soprano in the heroine's role, took out various interpolations, and returned to the original, lighter orchestration. Gossett thinks Abbado was too strict in his changes. He didn't, for instance, allow the singers to add ornaments. "Rossini's music, unlike Wagner's and most of Verdi's, is written in such a way as to allow, indeed require, singers to ornament their music," he says. "In particular, he leaves space for cadenzas but does not always actually write them, indicating instead 'a piacere.' And he builds into his forms complete repetitions of melodies, expecting that the singer will ornament them the second time. We know this from contemporary evidence, including many manuscripts in Rossini's hand of variations prepared for individual singers. Why didn't he just write them into his score? Because they were meant to be individualized, suiting the particular vocal skills of a particular singer."

Nevertheless, Abbado's production was a hit, and that allowed him to take on other Rossini comedies. By the mid-70s the Rossini revival was well under way.

In 1980 the town of Pesaro, Rossini's hometown on the Adriatic, started an annual Rossini festival featuring performances based on the new critical editions. At least one major work is done each year, though Gossett says, "On occasion we've done two, God help us."

On opening night 100 opera critics are in the audience, hoping to hear some new operatic treasure, such as the famous lost opera Il viaggio a Reims. This opera had premiered in 1825 for the coronation of Charles X of France. But it's long and requires such a big cast of stars that Rossini didn't think it would ever be performed again. He stole pieces of it for Le Comte Ory, and the rest simply disappeared. The work was thought to be lost until the mid-70s, when pieces started turning up in New York, Rome, Vienna. Gossett and his team were able to reconstruct it, then presented it at Pesaro in 1984 with an all-star cast under Abbado's direction. The critical edition has yet to be published, as Gossett still hopes to find more pieces. "Some of the secco recitative, for example, is Gossett right now, and while I don't mind my own composition, it would be better to have Rossini."

The Pesaro performances are essentially dry runs. Each volume of the critical edition has its own editor, who prepares the score, and Gossett and the other members of the editorial board go over it. The editors later follow the rehearsals at Pesaro and make further corrections. "What is so special about Pesaro," says Gossett, "is that it is one of the only places in the world where music scholars and performers work together and learn from one another. We perform our scores in Pesaro before we print them, and we usually perform them in Pesaro first. That means we go into those rehearsals and we follow the rehearsals day by day with our provisional scores. And we pay the closest attention to what the singers tell us, to what the conductors tell us. When you work with performers you get sensitized to the problems that they face."

Because there are so many versions of pieces in the editions, Gossett tries to help the singers come up with variations and cadenzas that are suited to their voices and styles. "I've had a wonderful time getting directly involved with performances and working with singers directly, making suggestions of ornamentation, making sure they fit the voice, making sure they're grateful to sing and effective. Most of the time I know the singers' voices, so I have a pretty good sense of what will work for them."

The success of the Pesaro festival, the publication of the critical editions, the development of a new generation of Rossini singers--largely the result of Marilyn Horne's encouragement--have all meant that performances of Rossini's works are no longer rare. "In 1992 we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Rossini's birth," says Gossett. "And every major opera house in the country--and a lot of the minor ones--performed Rossini's operas: Semiramide, Otello, William Tell, L'Italiana in Algeri, Ermione, Armida, La gazza ladra, and The Barber of Seville. We no longer have any trouble getting theaters to do Rossini's operas."

As if the Rossini editions weren't enough, Gossett is also in charge of a critical edition of Verdi's operas, though his works don't present as many problems. "I would not have chosen to do this Verdi work. It came at me because I gave a paper in which I said there was no edition of the works of Verdi, and isn't it a shame. The editor of the University of Chicago Press called me up and said, 'What do you mean there's no edition of the works of Verdi? Let's do one!' I said, 'You gotta be nuts! You're talking about a 35-year project that would cost millions of dollars! How could we possibly do something like this?' His answer was, 'We can do anything. We're the University of Chicago Press!'" Two years of negotiations with publisher G. Ricordi, which owns all of Verdi's autographs, followed. Seven volumes have now been published, and three more are almost ready.

The Verdi scores performed today were compiled by Ricordi in the 1890s. "When they had the autographs, as they often did, they did a pretty good job, although they never worried about multiple versions," says Gossett. "When they didn't, they made no effort to search them out--they used whatever came to hand. So, for example, they had no idea that Don Carlos had all that music that was performed in Paris but not translated back into Italian. And they published Verdi's French operas only in Italian!"

Verdi wasn't keen on the minor matter of proofreading his scores, so Gossett and his team have had to make lots of corrections to chords and texts. There are also, he says, "the standard problems of making clear what Verdi wrote and what is added."

Their research also turned up new material. "We know, for example, that Verdi himself made changes in articulation and dynamics for the Requiem in a secondary manuscript used in a performance. Those new signs can be integrated into our edition, or at least can be footnoted. For La traviata we are printing not only the 1854 version that everyone knows, but also the original 1853 version, which has never been available. We don't think it should replace the 1854 in performance, but it is worth knowing and maybe occasionally performing as a way of understanding Verdi's art better. For Simon Boccanegra, on the other hand, the original 1857 version, which we will publish as well as the revised 1881 version, is actually superb and worth performing in its own right."

Like Rossini, Verdi had written an opera that was thought to have been lost, Stiffelio. "Stiffelio was heavily censored because of a plot that deals with a Protestant minister whose wife commits adultery," says Gossett. "Religion was bad enough, but religion and sex was too potent. The plot was decimated by the censors. Verdi felt that the opera had lost all its power as a result and withdrew it. He revised it as Aroldo several years later, but the work never caught on."

A couple of years ago the Verdi family allowed Gossett's team access to their Stiffelio materials--and there were all of the original autograph pieces that were thought to have been dispersed. "When the Verdi family allowed us access to the original," says Gossett, "we were amazed at the strength of the original conception." The Met performed the premiere of the new edition in 1993.

One problem faced by anyone who wants to perform new editions of Verdi's works is that, unlike the Rossini oeuvre, these operas have never been out of the repertory. Singers have been performing the traditional versions for years, and some singers are resistant to relearning their parts. When Lyric Opera of Chicago did Ernani baritone Piero Cappuccilli wouldn't learn the corrected text--even when the old version made no sense. Gossett describes a scene in the second act when the king arrives at the home of Silva looking for the bandit Ernani, and Silva refuses to say that he's hidden him. "The king turns to Silva and used to say, 'Il tuo capo, o traditore, altro scampo, no, non v'e'--'Your head, o traitor, there is no other escape.' Not much of a choice, is it? Verdi actually wrote, 'Il tuo capo o il traditore, altro scampo, no, non v'e'--'Your head or the traitor, there is no other escape.' The words in the Ricordi printed score were simply wrong. Cappuccilli refused to change so much as a word or a note in his part--even refusing to make this change. I asked him at least to do this one thing for Verdi--what he was singing was pure nonsense from any point of view. He wasn't interested. 'I've always sung it this way. I'm going to sing it this way.' If you're dealing with singers of that kind there's nothing you can do.

"I'm happy to say that over the years the number of singers I've had to work with who've taken that position has been relatively small. Most singers are actually grateful, because they take it seriously. These are works of art. They want to be involved, they want to see what these words mean, they want to do it as well as they can. And they want every hint to help them do that.

"The other thing that I think singers are gradually coming to understand is that scholars aren't sitting there saying, "Here's a critical edition. Sing what's written!' We all understand what it means to be performers. We understand that a text, a printed text, is there to help performers, to give them something to work with. What we're trying to do is give them the best thing to work with that we can."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.

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