Rossini’s art and personality have always been something of an enigma. His best-known works, L’italiana in Algeri, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and the Stabat mater, have prompted portraits of a gifted but feckless amateur who at an early age abandoned his career for a life of luxury and the otiose pleasures of the table. Rossini himself was happy to cultivate a mask of casual unconcern; but in reality he was an odd mixture of affability and reserve, indolence and industry, wit and melancholy.

Rossini was born into the close-knot community of the small Adriatic town of Pesaro in 1792, at a time of war and political upheaval in Europe. His father was a horn player, and his mother an operatic soprano. Rossini heard a good deal of opera in his formative years, and appeared on stage as a boy soprano, before his entry into the Bologna Accademia at the age of 14 in 1806.

In Bologna in 1807 Rossini heard two singers, representative of the new order and the old, who were to have a profound impact. One was the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, whom he would later marry and for whom he would write some of his most elaborate and dramatically powerful roles. The other was the castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti. Though the castrato tradition was all but extinct in contemporary operatic life, Rossini claimed to have been deeply influence by ‘the purity, the miraculous flexibility of those voices and, above all, by their profoundly penetrating accent’.

Rossini’s first professional commission came from Venice’s tiny Teatro San Moisè in 1810. He was 18 and the work was La cambiale di matrimonio. As Rossini later recalled, conditions at the San Moisè were ideal for an apprentice composer. Working to limited budgets, a small company of singers would stage a one-act, 80-minute opera with minimal scenery and limited rehearsal. Between November 1810 and January 1813 Rossini wrote five such farse, ending with Il Signor Bruschino, the most scabrous and sharp-witted operatic one-acter before Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

Rossini’s first successful two-act opera, La pietra del paragone, was written for La Scala, Milan. His penchant for nonsensical banter and quotable jokes, such as the ‘Sigillara’ sequence in Act I, helped make him the toast of the Milanese and secured 53 performances of ‘Sigillara’ in its first season. After that, he was not only exempted from military service; he could also designate himself a maestro di cartello – a composer whose name alone guaranteed a public.

By 1814 Rossini’s superstar status was sufficient for him to be offered a contract that would change both the direction of his own career and the future course of Italian opera. It came from Europe’s most lavishly financed opera house, the Teatro San Carlos in Naples, which already had a superb roster of singers who ensured that Rossini would now face the challenge of writing many more serious operas than had hitherto been the case.

Though there is no partnership in Rossini’s career to match Mozart’s with his librettist Da Ponte or Verdi’s with Boito, it is clear that he took a far closer interest in the texts he set than was once assumed. In Naples Rossini commissioned librettos based on the Bible and Shakespeare, Racine, and the not-yet-fashionable Walter Scott. Certainly it is difficult to believe that Rossini’s dramatically pertinent treatment of the final scenes of Shakespeare’s Othello (Naples, 1816) was conceived and shaped by anyone other than Rossini himself.

By the early 1820s, Rossini had acquired an international reputation. Drawn to Paris, Rossini would provide the French with a sophisticated royal entertainment – Il viaggio a Reims (1825) – as well as adaptations of two Neapolitan operas and two new works, Le Comte Ory and Guillaume Tell. But he was also increasingly the éminence grise of Franco-Italian operatic life, advancing the careers of young singers and taking under his wing a new generation of composers: Meyerbeer, Donizetti, and the reclusive Bellini.

In September 1829, shortly after the premiere of Guillaume Tell, Rossini returned to Bologna and the following spring was in correspondence with the French government about a possible new opera based on Goethe’s Faust. But in the summer of 1830 the government fell. Charles X fled into exile and was replaced by the ‘citizen-king’, Louis-Philippe. Committed to policies based on ‘fairness’ and ‘accountability’, the new government slashed investment in the civil list – cancelling Rossini’s contract with the Opéra and his life annuity. After six years of lobbying and litigation, the annuity was restored; but by this time Rossini the opera composer was firmly in retirement.

Whether Rossini’s debilitating illnesses in the 1840s and 1850s were attributable to exhaustion and stress is difficult to say. (Chronic bladder trouble can almost certainly be traced back to a bout of gonorrhoea, but the manic-depressive cycles are less easy to quantify.) They do, however, give the lie to the idea that Rossini’s long retirement from operatic composition was the irresponsible whim of a sybarite.

In 1857 the clouds lifted and he returned to composition, encouraged by the remarkable Olympe Pélissier, who became his second wife after Colbran’s death in 1845. Numerous young singers were taken under his wing, among them the young Adelina Patti, and the Marchisio sisters, for whom a new production of Semiramide was mounted at the Paris Opéra in 1860. In the voices of the Marchisio sisters he seems to have found echoes of past beauties.

Important works from the earlier Paris years such as the Stabat mater and Les soirées musicales, were now complemented by the numerous vocal and piano pieces that made up the Péchés de vieillesse (Paris, 1857-68) and by the Petite messe solennelle. Superbly crafted, with an art that glances back to Palestrina and forward to Poulenc, this is a work whose revealing mix of serenity and anxiety comes as close as any to characterising the enigma that is Rossini.

Richard Osborne