In The Barber of Seville, Doctor Bartolo is a pompous, grumpy old man who wants to marry his young niece many years his junior and whom he basically keeps locked up. As he appears on stage, he makes sure that all the doors are firmly secured so that nobody can enter the house while he goes into town on undoubtedly important business. But the niece is a shrewd young vixen, seemingly modest and submissive but determined to get her way – and her man. As she appears at the window to sing her famous coloratura aria, she makes it crystal clear that she will have the upper hand in this transaction and will get the better of the old man.
Gioachino Rossini, the composer who in 1816 gave us the pretentious Dr. Bartolo and his sweet niece Rosina, wrote thirty-nine operas. Of these The Barber of Seville is the most famous, but he also wrote Cenerentola (Cinderella), The Turk in Italy, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and The Thieving Magpie – mostly lighthearted in the style of classical opera buffa. In 1824 he moved to Paris and became one of the most popular opera composer in history, also writing several serious operas such as Semiramide and The Voyage to Rheims. His highly successful grand opera William Tell premiered in Paris in 1829, whereupon he retired, though only thirty-seven years old, to a life of contentment and pleasure, good food, brilliant musical soirées, and banquets.
But this idyllic life was spoiled by the discomfort of chronic gonorrheal urethritis and cystitis, acquired from a prostitute. Already troubled by unpleasant hemorrhoids, he also had to use a tin catheter every day to bypass his urethral stricture. When he became seriously ill, he was operated on by a famous Parisian urologist, who was skilled in the use of the lithotrite and relieved the obstruction. But after surgery he was confined to his home for three months, lying in a darkened room, obsessed with thoughts of death and presumed to have suffered from a manic-depressive illness. He recovered and subsequently was able to compose some 180 vocal and instrumental works.
By 1865 his health had deteriorated. He had become very obese and found walking difficult. He was also suffering from a chronic cough and increasing shortness of breath due to chronic bronchitis and emphysema from years of smoking cigars; and appears to have developed a slowly dementing illness. He suffered a stroke in 1866, and two years later had rectal bleeding and pain from a rapidly growing cancer of the rectum or anal canal. Although he was a poor operative risk, he underwent surgery; but the surgical wound became infected, no doubt from the use of a nonsterile scalpel. A fatal erysipelas infection set in, he became delirious, then lapsed into a coma, and died on 13 November 1868. Three thousand people in Paris attended a requiem mass. The body was embalmed, and now rests together with that of his wife in the beautiful Santa Croce Cathedral in Florence. He was one of the greatest composers and after two hundred years his works are still regularly performed in the grand opera houses and symphony halls of the world.
John O’Shea: Was Mozart poisoned? Medical investigations into the lives of the great composers. 1990 St. Martin’s Press. New York.
George Dunea, MD, Editor-in-Chief