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8.660302 - ROSSINI, G.: Cambiale di matrimonio (La) (Priante, Samsonova, Zanfardino, Wurttemberg Philharmonic, Franklin)
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Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
La cambiale di matrimonio


Farsa comica in un atto di Gaetano Rossi
Libretto by Gaetano Rossi, after a play by Camillo Federici
Edited by Kalmus Verlag

Tobia Mill - Vito Priante, Basso buffo
Fanny - Julija Samsonova, Soprano
Edoardo Milfort - Daniele Zanfardino, Tenor
Slook, negoziante americano - Giulio Mastrotaro, Basso buffo
Norton - Tomasz Wija, Bass
Clarina - Francesca Russo Ermolli, Mezzo-soprano


It’s about business, but…
On Rossini’s La cambiale di matrimonio

“Luck plays such a big part in our lives!” said Rossini. “At the age of thirteen I was engaged as a maestro al cembalo for an opera season in Sinigaglia. There I came across a singer who didn’t sing badly but who really was most unmusical. One day she sang an aria with a cadenza so bizarre harmonically that it was completely over the top. I tried to spell it out to her that she should have some regard for the harmony being played by the orchestra and she seemed to have taken on board, to a certain degree, the logic of this remark; but during the performance she gave in yet again to her inspiration and delivered a cadenza at which I couldn’t stop laughing. Even people in the stalls were in stitches and the lady was furious. She complained to her special ‘protector’, an important man in the town and at the theatre, a very wealthy and eminent Venetian who had great influence in Sinigaglia and who accused me of particularly unbecoming conduct, asserting that I had provoked the public to laughter because of my behaviour. I was handed over to the angry gentleman who bellowed at me: “If you dare to poke fun at the leading lady” he snapped, “I will have you thrown into prison.” He could have done so, but I wasn’t to be intimidated and then the situation took a different turn. I explained to him the nature of my harmonic grievance and persuaded him of my innocence. Instead of sending me to prison he took the greatest liking to me and said finally that if I were to go so far as to be able write an opera I should turn to him and he would commission me to write one. (…) It was to him that I owe my first engagement in Venice.”

With these words Rossini commented to his friend, the composer and Director of the Cologne Conservatory Ferdinand Hiller, on the background to his comic opera La cambiale di matrimonio. In contrast to many other Rossini anecdotes this story can presumably be completely validated, even if perhaps not every detail had occurred exactly as the composer recollected the episode many decades later. As to the ‘eminent Venetian’, this was the Marchese Francesco Cavalli, who ran first the opera house in the small Adriatic coastal town of Senigallia (as it is written today) and later the Teatro San Moisè in Venice and finally La Fenice. What is certain is that it was not only the incident in Senigallia which prompted Cavalli to take the eighteen-year old Rossini under his wing.

The soprano Rosa Morandi and her husband Giovanni, close friends of the Rossini family who were booked to appear at the Teatro San Moisè, championed him too, just as the impresario of the theatre at that time, Antonio Cera, was about to offer a commission for a new opera for the 1810 autumn season. And so it was that a combination of relationships, good luck and astuteness led, on 3 November 1810, to a Rossini opera being performed for the first time—performed, not written, since Rossini, then a student at the Conservatory in Bologna, had already penned the opera seria Demetrio e Polibio for the opera troupe of the tenor Domenico Mombelli. The première of Demetrio did not take place until May 1812 in Rome. Just as the young maestro’s first opera to be written was to be a remarkable success so was his first opera to be performed. La cambiale di matrimonio had thirteen performances at the Teatro San Moisè which, in the fast-moving Italian opera business, was a very creditable number.

La cambiale di matrimonio was given its first performance alongside Non precipitare i giudizi ossia La vera gratitudine (Don’t rush to judgement or True gratitude) an opera by Giuseppe Farinelli and after its third performance, on 14 November 1810, together with Adelina by Pietro Generali. The libretto, like that of La cambiale di matrimonio, was the work of Gaetano Rossi, who was later to provide the libretti for Rossini’s masterpieces Tancredi and Semiramide. The singers in the first performance were Rosa Morandi (Fanny), Tommaso Ricci (Edoardo) and the well-known and experienced basses Luigi Raffanelli (Tobia Mill) and Nicola De Grecis (Slook).

The model for La cambiale di matrimonio, Camillo Federici’s five-act comedy of the same name which appeared in Venice in 1790, is closely related to the late bourgeois comedies of his great rôle model Carlo Goldoni. On the whole the works of both writers depict the world of the bourgeoisie in a positive light, yet at the same time in a critical and often caricatured way, specifically that of the prosperous merchants, busy with their international dealings, yet imprisoned by provincialism and petty-mindedness.

Tobia Mill, the scarcely-recognisable descendant of the businessman Pantalone from the commedia dell’arte, embodies the head of such a bourgeois family of tradesmen. If this archetype in Goldoni is represented positively, as a considerate paterfamilias, careful only in respect of his wealth, Federici makes him the epitome of patriarchal bossiness, which places material above moral values. In the original this dominant figure has two equal and direct opposites: his wife and Edoardo West, the uncle of the lover of Mill’s daughter who, in contrast to Mill, enters into marriage without thoughts of profit. In the opera Rossini’s librettist abandoned these two types but made up for it by having the two lovers Fanny and Edoardo (Eugenia and Teodorico in the original) play an active part in the storyline and, on the other hand, made the Canadian Slook Mill’s only real opposite number. Slook embodies the archetypal ‘good wild man’, the ‘whole man’ from the New World, whose natural, good-natured character is in stark contrast to the standard bourgeois world and who in the end proves himself to be the only civilized person.

Admittedly he is Mill’s partner in the ‘marriage business’. Slook asks Mill, in a letter couched in a businessman’s language, to send him a bride—but in his first meeting with Fanny it becomes immediately apparent that his thoughts about business are different from those of Mill; he cannot hide his feelings and is not really capable of treating a woman like a commodity. Slook works as a comic character because of his exotic appearance and his unusual behaviour and yet at the same time he has humane values.

All told, in La cambiale di matrimonio there is the standard combination of characters and the plot is typical of countless commedia dell’arte plays and buffo operas: the future of a pair of lovers (soprano and tenor) is threatened by the machinations of someone else, in this case, as so often, the bride’s father (buffo bass). A love-rival (also a buffo) appears on the scene and, through intrigues, is seen off, and a pair of servants helpfully stand by the two lovers. At the close of the opera there is a happy ending and all parties concerned extol love.

In spite of the schematic plot Gaetano Rossi’s libretto has considerable quality. This becomes clear when one compares it with the second setting of Federici’s comedy. Three years before Rossi’s libretto Giuseppe Checcherini had written a version called Il matrimonio per lettera di cambio (The Bill of Exchange Wedding), which was set to music by Carlo Coccia. The critical bias of the original was eliminated by Checcherini, and instead the libretto teemed with inane wordplays. Rossi, who must have known Checcherini’s libretto, went back mainly to Federici’s original text and took account of its essential subject matter. So while La cambiale di matrimonio emerges as turbulently comic, it accommodates sentimental and moralistic tendencies which at that time extended the scope for opera buffa and which developed into the formation of a third sort of operatic type, the semiseria.

The characteristic element of Rossi’s libretto, inherited from Federici, is the use of puns, and as a result a specialist language, in this case the language of business, is used ad absurdum: the servant Norton unnerves Slook somewhat by insinuating that his bride-to-be is saddled with a mortgage. Slook does not renounce his marriage to Fanny but instead transfers the matrimonial bill of exchange onto Edoardo. Another running gag concerns the small word ‘but’ (‘ma’ in Italian). Fanny, who is incapable of telling the truth, seeks refuge time and again in this ‘but’ and in the process almost drives Slook mad. He gets his own back in the scene with Mill to whom he gently breaks it (his characteristic expression is ‘composure’) that he thinks he can no longer enter into marriage and summarises it in: “This ‘but’ presents a great obstacle.” The final ‘buts’ were not in the original libretto at the first performance but they are in the score when the unnerved Mill for his part tries in vain to interrupt Slook’s final explanations.

The music of the young Rossini emerges as an accomplished amalgamation of tried and tested traditions and his own creativity. The typical elements of his musical language are already present in embryo in his first operas. The overture to La cambiale di matrimonio is a year older than the opera itself. Rossini had used for the overture his Sinfonia in E flat major which he had written as part of his student work at the Bologna Conservatory and so even at this time in his life he put into practice the principle of self-borrowing which, especially for his much-used overture to The Barber of Seville, became his frequent and much-criticized trademark. What is more Rossini harked back to La cambiale di matrimonio in The Barber of Seville: he reworked the second part of the allegro section of Fanny’s aria “Vorrei spiegarvi il giubilo” as the beginning of the Rosina/Figaro duet “Dunque io son” from The Barber of Seville. The main accompanying motif from Tobia Mill’s cavatina resurfaced again, in somewhat altered form, in the second part of the baritone aria from the slightly later semiseria L’inganno felice.

Rossini’s five one-act operas (‘farse’) apart from La cambiale, were L’inganno felice, La scala di seta, L’occasione fa il ladro and Il signor Bruschino and they exhibit an almost identical formal layout: nine musical numbers in a particular sequence. A thematically independent overture introduces the work which is followed by a three-part ‘introduction’, consisting of a duet, an arioso (in La cambiale Mill’s cavatina) and a trio.

Following that is another duet (in Cambiale Fanny/Edoardo) as well as an aria (for Slook), both of which this time are closed numbers divided by recitatives and not elements of a more complex structure as in the introduction. The centrepiece of a Rossini farsa is the fourth sung number, the ‘concertato’, a large ensemble which, were it longer and contained a chorus, could definitely have formed the traditional first-act finale of a two-act opera buffa. In La cambiale di matrimonio this structure seems not to be fully worked through.

“Darei per sì bel fondo” is a duet which is extended into a trio (Fanny, Edoardo, Slook). While this is admittedly packed with chaotic action, it is not the ‘folie complète et organisée’ (Stendhal), which makes the ‘complete and organized madness’ audible and which seems to throw all, or at least almost all, the principals into a maelstrom, a feature which is so typical of Rossini’s later opera buffas.

Since this is a one-act farsa the ‘concertato’ follows on naturally with no pause. But exactly at this point Rossini inserts the short soubrette aria of one of the minor characters, in this case the lady’s maid Clarina, which creates an effective contrast to the previous ensemble. There follows a duet (Mill/Slook) and a virtuoso protagonist aria, the latter almost always for soprano, as is the case with “Vorrei spiegarvi il giubilo” in La cambiale di matrimonio, and the opera ends with a second large ensemble, the finale. In its construction it is closely related to corresponding pieces in an opera buffa with more acts. It is a richly varied number and after it all the problems are finally resolved, paving the way for the happy ending.

The finale of La cambiale di matrimonio opens with the scene in which Mill waits for the duel to which he has challenged Slook. In march rhythms and comic-pompous fanfares Rossini takes the opportunity of caricaturing the war-like demeanour of the doddery Tobia Mill who is in fact terrified. When Slook enters, completely composed, Mill seems to be like a balloon that has been pricked and he fails in a last attempt to pluck up courage with his ‘battle-cry’, which Rossini marks a piacere, leaving the musical shaping up to the singer. In spite of this Mill remains opposed to the pleas of Fanny and Clarina and is equally deaf to Edoardo who, with his demand for payment, or more precisely, that the bill of marriage be honoured, tries to stop the protagonists from duelling. In a lively parlando and accompanied by a motif characterized by a striking rhythm, which could be cited as an example of Rossini’s individual orchestral language, Slook manages to win Mill over. In words understood by a businessman, Slook explains to him the real significance of his daughter as an ‘asset’ and draws to his attention the increase in value which is guaranteed to be expected in a year’s (or nine months’) time.

Martina Grempler
English translation: David Stevens



[1] Sinfonia

Scene 1

The scene is the house of an English merchant, Tobias Mill.

[2] Mill’s clerk, Norton, has something to tell Clarina, maid to Mill’s daughter, Fanny, hinting at Fanny’s possible marriage.

Scene 2

[3] Mill comes in. He is wearing a dressing-gown and night-cap, carrying a map in one hand and in the other a compass. He sits puzzling over them, reading instructions and then trying to measure distances of latitude and longitude, confused about the whole thing.

[4] Norton has a letter for him. Mill is annoyed at the interruption to his endeavours.

[5] Norton tells him that the letter has been brought by a sailor, coming from the colonies. Mill looks at the direction on the letter and sees that it is from his American correspondent. He opens the letter and reads it; his friend is already there in person, ready to deal with their business and inspect the merchandise. He tells Clarina to open the room overlooking the garden and bid his daughter put on her best clothes. As she goes, he shouts orders to the other servants. He is in admiration of a letter he has received from his correspondent, which tells him that the writer has decided to marry and asks for a wife to be sent to him, with the following specifications: the dowry is unimportant, but she should be honest, not over thirty, of a sweet nature, of even colouring and without the least stain on her reputation; she must be healthy and robust, able to stand up to sea travel and to the climate. Mill is delighted at the precision of the letter, which ends with a business-like assurance that, if the goods arrive in good condition, as specified, the bargain will be duly ratified. It is signed by Jo Slook, a Canadian. Mill puts the letter into a book that lies on the table. He tells Norton that he will offer his daughter Fanny, who will surely be very pleased, an idea that Norton disputes. As Mill goes out, Norton expresses his sympathy for Fanny and hopes that the American will have made his trip to Europe in vain.

Scene 3

[6] Fanny and her lover, Edoardo Milfort, are together, he begging her to promise to be his.

[7] Edoardo is expecting the arrival of his uncle, but Fanny is suspicious of the guest that her father seems to be awaiting.

Scene 4

They are joined by Norton, who is looking for his employer. He tells Fanny that he has bad news for her: she is to be married. He takes out the letter that Mill has left in one of the books and shows it to Edoardo, ridiculous as it is, dealing with Fanny as if she were merchandise.

Scene 5

Mill is heard approaching and seeing Edoardo demands to know who he is and what he wants there. Edoardo is about to answer, but Norton interrupts, introducing Edoardo as the new book-keeper. Mill looks him over, finding him too young, and too modern. Norton attests to Edoardo’s good character, and Mill agrees to employ him. He takes the letter and gives it to Fanny, whose fortune will be made. The carriage has arrived and he hurries out to meet the newcomer. Fanny tells Edoardo to leave matters to her.

Scene 6

[8] Slook appears, strangely dressed and preceded by various servants, while Mill fusses over him, and Slook tries to fend off these attentions. He seeks to make a proper entrance, first embracing the head of the house and attempting the same with the ladies, who draw back. Slook comments on the innocent simplicity of manners in his own country.

[9] Slook seeks to learn the correct European customs. He gestures to Fanny, asking who she is. Mill says that she has a letter of recommendation for him; he is delighted with his guest, who is ready to settle their business at once. Mill goes out, and Norton accompanies Edoardo out, leaving Fanny alone with Slook.

Scene 7

Slook has a good look at Fanny and then addresses her, asking who she is and what she wants. Fanny hands him the letter, which he reads, delighted with Mill’s choice. Fanny demurely keeps her eyes lowered; she tells Slook that she does not know what is in the letter, which he reads to her: Mill assures him that he has provided a wife for him of the age, quality and condition desired, his only daughter, Fanny. She indignantly rejects her father’s transaction.

[10] Slook promises Fanny everything, but she continues to assure him that she will never be his, until he is tired of all her ‘buts’, after each reply.

Scene 8

[11] Edoardo bursts in and, controlling his anger, advises Slook to go back to Canada, warning him not to speak to Mill about the matter. Fanny goes on to add her threats to scratch his eyes out, while Edoardo will stab him to death if he does not do as they advise. Slook re-assures them, afraid of having his eyes scratched out, and they leave together.

Scene 9

[12] Norton and Clarina discuss the matter. Norton thinks that there will be no marriage and that the poor man will have to go back to Canada; Slook is a simple American, who supposed that wives in Europe were business merchandise, a notion not entirely without justification. Clarina has sympathy for the young couple.

[13] Clarina is young herself and knows what love is. She goes out to join her mistress.

Scene 10

[14] Norton sees Slook approaching and looking thoughtful. He wants to talk to Mill, but Norton tells him that Mill is out and warns him to be careful, as the goods he wants may be mortgaged. He goes out.

Scene 11

Slook is horrified about the modest girl who wants to scratch his eyes out and the dear friend who wanted to stab him. Mill enters and asks Slook if he has good news. The best, Slook assures him, to be embraced by Mill, who reacts in the same way to each positive answer he hears from Slook; very pretty, the right age, obliging manners, good figure, just the right character; but there is one difficulty—I do not want her. Slook, remembering the threat to his eyes and Edoardo’s menaces, is reluctant to give his reasons.

[15] Mill asks him what the difficulty is; his daughter fits the bill. Slook, however, is adamant, but Mill, infuriated, challenges Slook, throwing down the gauntlet, a gesture that Slook finds puzzling, resolving to go home as soon as he can.

Scene 12

[16] Clarina tells Fanny that the two men have gone, the American ready to go home without a wife. They are joined by Edoardo; he and Fanny have done their best to put Slook off, although, as she goes, Clarina thinks he must be regretting the whole thing.

Scene 13

The couple embrace, as Slook comes in, seeking the favour for a quarter of an hour of safety from their threats; an American would never threaten a guest. He asks Fanny whether she is already spoken for and from her look sees that she is pledged to Edoardo. He asks why she had presented him the bill of exchange, and she tells him that she had been forced by her father. Slook is horrified at such behaviour and Edoardo explains that there is too much difference between his fortune and Mill’s. Slook takes them by the hand and tells them that he is rich and will make over the bill of exchange to Edoardo, whom he makes his heir.

[17] Fanny expresses her delight in an aria and leaves with Edoardo.

[18] Slook is content with the outcome, as he goes.

Scene 14

Mill enters, preceded by a servant carrying two pistols and two swords. He sends the servant away, leaving Mill to wonder about Slook’s behaviour and have second thoughts about his challenge, which might well go badly for him.

[19] He goes through the actions of fighting the duel. Slook enters, smoking a pipe, which he puts aside, observing the scene with some amusement. He pretends to threaten Mill with a pistol, to the latter’s terror.

Scene 15

Fanny and Clarina burst in, the women seeking to calm Mill, while Slook keeps up his teasing.

Final Scene

[20] Edoardo and Norton enter. Edoardo asks Mill to desist for a moment and shows him the bill, which Mill rejects. Eventually Slook intervenes and tells Mill that he is wrong; Mill’s daughter was already mortgaged and he has found the buyer and changed the bill and surrendered the capital at stake, hoping for the yield of a grandson in a year’s time. He tells Mill that Fanny has been in love with Edoardo Milfort, whom he has made his heir. Mill finally consents to the match and all ends happily.

Keith Anderson

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