Tancredi, the Sicilian drama of war and love that abounds with melodies and is based on Voltaire’s 1760 French tragedy of the same name, was commissioned for the Venetian carnival season of 1812/13. For the 21-year-old Gioachino Rossini, who was at the beginning of his career, the work represented a particularly great challenge. The only way he could make his name as an operatic composer was to produce a successful opera seria. To suit the taste of Italian audiences of the time the librettist Gaetano Rossi replaced the tragic ending of Voltaire’s drama with a happy one.
After years of bloody feuding, the opposing families of the Argirios and the Orbazzanos form an alliance to fight the Saracens who are laying siege to the city. To cement their new alliance, Argirio promises Orbazzano the hand of his daughter Amenaide in marriage. But Amenaide is in love with Tancredi, who was dispossessed and banished during the civil war. For his part, Tancredi does not yet know anything about the planned marriage of Amenaide to Orbazzano. In desperation, Amenaide tries to send a message to Tancredi asking him to rid the country of Orbazzano. But the letter goes astray and finds its way to Orbazzano. However, he thinks the letter is intended for the Saracen leader Solamir. Amenaide is arrested and sentenced to death. Tancredi, believing that he has been betrayed by Amenaide, appears incognito, kills Orbazzano and later defeats the Saracens as well at the head of the army. The populace rapturously cheers Tancredi and the lovers realise that each has remained faithful to the other after all. Nothing now stands in the way of the young couple’s union.
Tancredi is pure Rossini, a veritable explosion of virtuoso and lyrically inspired arias. It was not long after the premiere in February 1813 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice that Tancredi began its run of success on the opera stages of Europe. Vienna was also caught up by the spreading Rossini-mania: the first performance of Tancredi at the Theater an der Wien was as early as 1817. Even Richard Wagner, that staunch opponent of Rossini, was unable to resist his popularity and quoted Tancredi’s famous opening cavatina “Di tanti palpiti” in the third act of his Mastersingers of Nuremberg.