the most famous operas ever written -- 6/07/16

Today's selection -- from The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. In the early 1800s, Italian opera appeared to be dying. It was rescued by Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini and was in full bloom by the time of the arrival of Giuseppe Verdi:

"By 1848 Italian opera had gained a reputation that few people could have predicted two generations earlier. In the early years of the cen­tury the musical form, invented by Florentine composers over 200 years before, had appeared to be dying: Domenico Cimarosa was dead, Giovanni Paisiello had stopped composing, the eighteenth century tradition of opera seria -- with its dazzling arias, its skimpy drama and its invariable happy endings -- seemed to have passed away as terminally as the royal courts that had sustained it. At the time of Cimarosa's death in 1801 the glories to come could not have been anticipated. Gioacchino Rossini was eight, Gaetano Donizetti was only three, Vincenzo Bellini had not quite been conceived, and the parents of Giuseppe Verdi were still children.

"The resurgence of Italian opera was accomplished almost single­handedly by Rossini, a sparkling composer with a talent for comedy who became famous with two operas produced in Venice in 1813, Tancredi and L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers). He dominated opera in the peninsula for the next decade and for several years afterwards, even when he was living abroad as a French com­poser writing for the Paris Opera. Although his Romanticism was reluctant and even alien to his nature, Rossini became acknowledged as the father of Italian Romantic opera. At the age of thirty-seven, after he had produced Guillaume Tell, he stopped writing operas, but by then his reputation was unassailable.

"At the time of Rossini's retirement, two younger and more natur­ally Romantic composers were waiting to take over. One was Donizetti, who wrote with a grace and a facility to rival the master: while Rossini had taken sixteen days to write Il barbiere di Siviglia, he allegedly needed only fourteen days to compose L'elisir d'amore. The other was the Sicilian, Bellini, who made audiences swoon with his plangent melodies and his melancholy lyricism. Both men triumphed soon after Guillaume Tell, Donizetti with Anna Bolena in 1830, Bel­lini a year later with Norma, although he had to wait until the second night for acclamation: at the première at La Scala in Milan the Druid priestess flopped, thus inaugurating an unhappy tradition for tragic women on first nights that went on to engulf La traviata in Venice in 1853 and Madama Butterfly in 1904. In his final opera, I puritani, Bellini created the character Elvira, the role that a century later ensured the fame of the great Greek-American soprano Maria Callas.

"The works of these three -- and of several lesser composers such as Giovanni Pacini and Saverio Mercadante -- transformed Italian opera from a courtly entertainment with mythological figures such as Orpheus into a middle-class passion that demanded historical and romantic tragedies. All of Verdi's operas end in tragedy (except of course for his two comedies); even in Simon Boccanegra, in which the lovers -- almost uniquely -- remain united and alive, the heroine is forced to witness the murder of her father in the final scene.

A nineteenth-century depiction of the Teatro all Scala

"Foreign observers were astonished by the passion for opera in the peninsula: Italians used theatres as Englishmen used clubs, as places where they could meet each other and chat; the fashionable ladies of Milan were thus reduced to opening their salons only on Friday, when La Scala was closed. The energy and enthusiasm of operatic culture reinforced the northern European view that Italian was the language of passion, pleasure and melodrama. Many Italians were doubtless content with this, but some wondered whether the obsession with musical melodrama was injuring their sensibility to art and the subtlety of fine writing. The Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who was born in the year of La bohème (1896), claimed that 'opera mania' had for a century 'absorbed all the artistic energies of the nation'. There could be no symphonies and no successful plays because 'music was opera, drama was opera', even painters had aban­doned their canvases to design Don Carlos's prison and the sacred groves of Norma. By 1910, when the frenzy diminished, Italian intel­lectual life resembled 'a field which locusts had visited for a hundred consecutive years'.

Maria Callas (La Traviata)

"The popularity of opera prompted a wave of theatre construction. In the half-century after the fall of Napoleon, over 600 playhouses were built in Italy, half of which were large enough to put on operas. Cities such as Venice and Milan had several theatres where opera could be performed, and most towns of the north and centre had at least one, however small: the orchestra pit in Lucca's Teatro Giglio is so narrow that the harpist and percussionists have to play from adjacent boxes. Yet it was easier to build opera houses than to people them with adequate musicians. In the heyday of Donizetti and Bellini, Italy pos­sessed some great singers yet its orchestras were so poor that they sometimes broke down during performances; the madcap overture of Guillaume Tell was apparently never played correctly in the peninsula because no orchestra had enough cellists. The most successful compos­ers were thus eager to have their premières only in the finest opera houses -- the San Carlo in Naples, La Fenice in Venice and La Scala -- before they earned enough renown to have them in Paris. In spite of La Scala's claims to sempiternal pre-eminence, the best opera house before 1860 was usually the San Carlo. While the Bourbons did not person­ally enjoy going to the opera, they spent a lot of money on their theatre, providing the best orchestra and many of the best singers. It was the favourite Italian venue for both Rossini and Donizetti.

"Around 1840 the great operatic revival seemed in danger of peter­ing out. Bellini, perhaps the most talented of the composers (and the one most admired by Wagner), had died in 1835 at the age of thirty­-three. Rossini had another three decades of life but he was depressed and overweight, composing nothing except an occasional bolero or canzone and refusing to write anything of note until the Petite messe solennelle in 1863. Donizetti was just still going, and in 1842 he pro­duced an opera in Vienna and accepted the post of court composer to the Austrian emperor. But this kind and attractive man was already dying from the effects of syphilis; in 1844 he was declared insane and four years later he died in his home town of Bergamo. Italy was plainly in need of a new star -- Giuseppe Verdi [most famous for the operas Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore (The Troubadour), La Traviata (The Fallen Woman), Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny), Don Carlos, Aida and Otello (Othello)]



David Gilmour


The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2011 by David Gilmour


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