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History Of Italian Composers

  • BV Events
  • Sunday, 04/Jan/2015
The birth of the Italian opera coincides with the birth of the opera worldwide. Claudio Monteverdi (born in Cremona, Lombardy, in 1567) was the composer who more than others marked the passage from the Renaissance to the Baroque era in music. His L’Orfeo is the earliest opera still regularly performed today. It tells the story of Orpheus, who descended to Hades, the land of the dead, in an effort to bring Eurydice, his dead wife, back to life. It is very interesting that although it can be considered an early Baroque opera, L’Orfeo still gives musicians room to improvise, as was in the Renaissance tradition. The premiere of the Orfeo took place in Mantua, in a theater belonging to the historical Gonzaga family.
Alessandro Scarlatti (born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1660) was among the founders of the opera seria, the style that induced the audience to meditate over dramatic or historical events, in contrast to the comedy-inspired opera buffa. Scarlatti wrote many pieces of music and operas. His masterpiece is probably the Eupatore (Mithridates Eupator), a five-act opera seria. The opera tells the story of Mithridates’ return from his Egyptian exile to Pontus (in Greece). Mithridates claims the throne of Pontus after his father has been killed by his mother and her lover, the now usurper king, Farnace. It has to be noted that at that time, female roles were interpreted by castrato singers, male singers who had been emasculated in their youth to retain the capacity to sing high pitches with great strength. The opera premiered at the Theater San Giovanni Grisostomo (now Teatro Malibran) in Venice in 1707.
Domenico Cimarosa, different from Scarlatti, focused on the opera buffa comedies. Cimarosa was born in Aversa, not far from Naples, in 1749. His masterpiece, Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage), was considered by Giuseppe Verdi as the archetype of the opera buffa. This opera focuses on the secret wedding between Paolino and Carolina. Before they can reveal their secret marriage, Carolina and Paolino have to overcome the passion of an English count, who is crazy about the girl, and of Carolina’s aunt, who loves the boy. Fortunately, at Cimarosa’s time, the castrato phenomenon was subsiding (also, thanks to laws that forbid it); Carolina’s role was played by soprano Irene Tomeoni at the premiere at theater La Scala in Milan.
Gioachino Rossini brought opera to a whole new level. He was born in Pesaro, then part of the Papal State, in 1792. His works were so successful and his songs became so popular that one can say that with Rossini, opera entered the house of the common people. This popularity is mostly due to Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), an opera buffa that premiered in 1816 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome, with little success, only to become incredibly popular later. It sings the difficult love between Rosina, a beautiful young lady of Seville, and Count Almaviva, who is aided by Figaro, the city’s factotum, to win her heart in spite of all the comic obstacles. Rossini was a resident composer at the court of the Bourbons in Naples, from where he left to marry Spanish singer Isabella Cobran.
Gaetano Donizetti took Rossini’s place at the Bourbon Court, although he came from Northern Italy (he was born in Bergamo in 1797). Donizetti’s masterpiece was a tragic opera, the Lucia di Lammermoor. It premiered at the San Carlo Theater in Naples in 1835, even though it took some years to establish itself as a classic. The opera takes place in Scotland and tells the sad story of Lucie Ashton and Edgard Ravenswood, who love each other despite the fact that Lucie’s family, by hand of Lucie’s brother Henry, usurped Edgard’s family’s fortune.
Vincenzo Bellini died shortly before the premiere of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. He was born only 34 years ago, in Catania, Sicily. His complex yet easy to memorize arias were unprecedented. His masterpiece was the lyric tragedy Norma. Norma premiered at the opera house La Scala in Milan on the occasion of the theater’s season inauguration on December 26, 1832. Norma is a druid priestess who is in love with Pollione, proconsul of the Roman invaders, from whom she has had two children. Pollione no longer loves Norma though; he loves Adalgisa, a younger priestess. Adalgisa loves Pollione back, but she would never betray Norma. Tragedy ensues as Norma does not want to give up her love for Pollione, while Pollione will not give up his love for Adalgisa.
Bellini died very young because of colon and liver inflammation. It was Rossini who took care of his funeral and burial.
Giuseppe Verdi was an admirer of Bellini’s work. He was born in Busseto, in the province of Parma, in 1813; however, his musical career and success occurred in Milan. He was acquainted with tragedy at a young age: his children and wife all died from disease before he turned 26. All of this despair inspired Vedi with Nabucco, an opera about the assault and deportation of the Jewish people by Babylonian king Nabucco. The plight of the Jewish people was at that time an allegory for the difficulties of the Italian people under foreign rule. Incredibly successful was the Jewish slave chorus “Va, Pensiero.” Verdi, with Wagner, is indubitably the most important opera composer of all times.
La Traviata is based on Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame Aux Camélias. It premiered at the opera house La Fenice in Venice. It recounts the troubled love between courtesan Violetta and romantic Alfredo, whose family disapproves of the relationship.
Aida premiered in Egypt in 1871. It tells the tragic love of Aida, an Ethiopian princess abducted by the Egyptians, and Radamès, who is torn between his love and his loyalty to the Pharaoh. The “Triumphal March” from Aida is probably the most famous march from an opera ever.
graffiti of Giuseppe Verdi in Milan picture by Aura-Cristina-Pastor
In the second half of the 20th century, both in literature and in opera, the verismo (realism) artistic movement came to the spotlight. Pietro Mascagni, born in Tuscany in 1863, can be considered the first composer who was inspired by verismo and who had great success. His masterpiece is Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), a one-act opera (in the verismo style) based on a story by Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga. It premiered at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome (then called Teatro Costanzi) in 1890. It enjoyed enormous success. It tells the story of the unfortunate Turiddu, who goes home to Sicily from military service and finds the love of his life married to another man.
Composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo was so shocked with the success of the Cavalleria Rusticana that he himself decided to write an opera in the style of verismo. Leoncavallo was born in Naples in 1857, the son of a judge. His main opera, Pagliacci (Clowns), was inspired by a real-life event, as often happens in verismo: a murder trial presided by his father, a murder caused by poverty and jealousy. Pagliacci premiered at the Teatro dal Verme in Milano in 1892, conducted by the great Arturo Toscanin (who later revealed he did not love that opera). It tells the story of a group of comedians who reveal tragic feelings for one another during a play they perform in a village in Calabria, a region in Southern Italy. The actors in Pagliacci play as actors—a wonderful example of metatheater.
Along with Leoncavallo and Mascagni, Giacomo Puccini, born in Tuscany in 1858, was a leader of the verismo style in music. He came from a family of musicians. Legend has it that he decided to become an opera composer in 1876 after attending a performance of Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, the Italian composer of whom Puccini is considered the heir for influence and fame. To succeed in the music business, Puccini moved to Milan, a city he did not particularly like. The premiere of his first incredibly successful opera, Manon Lescaut, was in Turin, at the Teatro Regio. The opera tells the story of troubled love between Manon, a young woman who was sent to monastic life by her family, and Des Grieux. After this, Puccini composed other timeless masterpieces such as La bohème (which again premiered at the Teatro Regio in 1896), Tosca (Teatro Costanzi in Rome, now Teatro dell’Opera), Madama Butterfly (Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1904), and Turandot, which Puccini left unfinished when he died in 1924. Turandot is the Chinese emperor’s daughter who would marry the man who could solve her three riddles; those who failed were executed without mercy. The mysterious foreign prince Calaf falls in love with the young lady and, despite everyone’s advice, decides to try the riddles to win her love. He is successful, but the road to Turandot’s heart is still long. This opera contains the aria “Nessun Dorma,” which has been sung by thousands of singers in all contexts. It is a grandiose song that perfectly represents the beauty of the Italian bel canto.