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entry April 2008 

Obscure composers (5)

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Like much of Europe during the age of Napoleon, the San Carlo theater (photo, right) entered upon some difficult times between 1800 and 1815. First of all, the revolution that set up the short-lived and French-inspired Neapolitan Republic of 1799 had actually damaged the theater, and it took a while for it to become a fit venue for opera once again. In broader cultural terms, we can look back today and see that Romanticism was about to spill across the Continent; that would change all art, including music. In shorthand, we might say that music in Naples was biding its time—waiting for Rossini.

When the season opened in 1801, a number of names already mentioned in this series were present, such as Tritto and Guglielmi, and some names that might otherwise have been present but for the fact they had supported the Republic and were now in disfavor, such as Cimarosa, were absent. Among other composers present at the beginning of the 1800s, but whose reputations have simply not outlived their own lifetimes:

Gaetano Andreozzi (1775-1826). He was nicknamed Jomellino, ("Little Jomelli)" probably because he was a relative and former student of that composer.  Andreozzi's opera, Armida e Rinaldo, was performed in the 1801 season. He was regarded as a competent composer; he wrote about 50 operas, many of which toured even outside of Italy. He taught at the Pietà dei Turchini conservatory and was also the impresario of San Carlo for a while—the person who actually booked and set the performances; he held that post when the French took over Naples in 1806 and changed the administration of San Carlo. Andreozzi eventually left Naples for Paris, where he spent the rest of his life.

Domenico Barbaia—known as the "prince of impresarios"—took over San Carlo in 1810 and produced a number of works by the best-known professional composers of his day: Simone Mayr, Stefano Paveri, Pietro Generali, Vincenzo Federici, Francesco Orlandi, Giuseppe Nicolini, and Giuseppe and Luigi Mosca. Unfortunately for their lasting reputations, they composed music firmly rooted in the past. The French Enlightenment and the subsequent revolution and age of Napoleon changed European culture greatly. Europe would no longer be satisfied with opera based on Greek mythology; even Metastasio, the most popular and prolific author of libretti in the history of Italian opera, by 1820 would be regarded as quaintly old-fashioned. The French consolidation of the various Neapolitan conservatories into one institution in the first decade of the 1800s also had the effect of tightening up the rather chaotic "anyone can compose opera" atmosphere in Naples. Thus, on the list of composers (a few lines up), virtually none is remembered today. Perhaps of interest: 

Simone Mayer     
Simone Mayr  (1763-1845). He was born in Germany, but moved to Bergamo in northern Italy in 1802. Bergamo was the birthplace of Donizetti, who became one of Mayr's music students. Mayr was also responsible for introducing and promoting the new music of his countryman, Ludwig van Beethoven, into that part of Italy. Mayr composed about 70 operas and was a staple in the San Carlo repertoire for many years. In hindsight, his music was rooted in the past, the 18th-century opera seria; nevertheless, during his lifetime, his music was popular. One of his works, Medea in Corinto was premiered in 1813 and was performed every year thereafter until 1827.

Giuseppe Nicolini (1762-1842). He was from Piacenza (near Milan), but studied music in Naples at the Sant'Onofrio conservatory and was also a student of Cimarosa's. He composed almost 50 operas and significant sacred music. He and others of his generation were in the unfortunate position of having learned their craft and then having to compose music in a world that was about to change drastically. Nicolini's music was often on the stage at San Carlo until about 1815, but it was music from the Classical past and not the Romantic present. He and others were about to be overwhelmed by Rossini.

In 1815 Rossini's name appeared on the San Carlo program for the first time with his opera Elizabetta regina d'Inghilterra. In the next four years, he wrote 15 more operas (!), including The Barber of Seville*, Cinderella, The Thieving Magpie, and Moses in Egypt, all of which are still played today. Historically, to say that Rossini made all other composers of Italian opera between 1800 and 1820 obscure is an understatement. Some of that competition:

Carlo Soliva (1791-1853). He was from Casal Monferrato in the Piedmont area of Italy, studied in Milan, conducted the orchestra of La Scala, taught at the Warsaw conservatory, and became conductor of the St. Petersburg opera. His opera, Testa di Bronzo, was on the 1816 San Carlo program and enjoyed greater success even than Rossini's Otello and Mayr's Partenope (written specifically to reopen San Carlo after a disastrous fire earlier in the year). That opera, however, remains his one "flash in the pan."

Francesco Morlacchi (1784-1841). His opera Boadicea was also on the 1816 program. Morlacchi was from Perugia. In 1811 he became the director of the "Italian opera company" in Dresden in Germany. He is enshrined in the Obscurity Hall of Fame as "one of those other guys who wrote an opera called The Barber of Seville." It premiered in Dresden in 1816 in Dresden, the same year as Rossini's work. (Bad timing, Francesco.) (The only other Barber of Seville ever performed in Naples —or anywhere else— is the 1782 work by Paisiello. As a matter of fact, the entire basement of said Obscurity Hall of Fame is given over to the many different composers who have written a Barber of Seville* and, man, does that ever give me a great idea for a summer opera festival!)

* Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais' original play, Le Barbier de Séville,  premiered in February of 1775. It was the first of a trilogy of plays; the second and third parts were Le Mariage de Figaro, and La Mère coupable [A Mother's Guilt].  Subsequent musical versions of The Barber of Seville have included:
  • 1776a German singspiel with music by Friedrich Ludwig Benda (1745-1814), text by G.F.W.Grossmann(a singspiel was a form of German-language musical drama in which there were both songs as well as dialogue spoken over music. They were generally comic.);
  • 1776singspiel by Johann André (1741-99) (both text and music);
  • 1776singspiel by Joseph Raditschnigg von Lerchenfeld (text onlycomposer unknown);
  • 1780 (?)another singspiel, music by Johann Christoph Zacharias Elsperger (1730-90);
  • 1782Paisiello's Barber of Seville (libretto:  Giuseppe Petrosellini); (it opened in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the imperial court of Catherine the Great);
  • 1783singspiel by Josef Weigel (1766-1846) with the German title, Die unnütze Vorsicht, a translation of Beaumarchais' subtitle of the comedy [in English, The Useless Precaution];
  • 1786a further German singspiel with music by Johann Abraham Peter Schultz (1747-1800); 
  • 1794a version by Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809). The composer was an Englishman who had moved to the United States. His Spanish Barber [the original English title] premiered in Philadelphia. The composer was one of George Washington's favorites!
  • 1796Nicolò (also Nicolas) Isouard (1775-1818), a composer from Malta who settled in France and became relatively well known. His Barber of Seville did not;
  • 1816the version by Morlacchi (above);
  • 1816THE version by Rossini  (libretto: Cesare Sterbini). In order to avoid obvious offense to Paisiello fans, Rossini used Beaumarchais' original subtitle of the comedy, Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution, as the title of his opera; he changed the title to The Barber of Seville only after Paisiello's death. The ploy didn't work. Pro-Paisiello hecklers disrupted the first performance of Rossini's version, anyway.

Here is an audio excerpt from the signature aria of Rossini's version.

Post-Rossini (and aren't these people optimists!) versions of The Barber of Seville include:
  • 1868A version by Costantino Dall'Argine (1842-77). The composer was from Parma, Italy. The work premiered in Bologna and was a tribute to Rossini; Dall'Argine dedicated the score to the great composer,  who was on his deathbed and who had given his permission to the younger composer to redo the opera. Rossini died two days after the premiere;
  • 1879A version by Achille Graffigna (1816-96) (premiered in Padua); it was also a tribute, with the composer inscribing the score: "An informed study in the spirit and character ofand colored byRossini's immortal work."
  • 1901A Zarzuela (Spanish comic opera) version  by the Spanish composer ,  Gerónimo Giménez, (1852-1923);
  • 1922A version by Leopoldo Cassone (1878-1935) (premiered in Turin);
  • 1924A version by A. Torazza (premier in Sestri Ponente-Genoa);
  • 1925Le Mariage de  Rosina, by Flemish composer Robert Herberigs (1886-1974) (premiered in Ghent, Belgium);  (Rosina is Doctor Bartolo's ward in the original comedy). The composer also wrote his own libretto.
Musical versions of other parts of the Beaumarchais trilogy include:
  • 1784— The Marriage of Figaro by English composer William Shield (1748-1829); Shield is often cited as one of the possible sources of the song, "Auld Lang Syne";
  • 1786—Mozart's famous Le Mariage de Figaro—(in Italian, Le nozze di Figaro); the libretto is by Lorenzo da Ponte;
  • 1789—The Marriage of Figaro by August Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799);
  • 1838— The Marriage of Figaro by Luigi Ricci (1805-1859), a Neapolitan;
  • 1966—Darius Milhaud's version of the La Mère coupable;
  • 1991—The Ghosts of Versailles, an opera by John Corigliano based on La Mère coupable.

Spin-offs over the years have been countless. These include:
  • 1839—The Barber of Seville, a ballet with choreography by Giacomo Piglia (opened in Florence at the Teatro della Pergola);
  • 1905Chérubin, an opera by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The story is a farcical “sequel” to The Barber of Seville, based on the further adventures of Cherubino, Count Almaviva’s page;
  • 1933—Le Barbier de Seville, a French film that combines both the Rossini and Mozart Beaumarchais operas (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, respectively) and uses the story and music of both.  Pierre Maudru wrote the screenplay, and Hubert Bourlon and Jean Kemm directed;
  • 1944—The Barber of Seville, an animated cartoon short produced by Walter Lantz Productions and distributed by Universal Pictures. The cartoon features Woody Woodpecker as Figaro;
  • 1950—Rabbit of Seville, a Looney Tunes cartoon short released by Warner Bros. Directed by Chuck Jones; musical arrangements of Rossini’s opera are by Carl Stalling. Bugs Bunny is Figaro (illustration, above right);
  • 2007—Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro, a musical comedy staged by Russian television. It aired for the first time on New Year's eve of 2007. Features Sofia Rotaru in the role of Marceline.

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