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History of Opera in Italy

The Neopolitans and Their Role in the Beginning of Comic Opera in the 18th Century
by Francesco Canessa, former General Manager of Teatro di San Carlo

"Do you want to know if there is real fire burning inside you? If so, run, fly to Naples and listen to the masterpieces of Leo, Durante, Jommelli, Pergolese. If tears come to your eyes, if you feel overwhelmed by emotion don't stop the beating of your heart. Simply take a work by Metastasio and begin studying it. His genius will enlighten your own"
J. J. Rousseau: Dictionnaire de musique

Around 1730 the financial problems of Georg Friedrich Haendel, musician, composer and impresario in London at the time of George II, began to worsen due to the extraordinary success of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields in January 1728. The plot of his opera was simply made up of ordinary characters based upon real, comic and somewhat ironic situations, in the style of certain short musical comedies that were very popular on Neapolitan stages that were performed between the acts of long music dramas filled with mythological heroes and deities living on Mount Olympus. But this was also due to the creation of a "Noble Academy" founded by the prince of Wales in opposition to the "Royal Academy" in order to disappoint his father, George II.

This meant trouble for Haendel, who was impresario and director of the Royal Academy. The prince hired an Italian company led by the Neapolitan Nicola Porpora, one of Europe's most renowned artists. Porpora, formerly a pupil at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesu Cristo, had been singing-master at the Conservatorio di Sant'Onofrio a Capuana. His pupils, Carlo Broschi (known on the stage as Farinelli), Gaetano Majorano (known as Caffarelli), Antonio Uberti (called Il Porporino), Agricola Molteni, Regina Mingotti and Giuseppe Appiani had successfully performed at courts and in opera houses throughout Europe.

Haendel knew the Neapolitans very well as he had studied in Naples for one year under Alessandro Scarlatti and tried to follow their style in London, trying to imitate their way of making theatre. He composed Partenope (King's Theatre 1730) and engaged two famous prima donnas, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, to sing in "Alessandro nelle Indie" (King's Theatre 1726). The latter was trained according to the Venitian tradition but was married Johann Adolf Hasse, the "Saxon" who had become "Neopolitanized" and was a pupil of both Scarlatti and Porpora.

When the Neopolitans arrived in London it was impossible to compete with them, especially in singing where singers like Farinelli was sending the composed Londoners into raptures. How could those castratoes from the conservatories of Naples have such incredible voices? Haendel then took up the challenge by substituting ballets for intermezzos. When he switched from the Haymarket theatre (which he handed over to Porpora's company) to the Covent Garden he discovered Marie Salle's French ballet company, which he soon involved in his opera peformances. Nevertheless, the theatre couldn't seem to build up a fulll audience. He therefore decided to change genres and began to improvise organ concerts between the acts and little by little he began to substitute operas with sacred dramas and oratorios. It was here, that he eventually found his path which led to the musical masterpieces which made him immortal including his most famous, The Messiah.

Disputes upon artistic matters have always been popular in France, which is why Paris has always been the most renowned capital for artists over time. Hits and failures, scandals and controversies, proclamations and pamphlets have always characterized the Parisian musical life. Two of these quarrals were so extraordinary and significant that they have left a mark in the history and of the evolution of european musical drama. The first was the so-called "querelle des bouffons", arisen in the middle of eighteenth century. The spark that set off the querelle was an Italian company that debuted at the Op?ra that specialized in intermezzi and opera buffo that was led by Eustachio Bambini. ("Sept musiciens recitants, orquestre (sic!) complet, habits necessaires et propres pour son opera...").

On 1 August 1752 the theatre scheduled La Serva Padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The success was unprecedented. One hundred performances were given at the Opera and one hundred and twenty at the Comedie Italienne, where the show eventually moved to. All of Paris was in turmoil, partly for the fact that they were seduced by the revelation of such a lively and fresh music genre, partly for the shock of such a musical revolution. The querelle then became a nationalistic matter (French music was firmly represented by Rameau's pompous and detached baroque style that continued Lully's seventeenth-century tradition) and turned into a social controversy. The conservative aristocracy sided with French music while the intellectual bourgeoisie sided with the Italians.

The quarrel is also known as "querelle des coins". On one side the was the king, on the other, the queen. On Louis XV's front ("coin du roi") were the nobles as well as the musician Jean Joseph de Mondonville, the intellectual Elie Catherine Freron and the unforgettable Madame Pompadour who was it's ensign. The queen, Marie Leszczynska, was a reformer so amongst her followers ("coin de la reine") was the group of Encyclopaedists: Grimm, d'Holbach, Diderot, d'Alembert and, the most obstinate of all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The latter side won the quarrel , even though the king had tried to resolve the dispute by expelling Eustachio Bambini and his seven "bouffons" from France.

French composers started to imitate and later assimilate the new genre especially the composer Gretry who Grimm called "le Pergolese francais" ,as well as Philidor, Monsigny, Dauvergne. The latter composed "Les Troquers" one of the first examples of opera-comique only second to"La serva padrona" on the list of operatic successes during that time. In the Foire de St. Laurent theatre (in the popular theatres of Paris during neighborhood fairs, performances of comic opera increased in number and gave rise to the opera (comique ) "Les Troquers" was staged as an intermezzo and the authors were hidden behind pseudonyms.

Success continued even when the truth was revealed and the Opera-Comique continued its evolution until it became French opera par excellence, thanks also to the help of Egidio Romualdo Duni. Born in Matera, he was a pupil of the Conservatorio della Pieta dei Turchini in Naples (he also studied at the Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Loreto ), who after several pieces with heroes such as Nerone, Alessandro nelle Indie etc. and having moved to Paris he began to write opera with eloquent and meaningful titles such as Le Peintre de Son Modele, La Fille Mal Gardae and La Veuve Indecise.

The second quarrel exploded twenty-five years later, during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The world of serious opera was still ruled by Neapolitan musicians and the queen's valet de chambre , the Marquis De La Borde, invited Niccolo Piccinni, whose Cecchina o La Buona Figliola was at the time the most popular opera in Europe. He was asked to come to Paris and to take over the direction of the Italian Company at the Op?ra and to be the chair professor of the school of singing at the Ecole Royale de Musique et Declamation .

In 1776 Christoph Willibald Gluck, chorus master at the Imperial Court in Vienna, was in Paris and had been struggling for three years to impose the operas of his "reformation" in this European capital of music drama. This time the intellectual middle class was against Italian music and took Gluck's side while the aristocracy, led by the queen, supported the composer Piccinni.
During those years the artistic controversy , which was right and appropriate for the times, clearly reflected the social influences from which it was originating, the decade which preceded the Revolution was about to begin. The 'gluckist' and the 'piccinnist' parties unsheathed their political weapons by asking the two composers of the dispute to write about the same subject matter Iphig?nie en Tauride to music, neither being aware that their rival was composing a work based on the same story. Gluck and Piccinni complied and although the German should have given way to the Italian, it was his opera that was performed in 1789.

When Piccinni's version was performed in 1791, it didn't undermine the resounding and well consolidated success of Gluck's opera. Marie-Antoinette was forced to accept Gluck's victory. The 'gluckists' rejoiced; someone even mentioned a Third State.

The most beautiful aria in the Iphigenie by Gluck, that was so popular in Paris that people began to hum it on the street, begins with the verse "O malhereuse Iphigenie". The music was not original since the author had taken it from another opera of his La Clemenza di Tito which was written for the San Carlo theatre and performed on 4 November 1752. It was sung by Caffarelli, who had such a huge success that he chose it as one of his favourite arias and used to sing it also in other operas as a sort of "coup de theatre" in order to arouse the audience's enthusiasm at the right moment.

Gluck had definitely adopted the Italian style. It was on these grounds that he committed himself to his project of operatic "reformation" which was achieved in co-operation with Ranieri de' Calzabigi, a man of letters from Livorno but Neapolitan by choice (at the end of his career, Calzabigi moved to Naples and lived there until his death in 1795). The so-called "reformation" tended to stress the dramatic quality of operatic work thanks to a new and more intense relationship between music and text. The overall structure derived once again from the traditional metastasian Italian opera seria.

Pietro Metastasio, the court poet, arrived in Vienna after spending many years in Naples, where he worked as an apprentice for a solicitor, whose name was Castagnola. It was there that he had first fallen in love with Luisa, Giambattista Vico's daughter, an amateur poetess and then with Marianna Bulgarelli Benti, called La Romanina, prima donna at San Bartolomeo theatre, with whom he fled shortly after having been ordained.

Metastasio had provided the Neapolitan composers such as Sarro, Porpora, Leo, Hasse and Vinci with many librettos and continued doing so for the following generation of musicians. His lyrics were subsequently used by all non-Italian composers who wanted to write in the Italian style, such as Carl Heinrich Graun, Friedrich II of Prussia's favorite composer and founder of the Berlin opera theatre (1740), and Mozart (in his youth, when he wrote Il Sogno di Scipione and Il Re Pastore, and in his late creations La Clemenza di Tito).

When Franz Joseph Haydn, Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Esterhazy, moved from Eisenstadt to Esterhaza (where prince Nicolaus "the Magnificent" had turned a little hunting lodge into a sumptuous mansion) he had to face a new problem: the scheduling of a proper opera season. Instead of the old music room he had a whole theatre at his disposal. Concerts were not enough for the new stage. His instrumental music training was entirely Austrian; while his operatic taste was devoted to the Neapolitan School. In his youth between 1750 and 1757 Haydn had lived in Vienna in a miserable, small attic room in a prominent building (Michaelerhaus).

On one of the main floors of the same building lived Pietro Metastasio, who provided him with harpsichord pupils and introduced him to Nicola Porpora, who was in Vienna at that time and employed him as an accompanist. Haydn worked and studied under the maestro for four years, learning much of his technique and of the Neapolitan operatic style in general (whose influence can be noted, especially in his first operas). By the time of his stay at the court of Prince Esterhazy, Haydn was very fond of Paisiello and Traetta. They had both been successful in Vienna, before and after their stay in St. Petersburg, where they held the post of chorus master at the court of Catherine II. But the composer in which he had come to admire most was Cimerosa.

A billing of operatic performances in Esterhaza testifies that between 1781 and 1790 Haydn staged eighteen of Cimarosa's operas: L'infedelt? fedele (1781); Il falegname, L'Italiana in Londra (1783); Il Falegname, L'Amor Costante (1784); La Ballerina Amante, Chi dell'Altrui si Veste, I Due Baroni di Roccazzurra (1786: for a viennese performance in 1789). Mozart composed an aria as a homage called Alma Grande e Nobil Core K 578); L'italiana in Londra, Il Fanatico Burlato (1787); Il Marito Disperato, L'Italiana in Londra, Giunio Bruto (1788); Il Pittor Parigino, Giannina e Bernardone, L'Impresario in Angustie (1790).

Haydn was not the only one to love the maestro from Aversa. When Cimarosa left Naples for St. Petersburg to take his post (formerly held by Paisiello and by Traetta) at the court of Catherine II, he spent 24 days at the court of Joseph II and was also a guest of Stanislaw II Poniatowsky in Warsaw, receiving acknowledgements and gifts from both. He also promised to stay longer in Vienna on the way back and to write an opera for the court theatre, like Paisiello (who composed Il Re Teodoro in Venice in 1784).
He kept his promise but upon his return to Vienna Leopold, Joseph II's brother, had taken his place on the throne.

The opera Il Matrimonio Segreto was performed for the Emperor and his court on 2 February 1792. It set a record that has yet to be surpassed: the public called for an encore. Not of a single aria or duet, nor of a concertato, but of the entire opera.

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