(This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.)
While Weber was reconstructing opera in Germany and laying the foundations upon which the vast structure of modern lyrical drama was afterwards reared by the composers of our own day, reforms, or at any rate innovations, were being introduced into Italian opera by a musician scarcely less gifted even than the founder of the romantic school himself. Rossini (1792-1868) owed but little of his fame to instruction or study. As soon as he had been assured by his master that he knew enough of the grammar of music to write an opera, he relinquished his studies once for all, and started life as a composer. In this perhaps he showed his wisdom, for his natural gifts were of such a nature as could scarcely have been enhanced by erudition, and the mission which he so amply fulfilled in freeing his national art from eighteenth-century convention was certainly not one which depended upon a profound knowledge of counterpoint. Nature had fortunately endowed him with precisely the equipment necessary for the man who was to reform Italian opera.
The school of Paisiello, notwithstanding its many merits, had several grievous weaknesses, of which the most prominent were uniformity of melodic type, nerveless and conventional orchestration, and intolerable prolixity. Rossini brought to his task a vein of melody as inexhaustible in inspiration as it was novel in form, a natural instinct for instrumental colour, and a firm conviction that brevity was the soul of wit. He leapt into fame with 'Tancredi,' which was produced in 1813 and established his reputation as a composer of opera seria. In opera buffa, a field in which his talents shone even more brilliantly, his earliest success was made with 'L'Italiana in Algeri' (1813), which was followed in 1815 by the world-famous 'Barbiere di Siviglia.' This was originally produced in Rome under the name of 'Almaviva,' and strangely enough, proved an emphatic failure. For this, however, the music was scarcely responsible. The people of Rome were at that time devotees of the music of Paisiello, and resented the impertinence of the upstart Rossini in venturing to borrow a subject which had already been treated by the older master. 'Il Barbiere' soon recovered from the shock of its unfriendly reception, and is now one of the very few of Rossini's works which have survived to the present day. The story is bright and amusing and the music brilliant and exhilarating, but it is to be feared that the real explanation of the continued success of the little opera lies in the opportunity which it offers to the prima donna of introducing her favourite cheval de bataille in the lesson scene.
The scene of the opera is laid at Seville. Count Almaviva has fallen in love with Rosina, a fascinating damsel, whose guardian, Bartolo, keeps her under lock and key, in the hope of persuading her to marry himself. Figaro, a ubiquitous barber, who is in everybody's confidence, takes the Count under his protection, and contrives to smuggle him into the house in the disguise of a drunken soldier. Unfortunately this scheme is frustrated by the arrival of the guard, who arrest the refractory hero and carry him off to gaol. In the second act the Count succeeds in getting into the house as a music-master, but in order to gain the suspicious Bartolo's confidence he has to show him one of Rosina's letters to himself, pretending that it was given him by a mistress of Almaviva. Bartolo is delighted with the news of the Count's infidelity and hastens to tell the scandal to Rosina, whose jealousy and disappointment nearly bring Almaviva's deep-laid schemes to destruction. Happily he finds an opportunity of persuading her of his constancy while her guardian's back is turned, and induces her to elope before Bartolo has discovered the fraud practised upon him. The music is a delightful example of Rossini in his gayest and merriest mood. It sparkles with wit and fancy, and is happily free from those concessions to the vanity or idiosyncrasy of individual singers which do so much to render his music tedious to modern ears. Of Rossini's lighter works, 'Il Barbiere' is certainly the most popular, though, musically speaking, it is perhaps not superior to 'La Gazza Ladra,' which, however, is saddled with an idiotic libretto.
None of his tragic operas except 'Guillaume Tell,' which belongs to a later period, have retained their hold upon the affections of the public. Nevertheless there is so much excellent music in the best of them, that it would not be strange if the course of time should bring them once more into favour, provided always that singers were forthcoming capable of singing the elaborate fioriture with which they abound. Perhaps the finest of the serious operas of Rossini's Italian period is 'Semiramide' a work which is especially interesting as a proof of the strong influence which Mozart exercised upon him. The plot is a Babylonian version of the story of Agamemnon, telling of the vengeance taken by Arsaces, the son of Ninus and Semiramis, upon his guilty mother, who, with the help of her paramour Assur, had slain her husband. Much of the music is exceedingly powerful, notably that which accompanies the apparition of the ghost of Ninus (although this is evidently inspired by 'Don Giovanni'), and the passionate scene in which the conscience-stricken Assur pours forth his soul in tempest. More thoroughly Italian in type is 'Mosé in Egitto,' a curious though effective version of the Biblical story, which is still occasionally performed as an oratorio in this country, a proceeding which naturally gives little idea of its real merits. In 1833 it was actually given under the proper conditions, as a sacred opera, strengthened by a generous infusion of Handel's 'Israel in Egypt,' under the direction of Mr. Rophino Lacy.
It would be an idle task to give even the names of Rossini's many operas. Suffice it to say that between 1810 and 1828 he produced upwards of forty distinct works. In 1829 came his last and greatest work, 'Guillaume Tell,' which was written for the Grand Opéra in Paris. The libretto was the work of many hands, and Rossini's own share in it was not a small one. It follows Schiller with tolerable closeness. In the first act Tell saves the life of Leuthold, who is being pursued by Gessler's soldiers; and Melchthal, the patriarch of the village, is put to death on a charge of insubordination. His son Arnold loves Matilda, the sister of Gessler, and hesitates between love and duty. Finally, however, he joins Tell, who assembles the men of the three forest cantons, and binds them with an oath to exterminate their oppressors or perish in the attempt. In the third act comes the famous archery scene. Tell refuses to bow to Gessler's hat, and is condemned to shoot the apple from his son's head. This he successfully accomplishes, but the presence of a second arrow in his quiver arouses Gessler's suspicions. Tell confesses that had he killed his son, the second arrow would have despatched the tyrant, and is at once thrown into prison. In the last act we find Arnold raising a band of followers and himself accomplishing the rescue of Tell; Gessler is slain, and Matilda is united to her lover.
'Guillaume Tell' is not only indisputably Rossini's finest work, but it also give convincing proof of the plasticity of the composer's genius. Accustomed as he had been for many years to turning out Italian operas by the score—graceful trifles enough, but too often flimsy and conventional—it says much for the character of the man that, when the occasion arrived, he could attack such a subject as that of Tell with the proper seriousness and reserve. He took what was best in the style and tradition of French opera and welded it to the thoroughly Italian fabric with which he was familiar. He put aside the excessive ornamentation with which his earlier works had been overladen, and treated the voices with a simplicity and dignity thoroughly in keeping with the subject. The choral and instrumental parts of the opera are particularly important; the latter especially have a colour and variety which may be considered to have had a large share in forming the taste for delicate orchestral effects for which modern French composers are famous. 'Guillaume Tell' was to have been the first of a series of five operas written for the Paris Opera by special arrangement with the government of Charles X.
The revolution of 1830 put an end to this scheme, and a few years later, finding himself displaced by Meyerbeer in the affections of the fickle Parisian public, Rossini made up his mind to write no more for the stage. He lived for nearly forty years after the production of 'Guillaume Tell,' but preferred a life of ease and leisure to entering the lists once more as a candidate for fame. What the world lost by this decision, it is difficult to say; but if we remember the extraordinary development which took place in the style and methods of Wagner and Verdi, we cannot think without regret of the composer of 'Guillaume Tell' making up his mind while still a young man to abandon the stage for ever. Nevertheless, although much of his music soon became old-fashioned, Rossini's work was not unimportant. The invention of the cabaletta, or quick movement, following the cavatina or slow movement, must be ascribed to him, an innovation which has affected the form of opera, German and French, as well as Italian, throughout this century. Even more important was the change which he introduced into the manner of singing fioriture or florid music. Before his day singers had been accustomed to introduce cadenzas of their own, to a great extent when they liked. Rossini insisted upon their singing nothing but what was set down for them. Naturally he was compelled to write cadenzas for them as elaborate and effective as those which they had been in the habit of improvising, so that much of his Italian music sounds empty and meaningless to our ears. But he introduced the thin edge of the wedge, and although even to the days of Jenny Lind singers were occasionally permitted to interpolate cadenzas of their own, the old tradition that an opera was merely an opportunity for the display of individual vanity was doomed.
The music of Donizetti (1798-1848) is now paying the price of a long career of popularity by enduring a season of neglect. His tragic operas, which were the delight of opera-goers in the fifties and sixties, sound cold and thin to modern ears. There is far more genuine life in his lighter works, many of which still delight us by their unaffected tunefulness and vivacity. Donizetti had little musical education, and his spirit rebelled so strongly against the rules of counterpoint that he preferred to go into the army rather than to devote himself to church music. His first opera, 'Enrico di Borgogna,' was produced in 1818, and for the next five-and-twenty years he worked assiduously, producing in all no fewer than sixty-five operas.
'Lucia di Lammermoor' (1835), which was for many years one of the most popular works in the Covent Garden repertory, has now sunk to the level of a mere prima donna's opera, to be revived once or twice a year in order to give a popular singer an opportunity for vocal display. Yet there are passages in it of considerable dramatic power, and many of the melodies are fresh and expressive. The plot is founded upon 'The Bride of Lammermoor,' but it is Scott's tragic romance seen through very Italian spectacles indeed. Henry Ashton has promised the hand of his sister Lucy to Lord Arthur Bucklaw, hoping by means of this marriage to recruit the fallen fortunes of his house. Lucy loves Edgar Ravenswood, the hereditary foe of her family, and vows to be true to him while he is away on an embassy in France. During his absence Ashton contrives to intercept Ravenswood's letters to his sister, and finally produces a forged paper, which Lucy accepts as the proof of her lover's infidelity. She yields to the pressure of her brother's entreaties, and consents to marry Lord Arthur. No sooner has she set her name to the contract than the door opens and Edgar appears. Confronted with the proof of Lucy's inconstancy, he curses the house of Lammermoor and rushes away. Ashton follows him, and, after a stormy interview, challenges him to mortal combat. Meanwhile, on her bridal night Lucy has lost her reason and in her frenzy stabbed her unfortunate bridegroom. On coming once more to her senses, she puts an end to her own life; while Edgar, on hearing of the tragedy, betakes himself to the tombs of his ancestors and there commits suicide. Much of the music suffers from the conventionality to which Donizetti was a slave, notably the ridiculous mad scene, a delightfully suave melody ending with an elaborate cadenza divided between the voice and flute; but there are passages of real power, such as the fine sextet in the contract scene, and the gloomy air in which the hero calls upon the spirits of his forefathers.
Less sombre than 'Lucia,' and quite as tuneful, is 'Lucrezia Borgia,' once a prime favourite at Covent Garden, but now rarely heard. Lucrezia Borgia, the wife of Alfonso of Ferrara, has recognised Gennaro, a young Venetian, as an illegitimate son of her own, and watches over him with tender interest, though she will not disclose the real relation in which they stand to one another. Gennaro, taunted by his friends with being a victim of Lucrezia's fascinations, publicly insults her, and is thereupon condemned to death by the Duke, who is glad of the opportunity of taking vengeance upon the man whom he believes to be his wife's paramour. Gennaro is poisoned in the presence of his mother, who, however, directly the Duke's back is turned, gives him an antidote which restores him to health. In the last act Lucrezia takes comprehensive vengeance upon the friends of Gennaro, whose taunts still rankle in her bosom, by poisoning all the wine at a supper party. Unfortunately Gennaro happens to be present, and as this time he refuses to take an antidote, even though Lucrezia reveals herself as his mother, he expires in her arms.
There is little attempt at dramatic significance in the music of 'Lucrezia Borgia,' but the score bubbles over with delicious and wholly inappropriate melodies. Occasionally, as in the final scene, there is a touch of pathos, and sometimes some rather effective concerted music; but, for the most part, Donizetti was content to write his charming tunes, and to leave all expression to the singers. The orchestration of his Italian operas is primitive in the extreme, and amply justifies Wagner's taunt about the 'big guitar.' In works written for foreign theatres Donizetti took more pains, and 'La Favorite,' produced in Paris in 1840, is in many ways the strongest of his tragic works. The story is more than usually repulsive. Fernando, a novice at the convent of St. James of Compostella, is about to take monastic vows, when he catches sight of a fair penitent, and bids farewell to the Church in order to follow her to court. She turns out to be Leonora, the mistress of the King, for whose beaux yeux the latter is prepared to repudiate the Queen and to brave all the terrors of Rome. Fernando finds Leonora ready to reciprocate his passion, and by her means he obtains a commission in the army. He returns covered with glory, and is rewarded by the King, who has discovered his connection with Leonora, with the hand of his cast-off mistress. After the marriage ceremony is over, Fernando hears for the first time of Leonora's past. He flies to the convent for consolation, followed by his unfortunate wife, who dies in his arms after she has obtained forgiveness.
'La Favorite' is more carefully written than was Donizetti's wont, and some of the concerted music is really dramatic. There is a tradition that the last act, which was an after-thought, was written in an incredibly short space of time, but it is significant that the beautiful romanza 'Spirto gentil,' to which the act and indeed the whole opera owes most of its popularity, was transferred from an earlier and unperformed work, 'Le Duc d'Albe.' It would be waste of time to describe the plots of any other serious works by this composer. Many of them, such as 'Betly,' 'Linda di Chamonix,' and 'Anna Bolena,' were successful when produced; but Donizetti aimed merely at satisfying the prevailing taste of the day, and when a new generation sprang up with different sympathies from that which had preceded it, the operas which had seemed the most secure of popularity were soon consigned to oblivion. It is a significant fact that Donizetti's lighter works have stood the test of time more successfully than his more serious efforts. Though the grandiose airs and sham tragedy of 'Lucia' have long since ceased to impress us, we can still take pleasure in the unaffected gaiety of 'La Fille du Régiment' and 'Don Pasquale.' These and many similar works were written currente calamo, and though their intrinsic musical interest is of course very slight, they are totally free from the ponderous affectations of the composer's serious operas. Here we see Donizetti at his best, because here he writes according to the natural dictates of his imagination, not in accordance with the foolish or depraved taste of fashionable connoisseurs.
The scene of 'La Fille du Régiment' is laid in the Tyrol, where Tonio, a peasant, has had the good fortune to save the life of Marie, the vivandière of a French regiment. Many years before the opening of the story, Marie had been found upon the battle-field by Sergeant Sulpice, and adopted by the regiment whose name she bears. The regiment, as a body, has the right of disposing of her hand in marriage, and when Tonio presses his claim, which is not disallowed by the heroine, it is decided that he shall be allowed to marry her if he will consent to join the regiment. Everything goes well, when a local grandee in the shape of the Marchioness Berkenfeld suddenly appears, identifies Marie as her niece by means of a letter which was found upon her by the Sergeant, and carries her off to her castle hard by, leaving the unfortunate Tonio to the bitterest reflections. In the second act Marie is at the castle of Berkenfeld though by no means at ease in her unaccustomed surroundings. Her efforts to imbibe the principles of etiquette are pleasantly interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the regiment, with Tonio now as Colonel at its head. But even his promotion will not soften the Marchioness's heart. She discloses the fact that she is in reality Marie's mother, and adjures her by her filial respect to give up the thought of her low-born lover. Marie consents in an agony of grief. The lovers part with many tears, and at the psychological moment the Marchioness relents, and all ends happily.
Even slighter in scope is 'Don Pasquale,' a brilliant trifle, written for the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, and there sung for the first time in 1843, by Grisi, Mario, Tamburini, and Lablache. The story turns upon a trick played by Ernesto and Norina, two young lovers, upon the uncle and guardian of the former, Don Pasquale. Ernesto will not marry to please his uncle, so the old gentleman determines to marry himself. Norina is introduced to Don Pasquale as his sister by a certain Dr. Malatesta, a friend of Ernesto, and the amorous old gentleman at once succumbs to her charms. No sooner is the marriage contract signed than Norina, acting upon her instructions, launches forth upon a career of unexampled shrewishness, extravagance, and flirtation. Her poor old lover is distracted by her wild vagaries, and in the end is only too thankful to hand her over bag and baggage to his nephew, who generously consents to relieve his uncle of his unlucky bargain.
The music of 'L'Elisir d'Amore' is not inferior to that of 'Don Pasquale' in sparkle and brilliancy, but the plot is tame and childish compared to the bustle and intrigue of the latter work. It turns upon a sham love potion sold by a travelling quack to Nemorino, a country lout who is in love with Adina, the local beauty. Adina is divided between the attractions of Nemorino and those of the Sergeant Belcore, who is quartered in the village. In order to get money to pay for the potion Nemorino joins the army, and this proof of his devotion has so convincing an effect upon the affections of Adina that she discards the soldier and bestows her hand upon Nemorino. To this silly plot is allied some of the most delightful music Donizetti ever wrote. Fresh, graceful, and occasionally tender, it forms the happiest contrast to the grandiose nonsense which the composer was in the habit of turning out to suit the vitiated taste of the day, and is a convincing proof that if he had been permitted to exercise his talent in a congenial sphere, Donizetti would be entitled to rank with the most successful followers of Cimarosa and Paisiello, instead of being degraded to the rank of a mere purveyor to the manufacturers of barrel-organs.
Different as was the talent of Bellini (1802-1835) from that of Donizetti, his fate has been the same. After holding the ear of Europe for many years, he has fallen at the present time completely into the background, and outside the frontiers of Italy his works are rarely heard. Bellini had no pretensions to dramatic power. His genius was purely elegiac in tone, and he relied entirely for the effect which he intended to produce upon the luscious beauty of his melodies, into which, it must be admitted, the great singers of his time contrived to infuse a surprising amount of dramatic force.
The story of 'La Sonnambula' is rather foolish, but it suited Bellini's idyllic style, and the work is perhaps the happiest example of his naïf charm. Amina, a rustic damsel, betrothed to Elvino, is a confirmed somnambulist, and her nocturnal peregrinations have given the village in which she dwells the reputation of being haunted by a spectre. One night, Amina, while walking in her sleep, enters the chamber in the inn where Rodolfo, the young lord of the village, happens to be located. There she is discovered by Lisa, the landlady, to the scandal of the neighbourhood and the shame of her lover Elvino, who casts her from him and at once makes over his affections to the landlady. Amina's sorrow and despair make her more restless than ever, and the following night she is seen walking out of a window of the mill in which she lives, and crossing the stream by a frail bridge which totters beneath her weight. Providence guards her steps, and she reaches solid earth in safety, where Elvino is waiting to receive her, fully convinced of her innocence. Bellini's music is quite the reverse of dramatic, but the melodies throughout 'La Sonnambula' are graceful and tender, and in the closing scene he rises to real pathos.
In 'Norma' Bellini had the advantage of treating a libretto of great power and beauty, the work of the poet Romani, a tragedy which, both in sentiment and diction, contrasts very strongly with the ungrammatical balderdash which composers are so often called upon to set to music. Norma, the high priestess of the Druids, forgetting her faith and the traditions of her race, has secretly wedded Pollio, a Roman general, and borne him two children. In spite of the sacrifices which she has made for his sake, he proves faithless, and seduces Adalgisa, one of the virgins of the temple, who has consented to abandon her people and her country and to fly with him to Rome. Before leaving her home, Adalgisa, ignorant of the connection between Norma and Pollio, reveals her secret to the priestess, and begs for absolution from her vows. At the news of her husband's faithlessness Norma's fury breaks forth, and her indignation is equalled by that of Adalgisa, who is furious at finding herself the mere plaything of a profligate. Pollio, maddened by passion, endeavours to tear Adalgisa from the altar of the temple, but is checked by Norma, who strikes the sacred shield and calls the Druids to arms. Pollio, now a prisoner, is brought before her for judgment, and she gives him a last choice, to renounce Adalgisa or to die. He refuses to give up his love, whereupon Norma, in a passion of self-sacrifice, tears the sacred wreath from her own brow and declares herself the guilty one. Pollio is touched by her magnanimity, and together they ascend the funeral pyre, in its flames to be cleansed from earthly sin.
It would be too much to assert that Bellini has risen to the level of this noble subject, but parts of his score have a fervour and a dignity which might scarcely have been expected from the composer of 'La Sonnambula.' We may smile now at the trio between Pollio and his two victims, in which the extremes of fury and indignation are expressed by a lilting tune in 9-8 time, but it is impossible to deny the truth and beauty of Norma's farewell to her children, and in several other scenes there are evidences of real dramatic feeling, if not of the power to express it. It is important to remember, in discussing the works of Bellini and the other composers of his school, that in their day the art of singing was cultivated to a far higher pitch of perfection than is now the case. Consequently the composer felt that he had done his duty if, even in situations of the most tragic import, he provided his executant with a broad, even melody. Into this the consummate art of the singer could infuse every gradation of feeling. The composer presented a blank canvas, upon which the artist painted the required picture.
Unlike that of 'Norma,' the libretto of 'I Puritani,' Bellini's last opera, is a dull and confused affair. The scene is laid in England, apparently at the time of the Civil War, but the history and chronology throughout are of the vaguest description. Queen Henrietta Maria is imprisoned in the fortress of Plymouth, under the guardianship of Lord Walton, the Parliamentary leader, whose daughter Elvira loves Lord Arthur Talbot, a young Cavalier, Elvira's tears and entreaties have so far softened her stern parent that Arthur is to be admitted into the castle in order that the nuptials may be celebrated. He takes advantage of the situation to effect the escape of the Queen, disguising her in Elvira's bridal veil. When his treachery is discovered Arthur is at once proscribed, and Elvira, believing him to be faithless, loses her reason. Later in the opera Arthur contrives to meet Elvira and explains his conduct satisfactorily, but their interview is cut short by a party of Puritans, who arrest him. He is condemned to be shot on the spot, but, before the sentence can be carried out, a messenger arrives with the news of the king's defeat and the pardon of Arthur. Elvira, whose insanity has throughout been of an eminently harmless description, at once recovers her reason, and everything ends happily.
'I Puritani' is in some respects Bellini's best work. Foolish as the libretto is, the bitterest opponent of Italian cantilena could scarcely refuse to acknowledge the pathetic beauty of many of the songs. It is a matter for regret, as well as for some surprise, that Bellini's works should now be entirely banished from the Covent Garden repertory, while so many inferior operas are still retained. In an age of fustian and balderdash, Bellini stood apart, a tender and pathetic figure, with no pretensions to science, but gifted with a command of melody as copious, unaffected, and sincere as has ever fallen to the lot of a composer for the stage.
The other Italian writers of this period may be briefly dismissed, since they did little but reproduce the salient features of their more famous contemporaries in a diluted form. Mercadante (1797-1870) lived to an advanced age, and wrote many operas, comic and serious, of which the most successful was 'Il Giuramento,' a gloomy story of love and revenge, treated with a certain power of the conventional order, and a good deal of facile melody. Pacini (1796-1867) is principally known by his 'Saffo,' an imitation of Rossini, which achieved a great success. Vaccai (1790-1848) also imitated Rossini, but his 'Giulietta e Romeo' has intrinsic merits, which are not to be despised.
After the days of Rossini, opera buffa fell upon evil days. Although the most famous musicians of the day did not disdain occasionally to follow in the footsteps of Cimarosa, for the most part the task of purveying light operas for the smaller theatres of Italy fell into the hands of second and third rate composers. Donizetti, as we have seen, enriched the repertory of opera buffa with several masterpieces of gay and brilliant vivacity, but few of the lighter works of his contemporaries deserve permanent record.
The brothers Ricci, Luigi (1805-1859) and Federico (1809-1877), wrote many operas, both singly and in collaboration, but 'Crispino e la Comare' is the only one of their works which won anything like a European reputation. The story is a happy combination of farce and féerie. Crispino, a half-starved cobbler, is about to throw himself into a well, when La Comare, a fairy, rises from it and bids him desist. She gives him a purse of gold, and orders him to set up as a doctor, telling him that when he goes to visit a patient he must look to see whether she is standing by the bedside. If she is not there, the sick man will recover. Crispino follows her directions, and speedily becomes famous, but success turns his head, and he is only brought back to his senses by a strange dream, in which the fairy takes him down to a subterranean cavern where the lamp of each man's life is burning and he sees his own on the point of expiring. After this uncomfortable vision he is thankful to find himself still in the bosom of his family, and the opera ends with his vows of amendment. The music is brilliant and sparkling, and altogether the little opera is one of the best specimens of opera buffa produced in Italy after the time of Rossini. The other men who devoted themselves to opera buffa during this period my be briefly dismissed. Carlo Pedrotti (1817-1893), whose comic opera 'Tutti in Maschera,' after a brilliant career in Italy, was successfully produced in Paris, and Antonio Cagnoni (1828-1896), were perhaps the best of them. A version of the latter's 'Papa Martin' was performed in London in 1875, under the name of 'The Porter of Havre.'
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