If I had to choose a place and time where I could hear music that, in many respects, I love the best then it would have to be Naples in the eighteenth century, especially its first half.
The musical image most people have of Naples today is that of the Neapolitan song as sung by the three tenors, Bocelli et al. True, these songs are pleasant enough to hear but they are hardly to be thought of as pioneering pieces.
Naples in the eighteenth century was Italy’s largest, most elegant and most cultured city. Its conservatoire produced some of the most forward-looking composers of any country. Do you recognize some of these names: Domenico Cimarosa, Nicola Antonio Zingarelli, Domenico Scarlatti, Francesco Provenzale, Francesco Durante, Francesco Feo, Nicola Porpora, Niccolò Jommelli, Gaetano Greco? That is just a small selection of composers who came specifically from Naples. However, others joined them in Naples from different regions: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Nicola Vaccaj from le Marche, Pasquale Anfossi from Liguria, Antonio Sacchini from Tuscany, Andrea Perrucci and Alessandro Scarlatti from Sicily, Tommaso Traetta, Leonardo Leo and Niccolò Piccinni from Puglia and Leonardo Vinci (note the absence of da – please don’t confuse him with the renaissance polymath…)
Don’t worry too much if several of these names may be unfamiliar to you – most of these composers have only been rediscovered and authentically performed recently thanks to the period music movement. Without them, however, music forms such as the da capo aria or the symphony would have been inconceivable. Each composer brought their own contribution to the advance of western music. Jomelli, for example, developed the orchestral crescendo and without Alessandro Scarlatti Handel would have been lost in both his mature instrumental and vocal music forms.
What distinguishes baroque Neapolitan is its lively directness, its radiant orchestration and, above all, its honey-distilled melodiousness and infectious rhythmical impetus. Perhaps the best known example of baroque Neapolitan music is Pergolesi’s delightful intermezzo La Serva Padrona, used as an example of ideal composition by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher (who too wrote an operetta, Le Devin du Village) in the guerre des bouffons which debated the merits of French versus Italian opera.
I was, therefore, particularly glad to attend a performance of Didone abbandonata, perhaps the masterpiece of one of the most distinguished Neapolitan baroque operatic composers, Leonardo Vinci, at Florence’s Goldoni Theatre a couple of days ago.After all opera was invented by the Florentines at the end of the sixteenth century.
Something about Leonardo Vinci. He studied under Gaetano Greco at the conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ, where he enrolled on November 14, 1708. In 1729 he was appointed choirmaster to Paolo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero. During this time he composed his first operas, in Neapolitan dialect, with much success Soon Vinci became one of Naples’ most popular composers and wrote at least eight opere buffe. Later he composed opere serie including Publius Cornelius Scipio.
(The man himself)
Now famous, Vinci was invited to Rome in 1724 where he staged Farnace, with libretto by Antonio Maria Lucchini. This work, performed with great success at the Teatro Alibert, was sung by Domenico Gizzi of Naples’ Royal Chapel as Pharnaces and Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli (did you see the 1994 film based on his life?). For Rome’s 1726 Carnival at the Teatro delle Dame (ex Teatro Alibert) Vinci wrote his masterpiece, Didone Abbandonata, with a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, the doyen of baroque opera librettists with whom he enjoyed a great friendship and collaboration. This opera reached the UK where it was performed in London’s Covent Garden in 1737.
In 1728 Vinci joined the brotherhood of the SS. Rosary at the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples and in the same year, after the death of Gaetano Greco, also held the position of Kapellmeister at the Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ, where Pergolesi was among his pupils. However, in October of the year Vinci was replaced by Francesco Durante.
Vinci’s last opera, Artaserse, was staged in 1730 in Rome. In the same year Vinci died in unclear circumstances. Apparently he enjoyed the good life, raised envies and died aged only forty, perhaps as a result of poisoning by a rival. Vinci was buried in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello and his funeral costs were borne by Cardinal Ruffo’s sister since he died in strangely straightened circumstances.
Florence’s Teatro Goldoni is an ideal place to perform baroque opera. Although built a little later than that period (in 1817, in fact), its intimate auditorium lends itself perfectly to the performance of eighteenth century opera. After periods of popularity and decline the theatre was restored and opened to the public in 1998. It is a perfect accessory to Florence’s fine new opera house opened in 2011 and which I attended for a performance of Bellini’s I Puritani in 2011 (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/seductive-puritans-in-florence/ )
Just admire the beauty of the foyer’s colonnaded rotunda and the charming decorations of the auditorium’s ceiling:
This was the cast of the performance I attended:
Conductor: Carlo Ipata
Direction: Deda Cristina Colonna
Scenery: Gabriele Vanzini
Costumes: Monica Iacuzzo
Lighting: Vincenzo Raponi
Harpsichord: Alessandra Artifoni
Theorbo: Giovanni Bellini
Didone: Roberta Mameli
Enea: Carlo Allemano
Iarba: Raffaele Pe
Selene: Gabriella Costa
Araspe: Marta Pluda
Osmida: Giada Frasconi
Ipata is, of course, closely closely associated with Barga Opera and his Auser Musici is a truly fine period band. Interestingly, a flautist friend of mine who shared student digs with Ipata, was the one to tell Carlo (a flautist himself) to take to the baroque flute ..the rest is history.
The story of Dido and Aeneas has been set to music so many times. England has its own supreme example in Purcell’s setting for example. Metastasio has Dido Queen of Carthage saying “I am both queen and lover and the empire I want to rule over is my throne and my heart. ”. The opera is inspired by the myth of a proud and determined woman, abandoned by her lover Aeneas, annoyed by a relentless barbarian suitor, Iarba, deceived by Selene’s sister, who she discovers has become Aeneas’ paramour, and finally betrayed by her confidant, Osmida. The work’s enormous success during the 1724 in Naples carnival, led to more than sixty different subsequent operatic settings including Handel’s, Paisiello’s and Mercadante’s.
What did I think of the evening’s performance?
It was as good as it gets. From the starting sinfonia with its highly virtuosistic horn parts to the extraordinary tragic finale there wasn’t a weak moment, both in terms of the music and the performance.
All singers were superb. Roberta Mameli (a pupil of Roberta Invernizzi, whose magnificent performances I have described, among other places, at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/a-barga-evening-to-remember/) da capoed arias already filled with vocal difficulties with ever more brilliant rubattute and appoggiature.
(La Mameli as Didone)
Raffaele Pe, as counter-tenor, has a range approaching that of Franco Fagioli (whose recording of the same composer’s Artaserse has won world-wide acclamation). He is simply superb with an upper register approaching celestial purity. (I’ll have to get Pe’s first album ‘The Medici Castrato’ issued in 2015).
The theatre was quite packed and I was glad to have paid for my ticket already a little time beforehand. Interestingly, I shared a box with an American who hailed from Nashville, Tennessee. He was doing an opera tour of Italy and had already attended performances at La Fenice and even Cagliari’s theatre. What a great idea: combining one’s visit to Italy with pilgrimages to opera houses! Amazingly, although a lover of classical music, the American had only just discovered opera, His job as a roadie for Nashville’s country-and-western recording studios had put him into contact with all the greats of that genre of music, including Dolly Parton herself. But he wasn’t interested in Nashville’s music. For him it was now going to be opera! How wonderful to discover this great art form and have the resources to pursue the new-found interest.
Didone Abbandonata’s costumes and scenery were both adventurous and tasteful. I particularly liked the use of Javanese puppet-theatre-like silhouettes behind a transparent screen. There was both tradition and modernity in the setting and a captivating simplicity in the production.
Vinci’s setting of Dido’s story has two sub-plots which complicate the outcome. This, however, still remains the same: Dido ends her life by perishing in the flames of a burning Carthage, No happy ending then with a vocal ensemble finale as happens in other eighteenth century opera seria I have seen? Not at all! Instead, an astoundingly dramatic recitativo accompagnato by a distraught Didone ends this wonderful work on a truly tragic note.
It took J. S, Bach almost a hundred years to regain his place in the pantheon of great composers. I’ll eat my hat (or rather wooly cap as it was damn cold that midnight in Florence when I exited into the icy Oltrarno streets surrounding the Teatro Goldoni) if Leonardo Vinci doesn’t regain his place as one of the greatest Italian operatic composers of the eighteenth century (and perhaps beyond).
PS If you were one of the unfortunate mortals who were unable to witness Didone Abbandonata there’s a recording of another performance (not as enjoyable in my opinion) of it at Germany’s Schwetzingen Palace on you tube at
PPS Some photos by grateful permission to Opera Click and La Stampa since, clearly it’s not permissible to take photos during a performance.