ROSSINI, DONIZETTI, AND BELLINI
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-
'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-
The music of Donizetti (1798-
'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-
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-
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-
Different as was the talent of Bellini (1802-
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-
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-
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-
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-