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Vincenzo Bellini: Vincenzo Bellini (b. Catania, Sicily, 3 Nov 1801; d. Puteaux, near Paris, 23 Sept 1835).
Although Vincenzo Bellini was born into a musical family (his father was an organist in the Sicilian town of Catania), he took up music as a profession only in the face of severe opposition from his family. Eventually his musical ability simply forced itself on his father's attention, and a number of friends of the family exerted pressure as well. Vincenzo Bellini senior gave in and allowed Vincenzo to study at the Real Conservatorio di Musica in Naples, the costs being met by a Sicilian nobleman who was struck by the child's talent. At the Conservatorium where Donizetti had studied only a few years earlier, and where one of Vincenzo Bellini's fellow-students was Mercadante, the young composer proved a diligent student, and pro-duced his first work for the stage, an opera called A delson e Salvini, while he was still in his final year. Adelson e Salvini, written to a highly melodramatic libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, the librettist of several operas by Rossini and Donizetti, is a tale of friendship, love and jealousy set in 17th-century Ireland. It was performed at the Conservatorium by students in 1825, with such success that the by now twenty-four-year-old composer's examiners invoked a clause in the articles of the San Carlo Opera in Naples, which gave a really promising student the right to have a short work performed in the opera house. Vincenzo Bellini was therefore commissioned by Domenico Barbaia, the manager not only of the San Carlo but also of La Scala, Milan, to write an opera for Naples for the following Carnival season. He chose to compose an opera which, though perhaps short, was to be a full two-act work and not the one-act opera expected.
The subject of Adelson e Salvini had probably not been of Vincenzo Bellini's own choosing. Allowed now to decide on his own subject, he turned to one which had its basis in Sicilian history, although by the time it reached the stage the connection with history was remote and confused. Even the opera's title, Bianca e Fernando, had to be changed at the demand of the censorship authorities, for Fernando was the name both of the recently dead King of Naples and of his heir apparent. The change, however, was slight, and Fernando became Gernando. Produced at the San Carlo Theatre on the 30th May 1826, the opera was immediately acclaimed by a fashionable Neapolitan audience. This was no mere apprentice work, but the earliest of Vincenzo Bellini's operas in which his mature musical personality and style are readily apparent. Bianca is one of his great female characters, worthy to stand beside Norma, Adina or Beatrice in his later operas Norma, La Sonnambula and Beatrice di Tenda. In fact, one of Bianca's cabalettas (a cabaletta being the fast, concluding section of an aria) was taken over bodily in Norma to become the cabaletta to the eponymous heroine's entrance aria, 'Casta diva'. As well as the general public, several of Vincenzo Bellini's fellow composers praised the opera. After attending the first performance, Donizetti wrote, somewhat inaccurately: '... the first production of our Vincenzo Bellini - bella! bella! bella! - especially as it is the first time he has composed anything.'
An important and immediate consequence of the warm reception accorded to Bianca e Gernando in Naples was that Domenico Bar-baia commissioned Vincenzo Bellini to compose an opera for La Scala, Milan, then as now Italy's most important and prestigious opera house. When Vincenzo Bellini arrived in Milan to work on the new opera, he was introduced by his old fellow-student Mercadante to the successful and experienced librettist Felice Romani, with whom Vincenzo Bellini was to form a partnership which lasted through several operas. Romani provided him with a libretto for his Scala debut, and the work which came of it was II pirata. This was so successful at its Milan premiere in October 1827, that it was immediately accepted for production abroad, in Vienna, Dresden, London, Madrid and elsewhere.
Though II pirata was the opera which both introduced Vincenzo Bellini's name and at the same time established his reputation internationally, it is not, in fact, one of his better works, for in it his particular skill, an ability to write a long, flowing melodic line of grace and suppleness, is exercised only intermittently, and many pages of his score sound as though perfunctorily thrown off. What is not in question, either in II pirata or elsewhere in Vincenzo Bellini's oeuvre, is the soundness and confidence of his technique. His long melodies are said to have influenced, and later perhaps to have been influenced by, Chopin; certainly Vincenzo Bellini's arias and Chopin's nocturnes speak the same language and often convey the same mood. The unadorned simplicity of Vincenzo Bellini's vocal line, though it appealed to a public clearly satiated with the more decorative and decorated style of Rossini, did not always commend itself to Vincenzo Bellini's early interpreters who found it lacking in opportunities for vocal display. Adelaide Tosi, who sang Bianca in the Genoa production of Bianca e Gernando, referred contemptuously to one of her arias as 'musica fatta per ragazzi' (children's music), and demanded to have it enlivened and made more difficult, but Vincenzo Bellini, sterner in these matters than either Rossini or Donizetti, insisted on his music being performed as written.
In Milan, Vincenzo Bellini took as his mistress Giuditta Turina, the daughter of one wealthy silk merchant and the wife of another. Their relationship was to last for five years and was useful, to resort to Vincenzo Bellini's own phrase, 'in protecting [him] from marriage', for he was an attractive young man, and much sought after by admiring females.
Vincenzo Bellini's fame was spreading rapidly, and Barbaia hastened to secure his agreement to provide another new opera for La Scala. This was Lastraniera, produced in February 1829. It proved less immediately successful than its predecessors, though it is an important and significant work, for in it we find Vincenzo Bellini refining his vocal style still further, and placing it more wholeheartedly at the service of the drama than he had earlier been prepared to do. His first audiences and critics found this development disconcerting, and were inclined to consider La straniera dull in comparison with II pirata. A contemporary critic refers to Vincenzo Bellini's new method as either 'declaimed song or sung declamation', and asserts that, by attempting to unite the force of declamation with the gentleness of song, the composer has fallen into the trap of confusing the two and producing 'monotony, slowness, disruption and hesitation in the melodic line'. Yet, today, it is these qualities we admire in La straniera, which we can clearly see to be a transitional work in its composer's development as a musical dramatist.
A glimpse into Vincenzo Bellini's working relationship with his librettist R.omani, and into his musical and dramatic intentions, is afforded by a story told by Vincenzo Bellini's biographer Filippo Cicconetti, whose Vita di Vincenzo Bellini was published in 1 859. Cicconetti says that, one day, Vincenzo Bellini sat at the piano to compose the final aria for La straniera, 'Or sei pago, o ciel tremendo', but found that the verses which Romani had sent failed to move him. When Romani visited him, Vincenzo Bellini asked him to provide fresh verses, and within half an hour Romani did so. Vincenzo Bellini read them, but said nothing. It was only when Vincenzo Bellini rushed to the piano and improvised the melody that had flashed into his mind that Romani's creative spirit responded and he produced the appropriate verses.
Vincenzo Bellini's next opera, Zaira, based on Voltaire's tragedy Zaire, and first produced in Parma only a few months after the premiere of Lastraniera, was even less successful than that work. It was written in a hurry, and Vincenzo Bellini was a composer who did not produce his best work under pressure, but slowly, and at his own pace. I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, based not on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet but on one of the earlier Italian sources of the story, did somewhat better when it was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in March 1830, but it was with La Sonnambula, composed for the Teatro Carcano, Milan, and produced there in March 1831, that Vincenzo Bellini's reputation took its biggest step forward, and it is La Sonnambula which remains today the earliest of Vincenzo Bellini's operas to have established itself in the permanent international repertory.
Vincenzo Bellini and Romani had at first intended to produce for Milan an opera based on Victor Hugo's play, Hernani, and indeed several duets and trios were composed before both composer and librettist realised that the political implications of Hugo's play about defiance of tyranny would bring the Austrian censors down on their heads. Vincenzo Bellini put his music aside and used some of it later in Norma. A change of subject was made, to the gentle, pastoral romance of La Sonnambula, for which Romani produced one of his most poetic libretti, and Vincenzo Bellini his most idyllic and attractive music. The special quality of La Sonnambula is unique in Vincenzo Bellini's oeuvre, an appealing and innocent pathos which can hardly fail to be moving, given sympathetic and intelligent interpretation. After the first night, Vincenzo Bellini was able to write to a friend, "Here you have the happy news of my opera last night at the Carcano. I say nothing about the music, for you will see that in the press. I can only assure you that Rubini and Pasta are two angels who enraptured the entire audience to the verge of madness."
The Russian composer Glinka was in the audience, and he later wrote: "Pasta and Rubini sang with the most evident enthusiasm to support their favourite composer. In the second act the singers themselves wept, and carried their audience along with them, so that in these happy days of Carnival, tears were continually being wiped away in boxes and stalls alike. Embracing Shterich in the Ambassador's box, I too shed tears of emotion and ecstasy."
Nine months after the premiere of La Sonnambula at the Teatro Carcano, Vincenzo Bellini went back to Milan's more prestigious opera house, La Scala, with his masterpiece Norma, which had its first performance on the 26th December 1831. A greater contrast to the pastoral charm of the earlier opera could hardly be imagined, for Norma is the tragic story of a Druid priestess who breaks her vows of chastity, and the music Vincenzo Bellini composed for it reveals a greater vigour and energy than anything in his earlier work. The orchestra in Norma is given a greater independence than is usual in Vincenzo Bellini's earlier manner, and the choruses are particularly impressive. The opera was received coldly on its first night, but audience enthusiasm increased noticeably at each succeeding performance, until it became clear that Vincenzo Bellini and his interpreter of Norma, the great Giuditta Pasta, had a triumph on their hands.
Vincenzo Bellini's next opera was Beatrice di Tenda, produced at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in March 1833. During its composition, Vincenzo Bellini and Romani had quarrelled, principally over Romani's dilatoriness in producing his libretto. The opera was received by the Venice audience politely but without enthusiasm, and Vincenzo Bellini travelled to London where he had been engaged to supervise productions of three of his operas at the King's Theatre. He next made his way to Paris, which was to remain his headquarters for the remaining two years of his life. It was here that he frequently encountered Rossini, living in retirement, and Chopin, playing in the great salons. It was here, too, that he composed his last opera, I Puritani, its libretto provided not by Romani but by Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian political exile in Paris. I Puritani was produced at the Theatre Italien, Paris, in January 1835, with its four principal roles sung by the four leading singers of the day: Giulia Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache. The Parisians immediately took it to their hearts: the cold-blooded English were less enthusiastic, for when I Puritani was staged later in the year in London, The Spectator complained that Vincenzo Bellini's orchestral writing was 'as unskilful as ever, and considerably more noisy than in his former productions'. The tunes, The Spectator conceded, were pretty, but hardly turned to proper account due to the composer's lack of skill or knowledge.
Vincenzo Bellini died later in the same year, a few weeks before his thirty-fourth birthday, while staying at the house of an English friend, outside Paris. His death was caused by an acute inflammation of the large intestine, exacerbated by an abscess of the liver. Had Vincenzo Bellini lived a normal span of years, perhaps all those operas up to and including I Puritani would now be thought of as his juvenilia. As it is, they are his testament: testament to a unique melodic gift, and to an artistic conscience which, rare in the Italian operatic world of the time, helped to pave the way for his great successor, Verdi, whose earliest operas, especially Oberto and Nabucco, reveal a strong Vincenzo Bellinian influence.
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