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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Eighty-eight Italian Opera Composers

The essay by my friend Stephen Agus (“Hegemony of the Mundane”—see post below) has prompted me to do a little research. I thought I’d begin by sharing the early fruits of that labor before jumping into a more in-depth analysis that will logically take two distinct paths.

The gist of the discussion involves reviving operas that have not been performed in decades or, in some cases, not even in the last (twentieth) century. As founder and president of the Meyerbeer Fan Club, Agus is understandably anxious to see his favorite composer’s operas performed regularly. Having come to enjoy them immensely through exposure via CD and DVD, I concur.

The first option would be to select lesser-known works by well-known composers. Within the French repertoire, that might include “Les Pecheurs des Perles” by Bizet and “La Reine de Saba” by Gounod. In the Italian repertoire, that could include “Zaza” by Leoncavallo, “Mose in Egitto” by Rossini and “Giovanna d’Arco” by Verdi.

The second option would involve reconstituting works by composers unknown to modern-day operagoers, and it is this thought that caused me to do some Internet spelunking this past Friday.

Stanford University hosts a Web site that is amazing in its coverage of opera. One of the features of OperaGlass is the alphabetical listing of something like 4800 opera composers. Yes, forty-eight hundred! Not only does this site provide name, birth date and place, and date of death and place, but also a list of each composer’s operas, plus the year and location where that work had its premiere. There are plenty of holes in the data, especially for composers in the baroque era. But I can’t even begin to imagine how they compiled this thing; it seems like such a monumental task.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful that it exists—and I used it to some considerable advantage.

One cannot start a research project without a plan—arbitrary as it may seem—so my plan involved looking at Italian opera composers who worked during the 19th century. Additional criteria was minimal, except for the fact that (a) they had to be outside the mainstream, and (b) they had to have composed more than just a couple of operas.

My list totals 88 composers who fit that profile: alphabetically from Salvatore Agnelli (1817–1874) to Vincenzo Valente (1855–1921). Because of my familiarity with Opera Rara and its penchant for recording “neglected” operas from this era, I recognize some of the names and even own a few of their operas on CD. Composers most likely to be familiar to readers of this blog (presuming there are any, of course) would include Franco Alfano [who completed “Turandot” after Puccini’s death], Alberto Franchetti [famous for having been beaten out by Puccini for a shot at setting “Tosca” to music] and Temistocle Solera [known more as a librettist, notably for early Verdi works such as “Nabucco” and “I Lombardi”].

Time permitting I look forward to piecing together biographical data on as many of these 88 composers as I can. Although I’m far from a musical scholar, it should be interesting to see what the Internet has to say about them—other than simply a listing of their compositions, of course.

In a discussion many years ago with a friend of mine who played something like eighth-chair violin in the Cleveland Orchestra, he said “most compositions considered obscure today have got that way for a reason.” At the time his comment made sense. But having spent the past several years listening to some simply marvelous yet rarely performed operas I’ve found on CD—some of which are their only recorded legacy—that remark seems, well, ridiculous.

More to come…

That is really quite an awesome task.

I have some sympathy with the view, not unique to your friend. But the revival and popularity of, say, Handel's operas suggests that while it has an element of truth it is not the whole truth...
It's definitely a worthwhile task, to find the great gems that have been left by the wayside... but you have to be careful - not everything is worth reviving! Just because a work has been forgotten doesn't mean that it's a great work. In fact, I would expect the opposite tendency. There are definitely some great, forgotten works out there, though. Even looking at recent history, I start to worry about some fantastic works that seem to be disappearing from our repertoire. When was the last time you saw Forza del Destino? I think the Met tried a revival in 1996, without much success. I realize that this is largely due to a paucity of the great voices required, but these I think, are just as valuable to "save" as the once-classics of the 19th century.
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