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Friday, January 20, 2006

One Down, 87 to Go?

When agreeing to take on a task, even a self-assigned one, it’s often wise to consider all the angles before beginning it. For example, after deciding to hike the Appalachian Trail from Point A to Point B, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that you've packed the proper gear—sturdy hiking boots, rainwear, a canteen, etc.

Similarly when one wishes to look into the lives and works of 19th century opera composers, all of whom happen to have been born in Italy, being able to actually READ Italian is probably a good idea. Umm, did I forget to mention that I practically don’t read Italian at all?

Nonetheless I remain undaunted—not to mention endlessly entertained by the online “insta-translation” tools available to the erstwhile Web researcher. Some of the English phrases rendered by having Google automatically translate from Italian (or, in several instances, French) were hilarious; that is, when they were even remotely comprehensible.

My first subject, if for no other reason than I happened to be on the “L” page while doing some off-topic research on Israeli opera composer Marc Lavry (more on him later, I hope), is Giuseppe Lillo. Here’s what I’ve pieced together about Signore Lillo.

He was born in 1814 in Lecce and studied with several well-known teachers. The most prominent of them was Niccolo Zingarelli, who composed more than 40 baroque-era operas at the end of the 1700s. OperaGlass credits Lillo with having written 17 operas, although one does not have a confirmed date of debut. By far his greatest number of works—eleven of the sixteen—premiered in Naples. Most of those were written for the Teatro San Carlo.

His most propitiously timed opera was “Rosamunda in Ravenna,” selected to open the 1837 season in Venice upon the occasion of the rededication of La Fenice after it had burned down the previous year. Is this the most aptly named opera house in the world, or what?

The opera “Il Conte di Chalais” from 1839 boasts a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, best known for his “Lucia” libretto for Donizetti plus an early draft for Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” which he couldn’t complete because he inauspiciously kicked the bucket. Lillo also wrote “Caterina Howard” in 1849, yet another composer hoping to capitalize on the operatic popularity of queens of England.

By all accounts—the few that I could actually understand—it appears that Lillo’s crowning achievement was “L’osteria di Andujar” [The Tavern of Andujar], a comic opera that debuted in 1840 Naples. It appears to have enjoyed a number of performances over the following several years and was favorably compared to Auber’s “Fra Diavolo,” not the least of which because they shared similar settings in fifth century Spain. The libretto was written by Leopoldo Tarantini, a prominent poet of his day who was better known for penning a number of art-song lyrics set to music by Donizetti.

In 1849, the Italian composer Spontini invited Lillo to stay with him in Paris, where the latter reportedly rubbed elbows with the top opera composers of the day: Auber, Halevy, Meyerbeer, etc. But for reasons unstated he returned to Naples “after but a few months” and never again left his native country. His final two operas premiered in 1853, after which he “retired” at the age of 41 to devote himself to writing piano music and chamber songs. He suffered some sort of mental crisis in 1860, was committed to an asylum at Averso that same year, and died in confinement in 1863.

It should be noted that, back in those days, attending an opera in Italy was the rough entertainment equivalent of going to the movies. The main difference involved the fact that only the more exceptional operas had “legs” enough to attain popularity beyond the theatres for which they were originally commissioned. Also, with so many composers churning out operas—in his diaries, Meyerbeer writes of seeing premieres of new operas four or five nights a week “during the season” while living in Venice—there was always something new to experience. Except for productions that truly captured the public’s attention, buying a ticket to see something that had debuted the previous year was about as appealing then as watching summer reruns on television is today.

Interestingly, none of my research turns up performances of his operas that took place after his death. This seems to bear out the fact where, as is often the case with painters—except for the highly spectacular ones—the interest in their work dies with them. One has to wonder if autograph copies of his scores reside in some Lillo-based museum, or perhaps within the Teatro San Carlo archives and, that being the case, in what form they might be for purposes of revival.

Opera Rara offers a Lillo piece on its CD “Il Sibillo,” a collection of art songs published in a popular Neapolitan musical journal of the same name (it means “The Whisper”) that featured sheet music of a single song in every new edition. In a way it’s the vocal equivalent of the 1960s French quarterly “XX Siècle” that bound an unsigned original lithograph by a Parisian artist into every over-the-counter issue. But other than this song (which I have not heard, as this is one Opera Rara CD I don’t own), I’ve not found anything else written by Lillo that’s been recorded.

Thought you'd be interested - not only am I singing a Thérèse, but I'm working up "Nonnes qui reposez" from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. Both operas are wonderful gems that have been largely lost!

BTW, is le Cid any good? ican't find a recording of it anywhere, though it's one of the shows that we've all heard of at some point or another...
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