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Friday, April 21, 2006

A Prince among Opera Composers—Michele Carafa

Back on January 15, somewhere around here on this blog, an article by my colleague Stephen Agus—president of the Meyerbeer Fan Club— motivated me to begin discussing the works of forgotten 19th century Italian opera composers. My analysis unearthed 88 composers worthy of further examination, so I started the laborious research process with a brief essay five days later on the life and works of Giuseppe Lillo.

Every once in a while I check out the world opera schedule posted on a terrific Web resource, OperaBase. Searches can be done by opera title, composer, venue or artist. Want to know where “Aida” has been staged since August 2005? [Answer: In 32 different cities, alphabetically from Baden-Baden to Zurich] Curious what tenor Neil Shicoff will be performing from now through 2007? [Answer: “Simon Boccanegra,” “Manon Lescaut” and “La Juive”] Dying to know if anything by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is being produced anywhere? [Answer: Three performances of “Il Campiello” this August in Buenos Aires] All that and more…

One search category is titled “festivals,” further broken down into subcategories such as “major,” “themed,” “contemporary works” and my favorite, “rarities.” I’m always looking to see if anything by obscure composers is being done anywhere. How about Valentino Fioravanti or Giuseppe Apolloni? Fat chance! Perhaps there’s something by Carlos Gomes? His opera “Fosca” is set for Manaus, Brazil, this May.

Every July the Rossini Festival operates in the spa town of Bad Wildbad, Germany, featuring operas “by Rossini and his contemporaries,” as it says on their Web site. I noticed that they’re doing something this year called “I Due Figaro” by Carafa. Having recognized the composer’s name from my List of 88, I decided to make this gentleman the subject of my second essay.

Michele Enrico Francesco Vincenzo Aloisio Paolo Carafa (di Colobranno) was born in Naples in 1787. With a name like that he HAD to have royal blood coursing through his veins—either that or his parents couldn't agree on what to call him. He was descended from several centuries’ worth of well-off Neapolitans, with Carlo Carafa the first of this lineage to carry the title “prince,” so named in 1617. The family’s source of wealth appears to have accumulated via the minding of debts and mortgages, and their coat of arms prominently displayed a set of balance scales to commemorate that fact. But the death in 1890 of Marzio Gaetano Carafa—the last remaining male heir in this branch of the family—apparently brought down the royal house of Carafa.

Michele Carafa began his musical studies at a local conservatory but journeyed to Paris with his mother to study with Luigi Cherubini. Because many of his male ancestors were army men, he returned to Naples in 1808 to finish his schooling at a military academy. At this point in its history, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples was its capital) was controlled by the French House of Savoy. In later years, Giuseppe Verdi’s grand opera “Les Veprés Sicilienne” would illustrate how much southern Italy chafed under French rule. However, the Carafa clan appears to have been on the other side of this conflict, at least at the beginning of the 19th century. As a result, Michele joined the French cavalry as a line officer and served in several army campaigns. He even went so far as to receive a knighthood in the Order of the Two Sicilies for heroism at Calabria and was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, by Napoleon himself, for fighting in Russia. After the French Army was defeated at Waterloo in 1814, however, Carafa hung up his spurs to pursue a career in music. He returned to Naples and began composing operas in earnest.

His Gallicization was so complete that Carafa moved permanently to Paris in 1827, becoming a naturalized French citizen seven years later. He was named professor of counterpoint at the Paris Conservatory in 1840 and held that position until 1858. Carafa died in his adopted home town in 1872 at the ripe old age of 84.

Carafa wrote a total of 37 operas, which spanned the years 1805 to 1847. Nearly all of his early works debuted in Naples and, although he returned to the city of his birth a few times after relocating to the City of Lights, almost everything he wrote from the mid-1820s onward opened in Paris—primarily at the Opéra-Comique. His librettos came from a variety of sources, created by many of the biggest names of his day. They included Felice Romani—who wrote most of Bellini’s librettos, many for Donizetti (although they quarreled dozens of times because Romani often failed to keep up with Donizetti’s incredibly fast pace of composition), plus the final few operas Meyerbeer composed in Venice—and Andrea Tottola, best known for his librettos for Rossini.

A listing of Carafa’s operas shows a few titles shared by other composers—some of whom lived earlier, some later, and a few who were his contemporaries. Back when dozens of new operas premiered every week in houses across Western Europe—much the same way new feature films open weekly throughout the U.S. today—it wasn’t unusual to see the same stories set over and over again by different composers. A list of Carafa’s operas whose stories were also employed by others—some known by slightly different names but describing the same or similar circumstances—include “Gabriella di Vergy,” Il Paria” and “Le Nozze di Lammermoor” (Donizetti), “Ifigenia in Tauride” (five others including Gluck), “Il Sonnambulo” (a sex-change via Bellini), “Thérèse” (Massenet), and “Masaniello” (the same character as portrayed in Auber’s “La Muette de Portici”).

Among the rest of his works, the one that’s the most compelling to me—thanks to its title anyway—has to be “Gl’Italici e gl’Indiani” [“The Italians and the Indians”], which debuted in 1825 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. I’d love to have seen the costumes for that one!

One of his best-known operas is the 1825 “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” known to English-speaking audiences by its translated title, “Sleeping Beauty.” Carafa composed it for the Venue of ‘Em All—the Paris Opera House—where renowned tenor Adophe Nourrit created the role of Prince Lindor, the character who bestows the magic kiss that awakens the napping princess.

Not only was Carafa a contemporary of Rossini, he was apparently his good buddy as well. They met in Paris, where Rossini wrote a number of his later operas for either the Théâtre-Italien (in Italian) or the Paris Opera (in French). Carafa scored a writing credit in Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto” (libretto by Tottola), composing an aria that remained with the production even after it had been rewritten into “Mosé et Pharaon.” The Grand Man of bel canto was apparently secure enough in his own popularity that he didn’t feel threatened by the success of others—hardly the case with other composers of that day, some of whom even went so far as to hire people to boo the performers at their competitors’ premieres.

As one might guess from the title, “I Due Figaro” is a continuation of the Beaumarchais series originally played out in “Barbiere” and “Nozze.” At this point in the story, Cherubino—transformed from a “trousered” mezzo into a bass—returns to Almaviva’s estate after serving a dozen years in the army. He intends to marry Inez, the Count’s youngest daughter, but Figaro somehow gets tangled up in the affair. I’m guessing that the story uses the mistaken identity device so common to early 19th-century stages. But plot information on the Internet is pretty sparse, so one can only surmise. The opera premiered on June 6, 1820, at La Scala in Milan. The libretto was written by Romani, which he adapted from a four-act stage comedy by Martelli that debuted in Naples in 1809. Romani recycled this same libretto for Saverio Mercadante in his own version of “The Two Figaros,” performed in Madrid in 1835 where that composer was director of the Royal Spanish Opera. Carafa later reworked his opera for Parisian audiences. It opened at the Théâtre Odéon in Paris in 1827 with a French libretto, titled “Les Deux Figaro.”

Sadly, not one complete Carafa opera is available on CD, so far as I can tell. Even the venerable Italian publisher Bongiovanni, with its huge collection of operas that includes many “first world recordings”—Donizetti’s “Pia de Tolomei” and “L’Esule di Roma,” Giordano’s “La Cene Delle Beffe” and “Mala Vita,” Leoncavallo’s “Chatterton,” plus two operas by Carlo Coccia—has nary a Carafa. Opera Rara does feature Carafa arias on several of its compilation CDs, however. A song from “Gabriella di Vergy,” performed by soprano* Yvonne Kenny, is on its sampler disc, “Opera Rara Collection: Volume Two,” while a quintet from “Le Nozze di Lammermoor” appears in its box set, “A Hundred Years of Italian Opera: 1820–1830.”

The composer’s first success in Paris was “Jeanne d’Arc à Orléans,” which opened in 1821 at the Opéra-Comique. Given the number of times it was performed during Carafa’s lifetime (although apparently never in the last century nor in this one) plus the glowing reviews it reportedly enjoyed, it may be one of the composer’s best choices for revival. After all, there’s nothing like ending an opera with a good stake-burning to get the audience pumped up. And one can only hope that the Wildbad production of “Two Figaros” will somehow find its way onto CD, at which point I’ll likely force myself to dig deep and buy it.

*Mistakenly called a mezzo before Sarah so kindly corrected me.

Oh I hate to be the person who nitpicks about such a beautifully informative post. However it's my duty to say: Yvonne Kenny is not, no way, no how, a mezzo. No doubt just a slip of the keyboard.

Incidentally, the Gabriella aria appears on Yvonne's own "Nineteenth Century Heroines" too, complete with surrounding scena. It runs to something like 18 minutes and is an absolute tour de force, utterly gorgeous and so much fun.
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