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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Doctor, Composer & Critic All in One

There’s a line from “Annie Hall,” one of Woody Allen’s most popular movies, which goes something like this: “Those who can’t do—teach; those who can’t teach—teach gym.” The same might be said about music critics, altered a bit to read, “…those who can’t compose, criticize those who do.”

Scratch a music critic, certainly one who’s being paid to write critically—unlike me, of course—and you’re likely to cause a frustrated composer (or perhaps a performer) to bleed, to carry the metaphor just a bit further. But the subject of today’s essay, Part Three in the continuing saga of little-known Italian opera composers, managed to do both—although his success as a critic far outpaced any acclaim he might have enjoyed in writing operas.

Abramo Basevi (1818–1885) grew up in Livorno and lived almost his entire life in Firenze (Florence), some 90 km east of the coastal town of his birth. While known worldwide for its art treasures, Florence is less-known but no less acclaimed for its music. The city is home to one of the oldest continuous music festivals in Europe—the Maggio Musicale—and its current opera house, built in 1862, plays host to a full season of operas every year. The Teatro Comunale (literally “city theatre”) was heavily damaged during WWII but became one of the first public buildings to be rebuilt at the end of the war.

Basevi began his professional career as a physician, a fairly typical profession for Jews of his time and place. But his intense interest in the arts, notably music, caused him to abandon his practice in favor of composition. Even back then Firenze was a second-tier city for opera—far more productions toured there than premiered there—but academic interest in musicology was strong. Basevi founded the musical journal “L’Armonia” (“harmony”) and remained its editor until his death at age 66. More famously, Basevi authored in 1859 what is likely the earliest critical analysis of Verdi’s operas. The book, “Studio sulla opera di G. Verdi” (“studies of the operas of…”), remains today an oft-cited resource in musical academia. Of course, at the time of the book’s publication Verdi had composed only 20 operas; lying ahead were such masterpieces as “La Forza del Destino,” “Aida” and “Otello,” as well as major revisions to earlier works including “Simon Boccanegra.”

In 1840, the opera “Romilda ed Ezzelino” debuted at the Firenze opera house. The name Romilda is a familiar one to devout opera attendees. She is the lead female in Handel’s opera “Serse” (Xerxes), a role sung by such recent luminaries as Anne Sofie von Otter and Yvonne Kenny. But lacking any evidence to the contrary, one must assume that the figure around which Basevi’s first opera is based rests in the other name in the title. Ezzelino III da Romano ruled Verona in the 1200s and was a forceful leader of the Ghibelline party in Northern Italy. If that term is familiar to you, it’s probably because the Ghibellines represent one side (the Guelphs occupied the other) of the conflict that is played out in the story of Romeo and Juliet. Also, the historical character of this particular Ezzolino shows up as back-story for two other operas. His sister Cuniza occupies the lead female role in Verdi’s first opera, “Oberto.” And the lead character in Mercadante’s “Elena da Feltre” is in love with one man, while Ezzelino’s minister Boemondo wants her to wed his son instead.

“Enrico Odoardo” received its premiere in 1847. True to the popularity of the times—including productions and/or revivals of “Anna Bolena,” “Roberto Devereux,” “Elisabetta d’Inghelterra,” etc.—the subject of Basevi’s second and final opera enjoyed English royal heritage. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was Catherine Howard’s first cousin (she was the fifth wife of Henry VIII) and as famous for his poetry as he was for his place in history. Along with Thomas Wyatt, Howard was the first English poet to compose sonnets, a style later made much more famous by Shakespeare. He also was the first to publish blank (non-rhyming) verse. But I imagine it was Howard’s political situation that caused Basevi to set his life to music. Along with Henry Howard’s father, who was Catherine’s uncle, the two were on the “wrong” side of the conflict that became known as The Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry’s confiscation of monastic properties throughout England that followed his break with the Catholic Church. Howard was imprisoned and ultimately executed for treason, although his father escaped a similar fate by having the date of his death sentence fall on the day after Henry VIII himself died. Now that’s timing!

A thorough search yields no other compositions credited to Abramo Basevi—the surname, by the way, is an Italianate corruption of Bathsheba—although several Web sites refer to the fact that he had indeed written other material. With his interest in chamber music—one of his other “foundings” involved the creation of a Beethoven Society that promoted the playing of string quartets throughout Italy—it’s likely that he tried his hand in that musical form as well. But nothing survives, certainly not in recorded annals, and nowhere can one find even so much as a sung aria on record or CD.

When beginning this project some months ago, one of my primary aims was to highlight long-forgotten opera composers whose works had regrettably disappeared from the public’s consciousness. With such minimal information at hand, it’s hard to make a case for reviving either one of Basevi’s operas. Nonetheless, it would be fun to hear a few of his arias, if for no other reason than to see whether his fascination for Verdi’s material extended to his own ability for setting words to music.

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