By Paul Dorgan
Salvadore - he insisted on "d" - Cammarano was born on March 19, 1801, the eldest of four sons. His Sicilian grandfather, Vincenzo, had moved to Naples in 1764 and established himself there as a leading comic actor until he retired in 1802. Grandad brought with him from Sicily two daughters from his first marriage, who joined their father on stage, his second wife and their infant son Filippo; Naples proved to be fertile ground for Vincenzo, for three more sons were born there: Giuseppe, Antonio and Michele. Giuseppe began his career as a child-actor, but it was soon decided that he'd be better off-stage, rather than on-, so by the age of thirteen he was working with the scene-designer at the San Carlo Opera House; King Ferdinand awarded him a five-year scholarship to study in Rome, but after two years poor health forced him to return to Naples where he helped in the restoration of the Opera House after a disastrous fire. Giuseppe married and had four sons: Salvadore; Luigi, a not very successful opera composer; the two younger boys, Vincenzo and Giovanni, made their livelihoods as painters of miniatures. Obviously the Neapolitan air was healthier than the Roman variety, for Giuseppe was eighty-four when typhus killed him.
Salvadore was expected to follow in papà's footsteps as a painter, and the child showed talent, winning various prizes for his work. But his theatrical attendance drew him to the writing of plays. When he was eighteen he had a play produced, not very successfully. The following year a literary society was begun, and its founders were so impressed by Salvadore's literary talents that they persuaded papà to allow him to pursue further study in dramatic literature; the result, over the next dozen years or so, was a series of prose plays, none of which has survived.
In the first half-and-a-bit of the nineteenth century, Italian opera houses employed a "poet", whose job description included writing the libretti for the new operas that would be produced in a given season; dealing with the Censor; supplying text for any changes individual singers might demand in an opera, successful elsewhere, but new to that theatre; and supervising the staging of the productions. In late 1832 Salvadore, libretto in hand, interviewed for such a position with Domenico Barbaja, who, in 1809 became the Impressario at the Royal Theatres in Naples. As a kid Barbaja was a Starbucks-precursor, selling coffee in the foyer at La Scala in Milan; combining cream with coffee or chocolate went down such a dream that he amassed enough money to take over operatic life in Naples. It didn't hurt that his fortune gave him the foresight to engage the young Rossini to provide two operas each season, as well as making use of Bellini, Mercadente and Donizetti; and to hire the best singers for his company. Cammarano's libretto was refused, but he was hired as what we would think of as "resident director".
His first assignment, in June 1834, was to stage Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Following its première in 1830, the opera was successfully making the rounds of Italian Opera Houses. Naples saw it nineteen times in 1832, and eleven times the following year. Cammarano was, therefore, charged with a kind of revival. Not only did he have to stage the piece with different singers, but one of them (very likely the prima donna) insisted on a new scene; Cammarano provided the required text, but we don't know if that fit an existing Donizetti piece, or if it was newly composed. The 1834 "revival" lasted but three performances.
His first printed libretto was La sposa, set to music by Egisto Vignozzi; it received its first (and only) performance at the Fondo, the smaller of the Royal Opera Houses, in November 1834. The following January Ines de Castro was performed at the San Carlo; the libretto had been submitted to the Censor a year previously, but, for some reason, there was a delay in approving it. The score was composed by Giuseppe Persiani (1804-1869), a Neapolitan composer who had the sense to marry the soprano Fanny Tacchinardi; he gave up composing to manage her career, which took her throughout Europe and Russia. (Footnote: Ines de Castro was the subject of an opera by the American Thomas Pasatieri, first performed by the Baltimore Opera Company in 1976). Cammarano's libretto was set by five other composers: two kept the original title; two became Don Pedro di Portogallo; and, back in Naples in 1851, this time with music by Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867), Malvina di Scozia: Ines, apparently, had become a possible threat to the King of Naples and Cammarano's fall-back location was Scotland, which might as well have been the Moon as far as the Censor was concerned!
A scenic detour here, which will bring you picturesque vistas of the 1830-ish libretto and Cammarano's contribution to the genre. First vista: there was no such animal as an "original" plot: every libretto was adapted from a novel/short story, a play (which could already be an adapted novel/short story), or another libretto. Second vista: auditoriums (auditoria?) remained lighted during performances; libretti were published and sold in the lobby before the performance, so many in the audience read what was being sung. Third vista: a composer, for whatever reason, might decide not to provide music for certain lines of text; since the librettist edited the publication those lines were included, but with some indication that they were unmusicked. Fourth vista: Cammarano, at least with his early libretti, began the publication with a Preface. Some authors used the Preface to explain the historical background. Fifth vista: After the Preface came the list of the Theatre's personnel: heads of the various production departments; sometimes the names of the orchestral principals; somewhere will be the name of the composer and, but not always, the author; usually on the page next to the start of the libretto proper will be the cast list. Today such a booklet would be a combination of the program and the libretto - a progretta?
Detour over! Wasn't that interesting, though!
Cammarano's Preface for Ines acknowledges his reliance on earlier treatments of the subject: various tragedies; some ballets; and the sketch of a drama by a "friend". One reviewer of the performance names the "friend" - Giovanni Bidera - and says, in no uncertain terms, that there should, at the very least, be equal billing, for Cammarano merely turned Bidera's text into verse. Since the reviewer was the city's literary leader, it's most likely he knew whereof he wrote.
Un matrimonio per ragione, with music by Giuseppe Staffa (1807-1877) was given at the Fondo in July, 1835 (six months after Ines!). The preface tells us that the source was a French play, and then Cammarano absolves himself of any dramatic fault in his adaptation by blaming what he termed "the very difficult requirements of our native drama" - i.e., Censor!!!
Meanwhile Gaetano Donizetti needed his libretto. He had been contracted to compose an opera for production in July 1835 and should have received the fully-approved text at the beginning of March. At the end of May he wrote to the management pointing out that the delay in composition was not his fault since it was "only a few days ago...that you put the poet Cammarano at my disposal." Cammarano wrote the text extremely quickly, though it's possible he consulted the five other available versions of the story. On July 6 the score was finished, though the libretto had not even been submitted to the Censor; luckily it was approved . On September 26, 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor had its first performance. Over the next three years Cammarano wrote five libretti for Donizetti, including Roberto Devereux; in 1843 Maria di Rohan was produced in Vienna, and their last collaboration was Poliuto in 1848.
If we consider Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi as the A-list of Italian operatic composers, then Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870) led the B-list. Few of his 50+ operas are revived today, though Il Reggente makes an occasional appearance. Cammarano wrote this adaptation of Eugène Scribe's libretto Gustave III ou le bal masqué. Given that the original deals with the assassination of a king, Cammarano moved the action from Sweden to - you guessed it - Scotland! Verdi's Un ballo in maschera uses the same French source and the action is moved to a place even further removed from Italy: Puritan Boston! Altogether Cammarano wrote eight libretti for Mercadante, all but one of them for the San Carlo in Naples.
Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867) was another prolific (around 74 operas!) B-list composer who set four of Cammarano's texts.
Four of Verdi's operas were composed to Cammarano libretti: Alzira (1845); La battaglia di Legnano (1849); Luisa Miller (1849); and Il Trovatore (1853). And then there was Re Lear. For many years Verdi wanted to make an opera of what many regard as Shakespeare's greatest play. He began to consider it as early as 1843. In February 1850 he sent his outline of the play to Cammarano, warning him that they would have to find a completely new way to treat this hugely complicated subject. After a few months’ correspondance, Verdi realized, in June, that the novelty he felt essential to the opera was beyond Cammarano's very traditional mind-set. He dropped the proposal.
Italian libretti from the mid-nineteenth century have been roundly criticized for their dramatic inanity and their lack of literary quality. Not many plays in English from that period have survived; the usual excuse is that their dramaturgy is defective. So perhaps there was something in the air that prevented the writing of plausible drama. But theatrical tastes have changed greatly since then, and what was, a century ago, "wont to set the table on a roar" might well be greeted by an unstifled yawn today. Aside from that, an Italian libretto was designed to be set to music: every element of it was structured to make music, and especially singing, possible. Without music the libretto would have no reason for its existence. Salvadore Cammarano's texts are as dramatically effective as they need to be. And we have seen, in "The Music of Il Trovatore", that the two weakest moments of drama in that opera are the fault of Verdi who, wanting the action to move faster, cut text; the action is faster, but less plausible.
The quality that drew composers to Cammarano was his ability to write poetry that lent itself to music. Opening-night critics regularly praised the beauty of the text. During their first collaboration Verdi wrote to him: "I received the duet and the aria...How beautiful they are! You are succeeding excellently with your verses - how shall I do with the music?" Of course there were stock phrases and "poetic" words. At the opening of Part Two of Trovatore the day does not dawn: "The vast sky sheds her nightly dress like a widow who lays aside her mourning veils." Leonora is not dying: "I feel death in my breast". "Church bells" are "sacred bronzes". "Eyes" are often "lights" or "rays". In the arias and duets, Cammarano's language flows smoothly, and, most importantly, sounds well. We might think that these were essential qualities for a text written to be sung. Indeed. But librettoverse had so many rules that it's a wonder anything beautiful emerged. Briefly. The slow section of an aria required one verse form, while the faster section required another, and so on with the various other musical movements; a verse line could contain only a certain number of syllables, which varied depending on the verse form. And it had to rhyme. To accommodate these rules syllables were amputated (apocopated is the technical term); intelligible word order was abandoned to such an extreme that it's quite possible to come across something like the following mangling: "Quest is that be to/to be the not or." Iambic Pentameter abba was unknown to Cammarano and his colleagues.
There exist drafts of some of Cammarano's texts which show him refining his original thought, writing alternative versions, starting over, and finally combining the three drafts into one mellifluous verse. When things got too frustrating he would pace the colonnade in front of the church of S. Francesco, jotting down ideas; at times he would lean against one of the columns, and, one night was found fast asleep at the base of one of them!
This striving for perfection certainly was one reason why most of the composers he wrote for complained about delays in receiving text; he sent it bit by bit as it was written. But it must be remembered that Cammarano had other duties at the theatre. He conducted all negotiations with the Censor: very few of his libretti were subjected to heavy demands for rewriting. He was also responsible for staging the operas, so there were rehearsals to run, and he saw to it that sets were painted, and costumes and props constructed. He was a busy man!
In February 1852 Verdi wrote to a friend that the news of Cammarano's illness was sad and unexpected, but he didn't seem especially concerned; further letters asked for the rest of the text, which eventually arrived. In a letter dated July 19 Verdi wrote "Your news annihilates me! So Cammarano is seriously ill?" In fact, Cammarano had died two days earlier. Verdi read of his death in a theatrical paper. "I am struck down as if by lightning by the sad news of our Cammarano. It is impossible to describe to you my profound grief!... Poor Cammarano!!! What a loss!!"
He was only 49 years old.