15 Apr 2019

Norma Online Course by Dr. Paul DorganPart 1: Vincenzo Bellini Biography

by Dr. Paul Dorgan

(1801 – 1835)

Parents often burden their children’s names with a lot of “extras” which only they and their birth certificates know.  Within the family, some children were never called by their official first name, and I am my own prime example!  My Irish-Catholic baptism occurred around the day when Saints Peter and Paul were celebrated, so my baptism certificate officially records me as named after the two of them, in the correct Catholic order: Peter Paul.  That second name, however, often appeared in my mother’s family tree, so I grew up as a “Paul,” and, as this essay notes, am still known by that name.  However, when I enrolled as a Master’s student at Ohio State University, that got a bit confusing:  the first time I went to the Student Health Center there the nurse called out “Pete?”  No reaction from me until she added my last name!  Even today, in “official” situations, I still have to keep an ear out for the “Peter” call!

Italian parents in the 19th century were extravagant in naming their children:  Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi; Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti; Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. On the other side of the Alps parents were a bit more restrained:  Beethoven really was just “Ludwig” and the Bach daddy just “Johann Sebastian”; the transalpine exception was the Austrian-born Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart:  we know him simply as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The composer we know as Vincenzo Bellini was actually Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini.

Who was born to a musical family in Catania, the second-largest city in Sicily. His grandfather had studied at the Naples Conservatory and, from the mid-1700s, had made his living in Catania as an organist and teacher; his son Rosario (Vincenzo’s father) succeeded him in his organist’s position.

Vincenzo Bellini

An anonymous document claims that Vincenzo could sing an aria at eighteen months; that he began studying music theory when he was two; and was a good pianist by the time he was five.  Some historians assure us that many of the claims in “Anonymous” are mythical; others think they might have some factual basis.

The scholars are sure, though, that in his mid-teens, Vincenzo moved into his grandfather’s home, where they claim, despite the anonymous document, he began his musical studies.  He proved himself a fast learner and within three years the city of Catania granted him a four-year scholarship to study in Naples.  He moved there in the summer of 1819, and was awarded an annual scholarship from the Conservatorio di San Sebastiano.  In 1824 he was given the equivalent of a Teaching Assistantship there, and was chosen to write an opera for his fellow-students to perform:  Adelson e Salvini with its all-male cast (presumably because there were no female students) was such a success that it was performed every Sunday during the next year.

Felice Romani

The Conservatorio had a contract with the Royal Theatres in Naples which required that it select a suitable candidate to compose a cantata or a one-act opera to be presented in one of its theatres.  Belllini’s teacher wrangled that Vincenzo should write the opera, and Bianca e Fernando was the result.  Politics required a name-change (Fernando was the heir to the throne, so the use of the name was off-limits) but Bianco e Gernando proved a success at its premiere in 1826: Donizetti, present at the first night, thought it “…beautiful, beautiful, beautiful…”

Coincidentally, the Impressario at the San Carlo in Naples also impressarioed the Mt. Everest of Italian opera houses: La Scala in Milan.  He offered Bellini a contract for a new opera to be performed in the fall of 1827, and the composer left Naples for Milan. Where he met the librettist Felice Romani; the pair hit it off professionally:  apparently a rare achievement, since he was known to disdain his composers. Romani (1788 – 18650) was the author of some 100 librettos, many of which were set to music multiple times by a multiplicity of Italian composers ranging from the best (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi), to the second-best (Simon Mayr, Saverio Mercadante, Otto Nicolai, and Giacomo Meyerbeer), and to a multiplicity of little- and un- knowns.

Il Pirata, their first collaboration, was a huge success at its premiere in October 1827; performances in Vienna and Naples followed.  Bellini hoped for another commission from La Scala, but had to be content with a contract offered in January 1828 for an opera to be given in Genoa in April.   With not enough time to write an entirely new piece, the Genoese impresario agreed to a revision of Bianca e Fernando.  What, you may well ask, would such “revision” have entailed?  Romani, a better poet than the author of the original libretto, wrote to a friend that only two of the original pieces were unchanged: “about half of it is new.”  Given that Romani’s new text would have to be tailored to fit previously-composed music, we might well think the poet faced an impossible task.  Not altogether so, Dear Reader!  19th-century Italian librettos were governed by a variety of rules, all based on the number of syllables in each line:  thus, for example, the slow-ish opening section of a major character’s entrance aria had to have a prescribed number of syllables per line; while the fast section required a different number.  Which made Romani’s re-writes a tad easier.

In those days singers ruled the operatic world, and if the composer knew the capabilities of the voices who’d be singing his opera, he’d tailor his writing to show off a particular singer’s strong points.  For Genoa Bellini re-wrote some of his original 1826 score to suit the singers at hand.

Back then the number of performances an opera received depended on the audience’s reaction; Bellini wrote to a friend that the Genoese liked the opera: so much did they like it that it was given 21 times!    Returned to Milan, the bi-impressario of Naples and La Scala offered him a choice between the two theatres for the 1828-29 season.  Bellini opted for Milan. The new opera would open La Scala’s season in December 1828. Which was postponed due to Romani’s illness.  La Straniera proved a huge success when it eventually premiered on February 14, 1829.

Such continued successes could not continue unabated; Zaira, based on a Voltaire play, was, essentially, a flop at its premiere in Parma a mere three months after the triumph of La Straniera.  Undeterred by this, and back in Milan, Bellini saw a triumphant revival of Il Pirata there in the summer of 1829.

Teatro La Fenice in Venice beckoned; performances of Il Pirata would precede a new opera, which became I Capuleti e i Montecchi.  Not a version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Romani’s libretto reworked one he had written in 1825, which had been based on an 1818 play, Giulietta e Romeo.   Slowed by illness, Bellini ransacked earlier unsuccessful scores for material which would fit Romani’s text. Given that the opera was performed eight times in the ten days between its first performance on March 11,  1830, and the end of the Fenice’s season on March 21, we must assume the opera was well-received by the Venetians.

Having returned to Milan, with a contract for the following season in Venice, Bellini became aware of an attempted management coup at La Scala:  the coup-ers had assembled a stellar company, including his favorite singers (the soprano Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Giovanni Rubini); they bought out his contract so he’d be available to them.  In the event, the coup failed and the coup-ers took their planned season to Milan’s Teatro Carcano, where La Sonnambula was first performed in March 1831: another triumph.

The un-coup-ed La Scala management (who also oversaw La Fenice in Venice) reacted quickly to their de-coup-ing and offered the composer a contract: a new opera to be performed in each theatre during the 1831-32 season.

For the La Scala opera, it was quickly decided that the libretto should be adapted from a recently successful French play, “Norma, ou L’infanticide”, by Alexandre Soumet.   Here is not the place to go into the to-and-fro between composer and librettist concerning the text, but Romani’s wife sums it up in her biography of her husband: “…Romani wrote more than three Normas…”  The opening night, on December 26, 1831, was received coolly; Bellini claimed it was a “Fiasco!  Fiasco!  Solemn fiasco!”  In another letter he explained that the singers were exhausted, having rehearsed earlier that day.  There were some musical moments which must have puzzled the opening-night audience (we’ll discuss them in another essay – stay tuned!), but audiences insisted on two dozen performances that season.   Certainly not the “fiasco” Bellini initially considered it.

The contract for Venice proved problematic because Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani, had over- committed himself to providing librettos for operas to be produced in a variety of theatres and in the same time-frame:  La Scala in February and March; Parma in February; and Florence in March.  The result, Beatrice di Tenda, was not enthusiastically received at its first performance on March 16 – the very tail-end of La Fenice’s season – though two repetitions in that final week indicate that had the opera been ready for performance earlier in the season, we might know Beatrice as well as we know Norma.

Then, with Pasta and a troupe of Italian singers, to London, where he was already a known quantity: audiences there had enjoyed Il Pirata; La Straniera; and La Sonnambula.   Where he was rightly horrified to attend the first performance of the other great soprano of the day, Maria Malibran, in an English version of La Sonnambula with, we are told, “an adapted Bellini score.”  Who wrote that his score was “torn to shreds,” though he recognized Malibran’s great talent as a singer.

All reports indicate that Bellini’s visit to London was a great success.  On his way home in August 1833, he stayed in Paris to investigate operatic possibilities there.  The Opéra, which performed works only in French, and expected elaborate choruses and ballets, wasn’t interested; which was just as well, for such requirements would have put Bellini not just out of his depth, operatically speaking, but drowning! The Théâtre-Italien, where Italian opera was performed in Italian, was interested, though, and, in January 1834 contracted with him for an opera to be produced by the end of the year.  The composer faced two immediate problems: finding a source for the libretto; and a librettist, the Italian emigré Carlo Peppoli, who had never written for the operatic stage.  The first was solved when it was decided to adapt a recently-produced play set in the aftermath of the execution of England’s King Charles I.  The second proved more problematic, though Bellini sent Peppoli an outline which reduced the play down to operatic proportions.  I Puritani was given a tumultuous reception at its premiere on January 24, 1835; Bellini’s favorite singers sang the principal roles, and the opera was given 17 times before the season finished at the end of March.

Eight months later, on September 23, 1834, Bellini died; but from what, scholars are unsure.  Over the years his letters refer to “gastric” problems.  Whatever was the cause, it’s clear that, aged only 34, he was far too young.   But then so were Mozart (35) and Mendelssohn (36).  As with them we must wonder what he might have given us had he lived as long as Rossini (who died aged 76)? However, with Norma; I Puritani; and La Sonnambula, his place as, perhaps, the supreme exemplar of bel canto opera rests assured.