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ClassicsOnline Home » ALMEIDA, F.A. de: Spinalba, ovvero Il vecchio matto (La) [Opera] (Quintans, Madeira, Seara, Moreso, Fernandes, Os Musicos do Tejo, Magalhaes)
Little is known about the life of Francisco António de Almeida, but he occupied a central position in Portuguese life in the first half of the 18th century and was able to learn the Italian style in Rome thanks to the ambitions of King João V. The rarely recorded La Spinalba ovvero Il vecchio matto (Spinalba, or the Mad Old Man) is a comic opera which follows the buffa tradition of intrigue and romantic complexities, and is filled with superb cantabile arias as well as a rich variety of original and dramatic orchestral effects. The cast is led by Ana Quintans, a much-in-demand soloist on the early music scene, and the highly regarded Portuguese ensemble Os Músicos do Tejo is directed by its co-founder Marcos Magalhães.
By David Shengold
Francisco António de Almeida (c.1702–c.1755)
La Spinalba ovvero Il vecchio matto
Dramma comico in Three Acts • Libretto by an unknown author
Arsenio, a merchant, Spinalbaʼs father – Luís Rodrigues, Bass
Dianora, Spinalbaʼs step-mother – Cátia Moreso, Mezzo-soprano
Spinalba – Ana Quintans, Soprano
Ippolito, Spinalbaʼs faithless lover – Fernando Guimarães, Tenor
Elisa, Arsenioʼs niece – Inês Madeira, Mezzo-soprano
Vespina, a servant – Joana Seara, Soprano
Leandro, Elisaʼs lover – Mário Alves, Tenor
Togno, a servant – João Fernandes, Bass
Os Músicos do Tejo (on period instruments)
Thanks to the enormous riches in gold and diamonds coming from Brasil, King João V (1689–1750) embarked on an ambitious programme to restore the former glory of Portugal. His absolutist project, modelled after Louis XIV, demanded a firm grip on all levels of society with a definite religious element. The Kingʼs devotion was genuine and in accord with the nationʼs culture, but this intimacy with the Church also stemmed from a desire to control its considerable power. Along with several projects meant to reform Portugalʼs chronic shortcomings (examples are the Aqueduto das Águas-Livres, a gigantic aqueduct bringing water to Lisbon, and the beautiful Biblioteca Joanina in Coimbra), King Joãoʼs reign (1707–1750) is best remembered for his indulgence in ostentatious and extravagant projects. The convent-palace that he founded in Mafra, near Lisbon, is the best example: one of the largest buildings of the time (that inspired José Saramagoʼs Baltasar and Blimunda), its Basilica houses six organs and the two biggest carillons in the world.
The elevation of the status of the court chapel, and concurrently the influence of his reign, was one of the Kingʼs main preoccupations. This was to be achieved in 1716 where it become a patriarchal chapel. His plan was frankly to rival, even to supplant, if possible, in Lisbon the Sistine Chapel: for that purpose he hired the best Italian singers and musicians, including Domenico Scarlatti, and founded the Seminário da Patriarcal, a music school, in 1713. Four of its best students, António Teixeira, Joaquim Mexelim, João Rodrigues Esteves and Francisco António de Almeida, were sent to Rome, to learn the Roman Catholic style with the best masters.
In Rome opera was often in conflict with the cityʼs sacred status. Something similar was happening also in Portugal. Under the conservative King João it was almost exclusively only sacred music that was allowed, to be used as an expression of his power. His Austrian Queen, D. Maria Ana, daughter of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, had, however, been brought up in a more liberal and modern culture and, probably under her protection, opera had begun to be performed in the Courtʼs innermost circles. In the event, even during Carnival, the traditional season for opera, not many productions were put on at court and, perhaps because of a latent fear of committing a transgression, only a handful of people (perhaps no more than four or five in the case of Spinalbaʼs works) attended them.
Very little is known about the life of the Portuguese composer Francisco António de Almeida (c.1702–c.1755). His birth date can only be guessed and he is believed to have died in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. He nonetheless occupied a central position in the Portuguese musical world of the first half of the eighteenth century, and many examples of his skill survive, including several motets, a monumental Te Deum, the oratorio La Giuditta (1726), and several secular works, with Il trionfo dʼAmore (scherzo pastorale, 1729), LʼIppolito (serenata, 1752) and La Spinalba, ovvero Il vecchio matto (dramma comico, 1739).
Almeidaʼs presence in Rome was highly productive and he seems to have been able to associate with leading intellectual circles there. In Rome he saw some of his music, Il Pentimento di Davidde in 1722 (the score now lost) and La Giuditta in 1726, performed and admired. In 1724 Pier Leone Ghezzi, of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca, drew a sketch of him, upon hearing him at an Academy reunion and wrote: “Signor Francesco Portughese who has come to Rome to study, is presently a composer of Concertos and Church music, something amazing in one so young and he also sings with indescribable taste (…)”
He must have returned to Lisbon between 1726 and 1728: his presence in April 1728 is deduced from the confirmed performance of his serenata Il trionfo della Virtú. Some sources indicate that Almeida took the post of Master of the Chapel Royal and/or organist, but no strong documentary evidence survives. He composed the first Italian opera to be performed in Portugal, La pazienza di Socrate, based on a libretto by Alexandre de Gusmão, the Kingʼs secretary, given at the Ribeira Palace, Lisbon, in the Carnival season of 1733. This work was followed by two more comic operas: La finta pazza (1735) and La Spinalba, ovvero II vecchio matto (1739).
Italian opera, as we have seen, was not yet at the centre of court musical life in Lisbon. Famous castrato singers were working there, yet opera seria for them was, seemingly, not an option. Almeida (or someone at the start of the project) opted for an opera buffa in the Neapolitan style, a genre less dependent on vocal virtuosity. All male rôles were written for tenors and basses.
There had always been comic interpolations in opera seria, but in early eighteenth-century Naples a new form was created, a full comic opera, presenting situations, not of gods and kings, but of ordinary people, closer to everyday life. The Neapolitans also developed a particular style of elaborate cantabile and melodic expressiveness ranging from the melancholic to the brightly spontaneous that would spread throughout Europe and give rise to many innovations. This matched Portugalʼs cultural inclinations, and examples of Almeidaʼs genius in developing intricate melodies from a rich harmonic structure can be heard most clearly in Spinalbaʼs (Act I), Leandroʼs (Act I) and Elisaʼs (Act III) arias.
In opera buffa there may be two or three serious rôles, but in this work they are reduced mainly to one, Spinalba; Leandro, Elisa and Ippolito are too often entangled in comic and down-to-earth complexities. Only Spinalba has a truly heroic aria with extended coloratura (which we have developed through ornamentation in the da capo section).
Almeida seems to have taken great care in La Spinalba. The work is very varied throughout and does not give the impression of a formulaic and hurried composition, as was the case with many opera composers, some with international fame, under the pressure of time.
Most arias are da capo. Nonetheless, unorthodox forms are used, such as Vespinaʼs spirited chattering (Act I), Tognoʼs multi-sectioned and capricious recitative and aria (Act I) and Arsenioʼs aria di folia (Act III), a climax of patch-work fragments, including a reminiscence of the minuet from the Overtura.
Terror is conjured up through a very original use of the horns (Arsenioʼs aria, Act II) and string effects (Tognoʼs aria, Act I and Act II, Scene 7). The excited dialogue in the third act finale is dramatically enhanced by skilful harmonic modulations. A rustic tone emerges in Tognoʼs “barcarolle” (Act I, Scene 8) and in Vespinaʼs final aria, transformed, in our interpretation, into a hectic Tarantella.
Full orchestral possibilities are deployed mostly in the arias of the serious rôles: the use of the oboes, modelled after Alessandro Scarlattiʼs operas, is not for doubling the strings, but follows the solo use of oboes which would continue in the classical symphony.
Finally, in the recitatives we see Almeida striving for variety, surprise and laughter, especially in the rôle of Togno. A notable example occurs in Act II, Scene 6: Arsenio, in his madness, shows Togno some pieces of food, presenting them as celestial signs and sacred talismans. Togno, however, in a grotesque manner, eats them all since for him they are just food. In Act I, Scene 9 he attempts to repeat the aria only just sung by his master, but fails to complete it as he cannot remember it all. In Act II, Scene 7 he appears disguised as a doctor and in Act III, Scene 1 he parodies his masterʼs rage.
The anonymous libretto does not seem to have been written by an Italian, but Almeida himself or even Gusmão are possible authors. Further study is still needed, but there is a very curious recurrent catchphrase throughout the piece, “tʼacchetta”; although it is written as Italian, the resulting sound is Portuguese at its most vernacular.
(with many thanks to André Cunha Leal for his valuable insights)
 The scene is a street in Rome. Spinalba, dressed as a man, is trying to escape from her step-mother, Dianora, who tries to detain her. Dianora wants to know why Spinalba is dressed like this and where she has been for the last fortnight. She is angry and threatens Spinalba with her fatherʼs probable reaction, when he comes back. Spinalba offers an explanation and reminds Dianora of a former guest in their house, Ippolito; handsome, well-mannered, he had sworn to her, before returning home, that he would be faithful to her for ever, but he had deceived her and for three years refused to listen to her complaints. Dianora begins to feel pity. His return has suggested to Spinalba the opportunity to reproach Ippolito to his face as an ingrate, a perjurer and deceiver, and she has thought about the matter but, in disguise, she has failed to revive his memory of Spinalba. Dianora tells her to forget him, but Spinalba has resolved to confront him, leaving Dianora to deal with Spinalbaʼs father, her husband Arsenio.
 Spinalba sings of her loverʼs inconstancy and her suffering, before she goes.
 Arsenio enters and asks Dianora where Spinalba is, appalled that his wife has seemingly allowed his daughter to go out by herself; at her age she should have known better. Dianora tells him that Spinalba is with his niece Elisa, whose villa is some distance away. In reply to his abusive language, blaming her for not looking after a mere step-daughter, Dianora reminds him of the dowry that she has brought with her to their marriage, and now he wishes her dead, which will be a relief for him.
 Dianora suggests that Arsenio will miss her, when she is gone, and when he calls her name, there will be no answer.
 Arsenio, left alone, is soon joined by Elisa and her maid Vespina, who greet him, telling him how well he looks. He asks whether she has left Spinalba alone in her house, but she tells him that Spinalba is not there and that she has not seen her. This makes Arsenio realise that Dianora must have deceived him; he is determined to make an example of Spinalba, when he finds her. The women find his anxieties unreasonable.
 In his aria Arsenio will not listen to them; he is a father, and she his daughter, and her behaviour brings dishonour to him.
 Elisa admits to Vespina that she is in love with Florindo, in fact Spinalba in her disguise as a man, and cares nothing for her suitors Ippolito and Leandro; and Florindo cares nothing for her, Vespina adds. For her part she will avoid the folly of love. They see Ippolito approaching.
 Ippolito calls to Elisa to stay, and to pity him in his love for her. Elisa tells him that she loves Florindo.
 In her aria Elisa explains matters, telling him she does not love him.
 Alone with Vespina, Ippolito laments his cruel rejection by Elisa, and asks Vespina if she thinks it will always be so.
 In her aria she tells Ippolito that he is loved by his mistress, but if he actually believes Vespina, he is wrong to hope.
 Alone, Ippolito reproaches Elisa for her love of Florindo, on whom he will take revenge.
 Ippolito gives voice to his predicament.
The scene is the garden of Elisaʼs villa, with a view of the River Tiber. Leandro enters in a boat. He is accompanied by his servant Togno, who is rowing and singing.
 Tognoʼs song tells of leaving his mother and father, his grandmother and all who will die without him.
 Leandro tells Togno that they have nearly reached Elisaʼs garden, and Togno tells his master to disembark and he will moor the boat there. Leandro sends Togno to tell Elisa that her faithful Leandro awaits her in the garden. Togno suggests that he should compliment the flowers, and proceeds to do so, in poetic language.
 Leandro tells Togno to tell Elisa of his love.
 Togno, alone, tries to repeat the message with which he has been entrusted, but muddles the imagery of Leandroʼs language.
 In a street in Rome Togno is met by Dianora, who greets him. She asks if he is French, but he tells her he is from Florence and a Roman, and his name is Togno Guastaferri. She asks him how long he has been there, but Togno cannot see the point of so many questions. She tells him that a girl dressed as a man has been seen several times in these gardens. And for this she asks him if he is French, Togno wonders; no, he has not seen or heard her.
 As she goes, Arsenio appears and asks Togno if he has seen a girl dressed as a man. Togno tells him that he has just been talking to such a person, who went off by the path there. Arsenio resolves to find her, but Togno had been talking about a woman of some age, and now he has forgotten everything.
 It is evening in the garden of Elisaʼs villa. Vespina emerges, wondering who is there. Togno tells her that he was with an old man who was looking for a girl. Finally he can explain to her that he has come there in a boat with Leandro. Vespina, who, as a servant, knows everything, realises that they are in search of Elisa. If she knows everything, then, Togno says, she will know what he has to say to Elisa. Tognoʼs message is garbled, but Vespina, of course, knows what Leandroʼs speech would be, for what it is worth.
Togno is joined by Ippolito, who mistakes him at first for his rival, threatening him. He is interrupted by Spinalba.
 Togno in a recitative and aria, pleads for his life, suggesting that when he is dead he will come back to haunt his killer.
 Spinalba, in her disguise as Florindo, asks the reason for Ippolitoʼs anger, and he tells her that he suspects Elisa of infidelity. She explains to him Elisaʼs reaction to his known infidelity to Spinalba, to whom he had sworn his everlasting love. Ippolito wonders how the disguised Spinalba knows so much, adding that Florindo even resembles her, a suggestion Spinalba rejects.
 Spinalba and Ippolito sing of their respective anxieties.
 The scene is a room in Elisaʼs villa. Dianora tells Elisa and Vespina of her worry that her husband must be mad. She explains his strange behaviour and changes of mood and asks Elisa to assure her uncle that Spinalba will soon come back again.
 In an aria Dianora reinforces her request.
 Alone with Vespina, Elisa expresses her pity for her uncle and seeks Vespinaʼs advice. Vespina reminds her of Leandroʼs sacrifices for her. Elisa neither hates nor loves him, she says.
 Leandro and Ippolito both address Elisa, quickly becoming aware that they are rivals, leading to a quarrel and proposed duel.
 In an aria Elisa calms the situation, rejecting them both.
 The two men react to Elisaʼs words and come to a measure of agreement.
 In his aria Ippolito sings of his predicament.
 Leandro, alone, deplores Elisaʼs rejection of him, after he has left his own family and country for her, a poor reward for his fidelity. He is joined by Togno and is now determined to go.
 In his aria Leandro regrets ever having fallen in love with Elisa.
 Togno is bewildered by Leandroʼs change of heart. Arsenio approaches, carrying a bundle of sweetmeats and a flask of wine. He mistakes Togno for Charon with his boat, and asks to be ferried to the Elysian fields, a request that baffles Togno. Arsenio goes on to explain how he realises that Togno is not Minos or Rhadamanthus, but clearly a vassal of Pluto, charged with conveying the souls of the unburied to Elysium. Challenged by Togno, he identifies him directly as Charon and tells him that he seeks his daughter. He asks if Togno knows where he has come from, to which Togno suggests the hospital, but no, it is from the heavenly spheres. Arsenio sits on the ground and opens his bundle, showing Togno the North Pole, the paw of Ursa Minor, the tail of the Dragon, the orbits of Cancer and Capricorn, bits of the Milky Way and the Moon, and Scorpio. Togno has tried to eat some of the sweetmeats that Arsenio has produced, and drinks from the flask, leading Arsenio to reproach him as the cause of drought. Arsenio wants to go, before the earth is swallowed up.
 Arsenio weaves a circle around Togno, so that the powers of the Underworld may prevent him leaving it.
 Alone, Togno wonders if he can escape from the imaginary circle, tentatively experimenting first with one arm, then his head and his feet. Vespina, entering, asks him what he is doing.
 Togno, singing for fear and not looking at Vespina, prays to the spirit of Hades for release, resolved to go away as soon as possible. Vespina thinks he must be mad. He answers, conjuring her by the past and the future, by Phaetonʼs chariot, the boat of Acheron, to set him free. Vespina asks if he recognises her and he asks her to give him her hand, so that he can escape from the imaginary circle, invisible, of course, to Vespina. This difficulty surmounted, Togno and Vespina resolve to meet that night in the garden.
 Arsenio appears, dressed as a sailor and mistaking Vespina for Calliope, one of the Muses; he will search for his daughter east and west and even on Mount Parnassus, to which Vespina must lead him, in return for his love. He deplores the failings of all the gods of Olympus, with Pluto alone left worthy of her love.
 Vespina humours Arsenio by pretending to return his affections.
 Arsenio waits awhile, to take a glimpse of Parnassus before seeing the path taken by the Sibyll, Aeneas, Theseus and Heracles. Togno is amazed at this display of words, but feels sorry for Arsenio.
 In an elaborate simile, Togno compares the fragility of human reason to the action of a windmill and the grinding of corn.
 Elisa protests her love for Florindo, while Spinalba, in her disguise, reminds her cousin of Leandro, whom Elisa now says she has forgotten. Elisa continues to declare her love, while Spinalba tries to dissuade her.
 In her aria Elisa declares again her love for Florindo.
 Now alone, Spinalba regrets the situation.
 She sings of the mutability of love.
 It is night in the garden and Vespina is waiting for Togno. Dianora approaches her, asking for news of her husband Arsenio. Vespina tells her hat Arsenio does not recognise anyone and changes his dress. They withdraw, waiting to see what happens.
Togno appears first, ready for his meeting with Vespina. He is followed by Arsenio, wondering at the darkness of the night. Arsenio draws nearer to Togno, smelling wine, which means Bacchus must be at hand; he demands his name, by Plutoʼs beard and Letheʼs waves. Togno comes forward, identified by Arsenio as Charon. Dianora addresses her husband and the others assure Arsenio that she is his wife, but Arsenio rejects them as mad, for this must be Proserpina.
 In a quartet, Vespina, Dianora, Arsenio and Togno express their feelings.
 The new scene is a street in Rome, near Elisaʼs villa. Spinalba, still dressed as a man, asks Togno why Leandro has decided to leave and is told of Elisaʼs rejection of him, in colourful terms, echoing Leandroʼs poetic recitative in Act II. Spinalba hopes to revive Elisaʼs love for Leandro through pity for him and seeks Tognoʼs help.
 Spinalba amplifies her idea in an aria.
 Elisa and Dianora are planning to cure Arsenio. They approach Togno, asking if he knows Arsenio. Togno asks if he is the one with the dragonʼs tail, the bearʼs paw and the sign of Aquarius, the fixed stars and the whole calendar. The women have acquired various medicines, and want Togno to pretend to be a doctor and to cure Arsenio. Togno agrees.
 Togno, in an aria, enters into the spirit of things, ready to administer remedies, with his gargle as a panacea and his praise of the financial advantages of being a doctor.
 Dianora, alone with Elisa, tells her that Arsenioʼs cure must rest on the discovery of Spinalba. Elisa tells Dianora of her love for Florindo, describing the qualities of her beloved. Dianora, however, reveals that Florindo is actually Elisaʼs cousin Spinalba in disguise, who had been betrayed by Ippolito.
 Elisaʼs pity for Leandro is reawakened.
 Dianora is thankful that she will be able to find her husband again. Ippolito appears, demanding to know who it is that Elisa is now in love with. Leandro joins them, introducing himself to Dianora, who tells the two men that Elisa is in love with one of them. Leandro has given up hope, but is told by Ippolito to remember Elisaʼs rejection of them both.
 In an aria Ippolito sees that Elisa does not love him.
 In Elisaʼs garden Leandro, alone, is confused, puzzling over Dianoraʼs words.
 Leandro sings of his love.
 The scene is set in a room in Elisaʼs villa. Arsenio, dressed as a sailor, is singing and dancing. He addresses the storms and lightning, the mountains, forests, springs and lovely wild animals.
 He continues singing and dancing, until he is dizzy and sits down.
 Arsenio sleeps, and Dianora approaches, with Togno masquerading as a doctor, introducing himself with ungrammatical dog Latin tags, dogmatically identifying the medicine he holds as essence of beech, useful either for a stick or the quintessence. They observe the sleeping Arsenio, Togno anxious rather to keep the patient asleep. Dianora wants to know how Arsenio can take the medicine, but Togno declares that the illness is not in the stomach but in the head, and splashes the patientʼs face with it. At this Arsenio leaps to his feet, seizing his stick.
 Togno, taking refuge but still dressed as a doctor, meets Vespina, introducing himself as a doctor of law and of medicine. Vespina actually recognises him, but continues her conversation as if with a stranger. She asks him if he is married; a man so learned and excellent should have children and happy the woman who has such a husband. Togno, having provided a fictitious account of his situation, offers his love to Vespina, and she accepts him. This makes him suspect Vespinaʼs loyalty, as she seems so ready to love another. She tells him that her lover was one called Togno, a spendthrift, a fool, a coward, a nobody. But handsome?, Togno asks. No, she tells him, ugly, short and fat. Togno takes off his robe and wig and reveals himself. She tells him she was making fun of him, but this Togno cannot believe.
 Togno and Vespina continue to argue, in a duet, and eventually Vespina pretends to faint, to Tognoʼs alarm and their final reconciliation
 In Elisaʼs garden. Arsenio, still dressed as a sailor, is trying to escape from Dianora, who catches hold of him and tells him to look and listen, and see who she is. He identifies her as Proserpina. Then who are you?, Dianora asks, are you not Arsenio Ghisilieri of Florence? He admits it and acknowledges that he has a wife, eventually remembering her name. Dianora asks where Spinalba is, and Arsenio starts to lament the loss of his only daughter, wondering how she could have treated her father so. He seems to lose control of himself again, but Dianora holds him back, assuring him that she knows where Spinalba is and what she is doing.
 In her aria Dianora seeks Arsenioʼs forgiveness and begs him to stay and hear her.
 Vespina prepares to put Togno to the test. She tells him of a treasure at the roots of two cypress trees, guarded by the spirit of a slave called Solfarello, and this he must take. She urges him on, but he faints in fear, and is revived, still terrified of the supposed Solfarello. Vespina tells him that the whole thing was a joke.
 In her aria Vespina celebrates the lighter side of life, with joking rather than sighs and torment.
 The scene is now a room in Elisaʼs villa. Elisa asks Spinalba, still dressed as a man, the reason for her concealment. This Spinalba explains, with sorrow at the result for her father.
Dianora leads in Arsenio, and Spinalba kneels before him, to his delight and initial bewilderment. She seeks his pardon for her behaviour and Arsenio embraces her, to the satisfaction of Dianora and Elisa, who observe the scene. Elisa and Spinalba embrace, united in affection.
Ippolito comes in, drawing his sword against Spinalba. Leandro does the same. Dianora and Elisa, with Arsenio, tell them to desist. They are joined by Vespina and Togno. Spinalba reveals her true identity to Ippolito, reproaching him, and he at once repents of his earlier behaviour, resolved to find relief in solitude. Spinalba calls him back, and Elisa accepts Leandro once more. The lovers are all finally united, joined by Togno and Vespina.
 A final chorus proclaims peace, joy and pleasure, with all reconciled.
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ALMEIDA, F.A. de: Spinalba, ovvero Il vecchio matt...