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ClassicsOnline Home » BEL CANTO BULLY - The musical legacy of the legendary opera impresario Domenico Barbaja
Domenico Barbaja (1777–1841) was the legendary impresario who dominated European operatic stages for thirty years. The ruthless mogul was at the very heart of the bel canto era in which beautiful singing, allied to flawless technique, was brought to perfection. This release celebrates his legacy in exploring how Barbaja influenced the way opera was written and performed, by commissioning a series of masterpieces from the greatest composers of the time, such as Rossini, Donizetti and Weber, and staging them in his magnificent opera houses, performed by the most glamorous singers of the age.
Bel Canto Bully
The musical legacy of the legendary opera impresario Domenico Barbaja
Domenico Barbaja (1777–1841) was the most influential opera impresario of the 19th century. He was also a casino mogul, an illiterate loudmouth and a cantankerous bully. Born to simple circumstances near Milan, he first built a gambling syndicate in northern Italy, moving southwards on the heels of Napoleon’s invading troops. His goal was Naples, a city known as much for its rich Bourbon history and its famous though moribund opera house the Teatro San Carlo, as its addiction to gaming. Barbaja soon expanded his business, acquiring the concession to manage the two royal opera houses of Naples. Approaching opera as he would any other business venture, he managed the theatres with an iron fist, developed new composers, and discovered and managed many of the greatest singers of his day.
Barbaja was at the very centre of what would later be referred to as the bel canto era, a period dominated by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Giovanni Pacini and Saverio Mercadante. Their operas were focused on beautiful singing, emphasizing flawless technique, extreme vocal range and thrilling musical embellishments.
In 1814, after spending five years turning around the business of the royal theatres, Barbaja brought the young Gioachino Rossini to Naples. This proved to be his single best decision. Rossini quickly overcame all Neapolitan scepticism against the northerner, and became the leading operatic composer of his age, spending seven years in Naples.
Rossini’s first opera for Barbaja, the opera seria Elisabetta (based on the life of England’s Elizabeth I) opened at the Teatro San Carlo in the presence of King Ferdinand of Naples. Starring Isabella Colbran, who had been on Barbaja’s roster since 1811, it was a huge success. Colbran’s stage presence and vocal mastery made her the leading prima donna of the early 19th century. The alluring Spanish soprano became Domenico Barbaja’s biggest box-office draw as well as his mistress. Barbaja was keen to demonstrate his new composer’s versatility by producing an opera appealing to more pedestrian tastes, an opera buffa to be performed in the Teatro dei Fiorentini. The smallest of the theatres under Barbaja’s command, the Fiorentini showed more accessible, comic operas that were forbidden at the upmarket San Carlo. The overture of La gazzetta (The Newspaper)  is Rossini at his joyful and creative best. Having no qualms about re-using musical material, Rossini employed the same overture for La Cenerentola (Cinderella) two years later.
Rossini’s second opera seria in Naples, Otello, was to be the composer’s breakthrough in the genre, but its creation put the punctual Barbaja and the famously tardy Rossini at loggerheads. Barbaja reportedly locked the composer in his apartment and refused to release him until he had completed the score. Otello premièred at the Teatro del Fondo, as the larger Teatro San Carlo had burned to the ground in a fire in early 1816. The opera enjoyed great popularity in its time but is a challenge to produce given the three tenors cast in the leading male roles, and is today less frequently performed than Giuseppe Verdi’s eponymous opera.
In the aria “Che ascolto? Ahimè, che dici?” (“What do I hear? Alas, what do you say?”)  Rodrigo sings of his love for Desdemona and his disdain for Otello, his rival for her affection. The aria demonstrates the enormous coloratura demands of the role, which was first sung by Giovanni David, one of Barbaja’s top-billed artists and considered by Stendhal to be the best tenor of his generation.
Rossini wrote the role of Desdemona especially for Colbran’s voice and the Willow Song (“Canzone del salice”)  showcased the singer’s unique virtuosity. The prima donna’s success in the role possibly contributed to the developing romance between her and Rossini, initially conducted in secret behind the impresario’s back.
By 1817 Barbaja had rebuilt the San Carlo as the most spectacular theatre in Europe, positioning Naples at the centre of European opera, and cementing the bond between Barbaja and the Bourbon monarch. Barbaja was keen to capitalize on Rossini’s success, and obtained royal permission to perform operas during the period of Lent. To fit the solemn occasion, Barbaja and Rossini chose Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt), the tragic-sacred love story of Moses’ niece and the son of the pharaoh, set against the backdrop of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. The third act prayer “Dal tuo stellato soglio” (“From your starry throne”) , which was reworked for a later version of the opera, was so popular it reportedly caused a frenzy among some of the audience.
La donna del lago was composed by Rossini for Barbaja as a replacement opera after another composer failed to deliver on time. Though the opera, again starring Colbran, had a disastrous opening night, it gradually gained audience favour. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, it describes the romantic triangle between Elena, the highland chieftain and his rival King James V, who appears disguised as Uberto. In his cavatina “Oh fiamma soave” (“Oh gentle flame”) , Uberto declares his love for Elena whom he tries to keep out of harm’s way. The opera ends harmoniously with the victorious king revealing himself. In “Tanti affetti in tal momento” (“So many emotions at such a moment”)  Elena rejoices over the discovery. “Tanti affetti” remains a pièce-de-résistance for coloratura mezzo-sopranos.
In 1820 King Ferdinand had been forced to accept a constitution (on which he promptly reneged a few months later), and in the politically sensitive environment Rossini and Barbaja chose to stage Maometto II. The opera, which certainly had some political undertones, describes the struggle of a Venetian colony against the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. In “Non temer: d’un basso effetto non fu mai quel cor capace” (“Do not fear: of a base feeling that heart was never capable”) , the Venetian nobleman Calbo (sung by a contralto in a trouser role) sings of the loyalty of the heroine Anna, even though she is in love with the invading Maometto. The opera was not a popular success, not least since audience affection for Colbran (playing Anna) had cooled due to her developing vocal problems. Just two years later, Rossini and Colbran eloped to be married in Bologna. After leaving Naples, Rossini was never to write another opera for Barbaja.
The political turmoil in Naples, the rescinding of the lucrative gambling concession in the Teatro San Carlo, as well as complications from his tumultuous personal life, prompted Barbaja to move to Vienna in 1822, where he took over the two leading opera houses of the Habsburg capital. Bringing his top vocal talent from Italy, Barbaja stunned the Viennese audience with lavish productions of Italian operas, fanning the flames of the rivalry raging between proponents of Italian and German opera. Sensitive to the “Germanic” faction of the Viennese audience, and conscious of the commercial opportunities the rivalry presented, Barbaja commissioned operas from Franz Schubert (whose opera Barbaja judged a dud and never performed) and Carl Maria von Weber. Weber’s Euryanthe proved a success in spite of its clumsy libretto. The overture  remains an audience favourite and presages the impact of Weber’s orchestration on later German composers.
In 1825 Barbaja returned to Italy where he was to resume direct control of the Naples stages in addition to the Teatro alla Scala and the Teatro alla Canobbiana in Milan. Scrambling to find equally talented and popular composers as Rossini, with whom he had now completely fallen out, the impresario put his weight behind the promising Sicilian composer Giovanni Pacini. But another Sicilian promoted by Barbaja was to prove an even greater success: Vincenzo Bellini.
Picked up by Barbaja straight out of the Naples Conservatory, the impresario guided the young composer’s early career and he introduced him to the librettist Felice Romani, with whom Bellini first collaborated on Il pirata. The opera premièred at la Scala in 1827, with the leading tenor of his day, Giovanni Battista Rubini, in the title role. Written specifically for Rubini’s highly flexible voice, which could reach stratospheric heights, Il pirata proved Bellini’s breakthrough opera, and Barbaja took it to both Naples and Vienna. The cavatina “Nel furor delle tempeste” (“In the fury of the storm”)  and cabaletta “Per te di vane lagrime” (“For you on vain tears”)  challenge the technique and range of any tenor. The opera’s hero, a nobleman turned shipwrecked pirate who tries to regain his old love from the clutches of his enemy, describes his lot and reaffirms his commitment to his beloved. Bellini would write only three operas for Barbaja before their two egos irreparably clashed over finances and artistic differences.
While Barbaja worked together with Gaetano Donizetti from as early as 1822 and commissioned a total of 26 operas from the Bergamasc composer, their interaction became more extensive, as well as more fractious, in the 1830s by which time Donizetti was the leading operatic composer: Rossini had stopped writing operas in 1829 and Bellini had passed away in 1835.
Roberto Devereux was the most popular opera Donizetti wrote for Barbaja. The opera tells the heavily embellished love story of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. The opera was first staged at the San Carlo in 1837 and was a triumph, considered artistically and musically on a par with the composer’s earlier Lucia di Lammermoor. In “Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto” (“Ungrateful one, you shall live by her side”)  Elizabeth expresses the pain of abandonment while Devereux lives on with her rival. The final scene’s “Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza” (“The blood that is spilt rises up to heaven”)  shows the queen going insane over the death of her lover, and is regarded as one of the most powerful finales of the bel canto period. The live recording demonstrates the formidable vocal challenges posed by the seamless swings from pianissimo to fortissimo.
While his works are barely performed today, Saverio Mercadante was among the most important composers of Barbaja’s era. Trained at the Naples Conservatory by the legendary Nicola Zingarelli, Mercadante worked in Austria, Portugal, Spain and France but considered Naples his spiritual home. He ultimately outmanoeuvred Donizetti for the post of Director of the Naples Conservatory, replacing the deceased Zingarelli. The structure and orchestration of his mature operas are recognized for their influence on later composers, including Giuseppe Verdi.
Mercadante considered Elena da Feltre, which recounts the ill-fated love between Ghuelfs and Ghibelines in the 13th-century north Italian town of Feltre, to be revolutionary for its stylistic and dramatic elements. “Ah sì, del tenero amor mio al trasporto appena io reggo” (“Ah! How wonderful to think of my sweet love and the coming joys”)  describes the heroine’s joyful anticipation of her wedding, which, however, is doomed never to happen. The audience reaction at the prima in 1839, however, was muted.
The opera’s première was also near the end of Barbaja’s nearly 30-year grip on much of the European opera scene. The legendary impresario died of a heart attack while working in the grounds of his palazzo overlooking the bay of Naples. He bequeathed the city a lasting legacy of bel canto opera and sheer legend.
Philip Eisenbeiss has worked as a journalist, banker and headhunter. Born in Germany and brought up in Switzerland and the United States, he has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. He is the author of Bel Canto Bully: the life and times of the legendary opera impresario Domenico Barbaja, published by Haus Publishing, London, in 2013.
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