Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867) remains largely in the shadows, but it is certainly not due to the effectiveness and memorability of his music. When I first heard Opera Rara’s recording of his Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra almost twenty years ago, I was instantly hooked on Pacini. John Steane, reviewing that recording in Gramophone, perfectly expressed what I felt at the time: “Listeners … are likely to find themselves playing straight through from start to finish, chafing at any interruption; and that says something for both the music and the drama.” Similar acclaim has been showered on recordings of Saffo, Alessandro nell’Indie, and Carlo di Borgogna (by reputation the worst of Pacini’s operas, Opera Rara’s recording won numerous awards and received unfailingly flattering press). Why then, is the most common question I get when mentioning Pacini: “Oh – you mean the one who wrote Tosca?”
The most difficult impediment to a Pacini Renaissance is his atrocious handwriting. Librettist Francesco Maria Piave, a dear friend of Pacini and collaborator on many texts, once condemned the composer’s penmanship as “the scratches of dogs and chickens.” This has frightened away scholars attempting to consult his autograph scores and correspondence. A Phillips-Matz style autobiography would be a daunting task indeed, though it is sorely needed to form a clearer picture of the man and to counteract the damage Pacini did to his own reputation in his highly biased and inaccurate autobiography Le Mie Memorie Artistiche. Memorie is full of misremembered dates, casts, and most importantly false modesty (often cited as “frank admissions”) about the quality of his own work. Pacini also wildly exaggerated the number of operas he composed, which has led to the enduring and uncritical assumption that he lavished no care upon his scores.
Examination of his scores, correspondence, and contemporary reviews paints a far more complex picture of Pacini the man and of his place in the world of Italian opera. He was not merely a “Brand X” to compare unfavorably with his more famous rivals– he was a celebrity in his own right and he satisfied a demanding public for over 5 decades, composing right up until the end for the most prestigious singers and houses. Verdi and Donizetti may have won the war, but Pacini notched up many victorious battles.
Malvina di Scozia
Malvina di Scozia dates from the last period of Pacini’s career – its initial run in Naples opened on December 27, 1851. The librettist, Salvadore Cammarano of Lucia (and later Trovatore) fame, was not long for this world, his health destroyed by overwork, chronic late payment of his wages by the San Carlo, and a chilly apartment that allowed rain to flow in through the roof like a waterfall. Rather than provide Pacini a new text, the weakened librettist offered a revision of his violent 1835 libretto Ines de Castro.
The plot was based on one of the most legendary historical love stories in European history – the 1349 contract murder of Crown Prince Pedro’s mistress Ines de Castro by King Alfonso, his father. A dénouement with five corpses posed no problem for the censors, but the royal family of Naples was related by blood to the Portuguese royals depicted in the libretto. To distance them from the distasteful events, censors insisted the entire story be moved to Scotland in the 10th century. Ossianic references were thrown in and the character names changed to better fit the Italians’ conception of the barbaric heaths. (To us, the villain Wortimer’s name would sound at home in a Harry Potter novel). At Pacini’s instruction, bagpipes would appear on stage in the Act I triumphal scene. No one was fooled – press and public knew exactly what story the opera was based upon, but at least the censors were placated.
The lead soprano, Adelaide Cortesi, was one of the earliest sopranos identified with Verdi’s music. She would later come to New York, arousing both hatred and adulation, running her own touring opera company, commanding fees the modern equivalent of which was over $800K a year– a rarity for a woman in those days. The contralto, Adelaide Borghi-Mamo, would become a famous Azucena (when Verdi revised Il Trovatore for Paris he tailored the role for her) but could also encompass florid coloratura roles such as Arsace in Semiramide with ease.
The tenor engaged by the San Carlo for that season, Agostino dall’Armi, decamped for Venice in October for reasons yet to be determined. The role of the hero thus fell to Achille de Bassini, the baritone who created the roles of Miller and old Foscari for Verdi. Now the censors and de Bassini both were mollified – as the baritone had pouted to Pacini that the composer’s previous operas didn’t fit his voice and refused to sing his music ever again. Pacini gave him everything he wanted — and possibly more — in the role of Arturo and relations were normalized between the two.
But de Bassini’s gain was likely the opera’s downfall. What company would pick an opera that forced them to bench their primo tenore when most companies contracted one for an entire season? If they lacked a tenor, would they have a contralto capable of the agility and declamatory power needed for the role of Morna? So tailor-made was the score for a specific cast and specific circumstances that it fit the needs of very few houses.
Nevertheless, the premiere on December 27, 1851 was a huge success. Malvina was acclaimed by audiences and by critics, though the novelty of Act II’s construction took some by surprise. Pacini was escorted home by a torchlight procession, and organ-grinders began playing the best tunes in the streets. Increased familiarity only brought greater enthusiasm and admiration. The opera racked up a very respectable run of 24 performances lasting into February 1852. Two vocal scores were published – one by Casa Ricordi, the other by Fratelli Fabbricatore. The individual numbers sold well, and the complete scores fanned out to libraries and private collections across the globe.
Malvina had to wait until March 1859 to resurface, when Brazilian newspapers reported it as a vehicle for the imminent emergence of retirement of the great mezzo Rosina Stolz (the original Leonore in Favorite) who was to sing Morna opposite the Malvina of Anna de la Grange at the Teatro Lirico Fluminense. We have yet to discover precisely how this opera – of which not a peep had been heard for nearly a decade – came to the attention of the impresario. Pacini himself may been pulling strings, as he was on friendly terms with Emperor Pedro II’s wife Teresa Cristina.
This spectacular casting – had it actually happened – might have changed the opera’s fortunes. But Stolz’s return to the stage never materialized, and Lucia was given instead. Malvina had to wait until September 1860 to be heard in Brazil, with a less luminous cast. Of the subsequent – and last – 19th century revival in Malta in 1862, information is scant. The one account so far located praises the score but says nothing about the singers; it dwells instead on the gifts of a Maltese violinist, who excelled in the concerto-like solo obbligato introducing Malvina’s mad scene.
But the history only matters if the score is worth hearing – and this opera is, decidedly so. Malvina boasts one of the strongest libretti Pacini ever set; the story is moving, the principal characters well-developed. From the first note of the beautiful preludio to the final fortissimo cadence, the score is a banquet of all the sinfully rich delights on which lovers of Italian operas thrive. Memorable tunes appear at every turn. Delicious solos abound: a rousing Act I Brindisi and a massive and emotionally wrenching “grand aria” in the final act for the baritone, a shamelessly showy cavatina and an introspective romanza for the contralto, and a heartrending “scena, delirio ed aria-finale” for the soprano. These are flanked by stunning and effective ensembles – a trio for all-male voices, a love duet between the baritone and soprano, a dramatic confrontation for the female rivals, a quartet, a quintet, and a titanic septet at the apex of the opera. Nor are the choristers slighted – Act III opens with a ghoulish chorus of gossiping courtiers who recount the beginning of the mass slaughter that leaves the hero widowed, orphaned, and childless.
Vertical Player Repertory, a Brooklyn indie opera company headed by founder and artistic director Judith Barnes, will revive this opera for the first time in modern memory on May 11 and 13, 2016, in a concert performance with an international cast.
When VPR embarked on this project no usable performing materials existed. The score had to be prepared from scratch – fortunately an ally emerged in noted Dutch music editor/conductor Hans Schellevis, who also assumes the podium for these performances. Hans has worked with Opera Rara of London, Santa Fe Opera, and COC in Toronto, and is a protégée of Phillip Gossett. Hans prepared a new piano-vocal reduction for VPR using as sources the composer’s autograph manuscript and a copyist manuscript, both housed in the Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella in Naples. These new performance materials correct numerous errors and omissions in the published vocal scores, and also restore music that was cut during rehearsals of the first production. The vocal reduction Vertical Player Repertory is using is the first step toward a full-scale edizione critica.
Everyone involved is excited about the re-discovery of this vital and moving lost opera. As Peter Szep, our chorus master observed in the blog Gramilano.com:
As a person involved with the rehearsals, every time we sing through one of the choruses or scenes, everyone keeps saying what an amazing opera it is! The music is truly stunning, with soloists and chorus all joining in these extended Bel Canto scenes that literally keep sweeping us away. It’s a real gem and I’m surprised that it has just basically disappeared from the rep.
I hope our audiences will relish hearing this gorgeous work as much as we have enjoyed restoring it to life! Tickets are available at brownpapertickets. Performances are scheduled for May 11 and 13 at 7:30 pm at Christ & St. Stephen’s church, 120 W. 69th Street.
-Thea D. Cook, Production Curator