In 19th-century Italy, opera was simultaneously both high art and popular entertainment. The most celebrated composers working in the genre were household names, their music enjoyed and admired by a large and socially varied public throughout the Italian peninsular. In the country’s towns and cities, even those who did not frequent theatres or own pianos in their homes would have become familiar with the most popular operatic melodies simply by hearing them recycled on barrel organs, or even just sung and whistled in the streets. But opera was necessarily a business, too. Instrumental music was a poor relation, while church music offered a safer alternative career option: but for ambitious composers, opera was the obvious route to fame and fortune.
During a career that was tragically cut off in its prime, Vincenzo Bellini made a swift ascent to the top rank of Italian composers and had just begun to establish himself on an international level when he was struck down by a case of amoebic dysentery in a Parisian suburb at the age of just 33. Leaving aside juvenilia, his mature legacy consisted of songs written for the Italian domestic market, plus just nine operas: producing so few stage works was unusual at this time, but Bellini claimed that he composed not only more slowly than his colleagues, but also more carefully.
Bellini was born into a hitherto minor dynasty of musicians in the Sicilian city of Catania: his grandfather Vincenzo Tobia had moved there from the mainland, working locally as an organist and teacher, as did his father Rosario. While their personal artistic ambitions may not have extended much further than the production of church music, Bellini certainly grew up in a deeply musical household. Vincenzo senior would also have been acquainted with the kind of people who might support the education of such a talented lad as his grandson.
For Sicilian musicians of real talent, the obvious place to move on to was Naples, where Bellini’s grandfather had studied. It was on the recommendation of the local Sicilian governor that in 1819 Bellini was awarded a scholarship to study there. The ancient conservatory he would attend could pride itself on a long and distinguished history. In addition, Naples could boast other serious musical attractions, foremost among them the Teatro San Carlo, one of Europe’s most famous and well maintained opera houses; at this period it also benefited from the presence of the leading figure in contemporary Italian opera, Gioachino Rossini, who was currently musical director of the Neapolitan royal theatres.
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The Neapolitan conservatory’s elderly director Niccolò Zingarelli, however, disapproved of Rossini’s new-fangled innovations – though he had a profound respect for the music of Haydn and Mozart, and he undoubtedly recognised Bellini’s exceptional abilities. In 1824 the latter was awarded the title of primo maestrino (a kind of junior teacher position), and given the opportunity to write an opera which his fellow students would perform the next year.
Blending together the serious and comic in the semiseria genre, Adelson e Salvini was staged at the conservatory in February 1825 and impressed sufficiently to encourage the commissioning of a sequel. This would be a far more prestigious affair – an opera to be presented at the Teatro San Carlo itself the following season; the result was Bianca e Gernando, first performed in May 1826.
Beginning his career in Naples gave Bellini one further benefit. The canny manager of the San Carlo, the impresario Domenico Barbaia, also ran another extremely important opera house: La Scala, Milan. It was due to this fortunate connection that within no more than a year Bellini found himself working for the leading theatre in northern Italy, in collaboration with the greatest librettist of the day: Felice Romani.
With its fashionably no-holds-barred Romantic plot, striking orchestral and choral writing, and expressive mad scene for soprano that brought the opera to a thrilling close, Il pirata (‘The Pirate’) went down a storm with the sophisticated Milanese public in October 1827. Their approval instantly brought the 25-year-old Bellini to the pinnacle of Italian opera. Following their initial success with Il pirata, Bellini and Romani capped it with La straniera (1829), again drawing on a subject whose extreme emotions and Gothic situations resonated with the heady spirit of Romanticism sweeping the whole of Europe.
Written for the opening of the Teatro Ducale in Parma, however, their next venture, Zaira (also 1829), was a failure. Bellini had offended Parmesan sensitivities by turning down a well-worn subject offered by a local official and insisting instead on the commissioning of Romani. Late with his work as usual, Romani’s dilatoriness forced Bellini to compose in a rush; the end-result was a temporary setback.
Bellini managed to capitalise on this failure by recycling some of the score of Zaira in his next work, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, based on the more intrinsically Romantic subject of Romeo and Juliet, which went down well with audiences at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in March 1830. Both subject and specific words were, indeed, of the greatest importance to Bellini throughout his career. It is notable that having started a working relationship with Romani in 1827, he would not waver in his commitment to his librettist until a public quarrel ended their collaboration in 1833.
Bellini’s own statements constantly underline the importance he placed on a strong and emotionally potent text. ‘Carve into your head in adamantine letters’, he wrote to Count Pepoli, the librettist of I puritani, in 1834. ‘Opera must make people weep, feel horrified, die through singing. It’s wrong to want to write all the numbers in the same way, but they must all be shaped so as to make the music intelligible through their clarity of expression, at once concise and frappante.’
Even when Bellini’s reputation had fallen to a low point in the late-19th century, his early-Romantic lyricism being viewed as thin in comparison to the more complex writing of his successors, one aspect of his art – his keen focus on textual expression – remained beyond criticism. The mature Verdi, who thought little of Bellini’s technical skills, nevertheless maintained that his scores were ‘rich in feeling and a melancholy entirely his own […] And how much truth and power of declamation there is’.
Wagner might seem to be an even less likely admirer of Bellini’s, though having conducted many performances of the Italian composer’s operas in his youth – even writing an additional aria to be slotted into a production of Norma in Riga in 1837 – he once told Bellini’s friend Francesco Florimo, ‘Bellini is one of my predilections: his music is all heart, closely, intimately linked to the words’.
After successfully launching Capuleti, Bellini and Romani moved on to a new opera for La Scala that would star one of the outstanding performers of her time – soprano Giuditta Pasta. Considered an exceptional musician and a fine actress, Pasta was already a friend of Bellini’s and a leading figure in the Milanese artistic world. Fittingly for a collaboration with the composer, she was regarded as supreme in the art of declamation – that of the great tragedienne, given extra potency through music.
For her Bellini wrote the title-role of La sonnambula, premiered at La Scala in 1831. In the drama, the fragility and suffering of the heroine cause her to sleepwalk – providing another of those early-Romantic instances of extreme states that allow the singer to range freely through complex sequences of emotions denied to ordinary mortals. In her music, and that also of the other principal characters, Bellini not only achieves that ‘truth of declamation’ so admired by Verdi but, again in Verdi’s words, those ‘long, long, long melodies such as no one wrote before him’.
Just nine months later, Bellini, Romani and Pasta renewed their collaboration at La Scala with Norma, a work whose detailed presentation of a Druid priestess conflicted by her illicit relationship with her Roman lover and her loyalty to her own people and religion charts an unusually complete dramatic arc described in a vocal line that calls on the highest technical and interpretative skills to realise the central figure’s extraordinary emotional journey.
The score has other outstanding qualities too – the strength and immediacy of its choruses, the neatness and drive of its orchestral writing, the power and dramatic concentration of its ensembles – all of which demonstrate the comprehensive range of a composer once considered as essentially little more than a languid melancholic.
The last Bellini/Romani/Pasta collaboration, Beatrice di Tenda (1833) is not as consistently memorable as the works that preceded it. Its Venetian premiere was troubled, not least because of the overcommitted Romani’s involvement with other composers. The result was another rush job. In the aftermath of the opera’s less than euphoric reception, Bellini incautiously put one of his friends up to firing off a letter to a newspaper blaming Romani, to which the librettist responded in kind, aggravating the situation by making an obvious reference to Bellini’s mistress which hastened the end of their relationship. This sad finale marked the close of Bellini’s Milanese period.
By now his reputation was international. In April 1833 he went to London, where several of his operas were being given, subsequently moving on to Paris, where Rossini was adviser to the home of Italian opera in the French capital, the Théâtre Italien. Bellini paid court to him and to others in a position to offer commissions, but an offer was slow in coming. When it did the result was I puritani, with its Romantically fashionable background of the English Civil War and its obligatory mad scene for the lovelorn heroine. Performed by an outstanding cast, I puritani enjoyed a triumphal success in January 1835.
Bellini spent the summer just outside Paris in a house owned by an English friend, where he suffered a recurrence of a severe stomach ailment that had plagued him years earlier; this time, it proved fatal. He died alone in the house of his absent friend on 23 September 1835, two months before his 34th birthday.