The Italian Opera. Its Company. Rossini's "Zora"

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The Italian Opera. Its Company. Rossini's "Zora" (Итальянская опера. Ее состав. «Зора» Россини) (TH 260 ; ČW 524) [1] was Tchaikovsky's fourth music-review article for the Moscow journal Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись), in which it was published on 22 November 1871 [O.S.].

It contains a series of ironical remarks addressed to Tchaikovsky's bête noire, the impresario Eugenio Merelli, who had effectively taken over the Bolshoi Theatre, and whose numerous stagings of mainly Italian operas, with star soloists occasionally ferried in from abroad (such as Adelina Patti) but otherwise marred by low artistic and production standards, Tchaikovsky would repeatedly criticize the craze of his compatriots for these performances.

History

Written by 22 November/4 December 1871 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky considers the Italian Opera Company's productions at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable on 21 October/2 November 1871 (starring Jules-Bernard Belval as Bertram and Ida Benza as Alice), and Les Huguenots on 8/20 and 17/29 November 1871 (with Ida Benza in the role of Valentine); and a production of Rossini's Moïse et Pharaon at the Bolshoi Theatre on 13/25 November 1871.

English translation

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Although in the current season of the Italian Opera Company all interest is concentrated around Madame Patti, and all the other luminaries of Signor Merelli's [2] troupe have faded to such an extent before the rays of this bright star that no one takes any notice of them, I nevertheless think that it would not be out of place to give everyone his due, in order to ascertain how Signor Merelli's enterprise is faring on the whole and also whether the public is entitled to feel as satisfied with him, as he is satisfied with it.

Our theatre-goers sometimes grumble at Signor Merelli, but on their part this is not really anything more than innocent coquetry. They will shout a bit, whistle, and make a fuss, but that is then the end of the matter, for inwardly they love and admire in him the driving spirit of so thoroughly exquisite a delight as the Italian Opera. And, indeed, what can be more pleasing to a leisurely dilettante than the sumptuous vault of the Bolshoi Theatre, studded with elegant ladies, spangled with gentlemen in white ties, saturated in the aroma of high society, and, to cap it all, resounding with the singing of La Patti?!

Moscow, which has been waiting for her so long and hitherto in vain, must be endlessly grateful to Signor Merelli for having done us so flattering a service as inviting this unique singer here. Indeed, how can it not be flattering to our national pride to know that at the same time as so many other capitals are enviously leering at us northern barbarians and having to content themselves with their own native opera companies—however excellent the latter may be—we have the Italians here, with La Patti at their head. Now, after having fallen into raptures over her, can one really remonstrate with Signor Merelli for the fact that the other members of the troupe in effect serve as no more than a dark backcloth to this graceful figure? True, very soon all that will be left is this very backcloth, since Madame Patti is due to rush off to Saint Petersburg. So let us, then, look more closely and try to find out whether or not there are in Signor Merelli's troupe any other notable singers.

First of all I shall mention Madame Benza, who, by the way, has sung two principal roles here: Alice in Robert le Diable and Valentine in Les Huguenots. Madame Benza is without any question an extremely talented singer, and were it not for the fact that she has come under the shadow of the all-eclipsing Madame Patti, the public would respond to her with greater sympathy. Madame Benza's voice is still young and strong, and it has a certain passionate timbre which is full of pathos. Unfortunately, the fine qualities of her instrument manifest themselves only in those parts in an opera which call for passion, strength, and dramatic tension. Where, on the other hand, the plot requires simple, quiet, unstrained singing, Madame Benza's voice becomes unpleasantly subdued, weak, and devoid of any charm whatsoever.

Mrs Benza is also quite an accomplished actress: in Les Huguenots there were moments when she really did touch the audience deeply… Another prima donna, Madame Siniko had even more to suffer from comparisons with La Patti than Madame Benza did, since her range of roles falls completely within the repertoire of that renowned singer. But even she is not devoid of merits: her intonation is clear, her phrasing is rich in nuances, and she sings coloratura beautifully. On the other hand, though, her voice is not of the finest quality, and in the higher registers it acquires an unpleasant timbre.

As for the contralto Madame Elvira Angeli [3], all I can say is that she fills me with great pity. Endowed as she is with outstanding vocal means and a remarkably graceful appearance, this young singer would be a splendid asset to any opera company which engaged her and she could even have become the pride of her country, had she devoted her best years to a diligent study of the art of singing and acting and, in particular, had she striven to train herself in the native sounds of our country's music. But instead of that, Madame Angeli, having disdained to work on the rich raw material of her voice and on perfecting it, preferred to hurl herself into the whirlpool of the Italian operatic repertoire [4], where every new week means performing in a new role, where every day you have either a rehearsal or a performance. It is terrible to think how our delightful fellow-countrywoman might so easily be ruined by the rushed carelessness that is involved in staging a new opera every week, and which, denying her the chance to work conscientiously on every new role under the sensible guidance of an experienced mentor, will brand her whole artistic career with the stamp of unfinishedness, of childish blundering and immature self-complacency.

Moving on to the company's male singers, I should make it clear from the start that in general they are pretty dismal. True, Monsieur Belval [5], though fast advancing in age, is nevertheless still a splendid singer, especially in roles from the French repertoire, which have become like second nature to him thanks to his long years of service at the marvellous Paris Opéra. True also that Signor Bossi, who has been unfailingly loyal to Moscow, is a useful singer for the troupe because of his indisputable comic talent (e.g. in the role of Bartolo in the Barbiere di Siviglia). The tenors and baritones, however, really are like dark spots against the aforesaid background. Signor Corsi [6] at least has a fine and still young voice, but Signori Perotti [7] and Moriani can't even lay claim to that merit, which is after all not an unimportant one. All these three Signori act on the stage with a boldness that would be worthy of nobler aims, and they bravely endure the audience's hostile attitude towards them.

Is it worth talking about the barbaric lack of any sense of ensemble between the artists which so mars the productions of our Italian Opera Company? Or about the chorus's weary and feeble performances? Or the insufficient staffing of the orchestra in view of the auditorium's huge dimensions, the flaccid and lifeless manner in which it is conducted, and the carelessness—so offensive to sensitive ears—with which the scores have been rehearsed?

Well, the point is that, firstly, all this has been written about on several occasions in the past by Mr Laroche, the former music critic of the Moscow Bulletin [Московские ведомости], and, secondly, I personally consider the Italian Opera Company, with all its attributes, as something which has nothing in common with the higher goals of art, indeed as something which is anti-musical to the utmost degree. In the Italian Opera it is not the artists who exist in order to perform musical works of artistic value, but, rather, the music there serves a merely ancillary purpose and has, as it were, been composed solely so that it might be sung by this or that singer. Given this reversal in the relationship between the end and the means, is it really possible to apply the criteria of serious musical appreciation to their selection and performance of operas?

As something that can afford at least some solace, I would like to point to the Italian Company's performance of Rossini's Zora [8] last Saturday. This opera, abundant as it is in the stereotypically banal episodes that are characteristic of the 'Swan of Pesaro', nevertheless contains some remarkably beautiful musical numbers. The performance went relatively smoothly.

P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Italian Opera—Its Cast—Rossini's "Zora"' in ČW.
  2. Eugenio Merelli (1825–1882), Italian opera manager, son of the more famous impresario Bartolomeo Merelli (1794–1879), who was also the librettist for some of Donizetti's operas and worked with Verdi.
  3. Elvira Angeli was the stage name of Princess Yengalycheva, who later performed with Moscow's Russian Opera Company and in the Opéra-comique in Paris.
  4. The word Tchaikovsky uses for 'whirlpool' (омут) in the phrase «омут итальянского оперного репертуара» is perhaps a deliberate echo of a famous phrase in one of Gogol's Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends—the 31st letter (on Russian poetry) in which Gogol laments how so many gifted Russian poets had been ruined by throwing themselves into the whirlpool of high society («омут светских отношений») — translator's note.
  5. Jules-Bernard Belval (1819–1876), famous French bass.
  6. Achille Corsi (1840–1906), Italian tenor.
  7. Giulio Perotti (originally Julius Prott; 1841–1901), German tenor.
  8. This was the title under which Rossini's Moses and Pharaoh was performed in Russia, for reasons of censorship. Moses also became an Egyptian prophet in this version.