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8.573360 - DONIZETTI, G.: Aristea [Cantata] (A.L. Brown, Hershkowitz, C. Adler, Members of Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble, Hauk)
Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)
Cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Naples 1823
Aristea/Cloe, secret wife of Filinto – Andrea Lauren Brown, Soprano
Concertmaster: Theona Gubba-Chkheidze
During the first half of the nineteenth century, all composers wrote “mini operas” as well as full-scale ones. They were generally written for a definite occasion and for panegyrical reasons—to mark a ruler’s birthday or name-day, for example. Their plots were usually mythological and allegorical, serving to praise and even deify the person in whose honour they were performed. As a rule, they demanded a full complement of singers, a chorus and a full orchestra, and recitatives, arias, ensembles and choruses succeeded one another in just the same manner as in the normal staged number operas of the period. The difference between scenic cantatas and fully-fledged operas lay primarily in the fact that the former were shorter (lasting between sixty and ninety minutes) and demanded a simpler, more restrained staging. Because they were written for a specific occasion, they normally only received one performance, occasionally two, before being consigned to oblivion, and composers often recycled the music for other purposes.
Having produced his first works for the stage, from 1820 onwards Gaetano Donizetti composed several operas a year—early proof of both his talent and his ability to write quickly. His career break came in 1822 in Rome with Zoraida di Granata, the exceptional success of which brought the up-and-coming composer to the attention of the most powerful Italian impresario of the day, Domenico Barbaia, manager of the royal opera houses in Naples. Other operas followed in quick succession, mainly for Naples, but also for other Italian cities. Donizetti did, of course, have his failures. After a frustrating début at La Scala in Milan with Chiara e Serafina in the autumn of 1822, he returned to Naples, immediately throwing himself into the two works with which he was scheduled to make his début at the Teatro San Carlo in mid-1823. These were, first, the scenic cantata Aristea, in honour of the Bourbon monarch Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies’ name-day on 30 May 1823 (with one repeat performance on 5 June), and then the opera seria (“dramma per musica”) Alfredo il grande, whose première was scheduled for 2 July 1823.
It was Giovanni Schmidt, the house librettist at Naples, who furnished the text for Aristea. The printed libretto gives the piece the rather unusual label of componimento melodrammatico, the title page of the autograph score simply describes it as a “cantata”. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the libretto is a rifacimento of one by Ferdinando Moretti for Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Zenoclea (1786), which was never performed. More about this later. Two of Donizetti’s letters give us some insight into the circumstances surrounding the genesis of the cantata. He was less than thrilled by the old-fashioned subject and the stiff and frigid text. But it is interesting that Donizetti refers to Aristea as an “opera”, and it is indeed the case that of all his cantatas, this is the borderline case par excellence—far more clearly so than I voti de’ sudditi, the azione pastorale melodrammatica he wrote two years later, also to a libretto by Schmidt. Aristea is fully worked out and fully staged. Moreover, it makes no allusion to the monarch, or to his name-day, for which the cantata was written, and it lacks the kind of eulogistic celebratory chorus normally found in commissions for the Neapolitan court.
The action takes place in ancient Greece, in an idyllic, bucolic landscape, and contrasts the old rivalries between the Spartan tribes with the pastoral ambience of Arcadia. When Licisco, Prince of Messenia and Aristea’s father (sung by Andrea Nozzari), flees the Spartan yoke, he is forced to leave his young daughter in a shepherd’s hut. Many years later, the two are reunited. Aristea has been given the name Cloe and brought up by the shepherd Erasto as if she were his own child. She has married the nobleman Filinto. The plot proper of this short opera in the classical vein consists in the misapprehensions and confusions before father and daughter are happily reunited.
From a compositional point of view, the action falls into a number of blocks of music (tracks      – ) linked by recitatives with string accompaniment (    ). The overture (, taken from Zoraida di Granata) is followed by the musical numbers—the Introduction, an extensive shepherds’ chorus with a solo for Corinna ( Seconda i nostri voti); Cloe and Filinto’s duet ( La bell’alma che nel petto); another, shorter chorus ( Qui tenera e fida) that leads into Licisco’s cavatina ( Soffro il destino irato); Cloe, Filinto, Licisco and Comone’s quartet, which the audience applauded wildly (– Taci iniquo); and the vaudeville finale ( Fra così cari oggetti).
Donizetti’s setting of Aristea is extremely grateful. Whilst his musical language is, like that of his colleagues Mercadante and Pacini, influenced by Mayr, Rossini and the late or neo-Neapolitan school, his early style is nevertheless distinctly independent and innovative, often hinting at what was to come in his later operas. This early promise would come to fruition when, in the 1830s and 1840s and already famous, Donizetti carved out an international career for himself in the main operatic centres of Italy, such as Milan, Naples and Venice, as well as in the European centres of Vienna and Paris, creating such immortal masterworks as Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Belisario, La Fille du régiment, La Favorite, Don Pasquale, Linda di Chamounix and Dom Sébastien.
As I have already mentioned, Giovanni Schmidt’s text plagiarises a libretto written more than 35 years earlier. The librettist, Ferdinando Moretti, who was active in the late eighteenth century, had written the dramma (per musica) Zenoclea in 1786 for Giuseppe Sarti, who set the two-act work for the court opera in St Petersburg. The performance was abandoned owing to the sudden departure of the Empress, and Sarti’s score, which had clearly been completed, has been lost. Schmidt undoubtedly knew Moretti’s Opere drammatiche. He renamed the heroine of the title, Zenoclea, as Aristea; her husband Filinto was originally called Celeno; otherwise, Schmidt largely retained the characters and names without alteration. He also consolidated the two acts into one and cut the libretto significantly. Whilst not infrequently taking over whole passages verbatim, both in the recitatives and in the musical numbers, he also often limited himself to partial quotations and to reformulating and paraphrasing content. In the later scenes, and particularly in the finale, the cutting is particularly obvious; here, Schmidt had to leave out whole strands of the plot (such as a storm with dramatic consequences) for lack of time. Nevertheless, he also added new scenes, especially where his conservative eighteenth-century source lacked the kind of more complex musical numbers that would satisfy contemporary taste. A detailed analysis and summary of both librettos can be found online at http://thomaslindner.members.cablelink.at/zenoclea_aristea.pdf.
The recycled libretto explains the peculiarity that Aristea contains no reference to the occasion for which it was composed, and consequently no panegyrical elements. Its pronounced operatic nature and resulting borderline character are readily explained by the transformation and compression of a “full” opera.
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