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8.225279-80 - WINTER: Maometto

Peter von Winter (1754-1825)

Peter von Winter (1754-1825)



The title Maometto (or Il Maometto as in the first edition) brings to mind first the opera of that name by Rossini. The present recording is of an earlier work by Peter von Winter, often confused with the other work. The two are in fact completely different in characters, period and setting, derived from separate literary models. Felice Romani and Winter worked on an event which had as its protagonist the founder of Islam, already the subject of a tragedy by Voltaire. The other opera has a story taken from a quite different period, that of the struggle between the Ottomans and Venice, some centuries later, and another Mahomed, a Turkish sultan of the fifteenth century, also at the centre of another tragedy, but this time by the Italian writer Cesare Della Valle.


Winter’s opera was first given at La Scala, Milan, in the carnival season of 1817. The librettist was Felice Romani, the greatest theatre poet of the early nineteenth century. He had started his career with two operas by Simon Mayr, destined to become the Bavarian composer’s masterpieces, La rosa bianca e la rosa rossa (The White Rose and the Red Rose) for the Teatro S. Agostino in Genoa during the carnival of 1813, and Medea in Corinto (Medea in Corinth) for the San Carlo in Naples in autumn of the same year. Romani had then signed a contract with the theatres in Milan, managed then by the Genoan impresario Francesco Benedetto Ricci. The first result of this contract, during the carnival of 1814, was the libretto for Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira. The fall of Napoleonic rule in Italy and the return of Lombardy and the Veneto to Austrian sovereignty interrupted Ricci’s contract. Angelo Petracchi took over from him and held the position from spring 1816 to spring 1820. Innovative in his acquisition of new libretti, as, for example, through literary competitions, Petracchi continued to make use of Romani as a constant collaborator with La Scala. An example of this collaboration is the Maometto of 1817.


For his subject Romani took the tragedy by Voltaire, written in 1736, Mahomet ou Le fanatisme (Mahomed or Fanaticism), probably first given at Lille in 1741. An Italian translation by Melchiorre Cesarotti was published in Venice in 1791, although there had been earlier translations used by Italian theatrical companies as early as 1747.


Now largely neglected, Voltaire’s plays, and particularly his tragedies, enjoyed considerable success in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were seen as successors to the plays of Corneille and Racine, as witnessed by the number of musical settings. Voltaire’s plays were the source of some seventy operas, putting Voltaire second only to Shakespeare. Zaïre, Alzire, Mérope, Sémiramis, L’orphelin de la Chine, Tancrède and Olympe are such works, and it is hardly necessary to point out the use made of these by Rossini. Mahomet, however, was treated only once, by Romani and Winter in 1817.


The action takes place in Arabia, at Mecca, about the year 630, at a time when the spread of the religious and political influence of Mahomed was still strongly opposed by local rulers and traditional religious beliefs. The tragedy treats again the classic theme of the unwitting murder of a father, and revolves around the excesses of political and religious fanaticism and the machinations of a prejudiced chief who does not hesitate to organize even murder in order to get rid of an opponent. This chief proclaims himself prophet of the one true God and is opposed by the followers of traditional gods. Certainly Voltaire’s tragedy brings onto the stage Mahomed, Arabia and Moslems, but there is a strong suspicion that he intended by this to suggest other contemporary religious authorities, the Popes, the powerful leaders of religious orders, or the Jesuits, using his characters as vehicles for his anti-clericalism. We know, besides, that Voltaire profited from vague remarks by Benedict XIV to attribute to the Pope explicit appreciation of this tragedy, a false imputation that is evidence of the writer’s perfect awareness of the ambiguity of his work and of the usefulness of disguised characters to avoid the danger of censorship.


In changing this text into an opera libretto Romani, all things considered, faithfully followed the five acts of the tragedy, diverging from it, however, in some significant elements. I mention two more relevant instances, because they coincide with the exigencies of musical theatre (particularly in the early nineteenth century), clearly different from spoken drama (and that from almost a century earlier). In the first place there is the necessity of extracting from the text static moments for the leading characters for which the composer could provide entry cavatinas for the singers; then to construct ensemble numbers, obligatory in opera of the period, for example the first at the rise of the curtain (Introduction), that Romani devised, prefiguring almost Verdi’s opening of Nabucco, with Zopiro / Zaccaria encouraging the disheartened Arabs / Hebrews; or again, the finale of the first act. In this last case deviation from Voltaire is still more evident, given that the scene was not in the original. Romani, instead, needed a scanned number in the usual sections: choral introduction, action dialogue, coup de théâtre, concerted ‘surprise’, stretta. Not finding these elements in Voltaire, he had to invent a further intrigue for Maometto, who, after having vainly confronted Zopiro, seeks to deceive the senate of Mecca, whereas in the tragedy he went on directly to arrange the attack on Zopiro by Seide.


Romani’s libretto was set to music by Peter von Winter, who was born in Mannheim in 1754. A violinist and then a conductor, Winter was German by training, but had a special interest in Italian opera. In Vienna he had been a pupil of Salieri, then, from 1787 at the court in Munich, Deputy Kapellmeister and conductor of the Italian opera. From 1791 to 1794 he was in Italy, where he wrote operas for Venice and for Naples. He remained Kapellmeister at Munich from 1798 until his death there in 1825.


Winter wrote melodramas, Singspiel, tragédies-lyriques, and serious, tragicomic and comic Italian operas: Circe (Monaco 1788, not performed), Catone in Utica (Venice, S. Benedetto, spring 1791), Antigona (Naples, S. Carlo, autumn 1791), Il sacrificio di Creta (Venice, S. Benedetto, carnival 1792), I fratelli rivali (Venice, S. Samuele, autumn 1793), Belisa (Venice, S. Samuele, carnival 1794), Ogus (Prague, 1795), I due vedovi (Vienna, carnival 1796); Italian opere serie in London, with libretti by Da Ponte: La grotta di Calipso (spring 1803), Il trionfo dell’amor fraterno and Il ratto di Proserpina (spring 1804), Voltaire’s Zaira (carnival 1805); and at La Scala, Milan, Maometto (carnival 1817) and I due Valdomiri (carnival 1818), both opere serie by Romani, and Etelinda (spring 1818), an opera semiseria with a libretto by Rossi.


The return of the Italian provinces of Lombardy and the Veneto to Austrian suzerainty in spring 1814 offered a favourable opportunity in Milan for a composer of Austro-German origin. Without considering Mayr, already Italianised for some time, the programme at La Scala in this period indicated the significant and frequent presence of composers earlier absent, such as Winter, Mozart (Don Giovanni in autumn 1814 and carnival 1816; La clemenza di Tito, carnival 1819), Joseph Weigl (premières of L’imboscata, autumn 1815, and the cantata Il ritorno d’Astrea, carnival 1816; La famiglia svizzera, autumn 1816, and Il rivale di se stesso, summer 1818), Adalbert Gyrowetz (début with Il finto Stanislao, summer 1818), and the début of Winter’s pupil Joseph Stuntz (La rappresaglia, autumn 1819).


It was in these circumstances that Maometto had its first performance at La Scala on 28th January 1817, enjoying a success that led to 45 performances. The cast included famous singers of the day, who also distinguished themselves in Rossini’s operas: Domenico Donzelli (Maometto), Filippo Galli (Zopiro), Carolina Bassi (Seide), Francesca Maffei Festa (Palmira), Ranieri Remorini (Omar), and Giovanni Antonio Biscottini (Fanor). That there was in Milan also an Austrianising party, evident in the programmes of the major theatre of the city but most probably existing in other places, is not only likely, but proved. One name may stand for all, that of Dr Pietro Lichtenthal, local correspondent of the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, who, on 29th September 1821 wrote disconsolately from Milan to his friend Mayr: ‘The arrival is announced this evening of Barbaglia from the Austrian capital as Impresario of Imperial Theatres of Vienna and Milan. He knew how to insinuate himself with Metternich and other leading people and to overcome all opposition to him in the hearings that took place on this matter. If this is true, then farewell German opera!’


In the correspondence from Milan in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung the following appears, on the matter of Rossini’s return to Milan in 1817:


‘On his return this time to Milan he found, naturally, that owing to the frequent performances in this city since then, of operas by German masters, musical taste had changed completely: he came, moreover, at a time when Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito and Winter’s Mahometto were given’. Some years later, too, when another of his operas, Bianca e Falliero, was given in Milan, Rossini would confirm that same idea (seemingly again in conversation with the same interviewer).


‘First some days earlier, Rossini had the following to say to me on this point: “Believe me, it is not worth writing higher forms of music in Italy that send the listener to sleep”. That is not true: with Mozart’s operas and Winter’s Mahomet Milan people were wide awake. I remarked on this to him, but he was silent. Now I said to him: “I hope that in Vienna you will write quite differently from in Italy and desire this all the more so that you can show yourself a true master and stop the mouths of the many”, to which he answered: “Be sure that in Vienna I shall take great care, the piccolo shall have no notes, I will treat the vocal part in the usual way, but provide better choruses and finales”.’ [1820]


As will be seen, the name of Winter, and immediately after it Maometto, return in these conversations, associated with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito as a model of Italo-German opera. In fact, not all features of Winter’s score can be attributed to Italian conventions. The orchestral writing is always dense, with a thickness of timbre and sonority that tends towards a compact homogeneity rather than to a differentiation of episodes and colours (which nevertheless are not lacking), as the writer of Winter’s obituary would note in the columns of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, praising also the grandeur of his choral writing. The dimensions of the different numbers are always significant, with a tendency to “think big”, although there is always a precise tragic intent within the principles of the “Tragic Sublime” that a text such as that of Voltaire and Romani demanded. The compositorial tension is constantly at the most elevated level, shown in the extensive nature of the numbers and also in their order, seen above all at the moment of the deeply-felt fulfilment of the murder by Seide, and then in the scene underground: a climax fully worthy of the famous prototypes, the Giovannini-Sarti Giulio Sabino and Sografi-Cimarosa Orazi e Curiazi. The same tension, however, may be noted, perhaps even more clearly, in the treatment of the simple connecting passages such as the recitatives and the Introduction to Act II, generally not so worked out. The same stylistic aspect of the other numbers shows the ambition to avoid easy, superficial solutions. Their form is generally in line with current conventions, but containing important variations: parallelisms are avoided in the duet tempi d’attacco, repeats in cabalettas and strette are rare, there are few uses of symmetry in repetitions, and unexpected innovations (for example, the bringing back of the chorus when the Introduction seems to be finished; the unusual lack of balance in favour of the introductory chorus at the entry of Maometto; the presence of a double static situation in the first Finale). And even more complex than usual is the Gran Scena of the heroine (Palmira), which ends with an impressive multi-sectional aria, adorned with codas that, in number and size, form a final climax to all that has gone before. In moments of ensemble the writing tends to be largely academic, inclining towards polyphony and contrapuntal imitation, while the melodic design remains unexpectedly singable. Harmonic shifts and modulations are much more developed than usual, with a clear and similarly unusual preference for tonal relationship of a third. More than one page contains perceptible echoes of Mozart.


During his stay in Milan in 1817, from the beginning of March, in preparation for La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), Rossini was certainly able to see one or more performances of Maometto. Almost forty years later, while he was on holiday at Trouville in September 1855, he could still recall that experience with his young colleague Ferdinand Hiller.


“Did you know old Salieri? And Winter?” asked Rossini.


“Neither of them”.


“I saw the latter in Milan,” related the Maestro, “when he performed his Maometto there. There were very nice things in this opera; I remember particularly a Terzetto in which a character off-stage had a cantilena, while the two others on stage sang a dramatic duet; it was excellently done and very effective”.


The scene in the subterranean temple, particularly the off-stage prayer of Zopiro accompanied by the harp, while Palmira and Seide sing on stage, remained impressed on Rossini’s mind. As I have said, Rossini remembered this vividly some decades later, but he must have found the effect immediately convincing and to be repeated as soon as possible, whether it be the inspired song accompanied by the smooth, sustained tones of the harp, or the novelty of interaction between an off-stage voice and two characters on stage. In all probability he attempted the first during Lent 1819, when he added the famous prayer to the last act of Mosé in Egitto; he recreated the second during carnival and autumn 1819, repeating the scene in two places, in Ricciardo e Zoraide and La donna del lago respectively.


Greatly as he valued him as a composer, however, Rossini had found Winter the man unpleasant. During the season when Maometto had its première, the German had invited his young but already established colleague to lunch in his lodgings. Rossini remembered that experience at least as well as he recalled Maometto.


“What troubled me about Winter was his unsavoury aspect. Here was a man who on the outside was highly impressive, but cleanliness was not his strong point.”


“Oh dear!”


“One day he invited me to eat. There came a great bowl of polpette, from which he helped me and himself in the oriental style with his fingers. For me that was quite a dinner.”


“That is awful.”


More than Winter’s casual manners, this little scene emphasises the fastidiousness of Rossini who, born poor, had quickly become accustomed to the hygienic customs of the rich. Here he seemed to suggest the starting point for some reflections on the phenomenon of the social status of the artist in the nineteenth century and of his intellectual self-awareness. But a plate of polpette by itself would be too little; and to prepare a complete lunch would need another time and quite other ingredients.


Paolo Fabbri


English version by Keith Anderson




CD 1


[1] Sinfonia


Act I


[2] The first scene is set in the temple in Mecca, under siege from the forces of Maometto. People and priests pray the gods to defend their city. They are joined by Zopiro, the Sheriff of Mecca, who urges them to struggle against the false prophet. [3] Zopiro prefers death to submission. Fanor asks about Palmira, a Moslem and pupil of Maometto, whom Zopiro holds hostage. The latter recalls with grief the loss of his wife and his two children to the enemy. The people resolve to stand firm.


[4] The scene changes to the hall of Zopiro’s palace. Palmira enters, accompanied by women who try to comfort her, but in vain; her heart is elsewhere, with her beloved Seide, and the women promise that they shall be re-united. [5] Zopiro enters, assuring Palmira that he will do his best to secure her happiness, out of respect for her beauty. She wants, however, to return to one she regards as her father, Maometto. Zopiro refuses her request, and at this moment they are interrupted by Fanor, who brings news of the arrival of Omar with overtures of peace. Palmira leaves, as Zopiro prepares to hear Omar, whom he regards as a traitor. Omar offers pardon to Zopiro from the Prophet, a gesture that Zopiro rejects with outraged fury. [6] The two men argue, Zopiro indignantly refusing any meeting with Maometto. [7] They go, and Palmira appears, unexpectedly joined now by Seide, who has voluntarily surrendered to Zopiro in order to be with his beloved. Omar joins them, encouraging the lovers to expect help soon from the Prophet.


[8] At the city gates Maometto appears, surrounded by his warriors and people. The soldiers declare the city theirs, while the people recall that this is the birth-place of the Prophet and his by destiny. [9] Maometto addresses the people, reminding them of his prayers for them and the promise of God, that will defeat their enemies. [10] He tells the soldiers to go and spread his word among the people. Seide appears, to Maometto’s dismay, with Palmira, claiming he has acted out of love, a claim that Maometto refuses. [11] All three are troubled, the lovers by the anger of Maometto, and the latter by his feelings for Palmira. Omar enters, announcing the willingness of Zopiro to hear the Prophet, who now offers some comfort to the lovers.


In the hall of the palace Zopiro tells Fanor that he has agreed to speak to Maometto, whom he still hopes to defeat. Fanor offers to stay with him, but is sent away, as Maometto enters. [12] Zopiro is aware of the means that Mohammed may use to persuade him. He protests friendship, to make Zopiro his equal, but the latter finds him guilty of offences against the gods and against their country. The Prophet tells Zopiro that his children are still alive, seeing this as a good moment to win his case. Zopiro, however, refuses to hand Mecca over to Maometto in return for his children’s freedom. [13] He leaves, and Maometto is joined by Omar, who is told that old Zopiro has remained obstinate. Omar has arranged for the city council to meet Maometto, while the cease-fire is extended.


[14] The councillors are in serious session in their council-chamber, hesitant, while Zopiro remains firm. Fanor announces Maometto’s approach. The latter challenges the councillors to choose between war and peace, and as a sign of peace to have Palmira brought to him. Maometto and Omar foresee imminent triumph, and Fanor, with others, expect the gods to punish any attempt at trickery.


CD 2


[1] Palmira and Seide enter, grateful to Maometto for their freedom together. The treaty that will give Maometto the city is about to be signed when Zopiro rushes in with a paper that he reads out to them, declaring that Maometto plans to use the extended treaty to open the gates to his soldiers at dawn, and to kill Zopiro. Maometto tells them that the document is a forgery, but is forced to leave, which he does with threats against the people, while Palmira and Seide are in doubt again about their possible fate.


Act II


[2] In an inner part of Zopiro’s palace Maometto and Omar plan to kill Zopiro, making use of Seide, who joins Maometto as Omar leaves. [3] Seide has sworn to kill an enemy of the Prophet, and now Maometto reveals that the victim is to be Zopiro. Seide is horrified, but, threatened with the loss of Palmira, agrees. Alone, Seide is troubled by the oath he has sworn. Zopiro speaks to him with kindness, offering him protection. [4] Seide’s feelings are all the more ambiguous, torn between his oath and Zopiro, to whom he eventually yields, to be reproached by the Moslems who have overheard him and remind him of his oath.


[5] In the underground temple Seide asks Palmira what he is to do. She assures him that only one course is open to him, to kill Zopiro. They draw aside as Zopiro approaches the altar and disappears from their sight. [6] He is heard praying, while Seide too kneels, seeking help in his design. Now determined, he rushes out and attacks Zopiro, while Palmira waits in trepidation. Seide returns, bewildered, and Zopiro is seen, wounded, coming forward leaning on Fanor’s arm, appalled at Seide’s treachery. [7] It is revealed that Palmira and Seide are Zopiro’s children, and they seek their own punishment for parricide, while their father forgives them, seeing where the true blame lies. Omar, with his followers, enters, announcing the Prophet’s prohibition of killing, and taking Zopiro’s assassins prisoner. The father and his children bid each other farewell.


[8] Omar joins Maometto at the city gates. He tells his master that Zopiro is dying and that the secret of the identity of the latter’s children has been revealed. Maometto orders Palmira to be brought to him, while Seide remains under guard. Guards bring her in. She is afraid, but Maometto declares that she shall be his wife. [9] She is outraged at his suggestion, seeing him now for what he is. Maometto is angry and declares her his enemy, to be scattered like dust in the wind. [10] Palmira hates him and hates life, but he tells her that first she must see Seide die. Omar brings the news that Seide has escaped his captors and is preparing to attack. Palmira will now die content, with her brother by her side, ready to meet the shade of their father. [11] Seide enters, at the head of an angry crowd, but starts to falter. Maometto threatens the same fate for every traitor, seeking the judgement of God to decide between them, aware that Seide has been poisoned in prison. Seide faints and, dying, seeks a final embrace from Palmira. The people are confused, and Maometto declares his death to be an act of God, while Palmira knows that Seide has been poisoned. She seeks death, rather than remain prey to Maometto. [12] Maometto now claims power of life and death, and the people seek pardon.


Keith Anderson

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