About this Recording
8.660295-96 - VACCAI, N.: Sposa di Messina (La) [Opera] (Pratt, Adami, Ariostini, Wakako Ono, Piccolo, Brno Classica Chamber Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani)

Nicola Vaccaj (1790–1848)
La sposa di Messina


Melodramma in two acts
Libretto by Jacopo Cabianca after Friedrich Schillerʼs Die Braut von Messina

Donna Isabella, principessa di Messina – Jessica Pratt, Soprano
Don Emanuele, suo figlio – Filippo Adami, Tenor
Don Cesare, altro suo figlio – Armando Ariostini, Baritone
Beatrice – Wakako Ono, Mezzo-soprano
Diego – Maurizio Lo Piccolo, Bass

Schiller wrote his tragedy Die Braut von Messina to illustrate his belief in the inescapability of destiny. The Prince of Messina tries to have his third child, Beatrice, put to death, since at the time of her birth he has a dream that she will cause the destruction of her two brothers, Emanuele and Cesare. His wife, Isabella, succeeds in saving the babyʼs life. She has her carried away to a remote spot outside Messina, where she is brought up in ignorance of her identity. Years later and by sheer coincidence, both brothers happen to meet her and fall in love with her. As a result of this new goad to what has been long-standing rivalry and enmity between them, they quarrel most bitterly. Cesare slays Emanuele, but then, when it is revealed that they have both been in love with their sister, he is so appalled, both by this and by his killing of his brother, that he commits suicide.

Isabella is left to deplore—and curse—the workings of a fate which, as her late husband all too correctly foresaw, has torn their family apart and destroyed both their sons. Irrespective of whether we believe in this central thesis—that destiny is preordained and inescapable—this plot is strong dramatic material, and was eminently calculated to appeal to operatic composers of the romantic period. In a country like Italy, however, where a strong moral code prevailed and theatrical performance was rigorously controlled by political, religious and moral censorship, it was also calculated to meet with opposition and disapproval. So, indeed, Nicola Vaccaj discovered when he composed La sposa di Messina, presented in the Teatro la Fenice in Venice on 2 March 1839.

The fifteenth of his sixteen operas, it was written in full maturity when he was at the height of his powers. Fulfilling a commission received from the impresario Alessandro Lanari, he was granted the right to choose both his subject and his librettist. Twelve years earlier he had set Schillerʼs Die Jungfrau von Orleans (as Giovanna dʼArco, Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 17 February 1827), and, always a highly intellectual composer with an eye for a strong subject, he now returned to the great German dramatist and proposed to his librettist, Jacopo Cabianca, Die Braut von Messina.

Jacopo Cabianca is not a name which is widely remembered nowadays, but at that time he was recognised as an extremely promising and talented young poet, already the author of two ʻnovelle in versiʼ and, even more important, a three-canto poem, Torquato Tasso. He also happened to be a cousin of Vaccajʼs wife, Giulia Puppati, so that this was, as it were, ʻa collaboration within the familyʼ. He was, however, unhappy about the choice of Die Braut von Messina, reporting to Vaccaj that the Directors of the Teatro la Fenice found the subject ʻatrociousʼ. He tried to deflect the composer on to two other dramas, but Vaccaj, basing his hopes upon his own literary and theatrical instincts, held out for this and none other.

It is, however, a truism that the success or failure of an Italian opera at this time often had little or nothing to do with the value of its subject, its libretto or its music. Totally extraneous considerations, such as the popularity or the state of health of one or more of the singers, or the mood and whim of the audience on the opening night, could cause an opera, at one end of the spectrum, to be lauded to the skies, or at the other, to be hissed off the stage. And the reception accorded a first performance all too often decided the fate of an opera for all time.

So it proved with La sposa di Messina. Strongly cast, with Carolina Ungher as Isabella, Napoleone Moriani as Emanuele, Giorgio Ronconi as Cesare, and Rosina Mazzarelli (replacing Giuseppina Strepponi, who in the later stages of the carnival was no longer available) as Beatrice, it nevertheless ran into one setback and misfortune after another.

In his insistence that his subject should remain Schillerʼs tragedy, Vaccaj met with strong support from his prima donna, Carolina Ungher, and it was her earnest wish to interpret the rôle of Isabella which certainly induced the Directors of the Fenice to withdraw their objections, requiring only one or two modifications, the most serious of which was that the corpse of Emanuele should not be carried on-stage at the end. Since Carolina Ungher believed that this could be detrimental to the effect of her final scene, Lanari suggested to Vaccaj that he prepare two endings, one with Emanueleʼs body on-stage, the other with it off, and that he and Cabianca should argue the question out with the Directors upon their arrival in Venice. Ultimately Vaccaj had his way, and the corpse was duly carried on to prompt Isabellaʼs final curse and denunciation of the implacable tyranny of fate.

The opera was originally intended for production on or about 20 January 1839, but already by mid-December Jacopo Cabianca was urging Lanari—successfully—to put the première back to the last days of the carnival or the beginning of Lent.

Vaccaj, granted a short leave of absence from his position as Censore of the Milan Conservatorium, arrived in Venice on 19 January 1839, all ready to work with the principals and plunge into rehearsals on 31 January. Carolina Ungher was pleased with her rôle and prophesied that the opera would score a good success. The finale of Act I, a section in which Vaccaj himself wrought major changes in Cabiancaʼs words, made a strong impact, and was expected to prove ʻa piece of secure effectʼ in performance. Giorgio Ronconi also greatly impressed in the brief scene of his suicide.

But soon matters began to go awry. Carolina Ungher, after failing to win the sympathy of the public in Lucia di Lammermoor, the opera which preceded La sposa di Messina and in which she found herself overshadowed by Moriani, pleaded indisposition, and performances were suspended. Rehearsals, however, continued, so that Vaccaj could still write home to his wife:

There have been four; the singers begin to understand the spirit of their rôles, and seem content. The Introduction and the finale of the First Act give the impression that they cannot fail. Ronconi delivers his part in the Terzetto [in Act II] very well; I have completed his aria [at the beginning of Act II], and it has not resulted badly. The last part of the opera was read through only last night; Ungher is enthralled with her curse. So let us hope for the best. Moriani wants a [one-movement] romanza rather than a [two-part] aria [at the beginning of the third tableau of Act I], and I have promised to oblige him.

The score received its finishing touches by 15 February, on which date the composer reported that the second act was settling down and arousing hopes of making a good effect. ʻThe Terzetto, which had me very worried, went perfectly, to the satisfaction of the whole orchestra.ʼ A rehearsal of the full opera on 16 February also went well, Vaccaj remarking that the finale of Act I again made such an impression ʻthat the Impresario, all jubilant, came to me to say “I who pay am content”. We shall see—I do not wish to flatter and delude myself too much.ʼ

The première was now expected to take place a month later than originally planned, on 18 February, but at a performance of Lucia on 16 February Ronconi lost his voice. As a result the scheduled dress rehearsal had to be postponed. A seriously concerned Vaccaj, with his leave on the point of expiry, waited on the Austrian Governor of Venice to ask him to write to the Governor of Milan begging for indulgence. Faced with a choice of two evils—whether to incur censure in Milan by staying in Venice until such time as the première could take place, or to return immediately to Milan and so very possibly jeopardise the success of the opera, he understandably decided that his primary and immediate obligation was to stay where he was and to see the opera on to the stage.

But matters deteriorated still further. No sooner did Ronconi show signs of recovery than Ungher succumbed to a gastric upset. To crown these disasters, Jacopo Cabiancaʼs father, who apparently regarded the theatre as a sink of immorality and iniquity, expressly forbad his son to attend the first performance and ordered him home to Vicenza. To understand the full implications of this we must remember that the duties of a librettist at this time included those of the modern-day director: he was responsible for the actual staging of an opera of which he had written the words.

Eventually Carolina Ungher recovered—at least sufficiently for the dress rehearsal to take place on 1 March and the première the following night, 2 March. But it was a sombre and philosophical Vaccaj who wrote home next morning:

Finally the opera was produced last night, and tomorrow I leave for Padova […] This is the good news. The outcome of the opera did not correspond to expectation. The first act sustained itself, although insufficient justice was done to the finale which all find beautiful. The Introduction, Ungherʼs cavatina, Mazzarelliʼs romanza and the Finale were applauded. The disaster began [in Act II] with that perilous Terzetto, and the killing of one brother through the treachery of the other disgusted the public. This disgust grew even greater when the corpse was carried on stage. Ungher lost her head and was unable to sing her curse in her accustomed manner. Her shriek at seeing her dead son was ill received, and Ronconiʼs on-stage death, which made such an impression at the rehearsal, could not be heard [through the commotion provoked] by what had gone before, and here we have all the remainder of the performance lost. All have vented their indignation upon the libretto, and upon the poetry, since from the name of Cabianca they expected great things […]; they put all the blame on him, but it rebounds upon me, too. [In the last scene] the duettino between the two women was listened to with attention and applauded, which proves that without the disgust caused by the visual action the music would have been appreciated. Do not be distressed by all this, for these are misfortunes that pass…

The following night had already been announced as a gala occasion, to be attended by the Austrian viceroy with the theatre brilliantly illuminated. The evening could not be cancelled, but only Act I of La sposa di Messina was performed. Act II was replaced by the second act of Donizettiʼs Parisina…

One complete performance; one partial performance. With that the nineteenth and twentieth century stage history of La sposa di Messina began and ended. The concert performance given at the Rossini-in-Wildbad Bel Canto Festival in 2009 was the first revival ever—the first performance since 1839. And why, if it originally failed so resoundingly, was it decided to exhume it in 2009? Vaccaj was convinced that, with a most powerful subject beneath his hand, he had written a score which contained a number of sure-fire items. While doubtless partly influenced by a wish to present an opera based upon Schiller, the Festival directors also put their trust in the composerʼs own judgement, believing him to be a man of exceptional talent and sincerity. And they were right. La sposa di Messina proved the musical discovery of the Festival.

Those who know Vaccaj only from his singing exercises—his famous Metodo di Canto—will, I believe, be surprised by the many strengths of La sposa di Messina. It will show them a composer who can command a wealth of beautiful and expressive melody, and who can, when required, create great dramatic tension and excitement. It is an opera which whets our appetite to know more of this gifted but long-neglected composer.

Jeremy Commons


CD 1

[1] Preludio

Act One

Scene 1 In Sicily in remote times—the exact period is not specified—two brothers, Don Emanuele and Don Cesare, meet at the urgent request of their mother, the widowed Isabella, Princess of Messina, to try to make up their longstanding differences ([2] Introduzione: Oh ben giunti[3] Ecco i fratei). The attempt, however, is short-lived. Cesare is prepared to allow his brother to rule over Siracusa, but all the other lands that make up the territories of Messina he claims for himself [4]. Emanuele protests against such an unfair division, and the meeting breaks up in bitter discord.

When Diego, Isabellaʼs trusted counsellor, informs her of this unhappy outcome, she instructs him to fetch her daughter, Beatrice, from the solitary retreat where she has been raised in ignorance of her parentage, and to bring her to the tombs of the kings of Messina, where she expects that Cesare and Emanuele will meet in ʻultimate contentionʼ ([5] Recitativo: Dunque, amico? and Cavatina: Figli a una sola patria).

Scene 2 In a garden where she has been brought by her lover, Emanuele, Beatrice awaits a visit from him. (Since she knows nothing of her parentage, she has no idea that they are related.) ([6] Romanza: Emanuel! così tu mʼhai lasciata). She sees someone approaching through the adjacent wood, and, believing that it is Emanuele, hastens to meet him. She is dismayed when it turns out to be a stranger she has never seen before ([7] Duetto: Esce dal bosco…).

The stranger—Cesare—declares that he has long admired and loved her from afar. She rejects his advances, and continues to do so even when he reveals that he is heir to the throne of Messina. Though he takes leave of her, he insists that he will return the following morning.

Scene 3 The tombs of the kings of Messina. Emanuele bids his followers carry gifts and a wedding gown to Beatrice, whom he intends to marry forthwith ([8] Scena: Ite, o fedei and Romanza: Chi fida lʼanima).

As all the courtiers assemble ([9] Finale primo: Dove in silenzio restasi), Isabella urges Emanuele and Cesare to put their rivalry and animosity behind them ([10] O figli, a voi dal tumulo). They are about to swear an oath to do so ([11] Si giuri omai) when she adds that they should first await the arrival of their sister. Both are astounded, for they had always believed that their sister died in infancy. Isabella, however, relates how, as she was about to give birth, her husband experienced a most terrible and alarming dream in which he saw his unborn daughter growing up to bring destruction upon her family. For this reason he had given orders that, as soon as she was born, she was to be cast out and exposed to die. Isabella had nevertheless succeeded in saving her: she had instructed Diego to carry her to a safe and distant retreat, and to arrange for her to be brought up in secret, in strict ignorance of her identity.

At this point Diego enters to announce that he had reached Beatriceʼs retreat only to find it deserted. He can only conclude that someone has abducted her. Isabella is overcome with grief ([12] La mia figlia, la mia vita), but Emanuele and Cesare—still ignorant that their lost sister is the same Beatrice with whom they are both in love—declare that they will not rest until they have found her and restored her to her motherʼs arms.

CD 2

Act Two

Part I. Scene 1 A remote spot, with ruins. Cesareʼs followers have seen Emanuele entering these lonely precincts ([1] Coro: Voi pur vedeste), and, aware that he has come to keep a tryst, inform their master that he and his brother are rivals for the love of the same young woman. All his hatred and fury reawakened, Cesare vows to be revenged (Aria: Mio fratello? Ei stesso!).

Scene 2 A garden, as in the second scene of Act I. Emanuele finds Beatrice anxious and fearful on account of the advances Cesare has made to her ([2] Scena: Per la selva vicina, and Duetto, O desio della mia vita).

Sounds are heard as Cesare and his followers approach, but Emanuele, believing that he and his brother have put their hatred behind them, at least while they are in search of their sister, is taken by surprise when he finds himself accused of trying to steal the young woman whom Cesare loves (Terzetto: Così i tuoi giorni serbansi). He naturally declares that he, not Cesare, is Beatriceʼs true lover, and that, beloved by her in return, he intends to make her his bride. Beatrice tries to draw him away, but in vain. In the ensuing quarrel, Cesare draws his sword and slays Emanuele. Beatrice faints. There is general tumult as the followers of each brother throw themselves upon those of the other.

Part II A hall in the palace of Messina. Cesareʼs followers have carried the unconscious Beatrice hither, and Isabellaʼs ladies are intent upon trying to revive her ([3] Finale secondo: Sovra il suo viso languido). As she recovers ([4] Dove son io?), she wonders whether the events of the previous scene actually took place, or were instead some fearful dream.

Isabella is struck by the fact that this young woman is of the same age as her lost daughter, and when Beatrice proceeds to state that she has never known her mother but ʻplaces her name next to that of Godʼ, she feels more and more drawn to her and imagines that this is indeed her daughter.

A chorus of lamentation is heard ([5] Egli morì), and Diego and Emanueleʼs followers enter, carrying the corpse of Emanuele upon their shields, his features hidden beneath banners. Beatrice now recognises that recent events were no dream, and Isabella, drawing back the coverings, is horrified to discover her son. She solemnly curses whoever it may be who has killed him (Il figlio…il figlio mio).

When Cesare enters, Beatrice cringes from him in terror and denounces him as his brotherʼs murderer. Cesare tries to justify himself by saying that Emanuele had made off with the woman he intended to make his bride, but his words dry up as Diego reveals that both brothers have been in love with their own sister. Appalled by the thought that he has slain Emanuele on account of a love that was illicit for them both, Cesare draws a dagger and commits suicide ([6] Al fratel, deh! che almeno mi unisca).

Isabella is left to deplore the impossibility of escaping a fate that has been decreed in Heaven, and to call upon God, beseeching him to strike her down and so terminate both his own wrath and her suffering (Guarda al sangue, ascolta il pianto).

Jeremy Commons

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