Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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THE VERY FIRST BELLINI OPERA:
ADELSON E SALVINI AT JESI'S TEATRO PERGOLESI

November 15, 2016

Vincenzo Bellini was 23 years old in 1825 when he reached his final year of study at the Conservatory of San Sebastian in Naples.  There was a tradition in that conservatory (and others in Italy) that the best student would be given the opportunity to compose an opera which would be performed by the other students.  Nicola Zingarelli, the revered head, nominated Bellini as the "maestrino" of the year, and gave him the opportunity to compose an opera which could serve as a calling card for opera house managements, and as a boost to his career.  Bellini was not offered a librettist, but told to choose among various libretti that the Conservatory owned, and he chose Adelson e Salvini, a libretto by well practiced Andrea Leone Tottola, who had written several texts for Rossini and many others.  Adelson e Salvini had been set to music in 1816 by Valentino Fioravanti.  Bellini's choice of this text says a lot about the path his career would take because it was not strictly speaking a comic opera, the genre of choice for most young composers at the beginning of their career.  Adelson e Salvini is a "dramma per musica," that is a serious work with a comic element, sometimes called an opera semiseria.  The genre gave Bellini his first chance to develop his specialty: serious, elegiac music of great beauty and not the happy, bouncy stuff of opera buffa.

The first version of this work, for the students of the Royal College of Music located in the Conservatory of San Sebastian, required that all the roles be sung by males, leading to a very unusual distribution of vocal registers: the three women's roles would be sung by boys, and are thus in the contralto register.  The Conservatory evidently boasted one good, advanced tenor, and the role of Salvini, the most difficult in the score, was composed for him.  All of the other roles were for basses.  Another unusual element was that the work used spoken dialogue instead of recitatives, like a French opera comique.  French influence was very strong in Naples during and immediately after the Napoleonic period, and many Italian operas, especially in Naples, used spoken dialogue.  The third element which distinguishes the score is the use of a comic bass who speaks and sings in the Neapolitan language, while everyone else uses Italian.  This is a tradition that we find in Rossini and many other composers of operas destined for Naples in this period.

Adelson was a big success at the tiny theater in the Conservatory (it was performed once a week for an entire year), and Bellini began the preparation of a second version using female voices for the women's roles and enhancing the difficulty of the vocal line which would have been beyond the capacity of the students.  Apparently he never finished this version, and the opera was never professionally performed, but for several years he was interested in doing a new performing version which could travel to theaters in Italy.  Finally, he seems to have lost interest because he borrowed some of the best music for his first big international hit, Il pirata and his opera on the Romeo and Juliet story, I Capuletti ed i Montecchi.  After his death at the untimely age of 34, the Ricordi publishing house asked his good friend and fellow student Francesco Florimo to produce a score for publication which could be used in regular opera houses.  Florimo seems to have done that, using hints or instructions he had earlier received from Bellini, but it was many years before Ricordi published the score in 1905.  Thus the small number of Bellini enthusiasts who know the opera today from a handful of performances and recordings may know a work that is not all Bellini, with a revised ending that may not have been Bellini's intention.

Now is a time for reevaluation of the work, and last spring, Opera Rara recorded a version in London (and offered a concert performance); work is well underway on a new critical edition, and now the earliest form of the opera, the one for the Conservatory, has been staged at the Teatro Pergolesi in the lovely town of Jesi, located in the hills of Italy's Marche region.  The Jesi performance did have women singing the roles first sung by teenage boys, but otherwise the musicologists are 97% sure that all of what we heard there was what was heard by the first audiences in the little theater of the Naples Conservatory.  A trove of manuscripts found in a Milan library has enabled those musical sleuths to reassemble the score of that first performance rather than using the highly questionable Ricordi edition of 1905.  For a first work by a neophyte, Adelson e Salvini is very good indeed.

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The story comes from a collection of tales of sentiment, so popular in the late eighteenth century, by Franšoise-Thomas de Baculard d'Arnaud called Les Epruves du sentiment.  It might remind the general reader of a Jane Austin novel.  Adelson is a wealthy Irish aristocrat who has welcomed to his household an Italian painter, Salvini, and his manservant Bonifacio (the buffo bass).  Adelson is engaged to Nelly, an orphan, but while he is away in London for an extended period, Salvini falls madly in love with her.  Thus the opera plot turns on a conflict between friendship and amorous love.  The bad guy is Struley, whose whole family Adelson's father has exiled.  He is set on vengeance and his plot is to kidnap Nelly with the help of Geronio, a confederate among Adelson's servants.  He convinces the addled Salvini that Adelson is already married and that he is Nelly's uncle who wants to help her by spiriting her away.  Salvini helps him with his plot, and when he realizes he has been had, he rushes off to rescue her.  In the ensuing melee a shot is heard, Salvini is convinced that he has accidentally killed Nelly, and he is taken for "judgement" at a trial presided over by Adelson.  He asks for death.  But Nelly is alive and well, saved from the bullet by a padded bra.  All ends happily: Salvini is reconciled with his friend, but will go to Italy for a year, and when he returns will marry Fanny, another girl in the household who loves him.

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The music has more than just hints of Bellini's signature melodies, some reminiscences of Rossini (but not a lot), and some pedestrian student work, particularly in the allegros.  Bellini evidently planned to revise the ending, omitting the trial, and rewrite some of the strettas and cabalettas, and he would also have increased the fioratura to accommodate professional singers.  Bonifacio gets two comic patter arias--in Act I "Bonifacio Voccafrolla" and "Taci, attendi e bedarajje?" in Act II.  Fanny opens the opera with a simple aria in this first edition, "Immagine gradita," which is like a miniature Bellini song of very limited range, reflecting no doubt the capacity of the student who sang the role.  Curiously, Adelson gets no aria at all, although the bad guy, Struley, does get one which is a very four-square composition, but it is one of those melodies which infuriatingly stayed in my ear long after the curtain had fallen.  Salvini gets a great scena and aria with chorus at the end ("Se cadr˛...ma estinto ancora") while the most famous aria goes to Nelly: "Dopo l'oscuro nembo" ("After the dark clouds").  The latter is the archetypal Bellini melody and he goes on to use it in Capuletti as Giulietta's aria "Oh, quante volte, o quante." It captures all the melancholy and moonlit shadow of many a Bellini aria to come, including "Casta Diva" from Norma

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Roberto Recchia, the stage director, took the opera seriously and gave us a charming, straight forward production rather than a regietheater  concept-driven update.  The lovely period costumes by Catherine Buyse Dian were straight from a Merchant-Ivory film setting of one of the Austin novels.  The sets by Benito Leonori used curtains like painters' cloths, which moved as scenes changed.  Salvini is a painter, and painting was the theme of the production, which had very large canvases resembling the late eighteenth century art works: thus a painting of a woodland setting set the scene for the forest where Struley is hiding.  There were also large nudes, which perhaps suggested Salvini's amorous fixation on Nelly.  The paintings were moved around as needed.  In an opera where the spoken dialogue occupies such a large part of the proceedings, it is necessary that the singers can act and speak lines in a convincing way as well as sing.  Mr. Recchia certainly had them do that--the acting and dialogue were as convincing as the singing.

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Nelly was sung by Cecilia Molinari, a young singer with some experience in Rossini, and she was fine, although this role does not demand the coloratura that is typical in all Rossini operas.  Sara Rocchi was a little rough as Fanny, and Giovanna Lanza performed Madama Rivers, a governess in Adelson's household.  The basses were Rodion Pogossov (Adelson), Baurzhan Andershanov (Struley), Clemente Antonio Daliotti (Bonifacio) and Enrico Marchesini (Geronio).  All were very good, and especially Daliotti, who won the warmest applause for his mastery of Neapolitan, his funny, mannered acting and his way with the long patter songs.  Salvini was tenor Merto Sungu.  I thought he was generally very good; he has lots of high notes and more coloratura singing than the other parts.  It should be pointed out that all the singers were much better in the second performance we saw on 13 November.  Nervousness probably prevailed on opening night (11 November).  JosÚ Miguel Perez Sierra led the Orchestra Sinfonica "G. Rossini"; both have been heard in Pesaro at the Rossini Opera Festival in recent years, and the musical values in the conducting seemed spot on to me.  The Coro Lirico Marchigiano "V. Bellini" had a lot to do, and the all male choristers were good too.  The opera moved along in spite of the long stretches of dialogue, which would probably be cut if this were not a complete performance based on an emerging critical edition.  There were Italian surtitles for the sung portion, but not the spoken dialogue.  For some reason, Bonifacio's spoken Neapolitan had titles in Italian at first, but that was then dropped, so if you did not know Neapolitan (and most Italians don't), you were out of luck with many of his jokes.

This Adelson e Salvini was indeed a rewarding experience--an accomplished performance of the very first opera by a composer who would become one of the pillars of the Italian operatic repertory.  Bongiovanni was taping the performance for a DVD which will memorialize this first version.  It stands easily with other "first" operas, such as Verdi's Oberto or Rossini's Demetrio e Polibio, and it is more accomplished than Donizetti's student work.  Bellini, who died two months short of his 34th birthday, and who was hardly as prolific as Donizetti or Rossini, produced only ten operas; for the lover of bel canto each one is a jewel worth hearing.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network