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Bel Canto Bully

Eisenbeiss, Philip. Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. Haus Publishing, 2013.

When we talk about the history of opera, we mostly discuss it in terms of composers. That makes sense in a way. They wrote the music that we study and perform. To a lesser extent (and not nearly as often as we should) we discuss the singers for whom the roles were written since for most of the history of opera roles were written specifically to showcase their particular talents and abilities. But one other group is also important and mostly neglected: the impresario. 

There is no post-modern equivalent to the 19th century opera impresario. Their roles varied over time (more on that next week) but in many cases they functioned as a combination agent, theater manager and in many cases “fixer.” They hired singers, commissioned operas, put together productions and in some cases (like Barbaja’s) even supervised the construction of a theater! For the most part they were people from a theatrical background, often former singers themselves, which is why Barbaja, who came from an impoverished background, is such an anomaly.

Domenico Barbaja was born Domenico Barbaglia in a small village outside Milan. He neither obtained nor desired much in the way of formal education. He never even learned standard Italian so the few extant letters in his own hand are written in a phonetic spelling of his native Milanese dialect. Even in an era in which rags-to-riches stories abound, Barbaja’s rise from street urchin to coffee house waiter to croupier to casino manager to the impresario in charge of all the theaters in Naples and then theaters in Milan and Vienna is astonishing. 

He arrived in Naples during the Napoleonic rule of that region. The French had taken the top singers (including the castrato Crescentini) and the top composer (Paisiello) back to Paris. This left a serious vacuum in Naples but huge opportunities for Barbaja to start fresh in the three Neapolitan theaters (including the Teatro San Carlo and the smaller Fondo) bringing in new singers, repertoire and most significantly, a young, but already much celebrated, young composer from northern Italy, Giacchino Rossini. Rossini’s contract was controversial as Naples had a history up to this point of engaging composers and singers trained at their own conservatory. Barbaja, ignored that tradition not only when engaging composers but also singers. Soon he had installed Isabella Colbran as the raining prima donna and hired several now-legendary tenors like Manuel Garcia I, Domenico Donzelli and G.B. Rubini. 

Barbaja’s plan to raise the artistic standards of the theater went beyond music. He also engaged top set designers, and later, when the San Carlo had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1816, he updated the entire theater (house, stage and backstage) to the latest standards. All of this made him quite wealthy, although much of that wealth was from the casino in the lobby that featured then-new roulette wheels. 

By 1820 Colbran’s voice was in noticeable decline and the political situation was becoming exhausting to navigate. Italian history is exceedingly complicated with various foreign countries, usually Spain, France or Austria-Hungary in charge at various times. Exhausted from constantly changing allegiances, Barbaja makes bids to run both La Scala in Milan and the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna. First, he wins the Vienna contract taking his top singers and of course his trump card Rossini with him. He took a year off from running the theaters in Naples, but that year was such a financial disaster that the Neapolitans begged him to return. 

The Viennese audiences were no less vocal than the Neapolitans about what they liked and disliked but in the case of Vienna there was a longstanding debate about Italian vs German music. Barbaja commissioned a new opera from Carl Maria von Weber and his Euryanthe reignited that debate and sold many tickets as a result. 

Next, he had the impresa at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He was now responsible for three of Europe’s most important opera houses and had the top composer (Rossini) and singers (Colbran, Rubini, Nozzari, David, et al.) under contract.  But soon after Rossini’s contract was up, and he left for Paris and much more money. Now Barbaja was faced with the task of finding the next great opera composer. He commissioned operas from a number of composers but the four that showed the most promise were Pacini, Bellini, Donizetti and Vaccai. (Pacini, is perhaps the least familiar to modern operagoers, but his opera L’Ultima giorno di Pompeii was a success and was revived many times at the San Carlo.)

Eventually his career went into decline and despite being lauded at his funeral, his name is now but a footnote in opera history. Eisenbeiss makes a good case for why he deserves to be remembered. He not only commissioned great works from great composers but cast them with the top singers of their era in first-rate productions. He did everything possible to ensure their success. In spite of an ill temper (there are many stories in the book about that!) and a quickly to take people to court over any slight, he had a significant influence on the era we now call bel canto.

Bel Canto Bully also provides a well-rounded view of the culture, politics and finances of the opera world at the time. So much is familiar and so much is strange to the current reader. It provides a necessary context for understanding singing and music in the bel canto era. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the opera world in Italy (and to a lesser extent in Vienna and Paris) in the early 19th century. 

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