Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Paper Trail of an Impresario

Marcello De Angelis. Le Carte dell’impresario: Melodramma e Costume Teatrale nell’ottocento. Firenze: G.-C. Sansoni, 1982.

Last week I wrote about Bel Canto Bully in which author Philip Eisenbeiss provides a detailed portrait of the bel canto era’s most important impresario, Domenico Barbaja, whose career was extraordinary but not typical of most impresarios of the time. A more typical impresario provided a troop of singers with a bill of 2-3 operas for a particular season: Carnevale (December 26 – Mardi Gras), Lent, Spring, Summer or Fall. (Note: During this period at least, theaters were open during the seasons of Lent and Advent!)  The company arrived  rehearsed and prepared and performed operas from their repertoire and then typically moved on to another town for the next season. This provided opera to smaller cities like Lucca, Senigallia, Trieste, etc. This was typical of most opera presented on the Italian peninsula in the first half of the 19th century.

There were several of these impresarios during that era, one of whom left behind a great many letters and documents which were acquired by the Biblioteca Nationale Centrale di Firenze in 1887 and are housed there. According to De Angelis, the collection was quite disorganized when he first encountered it and consisted of about 15,000 letters including many from the great singers of that time including Tadolini, Strepponi, Pasta, Moriani, Tacchinardi, Ungher, Lablache, Duprez and many others. They cover a 30-year period from about 1820 to 1850 and concern many Italian theaters including La Scala, La Fenice, San Carlo, Filarmonica di Verona, Communale di Bologna, Municipale di Reggio Emilia, Sociale di Mantova, as well as minor theaters like the Cannobiana in Milan, Siena, Padova, Pisa, Livorno and many others. De Angelis observes that they document a “rigidly vertical and paternalistic structure” with complex rules. This was the opera world of the bel canto era. (p. 8)

I should mention at this point that the book is entirely in Italian. This will present a challenge to many readers, as it did to me, but this is an extraordinarily useful resource for information about singers and composers of this era as well as the structure of theatrical life in Italy during this period. Anyone researching Gabriel Duprez (as I am) or Giuseppina Strepponi will find information here not in many (if any) English language resources. It will be worth any researcher’s time to translate the relevant paragraphs in order to obtain such information. That was certainly true in my case.

Alessandro Lanari was born in San Marcello on January 25, 1787. As a businessman he hired many relatives to work in his company, especially his son Antonio, who studied law and became a principal collaborator with his father. He also hired his brother and sister and many other relatives. In addition to theatrical management, he operated a successful costume business and that proved to be the most lasting and stable of his enterprises, supplying many of the costumes used in Italian theaters at the time. 

In addition to showing us how theatrical life in 19th century Italy was structured, we also see the many difficulties of life at the time. Travel between cities was long and treacherous. Before there were railroads it was necessary to travel by carriage on terrible roads. The passage across the Alps was especially treacherous. Thieves were common, and in one instance Lanari and his fellow travelers were accosted in an incident which left several of the robbers dead. Lanari, however, escaped unharmed. There is also some detail of the problems with the cholera outbreaks in Italy in the 1830s which made travel and even the shipping of scores and costumes impossible for months at a time. 

The final section is a detailed of the various troupes that Lanari sent to various opera companies for each season along with repertoire and casting. (Sadly, the singers are listed but not which roles they sang, although in most cases it is not difficult to determine who would have sung what.) For example: the 1831-32 Carnevale Season at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan consisted of the world premiere of Bellini’s Norma (!), along with Pacini’s Il corsaro, Rossini’s Otello, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as well as the world premieres of Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi and Pugno’s La vendetta with a troupe that included Domenico Donzelli, Giulia Grisi, Negrini, and Giuditta Pasta. (Imagine looking forward to that as an opera season!) The benefit of this kind of programming was that if any of the productions proved unpopular, performances could be replaced with a more successful one. 

There is so much of interest in these documents and easily enough for several more books and articles (like Sandro Corti’s ”Gilbert-Louis Duprez: Le Lettere (1833-1850) nell’Archivio dell’Impresario Alessandro Lanari” (found in Ottocento e oltre: Scritti in onore di Raoul Meloncelli (Rome: Editoriale Pantheon, 1993: 277-318) that is made up of annotated transcriptions of 30 letters from Duprez to the Lanari. Many thanks to De Angelis (and Corti) for transcribing these letters. Having seen several examples of 19th century letters, reading the handwriting is challenging and virtually impossible for someone not fluent in the language. Obviously, it is a challenge to read research material in another language, but anyone studying opera is going to have to look beyond English language sources. The rewards are great for those who embrace the challenge.