Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 13 Antonio Nani

Last week Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gave us the first part of the article on the Nani dynasty. Today we have the second part of the article of this prominenti family in the history of Maltese Music.

Antonio Nani  belonged to the fourth generation of the Nani family’s Maltese branch. Born on 6 October 1842, he studied music with his father Paolo, Giuseppe Spiteri Fremond and, between 1867 and 1871, in Naples with Nicola De Giosa and Aniello Barbati. He stayed on in that city until 1882, and it was there that he wrote his major liturgical works and his three operas. His output was not as extensive as that of his father, but his ability to handle meaningfully large musical structures gives to his compositions a substance, energy and purpose few Maltese composers have attained.

He was a product of his age, the age of Romanticism, when composers were concerned above all with achieving musical portrayals of emotive states, particularly through an exploration of vocal and orchestral sonorities. It is no wonder therefore that his music is rarely that of the church but that of the theatre. The music that illuminates his splendid liturgical works is of the same inspiration and aesthetic as that heard in the contemporary opera house, music instantly arresting, melodious, dramatic.

It is also the music that animates his Messa da Requiem (1879) for four male voices and large orchestra. Inspired by his mother’s death, it is a massive work of mystical emotion, tender beauty and child-like melancholy, replete with fine melodies and, at times, uneasy grandeur. Like Verdi’s Requiem, it could possibly be designated Antonio’s best operatic work but this judgement is difficult to validate since Antonio’s operas, unjustly and unjustifiably, have ceased to enjoy the endorsement of theatrical performances.

His first opera, Zorilla (1870), an opera buffa in three acts, libretto by Almerindo Spadetta, was premiered in Naples at the Teatro Rossini on 22 February 1872. Its success was remarkable and its presentation in Malta eagerly awaited. Its first performance at the Manoel on 18 January 1874 and the numerous subsequent repeats all with full houses were a triumph both for the composer and the admirable cast. Its overall success was such that it was put it on again the following season.

Then came I cavalieri di Malta, a lyric drama in a prologue and three acts, set to a libretto by Enrico Golisciani based on Gian Antonio Vassallo’s Storia di Malta (1854). It was premiered at the Teatru Rjal on 16 January 1880 and was a colossal success. Given a story line based on rule of the Order of St John in Malta, the overflowing house was able to identify itself with what was happening much more than in the case of Zorilla. Add to that its melodic richness and musical fertility, and it is no wonder that its well-rehearsed staging by an excellent cast created a sensation. As the beauty of the work unfolded, audience enthusiasm progressively increased, culminating at the finish in a poignant standing ovation. The opera was given nine performances during that season.

Nani’s third opera, Agnese Visconti, in four acts, to another Golisciani libretto, was first heard at the Teatru Rjal on 13 January 1889. Golisciani based his plot on the well-known life of Agnese Visconti (1363-91). Agnese’s father, Bernabò, a brutal enemy of the Catholic Church, had married her to Francesco Gonzaga, warlord and ruler of Mantua, who was often unfaithful to her. Agnese was later accused by her husband of having committed adultery with Antonio (in the opera Rodolfo) Scandiano. The denunciation may not have been true, for by then Gonzaga wanted to terminate his alliance with Bernabò. To break it off completely, Agnese had to die; she was put to death in Mantua in 1391 along with her suspected lover. Agnese Visconti was performed nine times to full houses during the 1888-89 season and was an outstanding success both artistically and financially. It was staged again during the 1900-01 season with another stellar cast.

There was another significant activity that Antonio assumed in the opera house. For four seasons, between 1885 and 1889, he was the Teatru Rjal impresario. The media praised Antonio’s work, signposting the stunning new costumes and operatic sets, the extended seasons that resulted in a greater number of different operas being performed and the often excellent productions and performances.

Antonio’s interest in the operatic theatre had to be balanced with familial obligations. The main earning source the family had was the ecclesiastical services it provided through its cappella di musica to a growing number of commissioning churches. While his father Paolo was alive, Antonio’s obligations were to help him run the cappella and write appropriate congregation-pleasing liturgical works, jobs which he did superbly. On his father’s death on 22 March 1904, he inherited the cappella and, with it, all its responsibilities.

But the 20th century brought with it certain defining events in ecclesiastical music There was, especially, Pope Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini, a motu proprio issued on 22 November 1903 which delineated the type of music the Pope considered fit for the holy liturgy – definitely the operatically inspired liturgical works of the Nanis was not in line with the Pope’s edicts and could no longer be performed, fit only to accumulate dust in the Nani archives. The family heirloom which Antonio was able to pass on to his son Paul on his death on 25 February 1929 was thus only a shadow of what it used to be and a notable phase in Malta’s musical history slowly sank into relative oblivion.

Particularly during the 19th century, the cappelle di musica of the Nani and Bugeja dynasties executed liturgical music whose brilliance was equal to that executed anywhere else. It was not for nothing that churches, packed to overflowing with excited congregations to hear works whose aesthetic was the opera often interpreted by operatic singers commissioned from the theatre by the maestro di cappella, were then known as the poor man’s opera house.

Next week we shall take a short break from the series on Maltese composers of opera. We shall have a short series of 4 blogs on the differenti kinds of voice which once can find in operas.