Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 17 - Emanuele Caruana

   This week Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin will talk about the Maltese composer Emanuele Caruana  who, like Carlo Diacono covered in last week’s blog was active in the period between the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century.


Emanuele Caruana deserves this blog because he was the first Maltese composer to have used the Maltese language for the composition of an opera.

For many centuries and until 1934, Italian was the official language of Malta. Indeed, it was considered the language of culture and as a result all Maltese of culture spoke Italian amongst themselves. All operas then performed in Maltese theatres came from Italy and even those operas originally composed to non-Italian libretti (including Wagner’s  Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov) were performed in the Italian versions executed in Italian theatres. The corollary is that all Maltese composers of opera discussed so far in these blogs wrote them to Italian texts. The only exception were those operas which Nicolò Isouard composed while he was working in Paris; they were in French. Those he composed before then were to Italian texts.

Maltese was then considered a kitchen dialect, spoken by the ‘lower classes’ and, even though most Maltese of culture knew it, they only used it as a means of communication with their sefturi. Maltese did appear in the Maltese opera theatres. But it was used for the composition of short humorous sketches for the amusement of those Maltese of culture who were opera goers – their enjoyment came from operas in Italian, their language of culture.

These sketches could be considered as a passage from a comic opera and the oeuvre of many composers living in Malta includes specimens, either in the form of arias or duets. Here is a sample all performed in Teatru Manoel:

Jiena xbejba ġo dar ommi, an aria composed by Domenico Amore and sung by prima-donna Carlotta Rapazzini on the 13 May 1853.

Kull par għal paru, a duet also composed by Domenico Amore and sung by soprano Carmela Vinco and Carmelo Camilleri on the 21 April 1865.

L-Għors ta’ Tonina mas-Sur Ġinesju, music by Giuseppe Malfiggiani and performed by soprano Marianna Vinco and Carmelo Camilleri in June 1874.

Also worth mentioning is Paolo Nani’s L-Għors ta’ Grezzja u Minku, a comic duet where the two protagonists are a solo bass and a choir of three male voices (first and second tenors and bass).

The first opera composed to a Maltese text ever was Id-Dell tas-Sultan, a melodrama in one act text by the Salesian Karmenu Galea (1890-1973) and music by Emanuele Caruana, a medical doctor specialising in paediatrics, and amateur musician of great gifts and vision.

Caruana seems to have studied medicine more to fulfil family expectations. Music was in his family, typified by his father Mabbli, a successful businessman as well as versatile musician who was especially dexterous on the trumpet and guitar. Besides these two instruments with his father, Emanuele also studied the violin with Carlo Fiamingo, and singing with Camillo d’Onofrio, the Teatru Rjal’s maestro del coro for many years. Other instruments on which he was proficient (mostly self-taught) included the piano, organ, cello, mandolin, flute, xylophone, and the musical saw. Despite there being no evidence that he ever took serious lessons in composition, several of his works disclose a sound knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, and instrumentation.

His reasonably numerous oeuvre includes five songs for voice and piano – Ultimo canto, L’ideale, Triste ricordo, L’aurora, and Canzone appassionata – published and printed in Naples for the now extinct music shop of E Lucia and Sons of Valletta. He also wrote two intermezzi for orchestra, several ballroom dances, two sacred works for voice and harmonium, and an Ave Maria for voice and orchestra. His most substantial work seems to have been Id-dell tas-Sultan, which was given two sold-out performances, on 26 and 30 November 1950, by the San Ginesio Dramatic Company at the Salesian Theatre in Sliema.

Karmenu Galea’s intention in Id-dell tas-Sultan was not the writing of a libretto for an opera as such, but rather a play that had strict religious nuances. He based his work on one of the miracles of Jesus narrated in the Gospel of John (4:46): the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capharnaum. In effect, it aims at demonstrating the power of faith in the all-encompassing love of Jesus towards the sick and the afflicted, rather than at achieving operatic results. It is against this background that Caruana’s attainment has to be assessed. The Times of Malta, 29 November 1950, published a review:

It was left to Dr E Caruana to make of the performance [on 26 November 1950] a memorable soul-stirring experience with the music he wrote for the play. From the very first few bars of the prelude it became evident that here was good original melodious music fully up to the modern operatic standard and deeply imbued with the religious spirit. The fascination of the East could be felt in it too, especially in the lovely intermezzo, while the finale was so inspiring that it had to be played again on the insistent demand of the audience.

The reviewer then went on to evaluate the execution:

The Strauss Orchestra, conducted by the composer and augmented by several of the best instrumentalists of the Island did full justice to the score and so did Patrick Mahoney with his lyric tenor voice in the past of Zebed. It was really a pity that in the part of Gamal, the Centurion, [bass] Paul Flores was hoarse for he had some very fine passages to sing. Charles H Izzo as Jaret, the sick son, gave a very good account of himself as also did [baritones] Watty Cachia and John Vassallo. The chorus, though well trained, could have been augmented with advantage.