Angelica Fenech

The History of Opera in Malta - Part 1

Opera in Malta has had a long history, starting with the arrival of the Knights of St. John in 1530 after they were evicted from Rhodes by the Ottomans. The following series of blogs will outline the history of opera in Malta starting from the early days before Teatru Manoel till the present day. In this first blog in the series we shall outline the activities related to opera or ‘drama per musica as it was known then before the construction of the Manoel Theatre. This article has been written by Ms. Angelica Fenech

For the Knights opera was their main source of fun, entertainment and culture. The Italian Knights, brought some artists such as singers and musicians from Italy, so that they could perform inside their Auberges or halls particularly in Auberge D'Italie, which was located in Strada san Giacomo ( nowadays St. Merchant Street) in Valletta. They used to perform ' drammi per musica' which is the equivalent of what we know as lyric opera.

It was documented that during Carnival of 1631 a historic entertainment was being performed for the knights and some Maltese friends. This spectacle was so enthusiastically received that it kept being performed every year thereafter, during Carnival. It was a ‘dramma per musica’ and was performed in the Auberge D’Italie.

The Carnival season used to start two days after Christmas and it lasted up till 2 days before Lent. During this season, they used to put up a maximum of one or two operas and there would have been two or three representations weekly. In was very unlikely that they would repeat an opera in another season and perform it at the same place.

During this period newspapers were not yet published and unfortunately no historian has ever found out which operas used to be performed at the Auberge d'Italie. However, it was recorded that in the year 1650, the Italian Knights authorised the spending of 30 scudi , to have a tragic Opera performed. It was only in the year 1664 however, that the first title Annibale in Capua on a libretto by Nicolo’ Beregan and music by Vincenzo Tozzi was discovered, and it is known that it was specifically composed for Malta. This work by Tozzi should not be confused with the setting of the same libretto to music by Pietro Andrea Ziani in 1661.
Tozzi was a well-known composer in Malta, between 1649-1664 he was working in Messina and a number of his compositions were performed in the Mdina Cathedral. Some of these manuscripts are still conserved at the Mdina Cathedral Museum archives. Follow this link to listen to a Salve Regina by Tozzi composed specifically for the manuscripts of Malta.
In occasional performances by the Italian companies, a removable stage was used for performances, such was the case of an opera in 1650 performed by a company of comici'. Those were the days in which opera in Italy was flourishing and the knights felt like keeping themselves abreast with the musical theatre developments which were being pioneered by their country's composers.
Apart from the Auberges ,halls and Inns, a few places in Valletta were also used as theatres, notably the premises of the ' Corpo di guardia' , located right opposite to the Grand Master's ( now the presidential) palace in Pjazza San Gorg. In Autumn of 1706 , another company of comici or professional singers led by Giacomo Galeazzi, performed operas in these premises which it seems, included a regular theatre of some sort.

There was another theatre in Valletta, which bore the title 'Teatro della Commedia', and was located at what is now known as Melita Street. It had a regular auditorium in the form of an amphitheatre and could seat four hundred spectators. It seems that is was used for professional performances of Opera and may have replaced the ' Corpo di guardia ' theatre in 1718. It appears that the knights regarded this theatre as being for their exclusive use, in fact an incident which happened during 1718 was recorded, and it involved a Maltese priest being kicked out of his seat by a knight.

In next week’s blog we will talk about the setting up of the Teatru Manoel.