Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 1 - Opera Comes to Malta

This is the first blog in a new series dedicated to Maltese composers of opera. The author , Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin is one of Malta’s most respected music historians. In this first blog Mr. Vella Bondin gives us a summarised account of how opera came to Malta thanks to the Knights of St.John.

I was invited to write these blogs by composer and educationalist Dr. Reuben Pace. They will be mainly based on material from my latest book, The Great Maltese Composers: historical context, lives, and works (APS Bank publication, 2016) where further details and full references will be found. Their intention is to serve as an adjunct to an ambitious project which Dr. Pace is currently working on in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Employment. The project is the first ever opera cycle by a Maltese composer. Called Belt il-Bniedem (City of Humanity), it consists of three independent but inter-related operas the first of which is to be premiered in 2018 when Valletta will be the European Capital of Culture. The project is also endorsed by the Cultural Directorate and by the V18 foundation.

Indeed, Valletta, this remarkable city built by the Hospitaller Order of St John, is also fundamentally related to the history of opera in Malta. For opera in Malta is, in fact, another of an amazing range of cultural activities introduced to us by the Knights of St John.

Perhaps the most exciting musical development in early seventeenth-century Italy was the advent of opera which refers to a play set to music to be sung by singers in costume to an accompaniment provided by an orchestra on a stage decorated with apposite scenery. The performance of Dafne, Jacopo Peri’s dramma per musica in Florence during 1597 marks the date of its generally accepted birth.

It is a clear sign of the Knights’ intuition as to what was significantly innovative in musical developments elsewhere that only 24 years later, and earlier than in many prominent Italian cities and other European countries, opera came to Malta. Appropriately, it was the Knights of the Italian Langue who took the initiative and brought over from Italy singers, musicians, and other artists to perform a dramma per musica in their Auberge in Merchants Street which is now being converted to accommodate Muża, our National Museum of Fine Arts.

What the work was, who wrote the libretto and composed the music are, regrettably, not known. What is documented, however, is that this historic happening was an entertainment for the Knights and some Maltese friends during the Carnival of 1631. The novel spectacle was so enthusiastically received that every year thereafter, at Carnival time, a new opera was offered in the Auberge d’Italie.

The first opera to be produced in Malta whose title is known was L’Annibale in Capua, with a libretto by Nicolò Beregon (1627-1713), and music by Pietro Andrea Ziani (?1615-1684). This opera was locally performed in 1664. For this production, the libretto was printed to enable the Knights and their friends to follow the plot.

The next obvious step in the Order’s growing involvement in secular music was to build a theatre. The beautiful Teatru Manoel (original name: Teatro Pubblico) is one of the outstanding monuments of its period, not only in Malta but also Europe. Opened on 19 January 1732 with Scipione Maffei’s tragedy Merope, it was intended to be a general-purpose theatre, but opera and other kinds of musical productions soon became its main fare. In many ways, this theatre, which until l866 was the only regular theatre in Malta, reinforced Italian musical traditions, especially in opera. Operas known to have been performed during the theatre’s first decades were either by the leading Neapolitan composers or composers closely associated with the Neapolitan tradition.(refer to the series of blogs ‘ The History of Opera in Malta).

The first operas to be performed there composed by a Maltese were six operas by Nicoló Isouard – the serious opera, Ginevra di Scozia (1798), and five comic operas, Rinaldo d’Asti (1796), L’improvisata in campagna (1796), Il barbiere di Siviglia (1796), I due avari (1797), and Il barone di Alba Chiara (1798). However, these 6 were not the first venture by Isouard in the field for in 1793 he had presented also at the Manoel an intermezzo titled Casaciello perseguitato da un mago. During the 18th century, an intermezzo referred to a short, usually comic, musical episode inserted between the acts of an opera seria.

At that time, Isouard was only 19 years old but was already known as a very gifted composer.

However, Isouard was not the first Maltese opera composer of note. Before him there were two others and the two were also associated with the Order of St John. They were Giuseppe Arena and Girolamo Abos. But the two wrote not for the Maltese opera house but for the Italian theatre where they were considered as among the best opera composers of the time.

Next week's blog , the second one in this series will focus on the Maltese composer Giuseppe Arena.