Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 2 - Giuseppe Arena

In the second blog about Maltese composers of opera Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gives us a detailed account of the earliest known Maltese Composers of Opera – Giuseppe Arena.

Giuseppe Arena was the first Maltese to have made a distinguished name for himself in opera composition and he did this not in Malta, his native land, but in Italy, the dominant homeland of opera!

He was born in Valletta on 7 December 1707, the second child of organist Matteo Arena who was from the Sicilian town of Messina but had decided to migrate to Malta where, in 1686, he was appointed by Grand Master Fra Gregorio Carafa as organist of the Conventual Church of St John (now St.John’s co-Cathedral).

Giuseppe studied music and the organ with his father and such was his progress in both fields that in 1724, when 16 years old, he went to Naples to refine his studies in the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo, one of four classical institutions in Naples famous for the excellent instruction they gave to their students. There his teachers included famous composers Gaetano Greco and Francesco Durante. Arena became one of the outstanding students of dei Poveri so much so that Durante selected him to be his teaching assistant and even trusted him with transcribing his new works.

Most likely it was during this period that Arena decided that his future did not lie in Malta, his native land, but in Italy.

After leaving the dei Poveri, he was appointed organist to the famous church of St Philip Neri (Chiesa dei Filippini) in Naples. He quickly became known as a gifted composer of opera, and was commissioned by leading Italian theatres to write new operas for them. He now left his post in the Chiesa dei Filippini to accept service with the Prince of Bisignano, a member of the Sanseverino family, a powerful ancient dynasty in the Kingdom of Naples. His main job in his new role was the writing of new musical works in any musical field as demanded by his employer.

The following is a list of his operas about which some concrete performing details have survived:

1. Achille in Sciro
Libretto: Pietro Metastasio ― opera seria in 3 Acts
Première: Teatro delle Dame, Rome, 17 January 1738
2. La Clemenza di Tito
Libretto: Pietro Metastasio ― opera seria in 3 Acts
Première: Teatro Regio, Turin, 26 December 1738
3. Artaserse
Libretto: Pietro Metastasio ― opera seria in 3 Acts
Première: Teatro Regio, Turin, February 1741
4. Tigrane
Libretto: Francesco Silvani, revised Carlo Goldoni ― opera seria in 3 Acts
Première: Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo, Venice, 18 November 1741
5. Farnace
Libretto: Antonio Maria Lucchini ― opera seria in 3 Acts
Première: Teatro Capranica, Rome, 23 January 1742

These 5 operas enjoy the distinction of being the first known operas to have been composed by a Maltese! They were all opere serie, meaning that their libretto was based on serious story lines. The greatest supplier of opera seria libretti was the Italian cleric and poet Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782).

6. Il vecchio deluso
Libretto: Antonio Palomba ― opera comica in 3 Acts
Première: Teatro Nuovo, Naples, Carnival 1746

Il vecchio deluso became Arena’s most admired and charming opera. It was composed at the time he was in the service of the Prince of Bisignano and its libretto designated him ‘celebrated maestro’.

Besides these six, Arena must have composed other operas; indeed it would have been very strange had Arena, a successful and esteemed composer, ceased composing operas after Il vecchio deluso, finished when he was still under 40 years of age. In actual fact there are definite indications of other operas but, unfortunately, no concrete information about their performance history has been discovered.

Arena also composed other types of music, including works to be executed in churches. He must have written his liturgical music either during his time as organist in the Chiesa dei Filippini, or when he was virtuoso to the Prince of Bisignano.

He died in Naples on the 6th of November 1784, one month earlier than his 77th year of existence.

In next week’s blog Mr. Vella Bondin will give us details about the life and works of another Maltese opera composer of the Baroque period - Girolamo Abos.