Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 3 - Girolamo Abos

In the third blog about Maltese composers of opera Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gives us a detailed account of another Baroque Maltese Composer of Opera – Girolamo Abos.

The second of the three great Maltese composers of opera who were made possible by the Knights of St John and their new fortified city of Valletta, and who can therefore be designated part of the patrimony left us by this great Hospitaller Order is Girolamo Abos.

Abos was born on 16 November 1715 and baptised the next day in the Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta. His parents were Joanne Tommaso Abos and Rosa née Farrugia, sister to Giuseppe Farrugia, a well-known Valletta physician, whose son, Carlo, born on 10 November 1703, was to become an outstanding uditore (personal advisor and secretary) to a number of Grand Masters.

Carlo Farrugia seems to have taken special interest in Girolamo for he, no doubt, recognised the remarkable musical talent possessed by his young cousin. After initial studies with Matteo Arena, organist of St John’s, he arranged and paid for Girolamo’s musical studies in the Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio a Porta Capuana, another of the four famous classical music schools in Naples. Girolamo was about 14 years old at the time and his teachers there included Francesco Feo (1691-1761) and Ignazio Prota (1690-1748).

His outstanding talent was soon recognised, so much so that he soon started gaining several superior appointments in three important fields of musical activity: teaching, church music and opera composition.

His teaching activity was predominantly in three of the four classical conservatories of Naples: in the Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio a Capuana between October 1742 and September 1760; in the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo from 1742 to November 1743; in the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini from 1754 to 11 July 1759. Among the more famous students he taught in these three institutions one finds Giacomo Tritto, Giovanni Paisiello, Niccolò Piccinni, Giacomo Insanguine, and the Maltese Benigno Zerafa.

The most important of the many ecclesiastical appointments Abos obtained was that of maestro di cappella and organist of the Duomo di Napoli (the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta), a role always filled by prestigious musicians active in Naples (Angelo Durante, Nicola Porpora, Niccolò Piccinni, Giovanni Paisiello, Niccolò Zingarelli, etc). Abos was given this position in 1749 and kept it till his death. For this and other churches, he wrote a wealth of church music comparable to the best written by the foremost maestri di cappella of Naples. One need only give as examples three works: the Stabat Mater (1750), the vesper psalm Dixit Dominus (1758), and the undated C minor Mass for four voices. There is also his sacred oratorio La morte d’Abel (1754) on the text written by Pietro Metastasio.

In line with the Neapolitan masters, Abos composed both opere buffe and opere serie, commissioned by and premièred in the leading Italian theatres of his day. Although there are indications that he wrote more, production details for only 14 of them have so far been found.

His first known opera, Le due zingare simile, was composed when he was already 26 years of age, which is rather old when one considers that it was the normal pattern for Neapolitan composers, particularly students of the four conservatories, to start writing operas earlier – thus supporting the belief that he must have also written operas before 1742. An interesting aspect concerning the accepted production dates is their sequence. For the first five were opere buffe, while the rest, starting in 1746 with Artaserse, opere serie. It is not known why, after writing opere buffe which contemporary reports indicate were very successful, Abos decided to concentrate solely on opera seria.

It could have been that, after 1745, his involvement in church music started to expand, and, being a zealous Catholic, he could have felt that writing opera buffa, with its stock comedy figures and boisterous portrayal of everyday life and which had been labelled by one contemporary witness ‘una vera porcheria [a veritable filth] unworthy of being seen’, was not in keeping with the dignity of his ecclesiastical appointments. One might not agree with this suggestion, but it is being offered as a possible reason why a maestro di cappella whose services were becoming increasingly demanded by the leading and aristocratic nunneries of Naples decided to abandon that form of opera.

His operas’ popularity is attested by the fact that Il Medo holds the record for the greatest number of times (34) that a new opera was repeated in Turin’s illustrious Teatro Regio during one season. But his most celebrated opera was probably Tito Manlio, which was reproduced in Messina in February 1753 and in other Italian and European theatres, including London’s Teatro Italiano.

His remarkable achievements have to be considered in the light that his life was not long: his death occurred in Naples in October 1760 when he was only 44 years old.

Abos was a deeply religious man who never failed to admit that he was Maltese, and, although once he left it he never returned to his native country, even after his death he continued to be known as a Maltese, even by the most prominent citizens of the Neapolitan district where he had lived.

Known operas composed by Girolamo Abos:

____TITLE______________________LIBRETTIST_________________________FIRST PERFORMANCE
i Le due zingare simile A. Palomba, opera buffa Spring 1742, Teatro Nuovo, Naples
ii Il geloso A. Palomba, commedia Spring 1743, Teatro dei Fiorentini, Naples
iii Le furberie di Spilletto - commedia - Carnival 1744, Teatro Cocomero Florence
iv La serva padrona G. A. Federico, opera buffa Carnival, 1744, Naples
v La moglie gelosa A. Palomba,commedia Carnival 1745, Teatro dei Fiorentini, Naples
vi Artaserse Metastasio, opera seria Carnival 1746, Teatro San Giovanni Crisostoma, Venice
vii Adriano in Siria Metastasio, opera seria Carnival 1746, Teatro alla Pergola, Florence
viii Pelopida G. Roccaforte, opera seria Carnival 1747, Teatro Argentina, Rome
ix Alessandro nelle Indie Metastasio, dramma serio July 1747, Teatro la Fenice, Ancona
x Arianna e Teseo P. Pariati, dramma per musica 26 Dec 1748, Teatro delle Dame, Rome
xi Tito Manlio G. Roccaforte, opera seria 30 May 1751, Teatro San Carlo Naples
xii Erifile G. B. Neri, opera seria Carnival 1752, Teatro delle Dame, Rome
xiii Lucio Vero o sia Il vologeso Zeno, opera seria 18 Dec 1752, Teatro San Carlo, Naples
xiv Il Medo C. I. Frugoni, opera seria Carnival 1753, Teatro Regio, Turin