Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 5 Alessandro Curmi

In the fifth blog about Maltese composers of opera Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gives us a detailed account of another Maltese composer of operas - Alessandro Curmi (1801-1857)

Alessandro Curmi’s superlative talent was attested by Niccolò Zingarelli, composition teacher at the Conservatorio di S. Pietro a Majella in Naples between 1813 and 1837. He considered Curmi, Vincenzo Bellini and Michele Costa three of his exceptional students.

Curmi was born on 17 October 1801 in Valletta. After musical studies with Pietro Paolo Bugeja, he left Malta in 1821 to refine them in Naples. While still a student and under Zingarelli’s direct tutelage, Curmi started working on his first opera, Gustavo d’Orxa, on a libretto by Domenico Gilardoni who also wrote one for Bellini and another for Costa. These three were the first written by Gilardoni and it is likely he wrote them at the request of Zingarelli who wanted to ensure the delivery of suitable material for the first operas to be composed by his three promising students. Bellini’s Bianca e Gernando was premièred in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples on 30 May 1826. Curmi’s Gustavo d’Orxa was staged in another famous theatre in Naples, the Teatro Nuovo sopra Toledo, during spring 1827. During its autumn season, the same theatre produced Michele Costa’s Ildegonda. All three were successful and were applauded by both public and critics.

After finishing his Conservatorio studies, Curmi took up residence in Naples. But his lifestyle, in common with that of leading nineteenth-century composers, involved travel from country to country in search of the finest opportunities to exercise his vocation. Initially, he seems to have divided his time between Italy and Malta and the operas he composed for these two countries included Aristodemo (Florence, Teatro della Pergola, spring 1830), Rob Roy (Valletta, Manoel Theatre, December 1832), Elodia di Herstall (Naples, Teatro San Carlo, September 1842), and Il proscritto di Messina (Valletta, Manoel Theatre, April 1843).

Towards the end of 1845, Curmi left Naples for London. He broke his journey in Paris where he explored the possibilities of obtaining a commission for composing an opera for Paris. It seemed that the prospects were encouraging and, probably psychologically uplifted by these hopes, he sat down to compose his cantata Sancte Paule in honour of Malta’s patron saint.

The opening of London’s Covent Garden Theatre as an eminent opera house after it was remodelled and renamed Royal Italian Opera on 6 April 1847 with a performance of Rossini’s opera Semiramide was hailed as an outstanding event in the theatrical history of London. An innovation introduced related to moving the divertissement, often the presentation of a ballet staggered between an opera’s acts, to after the end of the opera. In doing this, Royal Italian Opera was going against established practice in European theatres but the intention was to achieve a greater degree of coherence in operatic production by removing all inter-act distractions.

The strategy used to make such a departure from contemporary norms palatable to the London public was to engage a dazzling array of the best ballet performers then in Europe. These included three celebrated maîtres de ballet: François-Ferdinand Decombe (stage name Albert), Carlo Blasis and Giovanni Casati, premières danseuses Marietta Baderna, Fanny Elssler, Adèle Dumilâtre, Louise Fleury, Sofia Fuoco, and Adeline Plunkett, and premiers danseurs Lucien Petipa and Auguste Mabille. To artistically mould together this dazzling array of ballet talent, Alessandro Curmi was appointed the ballet company’s resident composer!

During its initial season which ended on 25 August 1847, the Royal Italian Opera produced ten different ballets of which five – L’Odalisque (première 6 April), La Reine des Fées (20 April), La Bouquetier de Venise (6 May), La Salamandrine (18 May), and La Rosiera (22 July) – were danced to music specifically composed by Curmi.

It is pleasing to reflect that a Maltese had helped to bring about the establishment of Covent Garden as a major international temple for opera and ballet!

Around September 1847, Curmi returned to Paris where, according to contemporary reports, he had been called to compose a Grand Opera. But the popular riots in that capital during the next year thwarted engagements made with composers and performers. Curmi, however, utilised the opportunity given by what was happening to compose his suite for orchestra, La Rivoluzione di Parigi del 24 Febbraio 1848. This work was first performed at the Théâtre-Italien of Paris and in Malta’s Manoel on 5 April 1850 in the composer’ presence.

It seems that Curmi was still in Malta when he was recalled to Naples to compose another tragic opera for Teatro San Carlo. But he unexpectedly died in April 1857 at the age of 55 before having had the time to finish the score.


Next in line is the composer Francesco Schira. Since his biography is quite extensive, it shall be divided in 2 blogs. Next week Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin shall tell us about the first part of Schira's life.