My friend Phil recently posted on a rarity: Loengrino, by the obscure Italian composer Ricciardo Vagniero.
It is one of the most beautiful Italian operas I know, a testament to the glories of bel canto, a worthy successor to the heritage of Rossini and Donizetti.
Vagniero was a true son of Italy, a fertile vine watered on the soil of song, nurtured by currents of melody, basking in the warm Mediterranean sunlight. Evviva Signor Vagniero!
Vagniero, though, is seldom performed. Even his hometown of Bologna has forgotten him; there is not even an annual music festival.
What beauties, one asks, are hidden in his sleeping scores? What exquisite sextets and nonets, showcasing, in the great Italian tradition, the beauties of the human voice? What sparkling overtures?
Vagniero was born in 1813. Like many Italian composers, he was highly prolific, turning out works such as Ethel di Murcia, Il conte di Lavagna, Margherita Pusterla, I convito di Baldassare, Matilde Bentivoglio, Malvina di Scozia, Giovanni di Napoli, Stella di Napoli, I Veneziani a Costantinopoli, Don Diego di Mendoza, Elena di Tolosa, and Isabella d’Aragone.
These rose to the surface of the ever-roiling stream of Italy’s provincial opera houses, shone brilliantly for a season, and burst like bubbles.
Vagniero’s greatest successes came mid-century, starting with:
Le fate, inspired by the Ricci brothers’ Crispino e il comare,
and La commedia degli errori: This Shakespearean skit was Vagniero’s response to the success of Rossini’s Otello and Verdi’s Macbeth. Famous for the improvisation ensemble, where the actors interpolate arias from other operas, and have a punch-up.
Rienzi, ultima tribuna di Roma: A historical pageant, full of the Risorgimento spirit, owing much to Verdi.
L’olandese fugante: One for animal lovers – a keeshond named Robber runs away from his master, and has adventures in the town.
La prova sulla montagna verrucosa: An early example of a public health warning disguised as entertainment. The tenor worries he might have caught something from his mistress’s mons Veneris – to the dismay of his demure fiancée. Caused a riot in Paris.
Notte con un cigno: A torrid romance between the god Zeus and the mother of Helen of Troy. Fowl play! The most famous piece is the tenor aria “Portami dal tuo capo”… ;)!!!
I maestri cantori di Napoli: An amusing look behind the scenes at the Teatro di San Carlo, and an homage to Rossini. Vagniero wrote the work for the swan (see above) of Pesaro, who appeared as himself, showing off his beautiful tenor voice. The plot focuses on Rossini’s relationship with the impresario Barbaja and his mistress Isabella Colbran (later Mme Rossini). The score also quotes extensively from Rossini’s operas (e.g. “Di tanti palpiti” from Tancredi).
Dammi un anello, per l’amor di Dio!: A woman sits waiting for her lover to ring her up and propose. Nothing happens for four days, so she dumps him. Divided into four parts: L’oro di Sanremo (she hints about engagement rings); La valchiria (she goes to sleep waiting for her boyfriend); La vittoria della pace (she’s still asleep); and Il vento si rompe sulle nomi (he turns up with a suspicious case of amnesia, forgets who she is, and marries another woman, so she has him bumped off).
Tristano ed Besotta: An unromantic look at young love and the realities of married life. The couple have great sex in Act I – and seven children by the end of Act II. The difficulties of supporting a family of nine cause the parents to go mad. Filmed by Visconti.
Persiflagio: A light comedy, with a bevy of beautiful flower maidens (le ragazze di Floradora), and plenty of laughter. And more swans.