Born: Catania, Sicily, Italy, 7 February 1796
Died: Pescia, Italy, 6 December 1867
Giovanni Pacini may hold the record as the 19th century’s most prolific opera composer. His contemporaries reckoned he’d written a hundred words; closer attention whittled this down to a more manageable 74.
Nearly all of them have been forgotten.
“This abandonment,” Arthur Pougin (Le Ménestrel, 28 October 1866) wrote, “is the just punishment that awaits a man of talent and inspiration too careless of his renown, preferring quantity to quality, and infuriatingly scattering through a hundred mediocre or feeble scores, that which could have made twenty excellent ones.”
In the first half of his career, he imitated Rossini; in the second half, he seems to have imitated everyone else.
Pacini admitted the influence in his Memorie artistiche:
Rossini was always a source of indescribable admiration; but I was perfectly aware of being merely a slavish imitator by following him.
As many my contemporaries were in those days, all followed the same school, the same fashion, and were in consequence imitators, just like me, of the Great Star. – But, good God! What was one to do if there was no other way of sustaining oneself? Therefore, if I was a follower of the supreme Pesarese, the others were my equals; they may have been more fortunate in finding melodies, more accurate in their instrumentation, more educated; but the realization and the structure of the pieces was similar to mine.
For Joseph Caccia (La comédie, 15 December 1867), Pacini’s imitation was a happy one, thanks to the richness of his imagination. “His melodies emerged easily and spontaneously, and many remained popular until his death.” Pougin called Pacini “a medium-sized star, now a nebula – but he had the honour of being part of the Rossinian constellation”. And Pierre Scudo (“Donizetti et l’école italienne depuis Rossini”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1848) dismisses Pacini as nothing more than a fluent imitator.
Pacini’s operas were popular throughout Italy – some, like Gli arabi nelle Gallie (1827), enormously so – but only a handful were performed elsewhere in Europe. To his admirers, like A. de Rovray (Le Nouvelliste, 25 January 1855), he was maestro delle cabalette, the supreme master of the cabaletta. “Nobody better knew voices, nor used them with more skill, nor arranged them with more art.”
Pacini himself, though, was well aware of the shortcomings of his music. His system, he wrote, was one of “melodic simplicity, variability in the cabalettas, and unsophisticated instrumentation”.
My instrumentation has never been sufficiently accurate, and although it was lively and brilliant many times, it did not arise as a result of reflection, but rather by that natural taste given to me by God. I often neglected the quartet of stringed instruments, or took much care of the effects I could have achieved from the various other groups of instruments. I always have had an eye for the vocal part indeed, more than anything else, and above all, I tried to examine the vocal possibilities of the individual singers to whom i entrusted my compositions, with appropriate music adapted to their organs, in order to increase the probability of success.
Pacini made a name as a teenager and young man with one-act farse and the semiseria Il barone di Dolsheim (1818). When Rossini went to Paris, the impresario Barbaia engaged Pacini as music director and composer for the royal and imperial theatres of Naples, Milan, and Venice. Major works from this period include Alessandro nelle Indie (1824); L’ultimo giorno di Pompei (1825), today’s opera; and Niobe (1826).
Seeing his star pale before the brilliance of Donizetti and Bellini, Pacini retired in 1831. “I began to realize that I had to withdraw from the arena. – Bellini, the divine Bellini, and Donizetti had surpassed me.”
He returned to the stage in 1839, with Furio Camillo. Saffo, supposedly his masterpiece, followed in 1840.
“From this period until his death,” Caccia writes, “we see in all Pacini’s operas the reflection and imitation not just of Rossini, but of all those who appeared on the musical horizon. In this second period, we find echoes of Bellini, Donizetti, Mercadante, and even Verdi.” Il saltimbanco (1858), for instance, is apparently only an exaggeration of Verdi’s first manner. (“God!” the young man cried in a tone of unmistakable disgust.)
Alexander Weatherson, however, writes that Pacini’s later works are “pseudo-historic, immensely emotional operas sung by the greatest artists of the day… Their invention and variety are astonishing, and made an indelible impact.”
Dwight’s Journal of Music (2 July 1858) raved about Lorenzino de’Medici (1845), “a superb opera by Pacini, and one that for a time made me stagger in my Verdi faith. It is so fresh, so original, and combines musical science so well with ear-haunting and simple melody that it appears to me astonishing that it has not obtained a reputation out of Italy.”
“Meyerbeer and Wagner and the Verdi of Forza del Destino, of Don Carlos, of Aida, have found a powerful rival, a true titan, in the immense and stupendous finale of the second act,” La Riforma wrote of Niccolò de’Lapi (1873).
Pacini’s other successful late works include La Fidanzata Corsa (1842), Medea (1843), La Regina di Cipro (1846, based on Halévy’s opera), and Bondelmonte (1845).
- Annetta e Lucinda (1813)
- La ballerina raggiratrice (1814)
- L’ambizione delusa (1814)
- L’escavazione del tesoro (1814)
- Gli sponsali de’ silfi (1814–15)
- Bettina vedova (Il seguito di Ser Marcantonio) (1815)
- La Rosina (1815)
- L’ingenua (1816)
- Il matrimonio per procura (1817)
- Dalla beffa il disinganno, ossia La poetessa (1816–17; revised 1817, as Il carnevale di Milano)
- Piglia il mondo come viene (1817)
- Adelaide e Comingio (1817)
- Atala (1818)
- Il barone di Dolsheim (1818)
- La sposa fedele (1819)
- Il falegname di Livonia (1819)
- Vallace, o L’eroe scozzese (1820)
- La sacerdotessa d’Irminsul (1820)
- La schiava in Bagdad, ossia Il papucciajo (1820)
- La gioventù di Enrico V (1820)
- Cesare in Egitto (1821)
- La vestale (1823)
- Temistocle (1823)
- Isabella ed Enrico (1824)
- Alessandro nelle Indie (1824)
- Amazilia (1825)
- L’ultimo giorno di Pompei (1825)
- La gelosia corretta (1826)
- Niobe (1826)
- Gli arabi nelle Gallie, ossia Il trionfo della fede (1827; revised 1855 as L’ultimo dei clodovei)
- Margherita regina d’Inghilterra (1827)
- I cavalieri di Valenza (1828)
- I crociati a Tolemaide, ossia Malek-Adel (1828)
- Il talismano, ovvero La terza crociata in Palestina (1829)
- I fidanzati, ossia Il contestabile di Chester (1829)
- Giovanna d’Arco (1830)
- Il corsaro (1831)
- Ivanhoe (1832)
- Don Giovanni Tenorio, o Il convitato di pietra (1832)
- Gli elvezi, ovvero Corrado di Tochemburgo (1833)
- Fernando duca di Valenza (1833)
- Irene, o L’assedio di Messina (1833)
- Carlo di Borgogna (1835)
- La foresta d’Hermanstadt (1839)
- Furio Camillo (1839)
- Saffo (1840)
- L’uomo del mistero (1841)
- Il duca d’Alba (1842)
- La fidanzata corsa (1842)
- Maria, regina d’Inghilterra (1843)
- Medea (1843; revised 1845)
- Luisetta, ossia La cantatrice del molo di Napoli (1843)
- L’ebrea (1844)
- Lorenzino de’ Medici (1845)
- Bondelmonte (1845)
- Stella di Napoli (1845)
- La regina di Cipro (1846)
- Merope (1847)
- Ester d’Engaddi (1848)
- Allan Cameron (1848)
- L’orfana svizzera (1848)
- Zaffira, o La riconciliazione (1851)
- Malvina di Scozia (1851)
- Il Cid (1853)
- Lidia di Brabante (1853)
- Romilda di Provenza (1853)
- Le punizione (1854)
- Margherita Pusterla (1856)
- Il saltimbanco (1858)
- Gianni di Nisida (1860)
- Il mulattiere di Toledo (1861)
- Belfagor (1861)
- Don Diego di Mendoza (1867)
- Berta di Varnol (1867)