The central figure in Italian opera for much of the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) wrote twenty-eight operas, nearly half of which have been staples of the international operatic repertoire since their first productions. When he died after a nearly sixty-year career, he was mourned in Italy as a national hero.
Verdi was born into the musical world of Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), the leading Italian opera composer of the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of popular success and artistic influence. Rossini and his immediate successors Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1847) are the masters of the Italian bel canto (beautiful singing) style, characterized by elaborate melodic lines, smooth delivery, and purity of tone. By the end of the 1840s, Verdi had fundamentally altered the established form and structure of the bel canto style, revolutionizing Italian opera in the process. Hailed as Verdi’s successor in the 1890s, Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), brought Italian opera into the twentieth century with his thirteen operas incorporating new elements of the style known as verismo (realism), as well as the exoticism of long-ago-and-far-away settings.
Bel Canto Opera after Rossini
When Gioachino Rossini retired from operatic composition in 1829 at age thirty-seven, he was widely recognized as the greatest Italian composer of his time. His slightly younger contemporaries Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti soon became much-admired masters of the florid melodies that characterize the bel canto style. Their most enduring scores date from the 1830s and early 1840s. This period coincides with developments in the production of lithographic sheet music cover art, and by mid-century depictions of operatic action, such as these examples, were for the first time readily available to the music-loving public.
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Vincenzo Bellini. "Ah! Don't Mingle, One Human Feeling" from La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker). New York: William Hall and Son, 1850. Music Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)
Gaetano Donizetti. "The Lute Song (O That I Never More Might See/Deh Non Voler Costringere)" from Anna Bolena. Boston: Oliver Ditson, ca.1850. Music Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)
Looking North for Subject Matter
A number of both Bellini's and Donizetti's tragic masterpieces were historical operas set in northern Europe. Bellini's Norma, set in ancient Gaul, is undoubtedly his best-known work. His I Puritani (The Puritans) is set in England during the 1640s, the period of the English Civil War. Donizetti wrote three operas based on the Tudor period of English history of the sixteenth century: Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn), Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, who is also known as "Mary Queen of Scots"), and Roberto Devereux (the name of a favorite at the court of Elizabeth I).
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Rosa Ponselle (1897–1981) as Norma, 1927. Photograph by Herman Mishkin. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)
Letter from Vincenzo Bellini to M. H. Heneage, mentioning I Puritani (The Puritans), January 26, 1830. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
Most famous of all Donizetti's operas is Lucia di Lammermoor, set in seventeenth-century Scotland. With its famous mad scene, the role of Lucia is a starring vehicle for singers such as Amelita Galli-Curci (1882–1963), one of the best-known sopranos of the early twentieth century. However, many men have distinguished themselves in the role of Edgardo, Lucia's star-crossed lover, including Beniamino Gigli (1890–1957), one of the finest tenors of his era.
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Rossini's Comic Masterpieces
During his lifetime Rossini enjoyed success as a composer of comedies as well as tragedies. However he is best known today for his comic operas—and particularly for Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). It recounts the adventures of Figaro, the barber, who assists Count Almaviva in his attempts to woo the charming Rosina. Pictured here is Giulietta Simionato (1910–2010), one of the great Rosinas of the twentieth century. Many of Rossini's operas were quickly produced throughout Europe and in America as well, demonstrated by the pocket librettos displayed here. The Barber of Seville was composed in 1816 and soon made its way to London, New York, and Philadelphia; La Cenerentola, a retelling of the fairytale of Cinderella, was composed in 1817 and soon presented in Lisbon, London, and New York.
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Giulietta Simionato as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. (The Barber of Seville). Mexico City: Foto-Semo studio, 1953. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)
Gioachino Rossini. The Barber of Seville, A Comic Opera in Three Acts. Philadelphia: Neal and Mackenzie, 1828. Music Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)
Gioachino Rossini. Cenerentola, ou Singeleza, Evirtude Triunfantes: Drama Jocoso (Cinderella, or Singleness, and Virtue Triumphant: Humorous Drama). Lisbon: Na Typografia de Bulhões, 1821. Music Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)
Verdi enjoyed a life-long interest in the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Verdi's Macbeth, with a libretto that adheres quite closely to the original play, was the composer's first Shakespearean work. (Verdi's final two masterpieces—Otello and Falstaff—were from Shakespeare as well.) Macbeth breaks with nineteenth-century Italian operatic tradition in two notable ways: it lacks both a love story and a starring tenor role. Nevertheless, it captured the public attention following its initial production in 1847, and, along with Attila, composed the previous year, helped to establish Verdi's popularity as an opera composer. The first edition piano-vocal score was issued shortly after the premiere, probably in 1850.
A major success at its premiere in 1846, Atilla, König der Hunnen (Attila, King of the Huns) recounts an episode from the invasion of northeastern Italy (the site of modern Venice) by the legendary warrior Attila. First presented in Venice, the work was soon given throughout Italy, including in Trieste in the fall of the same year, with Russian tenor Nicola Ivanoff in the role of Foresto. At the instigation of Gioachino Rossini, Verdi wrote a new "Romanza" for Ivanoff. The piece was completed in September; Verdi scholar Philip Gossett explains that the dedication and date on the manuscript were undoubtedly added after the performances in late 1846, and that "1845" seems to be a "slip of the pen."
Commissioned by Khedive Isma'il (1830–1895) for presentation at his recently opened Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Aida premiered there on December 24, 1871. Constructing an opera house in Cairo and inaugurating it with performances of works by European composers reflected the Khedive's modernizing and Westernizing philosophy. (Contrary to popular belief, Aida was not written to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal; however, the opera house was built in celebration of the canal and dedicated in 1869.) Aida is the story of the love between the Ethiopian princess Aida and her Egyptian warrior captor, Radamès, which is complicated by the presence of Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh (ruler), who loves Radamès but whose love is not reciprocated.
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Giuseppe Verdi. Aida: Opera en 4 Actes e 7 Tableaux (Aida: Opera in 4 Acts and 7 Scenes). Cairo: Typographie Francaise Delbos-Demouret, 1871. Music Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00)
Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) as Radamès in Aida, Paris, 1910. Bert studio. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00)
Popularizing Opera Stars
As the photographic and publication industries developed in the early twentieth century, post-card-sized images of many of the leading stars of the world's major opera houses were produced for the mass market. These examples are typical: the singers are among the most distinguished of the day, and they are shown costumed for roles with which they were closely identified. The images include portrait-style poses as well as "action shots"—some of them extremely dramatic. These souvenirs show operas that not only enjoyed public favor a century ago but which remain very popular.
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Giuseppe De Luca as Rigoletto, 1915. Herman Mishkin, photographer. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00)
Louise Homer as Amneris [incorrectly labeled in the upper corner as "Azucena"] in Aida, 1908. Amie Dupont, photographer. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (032.00.00)
Ina Bourskaya as Azucena in Il Trovatore, Kiev, 1912. Possibly St. Eisfeld Studio. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00)
Making Operatic History
The distinguished African American contralto Marian Anderson (1897–1993) enjoyed a long and notable career as a concert and recital singer from the 1920s until her retirement in 1965. She made history on January 7, 1955, when she became the first African American to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera. On that occasion she sang the role of the sorceress Ulrica in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). She is shown taking a curtain call following her performance.
Puccini's Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini's operas are notable for the very high percentage that remain among the most popular operas today. Madama Butterfly is one perennial favorite, although it was a failure when first produced in 1904. (Puccini quickly revised the score, modifying it from two acts to three, and it became a triumphant success.) Madama Butterfly—her name, Cio-Cio San, is taken from the Japanese word for "butterfly"—is a young Japanese girl who marries an American naval officer; she marries for love, he marries merely for convenience while stationed in Nagasaki. Unlike in some other popular operas, the nature of the story makes it difficult to alter the traditional setting and costuming, depicted here on early-twentieth-century sheet music as well as in a photograph from the 1930s.
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Rosetta Pampanini as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, 1931. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)
Giacomo Puccini. "Un Bel Di, Vedremo (One Good Day, We Will See)" from Madama Butterfly. Sheet music. London: G. Ricordi, 1909. Music Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00)
Giacomo Puccini was an extremely busy correspondent throughout his career. Among the riches of the Music Division is an array of autograph cards and letters that deal with a wide variety of topics. They document his daily activities as well as provide important details about his work. This letter is to Alfredo Vandini, a childhood friend of Puccini's, and, later, a government official to whom Puccini turned for a help with a number of matters. It dates from the period immediately before the disastrous first performance of Madama Butterfly.
The last of Puccini's operas, Turandot is set in long-ago China. It is the story of Prince Calàf, who falls in love with the forbidding Princess Turandot. In order to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any incorrect answer will result in death. Puccini began work on the score in early 1921, and left it nearly finished—all but the final duet—when he died in late 1924. The score was completed from Puccini’s sketches by Franco Alfano (1875–1954), and the first performance was given in April 1926. The set designs for that production were the work of Galileo Chini (1873–1956) and evoke the exotic splendor of the ancient East, as do the elaborate costumes traditionally worn by the title character. A Moravian soprano renowned for her singing of Puccini, Maria Jeritza (1887–1982) starred as Turandot in the North American premiere of the work at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on November 16, 1926.
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Galileo Chini. Set design for Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, 1924. Music Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of Paola Chini (037.00.00)
Maria Jeritza as Turandot, 1926. Frank Xaver Setzer, photographer. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera (039.00.00)
Puccini's La Bohème
The first of Puccini's greatest popular successes, La Bohème recounts the adventures of six Parisian bohemians—poet Rodolfo, seamstress Mimì, and their friends,who are a painter, a philosopher, and two musicians. The first performance took place in February 1896. Within only four years, the opera had been seen throughout Italy as well as in such far-flung locations as Buenos Aires, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, and New York. Moreover, selections from the score were widely published well into the twentieth century, including this Bulgarian edition of sheet music for Musetta's aria from act II. The cover shows Liudmila Maksimova, a performer at the the Bulgarian National Opera in Sofia.