La testa di bronzo - Background

Stendhal traveled and lived in Italy extensively, actually spending about a third of his life there, and ultimately choosing to be described as a "Milanese" in the epitaph on his tomb at the Montmartre cemetery. In his work "Rome, Naples et Florence en 1817" he reports on a journey that begins with his arrival in Milan from the Gotthard Pass. The beginning is exclusively devoted to the La Scala Theater, where Stendhal spent all his evenings. On the first page we read:

Milan, 4 novembre 1816. - J'arrive, à sept heures du soir, harassé de fatigue; je cours à la Scala. (...)

5 novembre 1816. - Je cours à ce premier Théâtre du monde: l'on donnait encore La Testa di bronzo. J'ai eu tout le temps d'admirer. (...)

10 novembre 1816. - Ma foi, mon admiration ne tombe point. (...)

12 novembre 1816. - (...) M. Soliva (...) a vingt-cinq ans. Sa musique est la plus ferme, la plus enflammée, la plus dramatique que j'aie entendu de ma vie. Il n'y a pas de moment de langueur. Est-ce un homme de génie ou un simple plagiaire? On vient de donner a Milan, coup sur coup, deux ou trois opéras de Mozart, et la musique de Soliva rappelle à tout moment Mozart. Est-ce un centon bien fait? est-ce un oeuvre de génie?

12 novembre 1816. - C'est un oeuvre de génie: il y a là une chaleur, une vie dramatique, une fermeté dans tout les effets, qui décidément ne sont pas du style de Mozart. Mais Soliva est un jeune homme; transporté d'admiration pour Mozart, il a pris sa couleur; si l'auteur à la mode êut été Cimarosa, il êut semblé un nouveau Cimarosa. (...) Soliva (...) triomphe dans les morceaux d'ensemble et dans le récitatifs obligés, peignant le caractère. Aucune parole ne peut rendre l'entrée de Galli (...), c'est du sublime. Les tragédies sont bien froides auprès de cela. Soliva, comme le Corrège, connait le prix de l'espace; sa musique ne languit pas deux secondes, il syncope tout ce que l'oreille prévoit; il serre, il entasse les idées. Cela est beau comme les plus vives symphonies de Haydn.

12 novembre 1816. - Ce petit Soliva a la figure chétive d'un homme de génie. (etc. etc.)

What was this opera that filled Stendhal with such enthusiasm? We know that he was a connoisseur, but La testa di bronzo has totally disappeared from the operatic repertoire.

The La Scala Theater had organised a competition for new librettists. On April 5, 1816 the jury, presided over by the famous poet Vincenzo Monti, declared young Felice Romani the winner and chose the novice Carlo Soliva to compose the music.

Soliva, a young conductor at La Scala, drew inspiration for his music from Mozart, whose music was then fashionable in Milan. Mozart had written operas for Milan in his youth, but was subsequently ignored there. Beginning in 1807 with its first performance of Così fan tutte, Milan rediscovered him. In the following years Mozart's major works were staged: Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro (1815), Die Zauberflöte (1816), etc. Carlo Soliva's work was in Mozart's style, and he enjoyed an enthusiastic reception from the public.

La testa di bronzo had a record 47 performances in the 1816-1817 season and was followed by other operas by Soliva in the years 1817 and 1818. Another opera was performed in 1817 in Turin.

But the very reason for Soliva's initial success eventually doomed his career as an operatic composer. Rossini's new style of music was taking all the European stages by storm, and it ended the Milanese Mozart renaissance. After performances of La clemenza di Tito in 1819, Mozart disappeared from the programs of the La Scala Theater for more than 50 years. Soliva saw no future for his musical style and focused on a career as a conductor and teacher. He continued composing sacred vocal works, however, as well as orchestral, chamber and piano music.

In the year 1826 Stendhal revised his Rome, Naples et Florence. The beginning pages are nearly unchanged: he merely modified the dates and added a little more information unrelated to the theater. There is one small but significant change however. The phrase "Sa musique (de Soliva) est la plus ferme, la plus enflammée, la plus dramatique que j'aie entendu de ma vie" now ends thus: "... que j'aie entendu depuis longtemps".

One year later (1827), Romani's opera was performed in Lisbon, but this time with a new musical setting by Saverio Mercadante. Later, there were two more versions of "La testa di bronzo", by Giacomo Fontemaggi (Rome, 1835) and by Vincenzo Mela (Isola della Scala near Verona, 1855).

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:41:41 PST