The Republic of Malta, an archipelago of three small inhabited islands, lies virtually at the centre of the Mediterranean, 93 km (60 miles) south of Italy and 288 km (160 miles) north of Africa. It is the smallest independent country in Europe with a current population of 400,000 inhabitants (1732: 60,000; 1866: 110,000) over an area of 316 sq. km (100 sq. miles). Despite its size, Malta can boast of a documented musical heritage dating from the twelfth century. Opera has always cast a popular fascination on its citizens, performances being centred first in the Manoel Theatre, which opened in 1732, then from 1866 in the bigger Royal Opera House built on a design by Edward Barry, the architect responsible for Covent Garden Theatre in London.

After the destruction of the Royal Opera House by Luftwaffe bombs on April 7, 1942, opera again passed to the Manoel Theatre which had been renovated in 1960.




That Maltese ‘art’ music was mostly moulded upon Italian models is a historical fact that needs no amplification. That the Maltese musical heritage is dominated by sacred, mainly liturgical, compositions is now another established fact.

I would put the liturgical content as high as 75% and it would have been higher had it not been for the work of mainly three contemporary composers — Carmelo Pace (1906–1993), Charles Camilleri (b. 1931) and Joseph Vella (b. 1942) — and the ‘new era’ composers whose ½uvre is principally ‘theatre’-oriented. This statement might, in the past, have occasioned some comments, given the well-known and traditionally deeply-rooted Maltese infatuation with opera as a theatrical spectacle. But even when there was no longer any valid reason why this important aspect of the Maltese cultural totality should have remained Italy-oriented, political, social and economic reasons continued to ensure that the nation’s operatic gravitation remained firmly Italian to the almost total exclusion of non-Italian opera, including Maltese composed works that, a priori, should have earned the automatic backing of Maltese society. Given this, with few exceptions, Maltese composers, the best of them having remunerative appointments as church musicians, concentrated on composing sacred music for which they had a tangible market and considered, probably very unwillingly, opera-writing as a mere side-line.

It is then not surprising that of the 143 operas written by them, 72 are the work of four composers who worked mainly abroad and whose creations were specifically meant for foreign theatres. These four were Giuseppe Arena (1707–1784), Girolamo Abos (1715–1760), Nicolò Isouard (1773–1818), and Francesco Schira (1809–1883), by coincidence all Valletta-born. Of the 71 which remain, an additional 17 (including the operas of Giuseppe Giorgio Pisani and Vincenzo Napoleone Mifsud) were also written for performance in other countries. This leaves only 54, including the 7 which Isouard composed between 1796 and 1798, or 36% of the original total, which the authors hoped would be presented in their native land. 34 were. But 20 never made the stage.

Among them are three operas by Giuseppe Magri (1875–1947), nowadays almost totally forgotten, a naturally gifted, erudite and versatile individual, musically mainly self-taught. An attempt to stage the earliest of these, Violetta de la Court (1897), at the Royal Opera House failed, but not before he had laboriously penned all the individual orchestral and vocal parts in his very neat and well-defined hand-writing and drew sketches for costumes and sets. Unfortunately most of his work finished as fodder in the mouth of a baker’s oven soon after the composer’s death but luckily the score of Violetta de la Court, together with those of two other operas and a few other mainly liturgical compositions survived. I Vizir (1902), in a prologue and three acts is, in all probability, a significant work, able to stand with the very best by any Maltese composer.

Using the conventional Italian, Magri also wrote his own libretti and that for his last opera, Jacopo Robusti ovvero Il Tintoretto, a lyric drama in a prologue and three acts based on a 1538 Venetian episode in the famous painter’s life, is dated ‘Hamrun, 23 November 1939’. After completing a piano sketch, he began the full score. Stringent war conditions resulted in a dearth of music manuscript paper. Magri had to make use of normal foolscaps, and had therefore to rule himself, using Indian ink, the required staves, a time consuming process. A rough calculation indicated that he ruled 5,600 lines for the prologue, 5,400 for Act I, 12,350 for Act II and 8,580 for Act III, a staggering 31,930 lines in all, days and days of monotonous work before he could actually sit down and start orchestrating! Moreover he had also to contend with the constant air-raids which Malta was then experiencing. At the end of Act II he wrote:

As a consequence of the Italian and German air raids Malta is now facing, I would have liked to delay the orchestration of this act to more peaceful times; but this was not possible and as I am finishing it today, 19-12(-1941), 10 am, I can hear enemy bombs dropping and hissing around me.
And he composed the opera when he knew that his previous ones had not even been performed and that what he was writing in his 67th year of existence would very likely have the same bitter fate!

Magri also composed the music for two operettas, Nannetta (1899) and Miss Lizzy (1915). Miss Lizzy is written to a Maltese text by M. Costa.

The majority of the 34 operas premiered in Malta, 18 in all, were staged at the Manoel Theatre, 12 in the pre-Royal Opera House era and six after the Theatre was rehabilitated and reopened as the National Theatre in 1960. Among the former are the seven operas by Nicolò Isouard, written and executed during the last 30 months of the Knights of St. John’s rule, an amazing achievement of prolificacy by a musician who, besides writing them, was at that time also organist of and composing sacred music for use in St. John’s conventual church besides cantatas and vocal pieces for concerts. It was during these early years that Isouard acquired that facility in composition that remained one of his most marked characteristics and which enabled him to produce an average of 2 operas annually, besides a lot of other compositions.

An unplanned extension of its pre-Royal Opera House era occurred during the years 1873 to 1877 when the Manoel Theatre regained some of its old glory after the barely seven-year old Royal Opera House, built to replace it, was ravaged by fire. This extension saw the presentation of Anton Nani’s comic opera Zorilla performed seven times during 1873-74 and again during the following season.

The first of the eight Maltese operas to be premiered at the Royal Opera House after its reconstruction and re-opening on 11 October 1877 was another Anton Nani opera, the imposing I Cavalieri di Malta (1877). The opera proved a sensation:

On Friday, 16th instant, Maestro Antonio Nani’s new opera ‘I Cavalieri di Malta’ was performed with brilliant success. The audience’s deepening approval developed into a veritable delirium at the end; a frenetic standing ovation was given to the composer and the singers. During the performance itself there was repeated applause, the composer was called on stage thirty-three times, five arias had to be encored. And after the opera the ovation continued outside the theatre and Maestro Nani was escorted to his house to continuous acclaim and the lighting of fireworks.
(Portafoglio Maltese, 19 January 1880, p. 3)
The opera...composed by our young and talented Mro. Antonio Nani, impressed everybody with its beauty... the theatre was packed to capacity: and the audience was astounded by the magnificence of its music — above all it tells a story based on our history.
(Il-Habbar Malti, 20 January 1880, p. 3)

Strong romanticism, appealing melody, colourful orchestration and vivid depiction of emotional states imprint I cavalieri di Malta (1880) and also Nani’s third opera Agnese Visconti (1889), premiered at the Royal Opera House on 13 January 1889 and make him the leading exponent of Maltese Romanticism. But perhaps his ‘operatic’ masterpiece, and here a parallel with Verdi might be probably drawn, was not meant for the theatre but for the church — his Requiem (1879), with its very powerful and full orchestral strokes, high rhythmic and structural inspiration and passages of great dignity and melodic seriousness, the single work that best represents Maltese Romanticism.

Attention should also be drawn to Ginevra di Monreale (1889), the work of Giuseppe Emanuele Bonavia, a student of Burlon in Malta and of Milan’s Conservatory where his teachers included Mazzucato and Bazzini. The opera was widely acclaimed in Malta but was not so successful at Milan’s La Scala.

In spite of a growing awareness and evaluation of the Maltese tongue, the libretti continued to utilise the Italian language, often acknowledged as the lingua franca of opera.

The last two Maltese operas performed in the Royal Opera House before its total devastation by Luftwaffe bombers on 7 April 1942 were Carlo Diacono’s much admired L’Alpino (1917) and Paolino Vassallo’s posthumous Miss Edith Cavell.

The highly-endowed Carlo Diacono (1876–1942) was the major talent among the many outstanding musical students of Paolino Vassallo and L’Alpino was the twelfth of the 15 different operas presented during season 1917–18, one of the longest on record, lasting between Wednesday, October 21, with the presentation of Puccini’s Tosca, and Sunday, June 2, with a final matinee performance of Verdi’s perennial favourite Rigoletto. L’Alpino was given 9 performances to full houses, general satisfaction and immense ovations and this auspicious start should surely have led to the composing of other operas. In fact Diacono wanted to write more, and even composed a skeleton vocal score for a one-acter called Villa Azzurra, based on a rather flimsy plot containing a mixture of romantic and bizarre elements set in a luxurious Mediterranean villa against an unconvincing backdrop of aviation experiments. But his determined search for a worthwhile libretto did not bear fruit with the consequence that L’Alpino remained the only opera he actually realized.

Paolino Vassallo (1856–1923), was the first Maltese to move away consciously from the dominating Italian influence on Maltese music. After local studies with Amore, Luigi Fenech and Giuseppe Spiteri Fremond, in 1875 he went to Paris, then at the height of French Romanticism, to continue his studies with Ernest Guiraud and Jules Massenet. His later work, as a result, exhibits the Gallic line of elegance, grace and verbalisation in its harmonic structure and mystical feeling.

Vassallo is one of the most charismatic figures in Maltese music, significantly influencing it not only through his own compositions, both sacred and secular such as his three operas, all premiered in the Royal Opera House, Amor Fatal (1898, a two-act reworking of his one-act opera Francesca da Rimini, Royal Opera House, 1888), Frasir (1905), based on Maltese history, and Edith Cavell (1926, posthumously), but especially by his teaching.

The Manoel Theatre, as the National Theatre, has only seen the premiere of 6 operas by Maltese composers - all the extant operas of Carmelo Pace (1906–1993) and two by Charles Camilleri (b. 1931). The librettos of Pace’s four operas are built on different epochs of Maltese history though it is only I Martiri that is based on actual historical fact — a dramatisation of the January 1799 abortive attempt by a group of Maltese, led by the charismatic Dun Mikiel Xerri, to attack the besieged French garrison from within Valletta itself. Pace donated the original manuscripts of his operas to the Manoel Theatre on 13 October 1988 and the donation was further enhanced by a deed Foundation for the Promotion of the Four Lyric Operas of Carmelo Pace. Unfortunately this deed has failed to promote the consistent revival of any of the operas. Historically, Pace is the most prolific of Maltese composers, with an ½uvre of 500-odd works. He can also be credited with being the first Maltese composer to explore classical instrumental and orchestral forms which previous Maltese composers had totally ignored.

Composer Charles Camilleri worked for many years in Australia, North America and the U.K. His permanent return to Malta in the mid-1980s came at a time of rising preoccupations with the soundscape of a region, in his case clearly the Mediterranean basin, and a composer’s ability to translate it into a meaningful musical language. His seminal treatise Mediterranean Music, written in the form of a dialogue with philosopher Peter Serracino Inglott, synthesizes these deliberations which found concrete configuration in his two ‘Maltese’ operas, Il-Weghda and Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa. Opera writing has continued to occupy his attention and the very controversial Campostella and Maltese Cross with their unusual sonorities, and a creativity that seeks to encompass the most permanent of human spiritual involvement have been the subject of a lot of heated controversy.

The latest operatic work by Charles Camilleri was premiered in a fully staged version on 3 August 2005 at the Valletta Waterfront. The exotic Elisabeth or To be a Mann, a 30-minute dialogue opera in five “acts” to another libretto by Peter Serracino Inglott, is scored for bass and soprano, and a chamber combination of violin, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and tuba. It marks another departure in the composer’s continuing search for fresh challenges and original solutions.

Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa, Maltese Cross and Elisabeth or To be a Mann are three of the only five operas to have been premiered outside the Royal Opera House and the Manoel Theatre. The other two are Mario Cirillo’s sequel to the story of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Il figlio del sole, presented at the Radio City Opera House in 1950 and Emmanuel Caruana’s Id-Dell tas-Sultan, a one-act melodrama presented in the same year at the Salesian Theatre and which has the distinction of being the first written to a libretto in Maltese.

A list of operas by Maltese composers executed abroad would be dominated by four names. Pride of place must naturally go to Nicolò Isouard with 2 operas written for Italy and 35, a few with joint authorship, for Paris, mainly for the Opéra Comique but performed in many other countries, especially Germany. Isouard’s place in the development of opéra- comique is widely acknowledged. Endowed with a remarkable flair for writing effective and melodic theatre music of originality, unadorned simplicity, popular appeal and outstanding ensemble construction, his style developed along more serious lines to reach a peak in his later works, the most important and characteristic probably being Joconde, last restaged at Beauvais on 5 March 1931, Les Rendez-vouz, last revived at the Opéra Comique on 14 October 1933, Jeannot et Colin perhaps his best work, and Cendrillon which was regularly performed in many countries until its gradual displacement, after 1820, by Rossini’s even more successful Cenerentola, its last revival being in December 1998 at the Stanislavsky-Nemirovich Danchenko Theatre in Moscow under the direction of Richard Bonynge when it was recorded on CD. The evolution of Rossini’s ensemble writing owes a great deal to Isouard and Cenerentola’s libretto is based on that of Etienne for Cendrillon. The admiration Rossini had for Isouard was acknowledged by Isouard’s daughter Anne Nicolette, known as Ninette Nicolò, (1814–76), composer in her own right, when she published her piece La plainte, op. 14, pour piano, for her friend and her father’s admirer G. Rossini. Additionally, she also dedicated the work to Rossini’s second wife Olympe Pelissier

Girolamo Abos and Isouard died when they had reached practically the same age just short of their 45th birthday. But like his later compatriot, Abos had accomplished a lot during his comparatively short life, most of it spent in Naples where as a young boy, he had been taken to study. Thereafter he followed the normal path of an 18th century Neapolitan composer — prolific and gifted composer of opere buffe and opere serie, cantatas, arias, sacred music and instrumental works, maestro-di-cappella of the Archbishop’s Cathedral and other Neapolitan churches and teacher in three of the four classical conservatories of Naples — that of dei Poveri di Gesu Cristo (between 1742–43), S. Onofrio a Capuana (between 1742–60) and della Pieta dei Turchini (between 1754–59) — where his students included Giovanni Paisiello, Antonio Boroni, Giacomo Tritto, Niccolò Piccinni, Giacomo Insanguine, Benigno Zerafa and Antonio Brunetti, all destined to become pre-eminent composers, and soprano castrato Giuseppe Aprile who later became the singing teacher of Domenico Cimarosa.

As a composer, he earned the admiration of the public and of important musicians including the mezzo-soprano castrato Caffarelli for whom he wrote the operas Arianno e Teseo (1748) and Tito Manlio (1751), his best and most popular, and the cantata L’arca del testamento (1747). Not a single one of his operas has been performed in Malta, the Artaserse and Demofoonte executed in the Manoel Theatre during 1735 and 1765 respectively being not by Abos but by German Johann Adolf Hasse.

Like Abos, Giuseppe Arena became one of the most important and distinguished composers of eighteenth-century Naples, designated celebre maestro in the libretto of Il vecchio deluso (1746), his most admired opera and a prime example of his ingenious creativity, solid craftsmanship and dynamic melodic direction. His most important claim to fame was his introduction, for the first time in its history, of more than four roles in the finale of the opera buffa.

Attention must next be drawn to the operas of Francesco Schira born in Valletta on 21 August, 1809 and baptised the same day in the Parish Church of Porto Salvo. A student of Francesco Basili and Gaetano Piantanida at the Milan Conservatory, he quickly rose to fame when his first opera, Elena e Malvina, written when he was 23 years old, was presented with pronounced success at La Scala. Then followed a period of travel, including an eight-year stay in Lisbon as director of Teatro S. Carlos, for which theatre he composed two well-received operas to librettos by Gaetano Rossi, Il fanatico per la musica (1835) and I cavalieri di Valenza (1837). In 1842, he moved to Paris but on December 26 of the same year, he conducted Bellini’s La sonnambula in the newly refurbished Princess’s Theatre in London where he now settled. He also conducted at Drury Lane and Covent Garden for which he wrote Kenilworth (1848), a grand opera in a prologue and two acts based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel. Kenilworth went into rehearsal during November 1848 with Sims Reeves as Leicester but was never performed. After 1852, Schira gave up conducting to concentrate on composing and teaching singing.

His most successful operas were his last two, Selvaggia (1875) and Lia(1876), premiered not in London but in Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. Selvaggia, on a text by G. T. Cimino, was enthusiastically received and its two main interpreters, soprano Giuseppina de Reschi, famous sister of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, in the title role, and Francesco Tamagno, perhaps the greatest tenore di forza of all time and sublime creator of Verdi’s Othello, in the part of Lamberto, were particularly effective. Schira died in London on October 15, 1883. As in the case of Abos, not a single one of the operas of this outstanding musician has been presented in his native land.

A paragraph in Frank Walker’s famous book, The Man Verdi, is well worth quoting:

It is fair to remember that Lavigna (Verdi’s teacher) made Verdi hire scores… and advised him to take a season ticket for the opera house where he would hear “how to treat dramatic music” by practical example. The operas performed at La Scala in this winter season, 1832–3, were Donna Caritea, Ismalia and Il conte d’Essex — all by Mercadante; Chiara di Rosemberg, Fernando Cortez and Il nuova Figaro — all by Luigi Ricci; Fausta by Donizetti; Caterina di Guisa by Carlo Coccia and Elena e Malvina by the Maltese composer Francesco Schira. It was on operas like these, totally unfamiliar today, that Verdi was brought up.

Of the eight known operas of Alessandro Curmi (1801–1857), also born in Valletta and also baptised in the Parish Church of Porto Salvo, six were performed abroad, the two premiered at the Manoel Theatre being Rob Roy (1832) and Il proscritto di Messina (1843). A student of Pietro Paolo Bugeja and a skilful pianist, in 1821 he became a student of the recently consolidated conservatory S Pietro a Majella (Collegio Reale di Musica) in Naples where he studied with Nicola Zingarelli, Giovanni Furno and Giacomo Tritto, a fellow student being Vincenzo Bellini. His first opera, Gustavo d’Orxa, was performed at the Teatro Nuovo, Naples, in 1827, followed, in 1930, by Aristodemo at the Teatro Pergola in Florence.

His most successful opera, Elodia di Herstall (1842), was presented at the celebrated San Carlo in Naples before an appreciative and illustrious audience. Noted historian and lawyer, Gio Antonio Vassallo, who knew Curmi personally and who is the authority from whom most of our knowledge of Curmi comes, described the success obtained in the following terms:

...the renowned opera “Elodia d’Herstall”... was staged during October of this year (1842) with truly strepitous success. Teatro S. Carlo resounded many times our talented maestro’s name, and he was also complimented by the royal family. It is not their habit to stay in the theatre till the end; but while attending the third performance of the Elodia, during which they were offered a copy of the libretto by the celebrated composer himself, His Majesty and the royal family remained till the final curtain, leading the concluding resounding applause. With each ongoing performance the merits of the Elodia became even more obvious, earning for the composer greater fame .
(L’Arte, Anno IV No. 89, 7 August 1866)

In an equally famous theatre, London’s Covent Garden, were premiered three new operas written to texts in French: La Rosière, La reine de fate and Lodoisca. These extended Curmi’s fame and, to quote Vassallo again:

... Curmi’s reputation as one of the leading contemporary composers led to his being commissioned while in Paris to compose operas for Covent Garden.

The revolution in France which led to the abdication of Louis Philippe in 1848 and the proclamation of the French Republic interfered however with these plans and, instead, Curmi wrote a symphonic poem in six scenes called La Rivoluzione, which, in 1853 was also heard in the Manoel Theatre. Curmi returned to Naples in 1857 to compose another opera for San Carlo but he died in April of the same year without having been given the time to complete the assignment.

First Published in The Theatre in Malta, ed. Cecilia Xuereb
(Patrimonju Publishing Ltd., Valletta, Malta, 1997)
Revised: 30 November 2008

Copyright: Joseph Vella Bondin
(Correspondence: jvb @

Joseph Vella Bondin is a leading Maltese musicologist. His writings include a two-volume history of music in Malta, Il-Muzika ta’ Malta sa l-Ahhar tas-Seklu Tmintax and Il-Muzika ta’ Malta fis-Sekli Dsatax u Ghoxrin, (PIN, Malta, 2001), and an edition of Girolamo Abos’s Stabat Mater (1750) which includes a landmark study of the composer and his work, (AR-Editions, Inc., Middleton, Wisconsin, USA, 2003). He is also a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition, ed. Stanley Sadie, (Macmillan Publishers Limited, London, 2001)

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13 Mar 2009