10 December 2017

Errico Petrella – opera composer

Sicilian whose popularity drew scorn from rivals

Errico Petrella's operas enjoyed great popularity in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s
Errico Petrella's operas enjoyed great popularity
in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s
The largely forgotten opera composer Errico Petrella, whose popularity in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s was second only to operatic giant Giuseppe Verdi, was born on this day in 1813 in Palermo.

His composed 25 works, mainly comedic or melodramatic in nature, and had a run of successes in the 1850s, when three of  his productions were premiered at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

However, Petrella attracted the scorn of both Verdi and another contemporary, the German composer Richard Wagner, both of whose careers coincided exactly with Petrella’s, even down to having been born in the same year.

When Il Duca di Scilla had its first performance at La Scala in March 1859, a year on from his hugely successful Jone, which also premiered at the Milan theatre, Wagner’s criticism could have hardly been more unflattering.

Asked his opinion of the work, Wagner said: “It is an unbelievably worthless and incompetent operatic effort by a modern composer whose name I have forgotten.”

Some years earlier, admittedly before Petrella had enjoyed much success at all, Verdi had been similarly scathing in his assessment of the 1951 opera Le Precauzioni, set against the background of the Venice Carnival, which made its debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.

Verdi claimed that Petrella 'did not know music' despite his popularity
Verdi claimed that Petrella 'did not
know music' despite his popularity
He wrote: “Petrella does not know music, and his masterpiece, Le Precauzioni, may please the orrechianti [people who love opera but cannot read music] for its several brilliant violin melodies, but as a work of art, it cannot stand up either to the great works or even operas like Crispino, Follia a Roma etc., etc [the latter being comic operas written by the Neapolitan Ricci brothers].”

Verdi was less rude than Wagner, but his words were equally damaging. Opera historians suspect that Verdi’s quarrel was with Petrella’s conception of opera, which had a lot in common with the Neapolitan school in general in that it was less demanding of the singers.

In fact, although born in Palermo, Petrella was effectively a Neapolitan himself, his father having been a naval officer from Naples who was based in Sicily.

Petrella attended the Naples Conservatory and his style almost certainly owed much to his teacher, the conservatory’s director, Nicolo Zingarelli, whose advice was to think first of the audience rather than trying to impress other composers.

Zingarelli told him: “If you sing in your compositions, rest assured that your music will be found pleasing. If you amass harmonies, double counterpoint, fugues, canons, notes, contranotes etc. instead, the musical world may applaud you after half a century or it may not; but the audience will certainly disapprove of you. They want melodies, melodies, always melodies.”

The libretto from Petrella's most famous work, Jone, published in 1858
The libretto from Petrella's most
famous work, Jone, published in 1858
Even though there was no argument about Verdi’s primacy among the composers of the day, there were clear signs of jealousy on the part of the northern Italian of his southern rival. Verdi even expressed his annoyance that Petrella wrote to Alessandro Manzoni seeking permission to write an opera based on the novel I promessi sposi and received a flattering letter in response.

However, Petrella’s Jone – set against the background of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii - was so popular it was produced as many as 600 times, compared with no more than 60 for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which premiered only a year earlier.

Petrella had needed to wait a long time to find success after making his theatre debut in 1929.

It was not until he had written half a dozen works to only modest acclaim that he began to attract attention. Il carnevale di Venezia, which had its premier at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples in May, 1851, is seen as the opera that put him on the map.

He followed this with Elena di Tolosa, which made its debut at the Teatro Fondo in August 1852, Marco Visconti (San Carlo, Naples, 1854), L'assedio di Leida (La Scala, 1856) and then Jone (La Scala, 1858), the premier of which was a major event in the operatic world, drawing appreciative audiences in Milan and beyond.

It became a regularly performed opera in Italy and remained so well into the 20th century, with productions around the world in venues as far flung as Melbourne, Calcutta, Jakarta, Santiago, Lima, Manila and Tbilisi.  His most critical reviews still derided his unashamed attempts to court popularity rather than treat opera as high art, but had to concede that he could write a good tune.

Petrella suffered from diabetes in later life and died in financial hardship in Genoa in 1877, aged 64.  Despite his outspoken comments, Verdi is said to have felt sorry for the plight of his fellow musician and sent him some money, although reputedly it did not arrive until after he had passed away.

His body was returned to Palermo, where he is buried in the church of San Domenico.

The impressive facade of the church of San Domenico,  the second most important church in Palermo
The impressive facade of the church of San Domenico,
the second most important church in Palermo
Travel tip:

The church of San Domenico in Piazza San Domenico is the second most important church in Palermo after the cathedral. Completed in 1770 on the site of previous churches built in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period.  The current church was designed by Andrea Cirrincione, who conceived the magnificent baroque façade, which was completed in 1726, with the bell tower added later. In 1853 it was declared the “pantheon of illustrious Sicilians” and contains the tombs of many of the island’s most notable figures, including the artist Pietro Novelli, the Risorgimento protagonist Francesco Crispi, the politician and revolutionary Ruggero Settimo and the anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.

Via Errico Petrella in Milan
Via Errico Petrella in Milan
Travel tip:

The memory of Errico Petrella is preserved in Milan in the name of a street linking Via Luigi Settembrini and Corso Buenos Aires in a residential area a few blocks from the central station. There is also a street in Turin that takes his name while there is a Teatro Errico Petrella in the pretty hill town of Longiano in Emilia-Romagna, situated about 30km (19 miles) southeast of Forlì.

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