25 June 2021

Francesco Domenico Araja - composer

Brilliant musician introduced Italian opera to Russia

Francesco Araja, depicted in a caricature in 1731
Francesco Araja, depicted in a
caricature in 1731
Francesco Araja was the first in a long line of Italian composers to work for the Imperial Court in St Petersburg in Russia. Born on this day in 1709 in Naples, then in the Kingdom of Sicily, Araja received a musical education in his native city and was composing operas by the age of 20.

He made history as the composer of the first Italian opera to be performed in Russia and as the composer of the first opera with a Russian text.

It is thought that Araja was probably taught music by his father Angelo Araja and his grandfather Pietro Aniello Araja, who were both musicians. He was appointed maestro di cappella at the church of Santa Maria La Nova in Naples at the age of just 14.

Araja’s early operas were staged in Naples, Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice. His opera Berenice was performed in Florence in 1730, with the famous castrati, Farinelli and Caffarelli, singing the main roles in a new production in Venice in 1734.   

He was invited to St Petersburg in 1735 with a large Italian opera company and became the maestro di cappella to Empress Anna Ioannovna, and later to Empress Elizaveta Petrovna.

His opera, La forza dell’amore e dell’odio, staged in 1736, was the first Italian opera ever to be performed in Russia. It was translated into Russian and a printed booklet of the libretto was produced for the Russian audience. Araja is known to have written at least 14 operas while working for the Russian Imperial court.

Araja worked in St Petersburg from 1735 to 1759 and returned in 1762 before the fall of Tsar Peter III
Araja worked in St Petersburg from 1735 to 1759
and returned in 1762 before the fall of Tsar Peter III
In 1755, Araja composed Tsefal I Prokris, an opera in three acts, to the Russian language libretto by Alexander Sumarokov, which was based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was staged in St Petersburg and was the first opera to be sung by Russian singers.

To celebrate the success of this opera, Araja was given a generous sum of money and a sable coat by the Empress, Elizaveta Petrovna. This first opera in Russian was revived and staged in St Petersburg in 2001.

Araja returned to Italy in 1759 but was recalled to Russia for the coronation of Tsar Peter III in 1762. He was obliged to leave Russia soon after the overthrow of the German-born Peter III by troops loyal to his wife, who became known as Catherine the Great.

The composer spent his remaining years living in Bologna and died there at some time between 1762 and 1770.

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie stands on the theatre site
The church of Santa Maria delle
Grazie stands on the theatre site
Travel tip:

Although the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is frequently referred to as the world’s oldest opera house, a more correct description would be the world’s oldest active opera house. The first operas in Naples were actually performed at the Teatro San Bartolomeo. Built in 1620, the San Bartolomeo originally staged plays and other spoken word performances but by 1650, it was primarily an opera house. It introduced southern Italy to works composed by musicians such as Monteverdi and others from the north. The theatre burnt down in 1681, was reopened two years later but closed for good in 1737 when the San Carlo replaced it as the royal opera house in Naples. The San Bartolomeo was demolished to make way for the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, but remnants of the old theatre’s boxes can still be seen in the church, which is in vico Graziella al Porto, in the San Giuseppe CaritĂ  district.

The church of Santa Maria Nova, where Araja was maestro di cappella
The church of Santa Maria Nova,
where Araja was maestro di cappella
Travel tip:

The Church of Santa Maria la Nova in Naples is a Renaissance style, now-deconsecrated church and monastery that can be found in the street of the same name off Via Monteoliveto, which links Via Toledo with Via Armando Diaz in central Naples. It is a few blocks south of the church and monastery of Santa Chiara.  Nowadays, the Santa Maria La Nova complex houses various municipal offices, a museum of religious art and a tomb that some historians believe contains the remains of Vlades Tepes III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, the ruler of Wallachia - modern Romania - who inspired the name of Bram Stoker's famous literary vampire Count Dracula.

Also on this day:

1678: Elena Cornaro Piscopia becomes the first woman to graduate from a university

1900: The birth of actress Marta Abba, muse of Pirandello

1960: The birth of footballer Aldo Serena


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