28 May 2024

28 May

NEW - The night Maria Callas made an audience weep

La Scala witnesses a stunning performance

Maria Callas gave a stunning performance that has gone down in history as her greatest ever portrayal of Violetta in La traviata on this day in 1955 at La Scala opera house in Milan.  After the opening night of the production on 28 May, it was reported in the press that Callas had driven the audience into a frenzy with her wonderful singing and powerful acting as she played the part of Giuseppe Verdi’s doomed heroine, who was a beautiful courtesan.  The character of Violetta is considered by opera experts to be one of the three finest roles ever portrayed by Callas and it is ranked alongside her performances in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  The staging by director Luchino Visconti for the 1955 production of La traviata provided the perfect setting for Callas with its ornate décor and costumes.  The conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, later confessed that he had wept in the orchestra pit as she had sung.  At the end members of the audience cried out Callas’s name, sobbed uncontrollably and showered the stage with red roses, which the tearful singer picked up as she took a solo bow.  Read more...


The Last Supper goes back on display

Leonardo’s masterpiece put on show again at last

After more than 20 years of careful restoration, the world famous wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, was put back on display for visitors on this day in 1999.  The masterpiece, which shows the different expressions on the faces of the disciples at the moment Jesus says the words, ‘One of you will betray me’, was finally back where it belonged on the wall of the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.  Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, Leonardo began work on The Last Supper (known as Il Cenacolo in Italian) in 1495 and he completed it four years later. He felt traditional fresco painting techniques would not adequately capture the intensity he wanted so he experimented by painting on to dry plaster on the wall of the refectory.  But his new method was not as durable as the traditional one and the painting deteriorated quickly. By as early as 1556, the painting was described by one commentator as ‘ruined’.  Over the ensuing years it suffered from poor restoration techniques, blatant vandalism by French soldiers, having a doorway cut into it to provide a shortcut for the monks, and wartime bomb damage.  Read more…


Caravaggio and a death in Campo Marzio

Hot-tempered artist killed man in Rome in row over a woman

The brilliant late Renaissance artist Caravaggio committed the murder that would cause him to spend the remainder of his life on the run on this day in 1606.  Renowned for his fiery temperament and history of violent acts as well as for the extraordinary qualities of his paintings, Caravaggio is said to have killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, described in some history books as a ‘wealthy scoundrel’, in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome, not far from the Piazza Monte D'Oro.  The incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by order of the incumbent pope, Paul V, and then fleeing the city, first to Naples, eventually landing in Malta.  It was thought that the two had a row over a game of tennis, which was gaining popularity in Italy at the time, and that the dispute escalated into a brawl, which was not unusual for Caravaggio. The story was that Tomassoni wounded the painter in some way, at which Caravaggio drew a sword and lashed out at his rival, inflicting a gash in the thigh from which he bled to death.  This was accepted by historians as a plausible story for almost 400 years until evidence emerged to challenge the theory in 2002.  Read more…


Geminiano Giacomelli – composer

Farnese duke encouraged musician to develop his talent

One of the most popular composers of opera in the early 18th century in Italy, Geminiano Giacomelli (sometimes known as Jacomelli) was born on this day in 1692 at Colorno near Parma.  From 1724, when his opera Ipermestra was performed for the first time, up to his death in 1740, Giacomelli composed 19 operas.  His best known work was Cesare in Egitto (Caesar in Egypt),  which he produced in 1735.  As a young child he had studied singing, counterpoint and the harpsichord with Giovanni Maria Capelli, organist and composer at the Farnese court and maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Parma.  After moving to Piacenza, Giacomelli became maestro di cappella in the ducal parish of San Fermo. In 1719 he became maestro di cappella to the Farnese court and also at the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata. He wrote sacred music, including eight psalm settings for tenor and bass and some concertos with continuo.  Duke Francesco Farnese became Giacomelli’s protector and made him maestro di cappella for life at the church of San Giovanni in Piacenza with an annual salary.  He also allowed him time off to work on his operas.  Read more…


Leandro Jayarajah - cricketer

Father was a pioneer of game in Italy

Leandro Jayarajah, the former captain and head coach of Roma Capannelle Cricket Club, was born on this day in 1987 in Rome.  His father, Francis Alphonsus Jayarajah, usually known as Alfonso, is a Sri Lankan national who founded what became the Capannelle club in 1978 and was one of the pioneers of organised cricket in Italy.  Alfonso was co-founder in 1980 of the Federazione Cricket Italiana, under whose auspices an Italian cricket championship has been played since 1983.  Capannelle, which takes its name from the racecourse in Rome, the Ippodromo Capannelle, where the club plays its home matches, have been Serie A champions on several occasions, including under Leandro’s leadership in 2013.  The club began life as the Commonwealth Wandering Giants Cricket Club, changing its name when the chance to use the green space in the middle of the racecourse as a permanent home presented itself in 1983.  Leandro, a right-handed batsman who bowls off spin and occasionally keeps wicket, has followed his father into international cricket as a member of the Italy team, which is currently 28th in the world rankings.  Read more…


Luigi Capuana - author and journalist

Sicilian was leading figure in verismo movement

The author and journalist Luigi Capuana, one of the most important writers of the verismo movement that flourished in Italy in the late 19th century, was born on this day in 1839 in Mineo, a mediaeval town in southeast Sicily, in the province of Catania.  Verismo - meaning ‘realism’ - sought to portray society and humanity in the manner of a photograph, objectively representing life as it really was, stripped of romanticism, usually among the lower classes, using explicit descriptive detail and realistic dialogue.  Capuana, who was influenced by the French writers Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola, and his fellow Sicilian Giovanni Verga were two of the earliest advocates of the movement, which was at its peak in the final quarter of the 19th century.  It declined in popularity in the early 20th century but its principles were revived in the neorealism movement that dominated Italian cinema in the immediate years after World War II and is often cited as a golden age in the Italian film industry.  Capuana, whose best-known works were his novels Giacinta (1879), a psychological study of a wronged woman and Il marchese di Roccaverdina (1901), a study of guilt, was born into a wealthy family in Mineo.  Read more…


Muzio Attendolo Sforza - condottiero

Mercenary captain who founded Sforza dynasty

Muzio Attendolo Sforza, who is recognised as the founder of the Sforza dynasty that ruled the Duchy of Milan from 1450 to 1535, was born on this day in 1369 in Cotignola, a town in Emilia-Romagna about 25km (16 miles) west of Ravenna.  A career soldier who made his fortune as a mercenary captain - a condottiero - Muzio was a key figure in many of the wars between rival states across Northern Italy in the late 14th and early 15th century, eventually losing his life on the battlefield.  He acquired the name Sforza initially as a nickname but it was eventually adopted as a family name. His illegitimate son, Francesco, one of Muzio’s 16 known children, became the first Sforza Duke of Milan through his marriage to Bianca Maria Visconti, whose father, the last Visconti Duke of Milan, died without a male heir.  Some accounts have it that the Sforza family grew from peasant origins. Muzio, in fact, though from a rural background, was born into family with noble roots, who were relatively well off.  Given the name of Giacomo or Jacopo at birth, he was called Muzio because it had been the name by which his paternal grandfather, Giacomuzzo, was commonly known.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Verdi With a Vengeance: An Energetic Guide to the Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera, by William Berger

Everything you could possibly know about Verdi and his operas, from the brilliant and humorous author of Wagner Without Fear.  If you want to know why La traviata was actually a flop at its premiere in 1853, it's in here. If you want to know why claiming to have heard Bjorling's Chicago performance of Il trovatore is the classic opera fan faux pas, it's in here. Even if you just want to know how to pronounce Aida, or what the plot of Rigoletto is all about, this is the place to look. From the composer's intense hatred of priests to synopses of the operas and a detailed discography of the best recordings to buy, it can all be found in Verdi with a Vengeance. William Berger has given another improbable performance, serving up a book as thorough as it is funny and as original as it is astute, an utterly indispensable guide for novice and expert alike.  

William Berger is an American author, radio music host and commentator.  As well as Verdi With a Vengeance, he is the author of  Wagner Without Fear and Puccini Without Excuses.  Born in California. he now lives in New York, where he is the popular commentator for the Metropolitan Opera and hosts broadcasts on Met Opera Radio.

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