14 June 2024

Francesco Morlacchi - composer

Umbrian popularised Italian opera in Dresden

Francesco Morlacchi's work in Dresden furthered the popularity of Italian opera
Francesco Morlacchi's work in Dresden
furthered the popularity of Italian opera
The composer Francesco Morlacchi, who spent much of his career working for the Saxon court in Dresden and helped popularise Italian opera not only in Germany but further afield, was born on this day in 1784 in Perugia.

Morlacchi composed more than 20 operas, the most successful of which is Tebaldo e Isolina, a romantic melodrama around a love affair between members of rival families, which had its premiere in Venice in 1822.

A contemporary of Gioachino Rossini, Morlacchi had the opportunity in the same year to succeed Rossini as the maestro di cappella of the royal theatres in Naples, including the Teatro di San Carlo opera house. However, he chose to remain in Dresden.

Morlacchi was born into a family of musicians. His father, Alessandro, was a violinist at Perugia’s Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, where his maternal great-uncle, Giovanni Mazzetti, was the organist.

He began composing at a young age, studying first under Mazzetti and later with the cathedral’s maestro di cappella, the Neapolitan Luigi Caruso. He furthered his education in Loreto in Marche with Niccolò Zingarelli, another Neapolitan. Eventually, he secured a place at the school of Stanislao Mattei in Bologna, where he met Rossini.

Morlacchi’s first significant success was the drama Corradino, which was staged at the Teatro Imperiale in Parma during the 1808 carnival. 

This success led to commissions from opera houses in Rome and Milan and it was another drama, Le Danaidi, which was performed at the Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1810 that attracted the attention of a music periodical in Leipzig.

A photograph of the original score of Tebaldo e Isolina, published by Ricordi in Milan in 1822
A photograph of the original score of Tebaldo
e Isolina
, published by Ricordi in Milan in 1822
The composer was encouraged by a singer of his acquaintance, the contralto Marietta Marcolini, to go to Dresden, where he was appointed deputy Kapellmeister in 1810. Following the success of his Raoul de Crequi at the court theatre in 1811, he was appointed music director for life.

His new duties slowed down his opera production to a degree. He was also expected to prepare much sacred music and occasional cantatas for ceremonial occasions. He was also faced with trying simultaneously to satisfy the conflicting desires of the court and those of the paying public. He was often given a hard time by the critics, who took the opportunity to attack the court’s favouring of the traditional over the innovations being introduced in German opera. 

His work in Dresden between 1816 and 1817 exemplified this in a series of operas written in the 18th century comic-style, including a Barber of Seville (1816) based on the old text set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782. This contrasted sharply with Rossini’s Barber of Seville, which also debuted in 1816, in which the music was set to a more casual and progressive text by Cesare Sterbini.

Morlacchi’s personal circumstances changed in 1816 when his wife, Anna Fabrizi, whom he had married in Perugia in 1805 and who moved with him to Dresden in 1810, decided she was tired of life in Germany and returned home.  Morlacchi established a new relationship with a woman called Augusta Bauer, with whom he is thought to have had four children in addition to the son he fathered with Anna. 

Morlacchi worked on several operas with the acclaimed 19th century librettist Felice Romani
Morlacchi worked on several operas with the
acclaimed 19th century librettist Felice Romani
Alongside his work for the court in Dresden, Morlacchi toured with his operatic works, including Boadicea at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (1818), Gianni di Parigi and Donna Aurora at Teatro alla Scala in Milan (1818 and 1821).

For Teatro La Fenice in Venice, he wrote Tebaldo and Isolina (1822), Ilda d'Avenel (1824) and I Saraceni in Sicilia(1828), as well as Colombo for the inaugural season of the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa (1828). 

The libretti for I Saraceni in Sicilia and Colombo were among several written for him by Felice Romani, a poet and scholar of literature and mythology who wrote for Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini and was considered to be a librettist comparable with Pietro Metastasio and Arrigo Boito.

The opera that enjoyed the most lasting success was Tebaldo e Isolina, appreciated by the public for the libretto by Gaetano Rossi and the masterful interpretation by the singers, in particular the tenor Gaetano Crivelli and the castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti. Over the next 10 years, the opera was performed in around 40 cities in Italy and abroad.

Morlacchi’s health declined in his later years but he continued to travel and was in Naples in 1839. By 1841 he was seriously ill but attempted to journey to Italy again, apparently wishing to see his wife again in Perugia. However, the journey proved too taxing and he died while staying in a hotel in Innsbruck in October, at the age of 57. 

He was interred in Innsbruck but in January 1842, a funeral was held in Perugia cathedral that included an address by Antonio Mezzanotte, the Perugian friend to whom the composer left all his music. 

In 1874, Perugia’s Verzaro theatre was renamed after him. In 1951 the remains were moved from Innsbruck to the cathedral of Perugia.

The Fontana Maggiore sits in front of Perugia's cathedral in Piazza IV Novembre
The Fontana Maggiore sits in front of Perugia's
cathedral in Piazza IV Novembre
Travel tip:

Perugia, where Francesco Morlacchi was born and where his remains are buried in the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, is an ancient city that sits on a high hilltop midway between Rome and Florence. In Etruscan times it was one of the most powerful cities of the period.  The capital of the Umbria region, It is also a university town with a long history, the University of Perugia having been founded in 1308.  The presence of the University for Foreigners and a number of smaller colleges gives Perugia a student population of more than 40,000.  The centre of the city, Piazza IV Novembre, which is where the cathedral is situated, has a mediaeval fountain, the Fontana Maggiore, which was sculpted by Nicolo and Giovanni Pisano.  The city’s imposing Basilica di San Domenico, built in the early 14th century also to designs by Giovanni Pisano, is the largest church in Umbria, with a distinctive 60m (197ft) bell tower and a 17th-century interior, designed by Carlo Maderno, lit by enormous stained-glass windows. The basilica contains the tomb of Pope Benedict XI, who died from poisoning in 1304.  The Teatro Morlacchi is about 300m from the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo in Piazza Francesco Morlacchi.

With a history of catastrophic fires, Venice's Teatro La Fenice is aptly named
With a history of catastrophic fires, Venice's
Teatro La Fenice is aptly named
Travel tip:

Teatro La Fenice in Venice, for which Morlacchi wrote his most successful opera, Tebaldo and Isolina, has had a fascinating history. The theatre, in Campo San Fantin, which is not far from Piazza San Marco, was named La Fenice, the Phoenix, when it was originally built in the 1790s, to reflect the fact it was helping an opera company rise from the ashes after its previous theatre had burnt down. But in 1836, La Fenice itself was destroyed by fire, although it was quickly rebuilt. Then in 1996, when the theatre burnt down again, arson was suspected, leading to a long criminal investigation. La Fenice had to be rebuilt once more at a cost of more than 90 million euros and was not able to reopen for performances until 2003.

Also on this day:

1497: The murder of Giovanni Borgia

1730: The birth of composer Antonio Sacchini

1800: The Battle of Marengo

1837: The death of poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi

1968: The death of Nobel Prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo


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