Showing posts with label Bellini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bellini. Show all posts

22 December 2018

Giovanni Bottesini - double bass virtuoso

Musician was also a composer and conductor

Giovanni Bottesini took up the double bass so he could attend Milan Conservatory
Giovanni Bottesini took up the double
bass so he could attend Milan Conservatory
The composer, conductor and double bassist Giovanni Bottesini was born on this day in 1821 in Crema, now a city in Lombardy although then part of the Austrian Empire.

He became such a brilliant and innovative performer on his chosen instrument that he became known as “the Paganini of the double bass” - a reference to the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, whose career was ending just as his was beginning.

Bottesini was one of the first bassists to adopt the French-style bow grip, previously used solely by violinists, violists and cellists.

He was also a respected conductor, often called upon to direct performances at the leading theatres in Europe and elsewhere, and a prolific composer, particularly in the last couple of decades of his life.

A close friend of Giuseppe Verdi, he wrote a dozen operas himself, music for chamber and full orchestras, and a considerable catalogue of pieces for double bass, for accompaniment by piano or full orchestra, or duets.

When conducting opera, Bottesini would often bring his double bass on stage to play fantasies based on the evening's opera, of his own composition, during the intermission. His fantasies on Gaetano Donizettis Lucia di Lammermoor and Vincenzo Bellinis I puritani and Beatrice di Tenda are outstanding pieces still played today by accomplished bassists.

Bottesini with the Testore bass that served him well through his career
Bottesini with the Testore bass that
served him well through his career
It was almost by accident that the double bass became Bottesini’s speciality.  Taught the basics of music by his father, Pietro, a clarinetist who played at Crema’s Teatro Sociale and the cathedral chapel, he began training for the violin from the age of five, working with a priest, Carlo Cogliati.

During his childhood, Giovanni is thought  to have played the kettle-drums in the orchestra of the Teatro Sociale as well as in theatre orchestras in Bergamo and Brescia. He also sang as boy soprano in the cathedral choir in Parma.

His father was keen for him to study at the Milan Conservatory, but the family were not wealthy and the only possibility of a place was to be granted a scholarship. As it happens, the only two positions available were for double bass and bassoon. Choosing the former, he had to learn to play the double bass to a respectable standard within days, yet did so and after an audition was granted a place.

In fact, he became so good so rapidly that only four years after starting his studies - much faster than with most students - Bottesini won a prize of 300 francs for solo playing. It was enough for him to buy an instrument made by the 18th century luthier Carlo Antonio Testore, and to launch his career.

He travelled abroad, spending time in the United States and in Cuba - then still part of Spain’s empire in South America - where he was the principal double-bass in the Italian opera at Havana, of which he later became director. His first opera, Cristoforo Colombo, was produced there in 1847.

Giuseppe Verdi recommended Bottesini as director of Parma Conservatory
Giuseppe Verdi recommended Bottesini
as director of Parma Conservatory
In 1849 he travelled for the first time to England, where he would become a frequent visitor.

As a conductor, Bottesini worked at the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris from 1855 to 1857. Between 1861 and 1862 he conducted in Palermo, and in 1863 went to Barcelona. In 1871 he conducted a season of Italian opera at the Lyceum theatre in London and he was chosen by Verdi to conduct the first performance of Aida, which took place in Cairo on December 27, 1871.

Bottesini's bass, which was noted for the purity of the sound he was able to produce with it, was built by Testore in 1716. The instrument was owned previously by several unknown bass players before Bottesini paid 900 lire for it in 1838. It is now owned by a private collector in Japan.

In 1888, Bottesini was appointed director of Parma Conservatory on Verdi's recommendation. The following year, he died in Parma at the age of 67.

The Duomo at Crema, a short distance from the street in which Bottesini grew up
The Duomo at Crema, a short distance from
the street in which Bottesini grew up
Travel tip:

Crema, a small city that sits on the banks of the Serio river about 50km (31 miles) east of Milan, has an attractive historic centre built around the Piazza del Duomo.  Apart from the cathedral itself, built in Lombard Gothic style in the 14th century with a tall bell tower completed in 1604, the Palazzo Pretorio and the Palazzo Comunale can also be found off the square. The Teatro Sociale, the only surviving part of which stands in Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, a short distance from the Duomo, was destroyed in a fire in 1937. Bottesini grew up in a house in Via Carrera, within a short walk of both the theatre and the cathedral. The city’s other attractions include the circular 16th century Basilica of Santa Maria della Croce.

The Conservatorio Arrigo Boito in Parma, where Bottesini was director
The Conservatorio Arrigo Boito in
Parma, where Bottesini was director
Travel tip:

Parma, where Bottesini spent his last months, is an historic city in the Emilia-Romagna region, famous for its Prosciutto di Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, the true ‘parmesan’. In 1545 the city was given as a duchy to the illegitimate son of Pope Paul III, whose descendants ruled Parma till 1731. The composer, Verdi, was born near Parma at Bussetto and the city has a prestigious opera house, the Teatro Regio. The Conservatory, named in honour of Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretti for many of Verdi’s operas, is on Strada Conservatorio.

Search TripAdvisor for hotels in Parma

More reading:

The Venetian who became the best double bass player in Europe

The jealous streak of composer Giovanni Paisello

The short but brilliant career of Vincenzo Bellini

Also on this day:

1858: The birth of the brilliant composer Giacomo Puccini

1908: The birth of sculptor Giacomo Manzù

1963: The birth of footballer Giuseppe Bergomi


22 May 2018

Giulia Grisi - operatic soprano

Officer’s daughter became a star on three continents

Giulia Grisi appears as Norma in Vincenzo Bellini's opera of the same name
Giulia Grisi appears as Norma in Vincenzo
Bellini's opera of the same name
The opera singer Giulia Grisi, one of the leading sopranos of the 19th century, was born on this day in 1811 in Milan.

Renowned for the smooth sweetness of her voice, Grisi sang to full houses in Europe, the United States and South America during a career spanning 30 years in which composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti created roles especially for her.

These included Elvira in Bellini’s final opera, I puritani, in which Grisi appeared alongside the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, the bass Luigi Lablache and the baritone Antonio Tamburini when the work premiered in Paris in 1835.

The opera was such a success that whenever the four singers performed together subsequently they were known as the “Puritani quartet”.

Grisi was also the first soprano cast in the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma in Milan in 1831, playing opposite Giuditta Pasta in the title role.

Donizetti wrote the parts of Norina and Ernesto in his 1843 work Don Pasquale for Grisi and her future husband, the tenor Giovanni Matteo De Candia, usually known by his stage name of Giovanni Mario. Lablache and Tamburini again starred with her in the Paris premiere.

Giulia Grisi (right), with her sister Giuditta
Giulia Grisi (right), with her sister Giuditta, who was
also an accomplished singer
Grisi was the daughter of Gaetano Grisi, an Italian officer in the service of Napoleon. She had music in her blood. Her maternal aunt, Giuseppina Grassini, had been a popular opera singer, in Europe and in London, while her sister Giuditta also sang and her cousin Carlotta was a ballet dancer.

After being trained with a musical career in mind, Grisi made her stage debut as Emma in Gioachino Rossini's Zelmira at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in 1828.

Rossini took her to Paris in the title role of Semiramide in 1832 and after her success there she made her debut in London in 1834 as Ninetta in the same composer’s La gazza ladra.

Grisi, who had no shortage of male admirers, had a complicated personal life. Her first marriage to Count Gérard de Melcy, whom she wed in 1836, was an unhappy one but he refused her request for a divorce.

Two years after they were married her husband was furious to discover a letter written to her by Lord Castlereagh, the future 4th Marquess of Londonderry. The two fought a duel in which Lord Castlereagh was wounded in the wrist.

Grisi's second husband, the tenor Giovanni Mario
Grisi's second husband, the tenor
Giovanni Mario
The duel prompted Grisi to leave her husband and begin an affair with Lord Castlereagh, with whom she had a son, George Frederick Ormsby. But the relationship petered out.  George was brought up by his father, although Grisi was allowed to see him when she visited England.

The real love of her life was Mario, her professional as well as romantic partner.  Together, they helped establish Italian opera as an important component of the London music scene.  When they toured the United States in 1854, after they were married, where they were lauded as celebrities.

They lived together in Paris and London before Grisi at last was granted her wish for a divorce they were able to marry. They returned to Italy and lived at the Villa Salviati in Florence, a property Mario had purchased in 1849, where they brought up six daughters and regularly entertained guests from the world of opera and the aristocracy.

Tragically, Grisi died in 1869 after the train on which she was travelling to St Petersburg suffered an accident passing through Germany. Grisi was taken to hospital in Berlin but did not recover from her injuries.  Her husband took her body to Paris, where she was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery. Her tomb is marked with the inscription "Juliette de Candia".

The Teatro Comunale in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi in Bologna
The Teatro Comunale in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi in Bologna
Travel tip:

Grisi made her stage debut at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, which remains one of the most important opera venues in Italy. Typically, it presents eight operas with six performances during its November to April season.  Various opera venues in the city had either fallen into disuse or burnt down and it was after the Teatro Malvesi succumbed to fire in 1745 that the Nuovo Teatro Pubblico, as the Teatro Comunale was first called, was opened in May 1763.

The Villa Salviati, the former castle where Grisi and Giovanni  Mario made their home on returning from the United States
The Villa Salviati, the former castle where Grisi and Giovanni
 Mario made their home on returning from the United States
Travel tip:

Grisi and Mario’s grand home in Florence, the Villa Salviati, was built on the site of the Castle of Montegonzi about 7km (4.5 miles) north of the centre of the city, by Cardinal Alamanno Salviati, who in turn gave it to Jacopo Salviati, the son-in-law of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent). It changed hands a number of times before being purchased by Giovanni Mario from an Englishman, Arturo Vansittard.  In 2000 it was purchased by the Italian government and now houses the historical archives of the European Union.

Also on this day:

1762: The Trevi Fountain is opened in Rome

1963: AC Milan's historic first European Cup triumph


22 April 2018

Fiorenza Cossotto - operatic mezzo-soprano

Career overshadowed by story of ‘row’ with Maria Callas

Fiorenza Cossotto is considered among the finest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century
Fiorenza Cossotto is considered among the
finest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century
Fiorenza Cossotto, a singer considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1935 in Crescentino in Piedmont.

Cossotto was hailed for her interpretations of the major mezzo and contralto roles from mid-19th-century Italian operas, particularly those of Giuseppe Verdi such as Aida, Il trovatore and Don Carlos, but also Gaetano Donizetti, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini and the other important composers of the day.

Yet she is often remembered for a supposed spat with Maria Callas that led the Greek-American soprano to walk off the stage during her final performance at the Opéra in Paris of her signature role in Bellini’s Norma in 1965.

The incident in question took place immediately after Callas, as Norma, and Cossotto, as Adalgisa, had joined in their duet ‘Mira, o Norma’.

Callas, by that stage a little below her prime, was notoriously temperamental and within moments onlookers were imagining a row, theorising that Cossotto had tried to sabotage Callas’s performance by holding her own high notes longer and singing over Callas.

It did not help that Franco Zeffirelli, whose production it was, and at least one other member of the cast, would not deny that this had happened.

Cossotto led a long and highly successful career
Cossotto led a long and highly
successful career
Cossotto herself, now entering her 84th year, insists that the story is a fabrication concocted “to enrich books and articles” and that she was trying only to help Callas, who was unwell with a cold but felt obliged to sing because Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping tycoon with whom she shared her life, had brought with him his entire entourage to witness the performance.

In interviews many years later she said that when Callas tried to sing the high ‘C’ required of her in the piece no sound came out. She said: “I thought it was better I sing my ‘A’ calmly so people won't notice, just in case. Instead, they started to say, 'Look, she sings when the other one doesn't sing anymore!'”

Cossotto also claims that Callas, whom she counted as a friend, not only asked for her in person to be Adalgisa to her Norma in the production but, during the performance, asked her not to leave the theatre after her involvement ended so that they could take the curtain calls together, something she would not have done had the two been at odds.

As a girl, Cossotto attended the Turin Academy of Music and studied with Mercedes Llopart. She made her operatic debut in the world premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites in 1957 at La Scala in Milan. Her part was so small he had only one line to deliver.

Maria Callas: Cossotto denied that the two fell out, insisting they were good friends
Maria Callas: Cossotto denied that the two
fell out, insisting they were good friends
Her international debut came at the 1958 Wexford Festival as Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti's Anna Bolena and she performed at Covent Garden for the first time in 1959 as Neris in Luigi Cherubini's Médée, with Callas in the title role.

Cossotto began to attract wide acclaim following her 1962 performance of the lead in Donizetti’s La favorita at La Scala. She made her American debut in the same role in 1964 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and as Amneris at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968.

In two spells at the Met, in 1967–68 and 1988–89, Cossotto gave 148 performances.

During her career, she was Adalgisa alongside the Normas of Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer, Elinor Ross and Elena Souliotis, although she said she drew more satisfaction from singing Amneris in Aida and Azucena in Il trovatore.

Cossotto was married to the Italian bass Ivo Vinco until they divorced after more than 40 years together.  They had a son, Roberto.

She celebrated her 70th birthday in 2005 by appearing in Giacomo Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica at the Théâtre Royal in Liège, Belgium.  Since retiring as a performer, she has accepted a number of invitations to teach.

She still lives in Crescentino, as does her son and his family.  Ivo Vinco died in 2014.

Crescentino, with the rice fields in the distance
Crescentino, with the rice fields in the distance
Travel tip:

Crescentino is a village in the province of Vercelli in Piedmont, located about 35km (22 miles) northeast of Turin and about 30km (19 miles) southwest of Vercelli.  Some of the village was destroyed during the Second World War when houses were set on fire by German troops as part of an ongoing conflict with Italian partisans. After the war the area prospered through rice production in the Po Valley.  The main square, Piazza Vische, contains a 13th century church and the 31m Civic Tower. On the outskirts of the village is the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Palazzo.

The Piazza Cavour in Vercelli
The Piazza Cavour in Vercelli
Travel tip:

The rice fields of the Po Valley form the largest rice production area in the whole of Europe, mainly centred on the province of Vercelli, between Milan and Turin, in which the town of Vercelli is surrounded in the summer months by submerged paddy fields, for which water is supplied by a canal from the Po River.  Rice has been grown in the area since the 15th century.

More reading:

The diva who came to blows with a rival on stage

How Franco Zeffirelli bestrode the opera and the cinema

Verdi: When Italy mourned the loss of a national icon

Also on this day:

1891: The birth of racing car engine designer Vittorio Jano

2006: The death of actress Alida Valli


6 December 2017

Luigi Lablache – opera star

19th century giant was Queen Victoria’s singing coach

Luigi Lablache appeared in his first major role at the age of 18
Luigi Lablache appeared in his first
major role at the age of 18
The singer Luigi Lablache, whose powerful but agile bass-baritone voice and wide-ranging acting skills made him a superstar of 19th century opera, was born in Naples on this day in 1794.

Lablache was considered one of the greatest singers of his generation; for his interpretation of characters such as Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Geronimo in Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, Gottardo the Podestà in Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra, Henry VIII in Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Oroveso in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma he had few peers.

Donizetti created the role of Don Pasquale in his comic opera of the same name specifically for Lablache.

Lablache performed in all of Italy’s major opera houses and was a star too in Vienna, London, St Petersburg and Paris, which he adopted as his home in later life, having acquired a beautiful country house at Maisons-Laffitte, just outside the French capital. 

Lablache was a man of not  inconsiderable girth
Lablache was a man of not
inconsiderable girth
He was approached to give singing lessons to the future Queen Victoria a year before she inherited the English throne, in 1836.  He found the future queen to have a clear soprano voice and a keen interest in music and opera and they developed a close bond, establishing an arrangement that would continue every summer for 20 years, coming to an end only when Lablache’s health began to decline.

Lablache’s father was a French merchant, Nicolas Lablache, who had fled Marseille during the Revolution.  His mother was an Irish woman.  They were well connected, and when his father died Luigi and his mother were helped by Joseph Bonaparte, a French diplomat whose elder brother, Napoleon, would eventually make King of Naples.

Luigi was sent to the Conservatorio della Pietà de’ Turchini in Naples, where he was taught singing and became proficient at playing the violin and cello.  His burning ambition at the time was to act and several times he ran away from the conservatory, hoping to join a theatre troupe, but each time was brought back, not least because he had revealed himself to have a wonderful voice, at that time a contralto.

Before it broke, he sang the solos in Mozart’s Requiem at the funeral of Joseph Haydn.  Later in life, he would sing at the funerals of Beethoven, Chopin and Bellini.

Once it had broken, his voice developed rapidly. In 1812, at just 18 years of age, he was engaged at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, and appeared in Valentino Fioravanti's La Molinara.

Lablache in Donizetti's Don Pasquale
Lablache in Donizetti's Don Pasquale
He sang in Palermo from 1812 to 1817, when he moved to Teatro alla Scala in Milan to take the part of Dandini in Rossini's La Cenerentola.

His reputation spread throughout Europe.  From Milan he went to Turin, back to Milan in 1822 and then to Vienna via Venice. Returning to Naples after 20 years away, he gave a sensational performance as Assur in Rossini's Semiramide. In March 1830 he was first heard in London as Geronimo in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto and from that year forward he would visit London annually.

Despite his physical size and the natural power of his voice, Lablache had the dexterity to produce comic, humorous, tender or sorrowful effects when requred and was versatile enough as an actor to be equally convincing in comic and dramatic parts.

While his size was arguably an asset to his vocal power, he was naturally of a lazy disposition and it is said he would have been content had he been nothing more than a provincial singer.

He was cajoled and encouraged to realise his potential largely by his wife, the singer Teresa Pinotti, whom he married when he was just 18 and who bore him 13 children.  Several of his children became singers themselves.  His descendants include the English-born Hollywood actor, Stewart Granger, who was his great-great-grandson.

His health began to deteriorate in around 1857 and he returned to Naples, taking a house in Posillipo in the hope that the warm southern Italian climate might reduce his tendency to develop chest infections.  The relief was only temporary, however, and he died in Naples in 1858 at the age of 64.

His body was returned to France and he was buried at Maisons-Laffitte in accordance with his wishes.

Villa Donn'Anna was built right on the sea's edge
Villa Donn'Anna was built right on the sea's edge
Travel tip:

Posillipo is a residential quarter of Naples that has been associated with wealth in the city since Roman times. Built on a hillside that descends gradually towards the sea, it offers panoramic views across the Bay of Naples towards Vesuvius and has been a popular place to build summer villas. Some houses were built right on the sea’s edge, such as the historic Villa Donn’Anna, which can be found at the start of the Posillipo coast near the harbour at Mergellina.

Teatro San Carlo has been open for business since 1737
Teatro San Carlo has been open for business since 1737
Travel tip:

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, where Lablache made his debut at the age of 18, is the oldest continually active venue for public opera performances in the world, having opened in 1737, more than 40 years ahead of both La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice.  It was also, when it opened, the largest opera venue in the world, with the capacity to accommodate 3,000 spectators, a large number of whom would be standing but of whom 1,379 would have seats, including those occupying the 184 boxes, arranged in a six-tier horseshoe around the stage.

30 October 2017

Antonino Votto – conductor

Outstanding operatic conductor made recordings with Callas

Antonino Votto was regarded as one of the finest conductors of his era
Antonino Votto was regarded as one of the finest
conductors of his era
Operatic conductor Antonino Votto was born on this day in 1896 in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.

He became famous in the 1950s because he conducted the orchestra for the acclaimed recordings made by soprano Maria Callas for EMI.

Votto was also considered one of the leading operatic conductors of his time on account of his performances at La Scala in Milan, where he worked regularly for nearly 20 years.

After Votto had attended the Naples conservatory for his music studies he went to work at La Scala, where he became an assistant conductor to Arturo Toscanini.

He made his official debut there in 1923, leading a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

Votto went on to build a reputation as one of the most outstanding conductors of Italian opera, appearing at many other operatic venues in Italy and abroad.

Votto taught at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan
Votto taught at the Giuseppe Verdi
conservatory in Milan
In 1941 he began teaching at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan as the war limited operatic activity in Italy and in most parts of Europe.

One of his students was the present day Italian orchestra conductor, Riccardo Muti.

Recordings of Votto conducting opera live in the theatre were a great success. He conducted Bellini’s Norma in 1955 with Callas at La Scala and La Sonnambula in 1957 with Callas in Cologne. These are both considered to be great performances.

Votto also made a series of highly successful studio recordings in the 1950s with Callas, based on productions that had been staged at La Scala. Their collaborations for EMI on Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1956 and Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 1957 were enthusiastically received by both the critics and the public.

Votto made his debut at Covent Garden in 1924 with performances of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.

His American debut came in 1960 when he appeared at the Chicago Opera House conducting Verdi’s Aida and Don Carlo.

Votto continued conducting at La Scala until 1967 and died in Milan in 1985.

The bronze statue of Ranuccio II Farnese by Francesco Mochi is a feature of Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza
The bronze statue of Ranuccio II Farnese by Francesco
Mochi is a feature of Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Votto was born, is a city in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.

Teatro alla Scala is Italy's most prestigious opera house
Teatro alla Scala is Italy's most prestigious opera house
Travel tip:

Teatro alla Scala, where Votto conducted for 20 years, is in Piazza della Scala in the centre of Milan across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with cafes, shops and restaurants. It was built to link Piazza della Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza della Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and the days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

18 May 2017

Ezio Pinza - opera and Broadway star

Poor boy from Rome who made his home at the Met

Ezio Pinza
The opera star Ezio Pinza, who had 22 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1926 to 1948 and sang to great acclaim at many other of the world’s most famous opera houses, was born on this day in 1892 in Rome.

Pinza, a bass who was blessed with a smooth and rich voice and matinee idol looks, also had a successful career in musical theatre on Broadway and appeared in a number of Hollywood films.

Born Fortunio Pinza in relative poverty in Rome, he was the seventh child born to his parents Cesare and Clelia but the first to survive.  He was brought up many miles away in Ravenna, which is close to the Adriatic coast, about 85km (53 miles) from Bologna and 144km (90 miles) from Venice.

He dropped out of Ravenna University but studied singing at Bologna’s Conservatorio Martini and made his opera debut at Cremona in 1914 in Bellini’s Norma.

Pinza signed up to fight for his country in the First World War, after which he resumed his career in 1919. Within a short time he was invited to perform at Italy’s most prestigious opera house, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where he came under the baton of the brilliant but demanding conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

Toscanini recognised his talent and under his guidance, Pinza began to prosper. For a bass his voice had unusual beauty and Pinza had a great drive to make the most of the opportunity it gave him.

Ezio Pinza in the Broadway production of South
Pacific that made his name in musical theatre
His family’s circumstances had meant that he missed out on a formal education.  As a consequence, he was not able to read music, yet he had a sharp ear. He would listen to his part played on the piano and then sing it accurately, even picking up stylistic nuances.

Seen as a successor to the great Italian basses Francesco Navarini, Vittorio Arimondi and Nazzareno De Angelis, by November 1926 he had been invited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut in Spontini's La vestale, which starred the popular American soprano Rosa Ponselle in the title role.

As he became established, Pinza became associated with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Figaro and Sarastro, as well as many roles in the Italian operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which was sung in Italian.

Engagements at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, soon followed. He sang in London from 1930 to 1939 and was invited to sing at the Salzburg Festival in 1934-1937 by the German conductor Bruno Walter.

Like many Italians, he felt at home in America. Pinza sang again under the baton of Toscanini in 1935, this time with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall as the bass soloist in performances of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, one of which was broadcast on radio and recorded.

His life was rudely interrupted in 1942 after America had entered the Second World War.  All Italians and Germans living in the United States came under close scrutiny from the authorities and Pinza was accused of having a connection with Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator.

With no warning, plain clothes FBI officers arrived at his house at Mamaroneck in Westchester County, overlooking Long Island Sound, and arrested him. After being taken to the Foley Square courthouse in Manhattan, where he was not allowed an attorney, he was detained at Ellis Island.

Pinza was only four months away from being granted his American citizenship and, fortunately for him, his fame afforded him more consideration than most of his compatriots and he was allowed to go free again after 12 weeks.

Pinza's grave
After the war, he announced his retirement from opera in 1948, when the Metropolitan Opera honoured him by naming the fountains at the new Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Centre after him.

He was not finished as a singer. Embarking on a second career in Broadway musicals, he achieved more success. His role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, in which the lead male part of the French planter Emil de Becque and the classic song Some Enchanted Evening were created specifically for him, turned him into a still bigger celebrity. In 1950, he received a Tony Award for best lead actor in a musical.

The fame brought him movie and television work and enabled him to buy a plush house next to the golf course at Westchester Country Club at Rye, where he was a member.  Sadly, he died suddenly in 1957 at the age of 64, having suffered a stroke. He is buried at Putnam Cemetery at Greenwich, Connecticut.

Travel tip:

Ravenna was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until its collapse in 406. The city’s Basilica of San Vitale, one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture, is famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside Turkey, including masterpieces studded with gold, emerald and sapphire. The city was where the poet Dante lived in exile until his death in 1321. His tomb can be found in the Basilica of San Francesco, and the pretty Piazza del Popolo.

Travel tip:

The Conservatorio Martini, where Pinza received his formal musical education, can be found in Bologna’s Piazza Rossini, adjacent to the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, about 10 minutes’ walk from the city’s central square, Piazza Maggiore. Opened in 1804 as the Liceo Filarmonico di Bologna, its prestige was enhanced by its association with the composer Gioachino Rossini, who had attended the conservatory as a student, and returned later in life as a consultant.

23 February 2017

Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter

Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

A self-portrait of Gentile Bellini which he is  thought to have drawn in 1496
A self-portrait of Gentile Bellini which he is
thought to have drawn in 1496
Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.

The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.

Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.

He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.

Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.

Gentile Bellini's Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo can be found at the Galleria dell'Accademia
Gentile Bellini's Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of
San Lorenzo
can be found at the Galleria dell'Accademia 
He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as the The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.  His contribution included the Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco (1496) and the Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo (1500), which includes a self-portrait and a portrait of his brother, Giovanni.

Gentile was despatched by the Venetian senate to Turkey in 1479. Mehmed II had been interested for many years in the art and culture of Italy and one of his life's wishes was to have his portrait painted by an Italian.  It is certain that Gentile would have executed at least one, possibly more.  The portrait of Mehmed in the National Gallery has for many years been attributed to Gentile, although there are some who question that assumption.

His painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria, which was completed by Giovanni after Gentile's death, has an Oriental flavour influenced by his time there. Saint Mark, the patron of Venice, was from Alexandria.

Gentile Bellini's painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria
Gentile Bellini's painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria
Back in Venice, Gentile Bellini was an early teacher of Titian, although they were said to have had a difficult relationship and Titian found his adherence to conventions somewhat restricting.  He is said to have preferred to learn from Giovanni, although soon afterwards he went to work with Giorgione.

Some 70 years after his death, a large fire at the Doge's Palace in Venice destroyed some of Gentile's most notable work, although there are several examples preserved in galleries around the world, notably in the United States and in London as well as Italy.

Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria is in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, while the Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco and the Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo can both be found in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice.

Two of his portraits of the Doges - of Giovanni Mocenigo and Leonardo Loredan - are housed in the Museo Correr in Venice. Another in the series, of Pasquale Malipiero, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  The Frick Collection in New York has another portrait of Giovanni Mocenigo; another of Leonardo Loredan can be seen in the Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

The entrance to the Galleria dell'Accademia in Campo della Carità in the Dorsoduro district of Venice
The entrance to the Galleria dell'Accademia in Campo
della Carità in the Dorsoduro district of Venice
Travel tip:

The Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice is housed in the Scuola della Carità on the south bank of the Grand Canal, in the Dorsoduro district. It evolved from the gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, from which it became independent in 1879.  The church of Santa Maria and the monastery of the Canonici Lateranensi, built by Andrea Palladio, are integral parts of the Accademia. As well as works by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, its collection includes paintings by Canaletto, Carpaccio, Guardi, Giorgione, Longhi, Lotto, Mantegna, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Vasari and Leonardo da Vinci.  Opening hours are 8.15am to 2pm on Mondays, 8.15am to 7.15pm on Tuesday to Sunday.

Hotels in Venice from

The Museo Correr in St Mark's Square has a substantial collection of Venetian works of art
The Museo Correr in St Mark's Square has a substantial
collection of Venetian works of art
Travel tip:

Venice's Museo Correr is located on the south side of Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square) on the upper floors of the Procuratorie Nuove.  The museum originated with the collection bequeathed to the city of Venice in 1830 by Teodoro Correr, a member of a prestigious Venetian family who dedicated most of his life to the collection of works of art, documents and objects that reflected the history of Venice, which he donated to the city after his death. Museo Correr is open from 10am to 5pm from November 1 to March 31 and from 10am to 7pm from April 1 to October 31.

More reading:

Why Titian was a giant of Renaissance art in Venice

How Andrea Mantegna pioneered use of perspective

The boundless energy of Tintoretto

Also on this day:

24 October 2016

Tito Gobbi – baritone

Singer found fame on both stage and screen

Tito Gobbi, pictured in 1955
Tito Gobbi, pictured in 1955
Opera singer Tito Gobbi was born on this day in 1913 in Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto region.

He had a career that lasted 44 years and sang more than 100 different operatic roles on stages all over the world.

Gobbi also sang in 25 films and towards the end of his career directed opera productions throughout Europe and America.

His singing talent was discovered by a family friend while he was studying law at the University of Padua, who suggested that he studied singing instead. As a result, Gobbi moved to Rome in 1932 to study under the tenor, Giulio Crimi.

At his first audition he was accompanied at the piano by Tilde De Rensis, the daughter of musicologist Raphael De Rensis. She was later to become Gobbi’s wife.

Gobbi made his debut in 1935 in Gubbio, singing the role of Count Rodolfo in Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula, and then went to work for a season at La Scala in Milan as an understudy, which gained him valuable experience.

He made his first appearance on stage there as the Herald in Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Orseolo.

Listen to Tito Gobbi singing Di provenza il mar il suol from Verdi's La Traviata

In 1942 he sang the role of Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at La Scala, conducted by Tullio Serafin.

Gobbi was guided by Serafin in preparing roles, which was to be invaluable later in his career when he was cast as Scarpia, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra.

The movie poster for the Italian version of the British film The Glass Mountain
The movie poster for the Italian version
of the British film The Glass Mountain
He began working in films as early as 1938 when he appeared in Cilea’s L’arlesiana with Licia Albanese.

After the Second World War, Gobbi’s international career took off and he sang at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the Lyric Opera in Chicago and the San Francisco Opera house.

He made his debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York as Scarpia in Tosca.

His screen appearances continued and he starred with Anna Magnani in a contemporary drama released in 1946, Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma (Before Him All Rome Trembled), a story which sees a group of opera singers appearing in a production of Tosca in Rome in 1944 simultaneously taking part in Italian resistance actions against the Germans.

Gobbi's performance in 1949 in the British film, The Glass Mountain, which was set in wartime Italy, made him known to a much wider audience. The theme music, Legend of the Glass Mountain, which became a contemporary hit, was by the Italian composer Nino Rota.

Tito Gobbi pictured in London in 1970
Tito Gobbi pictured in London in 1973
In the 1960s, Gobbi began directing, staging Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at both Covent Garden and in Chicago.

He directed Otello in California, Chicago and Thessalonika in Greece and Gianni Schicchi by Puccini in Florence, at the Edinburgh Festival, and in Chicago, Zurich and Monaco.

Gobbi estimated that he had sung the part of Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca nearly a thousand times.

He sang it in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the opera at Covent Garden in 1964, when Maria Callas sang the title role and Act Two was broadcast live on British television.

Gobbi and Callas had previously sung Tosca together in a 1953 recording of the Opera in Milan, when Giuseppe di Stefano sang Cavaradossi. That recording, which has been reissued on CD, is considered the finest recording of a complete opera ever made.

In retirement the singer wrote two books, Tito Gobbi: My Life  and Tito Gobbi on his World of Italian Opera. After retiring in 1979, Gobbi died in Rome in 1984 at the age of 70.

Palladio's Ponte degli Alpini in Bassano del Grappa
Palladio's Ponte degli Alpini in Bassano del Grappa
Travel Tip:

Bassano del Grappa, where Tito Gobbi was born, is an historic town at the foot of Monte Grappa in the Vicenza province of the Veneto, famous for inventing grappa, a spirit made from the grape skins and stalks left over from wine production, which is popular with Italians as an after dinner drink to aid digestion. A famous sight is the Ponte degli Alpini, a bridge designed by Andrea Palladio. The painter Jacopo Bassano was born in Bassano del Grappa and took his name from the town.

Travel tip:

Gubbio, where Tito Gobbi made his opera debut, is a town in the province of Perugia in Umbria, with some fine medieval architecture in the narrow streets in the centre. Gubbio is well-known for its annual foot race, Corsa dei Ceri, held on 15 May. Three teams, devoted to Sant’Ubaldo, San Giorgio and Sant’Antonio, run through the town and up the mountain carrying a statue of their saint mounted on a tall wooden stand. A similar event is held each year in Jessup, Pensylvania, when residents race statues of the three saints through the streets.

More reading:

Luciano Pavarotti - king of the high 'Cs'

How Tullio Serafin helped Maria Callas achieve her potential

Nino Rota - film music composer who wrote The Godfather soundtrack

(Photo of  Tito Gobbi in London by Allan Warren CC-BY SA 3.0)
(Photo of Bassano del Grappa by Zyance CC BY-SA 3.0)


1 September 2016

Tullio Serafin – opera conductor

Toscanini’s successor furthered the career of Callas

Tullio Serafin
Tullio Serafin
The man who helped Maria Callas develop her singing talent, musician and conductor Tullio Serafin, was born on this day in 1878 in Rottanova near Cavarzere in the Veneto, on the Adige river just south of the Venetian Lagoon.

Serafin studied music in Milan and went on to play the viola in the orchestra at Teatro alla Scala under the baton of Arturo Toscanini.

He was later appointed assistant conductor and then took over as musical director at the theatre when Toscanini left to go to New York.

Serafin conducted at La Scala between 1909 and 1914, from 1917 to 1918 and then returned briefly at the end of the Second World War.

He became a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1924 and stayed with them for ten years before returning to Italy to become artistic director at the Teatro Reale in Rome.

During his career he helped the development of many singers, including Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero and Joan Sutherland.

Serafin’s most notable success was with Maria Callas, with whom he collaborated on many recordings. He is credited with helping the American-born singer achieve a major breakthrough in 1949 when he persuaded her to take over from the leading belcanto soprano Margeritha Carosio at the opening night of Bellini's I Puritani at La Fenice in Venice after Carosio was forced to withdraw through illness.

Callas protested that she was inadequately prepared but her performance received rave reviews, giving her the confidence to expand her repertoire.  Thereafter, success followed success.

The conductor was also responsible for reviving 19th century operas by Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti and establishing them in the 20th century repertoire.

Serafin died in 1968 in Rome at the age of 89.

The bell tower of the Duomo and the Palazzo  Barbiani in Cavarzere
The bell tower of the Duomo and the
Palazzo Barbiani in Cavarzere
Travel tip:

Rottanova, where Serafin was born, is a small hamlet on the outskirts of Cavarzere, a comune situated about 35km south of Venice in the Veneto. Cavarzere dates back to before Roman times when it was a military outpost. It later became a refuge for people escaping from the barbarians after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Travel tip:

Teatro alla Scala, where Serafin conducted for so many years, is in Piazza della Scala in the centre of Milan across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. La Scala has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza della Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and a few days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30pm.

HomeHome.30 to 5.30 pm.

27 August 2016

Titian - giant of Renaissance art

Old master of Venice who set new standards

Titian, a self-portrait painted in about 1567, which can be found in the Prado in Madrid
Titian, a self-portrait painted in about 1567,
which can be found in the Prado in Madrid
Tiziano Vecellio, the artist better known as Titian, died in Venice on August 27, 1576.  Possibly in his 90s by then - his date of birth has never been established beyond doubt - he is thought to have succumbed to the plague that was sweeping through the city at that time.

Titian is regarded as the greatest painter of 16th century Venice, a giant of the Renaissance held in awe by his contemporaries and seen today as having had a profound influence on the development of painting in Italy and Europe.

The artists of Renaissance Italy clearly owe much to the new standards set by Titian in the use of colour and his penetration of human character.  Beyond Italy, the work of Rubens, Rembrandt and Manet have echoes of Titian.

Titian was enormously versatile, famous for landscapes, portraits, erotic nudes and monumental religious works.  Although it was his fullness of form, the depth of colour and his ability to bring his figures almost to life which he earned his reputation, he was not afraid to experiment with his painting.  Towards the end of his life, some of his works were impressionist in nature, almost abstract.

Born in Piave di Cadore, a village at the foot of the Dolomites, he was one of four sons of a military official, Gregorio di Conte dei Vecelli.  He and his older brother, Francesco, also a painter, moved to Venice when Tiziano was nine or 10 years old, to live with an uncle.

By the age of 12, Tiziano was working for Giovanni Bellini, the best known of the Bellini family of Renaissance painters in Venice, whose workshop was one of the most important in the city.  In around 1508 he began working with Giorgione of Castelfranco, collaborating on frescoes at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the headquarters of Venice's German merchants, situated on the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge.

Titian's Pesaro Madonna in the  Frari church in Venice
Titian's Pesaro Madonna in the
Frari church in Venice
Giorgione was such a strong influence on Titian's early work that there are a number of paintings in existence that are so similar in their characteristics they could be attributed to either painter.

Titian launched his independent career after Giorgione died in 1510.  His popularity grew rapidly and among those who commissioned him were Alfonse I of Este, Duke of Ferrara, the Duke of Urbino, the Court of Pope Paolo III Farnese, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Charles's son, Philip II of Spain.

He travelled within Italy and to other parts of Europe, including Austria, but after 1551 rarely left Venice, except for summer visits to Pieve di Cadore.  He was married in 1525 and is thought to have had three or four children, one of whom, Orazio, became his assistant but also died in the plague.  His wife, Cecilia, passed away after they had been together for only five years, and he never married again.

Titian courted controversy with the obvious eroticism of his nudes and through his friendship with the writer Pietro Aretino, a journalist whose work scandalised 16th century Italian society.  Aretino arrived in Venice at around the same time as the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino, and the three are said to have become inseparable.

Around 300 of an estimated 400 of Titian's works are said to have survived.  Some are in churches in Venice and elsewhere in Italy, such as the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in the San Polo quarter of Venice, where visitors can see the vivid colours of the Pesaro Madonna and the monumental Assumption of the Virgin, set behind the high altar.  There are also a number of Titians in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Punta Dogana, between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal.

Venus of Urbino, a work by Titian painted in 1538, which is on display at the Uffizi in Florence
Venus of Urbino, a work by Titian painted in 1538,
which is on display at the Uffizi in Florence
Others are in galleries around the world, including the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

When they do change hands it is for considerable sums.  For example, when Diana and Actaeon, one work in a seven-part series of mythological paintings for Philip II of Spain, became available, it was bought by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in conjunction for £50 million.

Titian was buried at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.  At first his resting place, near to the Pesaro Madonna, was unmarked, but later the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Antonio Canova to sculpt a large monument. Canova's own heart was buried within the monument after his death at the age of 64.

Titian's Assumption of the Virgin dominates the high altar inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Titian's Assumption of the Virgin dominates the high altar
inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Travel tip:

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, often referred to simply as the Frari, is one of Venice's greatest churches, situated in Campo dei Frari at the heart of the San Polo district.  Built of brick, it is one of three notable churches in Venice built in the Italian Gothic style.  Construction began in the 14th century and took more than 100 years to complete, including a campanile that is the second tallest in Venice, after St Mark's.  In addition to Titian, the brilliant composer Claudio Monteverdi was also buried in the Frari.

Travel tip:

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most familiar sights of Venice, one captured by many artists, including Turner and Canaletto. Its position on the narrow promontory between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal enables it to stand almost like a sentry, guarding the entrance to the Bacino di San Marco and the lagoon beyond.  It houses a number of works by Titian. Ironically, given how the artist died, it was built by the Republic of Venice as an offer for the city's deliverance from the devastating outbreak of plague that occurred in 1630, dedicated to Our Lady of Health (in Italian: Salute).

Read more:

Lisa del Giocondo - Florentine mother immortalised as the Mona Lisa

How the works of Tintoretto still adorn Venice


Titian: Circa 1490-1576, by Ian G Kennedy

Titian: His Life and the Golden Age of Venice, by Sheila Hale

(Photo inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari by Welleschik CC BY-SA 3.0)