Wednesday 22 November 2017

Classical: Domenico Cimarosa - a forgotten man of Italian opera

George Hamilton

It only seems like yesterday, but this summer will mark the 25th anniversary of the Republic of Ireland's first foray into the footballing fiesta known as the World Cup.

My Italian adventure that year began in a suburban street in Milan. Our hotel was in the Via Cimarosa, named in honour of a man of music from Naples. The clefs and the quavers are never far away when you're in Italy.

Domenico Cimarosa was around at the same time as Mozart, and would have been just as big a name then, for he was the top opera composer, specialising in more light-hearted material, with a reputation that stretched right across Europe. He wrote over 60 in all, delivering four a year at the height of his powers. The fact that in the city of La Scala his name is only on a side street on the way to the San Siro Stadium says it all about changing fashions. Somehow, while others' reputations blossomed, Cimarosa got left behind.

Mozart has since been hailed as the genius of comic opera. Cimarosa probably didn't write enough instrumental music to make a lasting impression of his own.

Still, if you seek, you will find. There's a wonderful concerto for two flutes, full of the vitality that's typical of his writing. But the one piece you're most likely to hear is a concerto for oboe, and the funny thing is, he never wrote such a thing.

Cimarosa's woodwind set-piece is actually an arrangement of four keyboard sonatas of his by a 20th Century Australian composer called Arthur Benjamin, a piano professor at the Royal College of Music in London, among whose students was a young lady from Fermanagh called Joan Trimble.

Joan, a remarkable a musician and businesswoman - she ended up editing the family newspaper, the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen - had a sister called Valerie, who played the cello. Benjamin's most famous piece under his own name - a number called Jamaican Rumba - was written for the sisters from Fermanagh.

But that's a long way from Lombardy, where Cimarosa's name lives on in that suburban street. His significance today is that this is the anniversary of the premiere of the one opera of his that is still remembered - Il Matrimonial Segreto ('The Secret Marriage') - one of those misplaced-love-interest romps that evolves into a happily-ever-after tale.

It opened in Vienna on this date in 1792 (not long after Mozart's death), in the presence of the Emperor Leopold II. He was so taken by it, the story goes, that he asked the performers and the players round for dinner afterwards, but only if they'd put on the whole show again. That probably makes it the longest encore in musical history.

It's a shame that Cimarosa doesn't get out much beyond those wind concertos. Maybe if Mozart hadn't been there to outshine all those around him.

How good he was can be seen in his influence on those who came later, notably Donizetti and Rossini. Cimarosa - worth a lot more than a nameplate on a side street in Milan.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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