Friday 27 April 2018

The languid sadness of a sigh in dancing pumps

Classic talk with George Hamilton

Meticulous: composer Bellini
Meticulous: composer Bellini

Vincenzo Bellini - creator of Casta Diva, one of opera's best-loved tunes - could have been a prototype for the tragic Romantic artist. The German poet Heinrich Heine, in exile in Paris where Bellini's success had brought him, had teased the composer on the subject.

All the great geniuses, like Mozart, die young, Heine had suggested, but Bellini would be safe enough, for he was no genius. But Bellini was, and his end was tragically premature.

Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania in Sicily in 1801, which made him a younger contemporary of Rossini, the operatic giant of the age.

But the Naples conservatory where he studied was very anti-Rossini in its approach. His music was everywhere at the time, and too much exposure, they felt, would cramp the students' style.

Bellini developed as a composer who put the emphasis on the song as the key element of his musical drama.

He was meticulous in his approach, too, which meant he was much less prolific than those around him. But what he wrote was most certainly capable of hitting the high notes.

Bellini got a commission from La Scala and moved north to base himself in Milan. Il Pirata (The Pirate) was the result, an opera that marked him out as one to watch.

Not only his music, but his themes caught the attention. He's been described as a proto-feminist, for much of his work features a central female character who suffers as a result of failings in the men who surround her.

Norma, the opera that gave us Casta Diva, features one such victim. The Norma of the title is a druid priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has broken her vow of chastity to embark on a relationship with the pro-Consul. They have two sons together.

But then her lover leaves her for a younger woman, and what follows is typically tragic.

Bellini's own attitude to women was at odds with the sympathy conveyed in his art. He himself was pretty heartless.

His penchant was for affairs with those who were already married. In the course of one of those, he wrote to a friend. The affair might keep him safe, he said, from falling for an unmarried girl, "which could land me with an eternal tie".

Yet when his unhappily married lover finally left her husband, Bellini dumped her. The prospect of an eternal tie had clearly raised its head again. The idea of commitment was anathema.

He was happily rootless. When the opera that followed Norma failed to match its success, he left for London, before moving on to Paris, where he became part of the social circuit.

There, he met Rossini, the man whose music his early mentors had been so keen to keep from him.

Ironically, he and Rossini became close friends, so much so that Bellini turned to the older man for advice before staging what would be his tenth opera, I Puritani ("The Puritans").

It was premiered to great acclaim in Paris in the January, and transferred to London in the spring.

But it was to be the last opera the fastidious Bellini would write. The man whose very appearance conveyed, in the poet Heine's words, "a languid sadness" like "a sigh in dancing pumps and silk stockings", would soon fulfil his Romantic destiny.

He had been ailing, took a turn for the worse, and succumbed to dysentery on this date in 1835, at the age of only 33.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

with George Hamilton

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