Being somebody

I was listening to Il giuramento, an opera by Mercadante, the top dog among 19th century Italian opera composers whose work hasn’t survived in the repertoire. He writes smooth melodies, whips up at least the appearance of drama, and expertly handles every aspect of the 19th century Italian style.

So what’s missing? I’d put it this way — his characters never grab you, singing (as a subtext to whatever their words are) “I am somebody!” (To borrow Jesse Jackson’s phrase.) Listen, by contrast, to just about any Verdi aria. Verdi’s characters are always somebody, so strongly so that we take it for granted, and imagine (or at least I do) that this is just how Italian opera is.

It’s easy to mistake this for an achievement in musical composition. It isn’t. It’s an achievement of imagination, which composing serves. If you’re blessed (or cursed) with dramatic imagination, you’ll hack away at your music till it sounds like the people you imagine. And you don’t need special composing talent to do that. You’ll do it at whatever level you’ve reached as a composer. Look at Boito — he had modest composing skills, but fabulous imagination. His music isn’t very good, much of the time, but it’s vividly dramatic. (Not that it wouldn’t be more vividly so, if he wrote more vivid music.)

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  1. peet says

    Completely agree here, making a character come alive is such a different skill than music composition. Not many have both gifts. As Picasso said about his own artform, “Some artists turn a little yellow dot into the sun; some turn the sun into a little yellow dot.”

  2. says

    Mercadante was also a famous flute virtuoso, and James Galway has recorded some of his works for flute. He was also a well-known conductor.

    Have you heard Boito’s other opera Nerone, about the infamous Roman emperor?

    The last act was unfinished, but it has been recorded on Hungaroton with Eve Queler conducting.

    It’s fascinating ; written later in Boit’s life, the music is much more complex and sophisticated in both harmony and orchestration. I believe the recording is still available from

    Hi, Robert. I used to have that recording on LP, but I don’t think I ever listened to it. My loss. I should track it down on CD, or as a download.

    I find Mefistofele quite sophisticated, but not very powerful, for much of its lengths. The ideas (musical ideas) are interesting and unusual, and certainly go further in expressing the drama than operatic musical ideas usually go, but purely as music I don’t find them all that vivid. None of which prevents the opera from being quite powerful onstage.