From "Caccia" to "Nozze"

Antonio Smareglia had an aptitude for music. The evidence of this are his first compositions which were written, without any previous musical training, while he was studying at the Polytechnic school in Vienna and Graz. Although, unfortunately, these compositions are lost, one cannot undermine their significance: he composed a polyphonic mass which was successfully performed in Pula’s cathedral, as well as an Ave Maria, the composition which made him get accepted to study, at first privately and then at the Milan’s Conservatory, with the conductor and lecturer Franco Faccio. Smareglia’s first compositions, those belonging to his student years, which are available to us at present, are his counterpoint and harmony exercises. They are followed by the lyric scene, the opera Caccia lontana. Although the composer was criticised for being inspired by Mendelssohn, this opera was well accepted both by the audience and the critics. Another composition from this period is his symphonic overture Leonora (after T. Bürger’s ballad) which was first performed in Milan’s concert hall, and then “flew” straight to Paris in order to be performed at the World Exhibition, where it was conducted by Franco Faccio, representing Italian music. This composition was much appreciated by the grand Gounod himself. It should be, nowadays, revived at the concerts of symphonic music.


Smareglia’s first opera was Preziosa, lyric drama in three acts, set in the ambient of Spain and the gypsies, performed in Milan’s theatre Dal Verme. The influence of Verdi’s musical style is notable but with Smareglia’s own personal expression. The success of this work earned Smareglia the commission of a new opera by the Milan’s music publisher Lucca. The next opera, Bianca da Cervia, is a lyric drama in four acts based on the libretto by Francesco Pozza (under the pseudonym of Fulvio Fulgonio); it had its first performance in Milan’s La Scala. Set in Romagna, at the time of the Pope Gregory VII, it is a story of seduction and exile which hinges on the so called “Legge di Matilda” which was known at the time. In this work Smareglia’s personal style is more apparent, particularly the psychological aspect of the opera. There are many beautiful sections of this opera which the composer reworked in his other operas. The success of Bianca da Cervia led the opera to have 12 performances.


The next opera was Re Nala, melodramma in four acts based on the libretto by Vincenzo Valle, and staged in Venice in the theatre La Fenice. The poet and the composer were inspired by the Indian poem Mahabharata, taken on in a trilogy by Angelo de Gubernatis. Set in India, in the Brahman castle, the story involves palace plot and disputed passions, subjects which were too unusual for Venetian audience. Music in this opera often shows mystical and exotic character, revealing Smareglia’s tendency for different musical language which the composer intensified in the sonorous and descriptive “fresco” of his “Benco’s” trilogy. The outcome is disappointing, in particular the shortcomings around its performance, which lead Smareglia to abandon this work; some fragments of it the composer used in his other operas.


The next opera was Il Vassallo di Szigeth, lyric drama in three acts, after the libretto by Luigi Illica and Francesco Pozza, with its debut in the Hoftheater in Vienna. The story is linked to the lives of Hungarian gypsies, and has a dark and cruel plot. This old-fashioned melodramma was a great success at its premiere, and was later performed in New York Metropolitan Opera. The powerful music publisher Ricordi suspected a “good business”, offering to Smareglia an exclusive contract, which the composer refused with an excuse for its payment being too low. In reality however, Smareglia had different plans on his mind. The composer was worried about the publisher wanting to “freeze” his work, constraining him to write in the style of then successful “postverdian” manners. Smareglia’s refusal of this offer provoked a dislike of the publisher for Smareglia, which would have a negative influence on the low production of the composer’s operas. The most popular section of Il Vassallo di Szigeth is the Danze Ungharesi, often performed in a version for two pianos, as well as in its original symphonic form.


Following the success of the opera Il Vassallo di Szigeth, Smareglia chose the romantic biography of the 17th century Flemish painter Cornill Schut as his next opera. The story deals with the contrast between aspirations towards the absolute of art, which is inspired by love, and the corruption brought by success and carnal temptation. Although this painter was not particularly famous, there were certain similarities between him and the composer which enabled Smareglia to identify himself with the artist. The composer proposed an outline of the plot to Luigi Illica who turned it out into the libretto in three acts. Although its form was rather simple, Smareglia was eager about setting it to music. The new opera, in its original form, was entitled Cornill Schut. Its first performance took place in 1893 in the National Theatre in Prague in Czech language, and then in German in the Hofoper Theater in Dresden. In both cities the success of the opera was clamorous; the ovations were present even outside the theatre halls. In this opera for the first time Smareglia applied his idea of musical “fresco”; even the smallest inflection of the sung text is immersed in music texture, the composer avoiding conventional techniques of connecting the parts of the plot.


Even the most simple line or verse is given a musical significance; at times the plot seems lengthened because of the ongoing musical flow. Smareglia was creating an ideal form of “total musical theatre” by avoiding recitatives and arias, as well as symphonic passages; the opera as a whole would be dictated by the development of the music texture. The composer’s identification with the main character, which seemed to him too be to obvious, induced Smareglia to revise the opera in 1917, and change its title to Pittori fiamminghi, thus depicting the artistic ambient of the opera more widely, and avoiding to focus the plot on the main character. With this opera Smareglia wanted to explore the ethical issue in the life of an artist, which did not concern only Cornill Schut himself but the intellectual reality of artists in general: the fight between honesty (which does not reward with gold and glory) and compromise (which pays with success but dries up feelings). The composer also uses music material from Bianca da Cervia which adds to the opera some of the ardour from Smareglia’s youth. In this opera the composer demands from the singer more “symphonic” engagement in order to obtain more intense expressivity instead of the exaggeratedly simplistic “belcanto”. The success of Cornill Schut did not protect Smareglia from quirks of fate. His confident attitude, resembling to that of his father Francesco, who did well in administering his own wealth, lead Smareglia to become involved in risky speculations; thieves soon induced him to poverty. For this reason Smareglia quickly returned to Vodnjan (Dignano), the village of his ancestors, settling in his father’s house. In a short time, in Vodnjan he would write Nozze istriane, his most fortunate, most performed and most popular opera.

While living in Vodnjan Smareglia invited Luigi Illica to join him. His initial plan was to create a powerful musical, philosophical and religious work. The composer thought of adapting Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine. This would enable him to deepen the “ethic” element, which he initiated with Cornill Schut, and would return to in his last three operas (Falena, Oceana and Abisso). The composer did not realise the difficulties of simplifying the vast poem by Flaubert into a dynamic and efficient dramatic form required by a libretto. It was Illica who thought of and suggested the ambience of Vodnjan. He was fascinated with its picturesque setting, rich with regional traditions, and particularly with the stories narrated and sung to him by Smareglia’s cousin Nicoletto. Nicoletto, a cobbler by profession, represented the memory and the past of Vodnjan’s traditions; he was also a humorous improviser and a story-teller.


Nozze istriane is based on such a “real” local story. Smareglia liked the libretto. He was also very keen to get out of his “melancholic mood” and start working on a new opera; the whole work was completed in just over five months. Referring to Nozze istriane as “operina” (small opera) Smareglia perhaps never realised that Nozze istriane is among the most valuable of his operas, a real masterpiece.


The music of the opera contains a direct link with Vodnjan’s folklore, such as the intonation of the bells of its cathedral, the wedding music typical for Vodnjan, the so called “bottonada” (bitinada or bottonata), certain dance movements and the evocation of the village of Peroj, its inhabitants and their glagolitic modalities.


These features of the opera, written at the times of the fashionable “verismo” operas, led many to view this work as belonging to the Italian “veristic” operas. This notion is nevertheless incorrect, as there are more similarities of the opera’s style to that of Dvorák and Smetana. The atmosphere of the opera does not deal so much with love and betrayal; it is more a “sacral” fresco. The sacral element is given out of respect for traditions and rituals which seemed like “commands”; from the gesture of “shaking hands” to the “promise of love”. These are unwritten laws which are imprinted in our conscience. With the respect to the success of the opera Nozze istriane, it is best seen when looking at the catalogue of its performances provided at the end of this publication.

Fabio Vidali