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The Maltese greats

Adelina Plunkett and Lucien Petipa in a pas de deux.

Adelina Plunkett and Lucien Petipa in a pas de deux.

Joseph Vella Bondin, author of  The Great Maltese Composers: historical context, lives, and works, writes about Valleta-born Alessandro Curmi’s ballet company in Covent Garden during 1847.

Alessandro Curmi is one of a number of gifted Maltese composers hailing from the music-immersed town of Valletta, soon to be European Capital of Culture. He was born on October 17, 1801, into a prosperous middle-class family, and baptised the following day in the parish church of Porto Salvo and St Dominic.

After initial musical studies with Pietro Paolo Bugeja, he left for Naples in 1821 to continue them at Real Collegio di Musica where his illustrious teachers included Giovanni Furno, Giacomo Tritto and Nicola Zingarelli, who considered Curmi one of his three best students, the two others being none other than Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) and Michele Costa (1808-84).

Curmi soon became known foremost as a  composer; his opera successes included Gustavo d’Orxa (Naples, Teatro Nuovo sopra Toledo, spring 1827), Aristodemo (Florence, Teatro della Pergola, spring 1830), Rob Roy (Valletta, Manoel Theatre, December 1832), Elodia di Herstall (Naples, Teatro San Carlo, September 1842), and Il proscritto di Messina (Valletta, Manoel Theatre, April 1843).

Curmi’s lifestyle, in common with that of the leading 19th-century composers, involved travel from country to country in search of the finest opportunities in which to exercise his talent. In 1847, we find him in London.

The opening of Covent Garden Theatre as an opera house after it was remodelled and renamed Royal Italian Opera on April 6, 1847, with a performance of Rossini’s opera Semiramide, was rightly hailed as an outstanding event in the theatrical history of London. In the words of the London Daily News: “The opening of the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden must be considered an event of no ordinary importance. It is no ordinary event that a theatre so long deserted should be restored to the public in a shape which we may almost describe as unrivalled. It is of no ordinary importance that such a theatre should open with a company of such great and varied talent that there is reason to believe that the pledge its managers have given they will be able to redeem.”

From left: Adelina Plunkett, Carlo Blasis and Fanny Elssler dancing the cuchacha.From left: Adelina Plunkett, Carlo Blasis and Fanny Elssler dancing the cuchacha.

Remarkably, two leading Maltese musicians and composers, hailing from our tiny island nation, helped to shape the theatre’s subsequent prestigious reputation as one of the most illustrious performing meccas in the world. The two were Alessandro Curmi and Francesco Schira (1809-1883). This article is concerned with the role Curmi played.

An important innovation that was introduced by the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden during its initial season related to moving the divertissement – which often consisted in the presentation of a ballet, staggered between an opera’s acts (a tradition then rigorously observ­ed in European theatres, including Malta’s Manoel) – to after the end of the opera. In doing this, it was going against established practice, but the intention was laudable, namely, to achieve a greater degree of coherence in the operatic production by removing the inter-act distractions, thereby rendering a more perfect performance of the lyric drama than had hitherto been attained.

Nicola Zingarelli considered Curmi one of his three best students

One of the strategies used to make such a departure from contemporary norm palatable to the London public was to engage a dazzling array of the best ballet performers then in Europe; these included three celebrated Maîtres de Ballet as resident choreographers: François-Ferdinand De­combe (1789-1865), a French ballet dancer and ballet master known under the stage name of Monsieur Albert (then of the Grand Opera, Paris); Carlo Blasis (1797-1878) of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, born in Naples, and the first to codify and publish a complete analysis of the classic ballet techniques; and Giovanni Casati (1809-1895), born in Milan, a student of La Scala and of the famous Auguste Vestris.

Moreover, the new enterprise included Signor Alessandro Curmi (from the San Carlo Theatre at Naples), as the ballet company’s resident composer.

Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden - Performance of Semiramide in 1847.Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden - Performance of Semiramide in 1847.

During its initial season, which ended after repeated extensions as a result of insistent popular demand, on August 25, 1847, with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, the Royal Italian Opera produced 10 different ballets: L’Odalisque, La Reine des Fées and La Bouquetiere de Venise, on scenarios and choreography by Albert; La Salamandrine, by Blasis; Manon Lescaut, L’Amour et la Danse, Flore et Zéphire, La Rosiera, La péri, and La Nayade, all by Casati.

Five of the 10 – L’Odalisque (premièred on April 6), La Reine des Fées (April 20), La Bouquetiere de Venise (May 6), La Salamandrine (May 18), and La Rosiera (July 22) – were danced to music specifically composed for the Royal Ita­lian Opera by Curmi.

The ballet company that Curmi worked with encompassed a dazzling array of the best ballet artistes then active in Europe. Besides the three celebrated aforementioned maîtres de ballet as resident choreographers, the premières danseuses included Marietta Baderna, Fanny Elssler, Adèle Dumilâtre, Louise Fleury, Sofia Fuoco, and Adeline Plunkett, and the premiers danseurs Lucien Petipa and Auguste Mabille.

From left: Lucien Petipa, Marietta Baderna and François-Ferdinand Decombe/Monsieur Albert.From left: Lucien Petipa, Marietta Baderna and François-Ferdinand Decombe/Monsieur Albert.

Take, for example, the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler (1810-84), a dancer of compelling dramatic abi­lity and virtuoso technique; celebrated for her personal beauty, for her spirited spectacular movements and her pointe technique, she remains famous for having introduced theatricalised folk dance into ballet, particularly the Spanish cachucha, a solo dance in triple time, which she performed with overwhelming fire and sensual excitement. The French Adèle Dumilâtre (1821-1909) who was one of the most famous ballerinas of Romantic ballet, and whose dancing in London was described by The Times as being “so ethereal… that she almost looked transparent”.

The Italian Sofia Fuoco, going by the stage name of Maria Brambilla (1830-1916), was an outstanding student of Carlo Blasis and made her debut at La Scala in 1839; she was a dancer of outstanding technique and passionate acting ability, and acquired a cult following. The Belgian Adeline Plunkett (1824-1910) became principal ballerina at the Paris Opéra in 1845; an artiste of striking personal beauty, she was as much known for her love affairs as for her dazzling dancing. The Frenchman Lucien Petipa (1815-1898) was the son of the outstanding maître de ballet Jean-Antoine, and brother of Ma­rius (famous ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet), and interpreted the principal male roles in ballets of the Romantic era.

As was to be expected, even ro­yalty exhibited the natural curiosity to personally inspect the new house. On June 5, 1847, Covent Garden was honoured by the presence of the Queen Dowager, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, widow of William IV. The Archduke Constantine of Russia, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Saxe Weimar, and the Duchess of Cambridge were also present.

Sofia Fuoco dancing a tarantella.Sofia Fuoco dancing a tarantella.

The programme for the royal evening consisted of Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia, followed by two of Curmi’s works – the grand Pas de Trois from the ballet La Bouquetiere de Venise, sparklingly danced by Fanny Elssler who was deservedly encored, and a full performance of La Reins des Feés, probably the most popular of the 10 ballets staged during the season, with Adèle Dumilâtre and Lucien Petipa in the main roles.

Dowager Queen Adelaide was a great patron of music who, during her stay in Malta between November 30, 1838, and April 1, 1839, to convalesce after a spate of illnesses, regularly attended operas and bene­fits in the Manoel Theatre. It is not known whether Curmi was introduced to her, but if he was, they may even have reminisced about Malta’s Manoel Theatre.

Alessandro Curmi died in Naples in April 1857 while composing a tragic opera on commission by Teatro San Carlo.

It is not known whether any of his music or that by other great classical Valletta composers will feature in events planned for the year 2018 when Valletta becomes the European Capital of Culture. Given the unwarranted and nationally degrading neglect of their works by publicly funded performing organisations, I would be very surprised if it is.

The front of Covent Garden Theatre, c.1847.The front of Covent Garden Theatre, c.1847.
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