di Alberto Mattioli, journalist and writer; author of the books:
"Big Luciano - Pavarotti la vera storia" (Mondadori)
"Anche stasera - Come l'opera ti cambia la vita" (Modadori)
"Meno grigi più Verdi" (Garzanti)
"Pazzo per l'opera" (Garzanti)
Modena land of melodramatic passions? Most certainly, and even before opera was invented. Because the most important of the precursory of this most Italian art is a Modenese, Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605). He is the most famous musician born here, so that the conservatory is named after him. His Amfiparnaso (1597) is linked with the tradition of the madrigals, but its dramatisation is fully “operistic”, and still enjoyable nowadays.
The other protagonist of the first years of the opera in Modena is not a composer, but a stage designer, Carlo Vigarani (1637-1713), “son of art” as his father Gasparo (born in Reggio Emilia) did the same. Carlo was one of the great creator of the XVII century “special effects”. He even prepared for the French Sun-King the “Salle des Machines” of the Tuileries, copying it from the Modenese Teatro della Spelta, which stood in Piazza Grande.
The XVII century in Modena was first of all the period of the oratorio, a sort of religious melodrama often performed with a great use of theatrical machines and scenic effects (the set was the holy theatre of the church of Sant’Agostino°°). Of this musical season “made in Modena” not only the memoirs remain, but also a big collection of oratorios in the Biblioteca Estense.
After Vecchi, the most important Modenese composer is Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), born into a family of musicians. The lovers of Georg Friedrich Händel know him well, as Bononcini moved to London in 1720, starting up an operistic and political rivality with the Saxon. Händel in fact was supported by the King and by the Tories, whereas Bononcini by the Prince of Wales and by the Whigs. The dispute ended only when Bononcini was accused of copying a piece by Antonio Lotti, was forced to leave London and died, poor and forgotten, in Wien. His aria “Per la gloria d’adorarvi”, from Griselda, was collected by Parisotti and is part of the repertoire of all the major Italian vocalists.
Apart from Vecchi and Bononcini, Modena was not so famous for composers. However, it has always been famous for performers. Here we can only mention the main ones. For example, in the XVIII century, the tenor Francesco Borosini (about 1688-1750), a protagonist of the short but sparkling season of Italian opera in London (the one of Bononcini and Händel). For him, Georg wrote his two best and most intense tenor parts: Bajazet in Tamerlano and Grimoaldo in Rodelinda.
In the following century, there was Luigia Boccabadati (1799 or 1800-1850), a soprano of great renown, who made her debut in Modena in 1819, establishing a true dinasty of singers which goes on into the XX century. Paradoxly, Luigia is remembered for her least brilliant performance. It was in Naples, in the San Carlo theatre, in 1830, for the debut of the “Diluvio Universale” by Donizetti (a classical Lenten opera with a holy subject). At the end of the first act, Boccabadati mistook the opening of the big concertato, making her collegues go wrong, destroying the page and the opera and making the illustrious composer furious.
Modena, in the XIX century, was a land of great operatic passion, with many active theatres. There was one next to the Ducal Palace°°, whereas the old “Comunale” was substituted in 1842 by the present one, not far from the former. It has been recently restored, with excellent results, even for the acoustic. According to the repertoires and to the performers, the operatic season in the XIX century must have been a rich one, though after 1859, with the Unity of Italy (Modena no longer a capital), it lost a little of its brilliance. To note that Giuseppina Strepponi, second wife and great love of Giuseppe Verdi, trod the boards for the last time in Modena, to sing Nabucco, which Verdi had had written purposely for her. She had always been considered a fascinating actress, though quite worn-out as vocalist. A hard judgment, but, considering that it was the end of her career, quite embraceable.
Another important event in Modena operatic life in the XIX century was the absolute premiere of the “new” Don Carlo. The opera, as it is known, made its debut in 1867 at the Opéra in Paris, obviously in French, with five acts and the title “Don Carlos”. Verdi remade it for La Scala theatre in 1884, in Italian, in only four acts and the title without “s”. In the December 1886, a “third” edition (in Italian, but with again five acts) were presented at the Teatro Comunale°°, and since then it has been known as the “Don Carlo of Modena”. Verdi neither attended nor modified the version. But almost certainly he approved of it or at least didn’t opposed it.
The XX century of opera in Modena is the century of the great singers who were born here. Two above all, born in the same year (1935) and who even shared the same nurse, as they mothers both worked in the tobacco manifacture and could not breast-feed them (according to the anecdote told in infinite interviews).
Luciano Pavarotti (died in 2007) was without any doubt he most famous tenor of the postwar period. As a child, he sang mass in the church of Santa Maria delle Assi, and was a member of the acclaimed Corale Rossini (one of the most ancient in Italy, established in 1887 and still active nowadays). After having won the “Peri” competition, his debut was in 1961 at the Municipal theatre in Reggio Emilia as Rodolfo in Bohème. It was the beginning of the most extraordinary contemporary career of an opera singer. The “king of the high C”, as he was nicknamed after having sung nine of them in a cabaletta from the Fille du régiment by Donizetti, he conquered Europe and then the United States, where his popularity reached heights only touched by Enrico Caruso. The 1970s and 80s were also the period of big concerts in stadiums, parks and arenas, where the classical operatic repertoire was added to the popular Italian songs. The top of this activity was in 1990 the world-famous (or ill-famed, depending on one’s taste) “Concerts of the three tenors”. Here, Pavarotti and his friends/rivals Plàcido Domingo and José Carreras invented a true show, repeated with enormous success throughout the whole world. In the 1990s, together with inevitable vocal decline, Pavarotti started to propose “crossover” evenings with pop artists, to make money for charity. This “Pavarotti and friends” was held once a year in Modena, usually in the Novi Sad Park. For that event Modena became a capital again, thanks to the presence both of international stars (Eric Clapton, Sting, Steve Wonder, the Spice Girls, mentioning just a few) and for celebrities such as lady Diana or the Dalai Lama.
Pavarotti’s “milk sister”, Mirella Freni (assuming the name of Mirella Fregni), has never wandered from the opera. But she probably was the most best known soprano of the postwar period. After her debut at the Comunale°° in Modena (in 1955, in Carmen), she quickly conquered all the main operatic scenes. She also had a privileged relationship with the major personalities of the conductors’ podium, such as Herbert von Karajan (La Scala, 1961: they baptized the famous production of the Bohème by Franco Zeffirelli, since then always repeated all over the world), Carlos Kleiber and Claudio Abbado (the not less famous Simon Boccanegra by Giorgio Strehler). A model of a media-shy star, a professional of exceptional determination and seriousness, after retiring from the theatre, Mirella Freni has dedicated herself to the teaching (Cubec is the name of her school).
The Modenese vocal panorama cannot be complete without remembering two really important singers, both “of importation” (as they were born abroad, both in Bulgaria, but decided to live in Modena). Raina Kabaivanska (1934) was an eminent prima donna, specializing in the “fin-de-siècle” repertoire. Nicolai Ghiaurov (1929-2004), was one of the greatest basses of the XX century, joined by a long professional and human history with Mirella Freni.
That of the four “Modeneses” (Pavarotti-Freni-Kabaivanska-Ghiaurov) was an exceptional generation and a concentration of talent perhaps unique. And actually, for the moment, never more to be repeated.
[Image by the website Author]