Boccanegra's Brother: Peri's Vittore Pisani
Apotheosis of Admiral Vettor Pisani By Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1743)
It is easy to forget that Verdi's Simon Boccanegra was a bit of a flop at its premiere at La Fenice on March 12, 1857. The critics certainly recognised the artistic strides Verdi was making, but the audience didn't quite know what to make of its radical innovations, and the composer saw it as a fiasco (an echo of the Venetian premiere of Traviata). Through the end of the 19th century, only 33 productions of Boccanegra have been documented (even in its revised version, Boccanegra did not enjoy real popularity until the 20th century). Thirty-three productions - for Verdi, at least - was a pretty paltry showing. Boccanegra would have to wait until well into the 20th century to be recognised for the masterful work it is and to gain the popularity it deserved.
About a month after Boccanegra debuted in Venice, on April 21, another opera with a libretto by Piave premiered in Reggio Emilia, to inaugurate the newly constructed municipal theatre there. This opera was Achille Peri's Vittore Pisani.
But who was Achille Peri? His name, if not his music, is still remembered in Reggio Emilia. His reputation as a composer was solid, and he was known to be a devotee of Verdi's style - one he was said to have imitated.
Peri was born in Reggio Emilia in December, 1812, ten months before Verdi. His musical education took him to Marseilles, where his first opera was premiered in 1839 in a private setting, performed by amateurs (Una visita a Bedlam). His first major commission Il Solitario premiered on his home turf of the Teatro Comunale in Reggio Emilia. He was soon named maestro a cappella for the town, and held that position until his death in March, 1880.
Along the way, Peri composed several operas, a ton of sacred music, and generally enjoyed considerable respect. He collaborated with Salvadore Cammarano (a frequent partner of Verdi, Donizetti, Pacini, and Mercadante) on Ester d'Engaddi in 1843, and enjoyed his first triumph of national scale with the tragedy Tancreda in 1847 in Genoa. Another opera, I Fidanzati (Genoa, 1856) brought him into contact with Verdi's hen-pecked librettist Francesco Maria Piave. It was Piave who provides the first link between Vittore Pisani, and Simon Boccanegra, for that librettist was working on both texts, undoubtedly simultaneously.
Achille Peri (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Archivio Storico Ricordi, Collezione Digitale Ricordi)
The general character and color of these two works is broadly similar even if Pisani's plot is more straightforward, lacking the long-lost children and concealed identities of Boccanegra. Both Boccanegra and Pisani are set in thalassocracies-Genoa and Venice- in 1339 and 1380, respectively. In both the proximity of the sea is vitally important and informs both the text and the music. The titular heroes of both operas are baritones, both seafarers, both devoted fathers of adult daughters named Maria, whose mothers have died. Simone is a pirate who becomes a Doge; Pisani is a distinguished admiral, called out of retirement by the Venetian Doge to fight against the Genoese (and to clear himself of political slander). In both operas, there is a tenor hero who is in love with his respective Maria, and there is some obstacle to their relationship. Both also feature a bass/baritone (Paolo in Boccanegra, the corrupt senator Antonio Barbo in Pisani) who opposes the hero. Both are irredeemable rotters who get their just desserts in the end.: Paolo is executed, while Barbo is driven into the sea by an angry mob and drowns. Both operas end in touching ensemble scenes that unite the lovers but place the baritone's death front and center.
Turning to the original interpreters of the opera, Vittore Pisani's two central characters - Maria and Pisani - were created by the same two singers who created Amelia/Maria and Simon Boccanegra: Luigia Bendazzi-Secchi, and Leone Giraldoni. The tenors were not the same, but Vittore Pisani benefitted from the presence of tenor Pietro Mongini in the role of Piero, a fisherman who loves the noble Pisani's daughter, and who is remembered today as the first Radames in Aida!
But why is this long-forgotten opera by a long-forgotten composer even worth looking at? My curiousity about it was first aroused by Thomas Kaufman, the late, great opera house chronologist and a personal friend, who frequently mentioned Vittore Pisani to me as one of the most important non-Verdian operas of the latter half of the 19th century. His 1990 book Verdi and His Major Contemporaries (1990) documented at least 75 productions of Vittore Pisani during the 19th century, more than double the number achieved by Simon Boccanegra, and showing that some of the most important singers of the day (particularly baritones) counted it in their repertoire. The opera outlasted many other works by Verdi and Donizetti, its last 19th century performance taking place around 1890. Such enduring popularity was the exception and not the rule during the ottocento and must count for something.
I was thrilled to find this score uploaded to IMSLP a couple of years ago, though a word of caution - the second act is uploaded with the pages in reverse order! I had no real expectations about its quality, as Peri was a totally unknown quantity to me. I was delighted as I cherry-picked numbers from the score. The music is gorgeous. In particular, I was impressed with the duet for Pisani and his daughter Maria, a touching love duet between the latter and Piero, the baritone's prison scene, and Maria's entrance aria, in which she relates a dream foreshadowing the military defeat that almost brings her father to public ruin.
I'll leave you with a brief sample of the final trio, which is also Pisani's death scene. When I first played through this number, I finished it with tears running down my face! I'm hoping someday to produce a recital of the major numbers (who knows, perhaps one day, the whole opera).
Was Peri nothing but a poor man's Verdi? Based on this score, I don't think so. There are definite Verdian mannerisms, yes. But this score isn't nearly as radical as Boccanegra in its departure from the expected norms of Italian opera in 1857 (that departure probably explains why Boccanegra took a long time to catch on!). But there are just as many places in the score that remind one of Donizetti, Mercadante, and Pacini. But pigeonholing unfamiliar composers has a way of pre-emptively shutting down a free exploration of the past. We just assume that the supposed imitator's music is worse than the known quantity, there fore not worth looking at.
We should remember that the development of style in 19th century opera was not linear, with clearly defined inflection points. It was a messy, patchwork process with a lot of "two steps forward, one step back." Alessandro Nini (1805-1880) was accused of imitating or even plagiarising from Verdi, but his first two operas premiered before Verdi had had a work staged, and in many respects they sound for all the world like the author of Nabucco had written them himself. No matter in which direction the inspiration flowed, each opera deserves to be considered in its own right, to be judged by how effective it would be in front of an audience, not merely by how closely it resembles or differs from its peers.