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  • Writer's pictureLaStrega

Howling at the Moon, or Don't Read the Reviews

Many artists I know have told me they don't read reviews of their own performances.

192 years ago, the composer Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867) could have used that same advice himself. In the course of research for an article I was writing, I ran across a fascinating and cringeworthy PR disaster that befell the composer in the midst of a difficult period of his life. It was a crisis of his own making.

The early years of 1828 must have been unsettling to begin with. Pacini was at one of the apexes of his career, and there was probably nowhere to go but down. He was director of both of Italy's most prestigious houses - the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. This gave him immense power and prestige, as he was deputised by the impresario, Domenico Barbaja to act in his stead when he was away traveling to other parts of his empire. Pacini was also charged with composing for each house the opera d'obbligo (this is a term which doesn't translate well, but essentially it's the main attraction of the season, always a newly composed opera), and for overseeing artistic programming.

However, in October 1827, Pacini was upstaged by the young wunderkind Vincenzo Bellini. His Il Pirata - an opera we still know and love today - had a sensational premiere and was still the talk of the town months later. Pacini - whose ego seems to have been quite sensitive - was still piqued about it decades later when he wrote his memoirs, praising the composer and the opera but feeling compelled to throw in that only a little while before Pirata, his own L'ultimo giorno di Pompei (complete with an onstage exploding volcano) had lined people up around the block.

Pacini's next offering for the following season needed to spectacular. And it was - I Cavalieri di Valenza, which premiered the evening of June 11, 1828, boasted elaborate and lavish sets by Alessandro Sanquirico, and the final scene erupted in an onstage naval battle, complete with cannons and collapsing castle ramparts.

The cast of the two operas (Pirata and Cavalieri) shared a prima donna - the great Henriette Mèric-Lalande - and the plots, as was noted at the time - had a lot in common. In both, a long-lost lover/husband thought dead returns to reclaim a woman who now belongs to another. In Bellini's opera, the prodigal boyfriend is the true love of the heroine - in Pacini's, he is her first husband, and the villain - and his return makes her happy marriage to her true love bigamous. There are certain other similarities in the unfolding of the plots, enough to raise eyebrows. The librettists were different - an expert craftsman, Felice Romani, penned Pirata's text, while an "old versifier" - Gaetano Rossi - was responsible for the rather turgid verses and overly tangled plot of Cavalieri. They were based on two completely different plays, though, constructed of building blocks that were quite common in Gothic romance plots of the time.

Pacini's wife, Adelaide Castelli, sickened and died of a fever only a few weeks before the premiere, leaving him with a funeral to arrange and three small children to care for. His contract forced him to keep working, and he delivered. The opera was not the complete success he'd hoped for. It had quite a long run of performances, though, and it definitely wasn't the complete failure reported by Bellini in a famous letter to his friend Francisco Florimo. Bellini savaged the opera in a letter written on June 14, three days after the premiere. He predicted it would end Pacini's career, saying it was nothing but plagiarism, and clumsy plagiarism at that, and that "the papers" were saying so.

The rather catty and backbiting Bellini should not be taken at his word. On July 14, only two reviews of I Cavalieri di Valenza had been published: one in L'eco and the other in I Teatri. Neither had said a word about Pacini being a plagiarist. The I Teatri review contained some comparisons of Pacini's pieces to certain familiar pieces from other popular operas, as there usually were in an era when operas clung to a narrow formal structure, and when Rossini was the yardstick by which everyone else was still measured. Bellini almost certainly was piqued by the similarities to his own opera's libretto, read the reviews and filled in his own conclusions. This is evidenced by the fact that some of the pieces he mentions as having been copied by Pacini are the same as pieces to which I Teatri compared Pacini's. In fact, Pacini's opera is quite lovely, and the similar pieces are only broadly similar in style. But Bellini was doing more than just writing about these to his amanuensis. He was feeding them into the engine of theatrical gossip.

Pacini - one has to assume his ordinarily thin skin made more so by his recent bereavement - made the mistake of reading reviews, and compounded it with an even bigger one. He reacted publicly. Bellini's gossip had gotten back to him, and it seems in his grief-stricken state, he also impugned the (unjust) charge of plagiarism to the journal I Teatri, to whose editor and chief critic, Gaetano Barbieri, he dashed off a long, indignant missive defending his opera, and demanded it be published forthwith.

When Pacini's letter received no response, the composer sent it to other Italian journals in Milan and Bologna and they did publish it. The letter was quite nasty, and questioned Barbieri's integrity as a journalist. Barbieri was furious, and a PR battle began, the rough equivalent of a 21-st century Tweetstorm.

Pacini didn't have any illusions about the ultimate source of the slander. After tearing down Barbieri as a dilettante who wasn't even qualified to sniff out musical plagiarism, he implied that the critic had gotten his ideas from "other maestros who have not yet added wisdom to knowledge," a thinly veiled swat at Pacini's younger rival. Pacini requests that Barbieri "make known to these dearly beloved colleagues of mine, that their words have as much power over me as the howling of dogs at the moon." Barbieri seems to have been somewhat incredulous, repeatedly quoting his own review, pointing out that he had never said or even thought plagiarism, although Pacini's rabid protestations of innocence made him think that "those who knew him less well would suspect some remorse of conscience was on his lips". After a heavily footnoted back-and-forth that ran to nearly 5,000 words and was ultimately published as a "Polemic", Pacini wrote a final letter suggesting that they agree to disagree and go their separate ways. Barbieri replied laconically, "Amen."

"Make known to these dearly beloved colleagues of mine, that their words have as much power over me as the howling of dogs at the moon."

When all was said and done, the incident had the opposite effect on Pacini's public image as he had hoped, even internationally. Fetis's Revue et Gazette de Paris published an editorial criticising Pacini for having responded publicly to a critic, saying "Many authors have, like Paccini (sic), a fairly good opinion of their own merit and of their works, but it is rare to see them defend themselves. They are usually more skillful, and use their friends for these little polemics, instead of parading their amour-propre out in the open. We are tempted to believe that the criticism of the newspaper I Teatri were not unfair." This editorial then made it back to Italy, reprinted in the Bolognese journal Teatri, Arti e Letteratura.

With the bittersweet run of Cavalieri ended, Pacini reports that "I asked Barbaia for a leave of two months to spend with my family. Having arrived in Viareggio, I was happy to once more embrace my wonderful parents, my brother Francesco, my two dear girls, and my Lodovico, who I lost in the time I was there. Only a father can understand the sorrow caused by the loss of children!"

"Many authors have, like Paccini (sic), a fairly good opinion of their own merit and of their works, but it is rare to see them defend themselves. They are usually more skillful, and use their friends for these little polemics, instead of parading their amour-propre out in the open. "

Bellini's prediction that Pacini's career was over was far from fulfilled, and the death of Pacini's wife and son didn't deter him for long, either. After a brief rest, he bounced back in Trieste with I Crociati in Tolemaide in November of 1828; and almost exactly one year to the day after Cavalieri first appeared, he returned to La Scala with another hit - the Walter Scott-based Il Talismano, with none other than the man he provoked and insulted, Gaetano Barbieri, penning the libretto. How did they patch things up? That is a question I couldn't find an answer for, but they stayed on chummy terms. Barbieri would provide Pacini with the libretto for his busman's holiday opera Il Convitato di Pietra, and in his memoirs Pacini was to describe Barbieri as "a man of singular genius, a pleasant conversationalist, and of scrupulous honesty."

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