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The Walter Scott Opera that Never Was: Pacini's La Donna delle Isole

“Since I have had to speak in these poor memoirs of the compositions I have given birth to, I will also note those that lie imprisoned, like inanimate corpses, on the shelves of my small musical archive.” –Giovanni Pacini.

The Dance of the Swords from Scott's The Pirate

The notorious John Gow was ignominiously hanged for piracy on June 11, 1725 after being captured in the Orkney Islands, where he had fled the seas off the Iberian peninsula to escape authorities.

Upon reaching the remote archipelago, Gow had assumed a false identity, presenting himself as a wealthy trader. He even courted the daughter of a local landowner in that guise, before ultimately being captured. Gow’s story inspired both Daniel Defoe and Walter Scott. Scott situated his novel, The Pirate, further back in time to the late 17th century to add further drama and intrigue, as this was a time when Scottish overlords were imposing their language and culture on the original inhabitants of the remote northern islands. In his books on Scott-based operas, Jerome Mitchell (1997) claimed that no genuine operas (as opposed to musicals) were based on The Pirate.

He can hardly be faulted for not knowing that among the unperformed works listed by Giovanni Pacini in his Le Mie Memorie Artistiche is La Donna delle Isole, a Melodramma Seria in a Prologue and Three Acts with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It was commissioned by the Marzi brothers for the Teatro la Fenice for the Carnevale e Quaresima of 1854. In early November of 1853, buzz began surfacing in theatrical journals.The theatrical journal Il Pirata proclaimed that “The opera that maestro Pacini will give during the Carnival of 1854 is entitled La Donna delle Isole, with a libretto by the obligatory Piave, drawn, it is said, from The Pirate of Walter Scott”. The celebrated British/Italian prima donna Augusta Albertini and tenor Raffaele Mirate (the first Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto) would be the stars.


And yet, by February of 1854 a completely different opera by Pacini was in rehearsal, not with Mirate as the tenor, but with Albertini’s husband Carlo Baucardè. It premiered to mixed success on March 8, 1854. La Donna dell’Isole was in the end not performed, on that occasion or any other.

La Punizione was “expressly composed” for La Fenice, according to the frontispiece of the

Augusta Albertini, image from the Archivio Storico Ricordi

libretto. But in fact, it was the selfsame work Pacini would later refer to as the supposedly unperformed Niccolò de’Lapi, and it was composed for the 1852-53 season as Lidia di Brabante for the Teatro Carolino in Palermo. The opera was canceled prior to being performed, for reasons which remain obscure. And so a little over a year thence, it seems, this then unperformed work saved in his back pocket came to the rescue when Pacini had to abruptly reverse course on his commission for La Fenice; but in the meanwhile, what happened to La Donna dell’Isole?

Without ever explicitly saying so, Pacini’s reference to “inanimate corpses lying imprisoned” in Memorie gives the impression that La Donna dell’Isole (and its neglected siblings) was - like Lidia/La Punizione/Niccolò de’Lapi - abandoned complete–that it needed only for someone to pull it off the shelves of his archives, crack it open, create an edition, and voilà! It could be brought to life. But an intrepid impresario hoping to mount a world premiere is in for a disappointment, for autograph score - housed in the Fondo Pacini in Pescia - is but a fragment consisting of 91 sheets.

Thanks to detailed cataloging work done by Giuseppina Mascari in 1996

, we know that the completed musical numbers that comprise it are as follows:


Coro d’Introduzione: Viva Mina, viva Brenda Recitativo e Cavatine Clemente: Lieto inver fu il convinto..Errai d’immenso pelago

Recitativo Dopo l’Introduzione: Signori, amici, tutti rientrate

Recitativo e Cavatina Mertun: Ebben gli ammirerò…In ogni volto arridere

Coro e Finale: O baldi garzoni…Sulle pendici aeree

Atto I

Recitativo e Romanza Mina: Tu sei turbato o Mina…Correan sereni e placidi

Recitativo e Duetto Mina, Cora: Eppure è d’uopo…Cara, innocente giovane

Two pages of preliminary musical sketches

Recitativo dopo il Duetto: Il ver parlò la strega

The final few pages of the manuscript are blank. The remainder of Act I and the entirety of Acts II and III, it would seem, were never composed. Work simply ground to a halt, never to be taken up again.

Around twenty letters survive in the Biblioteca Nazionale di Roma from Piave to Pacini, and the creative process they document has been

Chapman & Hill engraving of Minna from the 1833 ed. of Scott's The Pirate; original in the collection of Thea Cook .

already been laid out in an excellent article by Bianca Maria Antolini.

Piave, who is remembered today chiefly as the librettist of Verdi’s Ernani, Rigoletto, Traviata, and Forza, enjoyed a long, fruitful, and far more peaceful professional relationship with Pacini. In fact, it was Pacini who first brought Piave into the theater by drafting him to complete the libretto of Il Duca d’Alba (Venice, la Fenice 1842) left unfinished by Perruzzini. In addition to La Donna delle Isole, Piave provided six other libretti for Pacini: Il duca d’Alba, Lorenzino de’Medici, Allan Cameron, Elnava, Berta, and Don Diego di Mendoza.

Composer and poet discussed a variety of literary sources before finally landing on Scott’s The Pirate. They considered another Scott work, a narrative poem entitled The Lord of the Isles, but rejected it as too complicated to reduce to a libretto. A subject raised by Pacini, La Mendicante, was rejected by Piave as “such a mess that no cook could render it into a dish worthy of our Venetian public.” (Oddly, Piave would later set it for another composer!). Other subjects included an opera about the Byzantine empress Zoë, set on the shores of the Bosporus, and Alfieri’s Mirra (which was almost certainly never a serious possibility given its incestuous story of a daughter consumed with carnal desire for her own father).

Having settled on the subject, it was decided that the outcast prophetess Norna would be the protagonist, but her name would have to be altered to avoid comparison to a certain other operatic figure:

"I will change the name of Norna to that of Cora to avoid the resemblance of Norma, we will have magnificent parts for tenor and woman good parts for the basses, we will have the dance of the swords, the marketplace, a good chorus of corsairs on board (new scene) ec. ec."

Norna saves Clemente Cleveland

Piave, who was responsible for overseeing La Fenice's productions, knew how to take maximum advantage of the theater's amenities:

"I warn you that we shall have a good accompanist, and that a new great and magnificent organ is being built at La Fenice for which it will be necessary to use it. As organs have always been used in the theater for weeping, so you will hear at the end of the Act II trio, that I have introduced a sort of Te Deum, in order to offer you the opportunity to use the organ to present a novelty. I have found a good dissolution of the catastrophe, and I hope to contain you in this too. I have spoken with the set painter, who will make us magnificent scenes. He is in love with all the subjects that I have proposed to him. I am the director of all the decorations for the opera; so think whether this Donna delle Isole will have to appear worthily before the respectable Venetian public."

At the beginning of November 1853, the libretto was finished and sent to the composer. Piave expressed satisfaction with the result: of the third act he writes "I have put body and soul into it, and I believe the effect will not fail". The dissolution of the drama was resolved in an unprecedented way:

"You will see that I have avoided blood and atrocity, because in such a genre, after the sacks of Rigoletto and the coughs of Traviata, one does not find anything else new, and if there can be today a dissolution that isn’t ordinary, it is happy dissolution."

Things seem to have been going swimmingly. On November 18, the censors gave the go-ahead to the libretto. But at this stage, things went pear-shaped. Pacini gives a brief account in his Memorie:

La Punizione was the opera that I put onstage at Venice at the Teatro La Fenice…I had prepared another work for that season entitled La Donna delle Isole with a libretto by friend Piave: but the character of Cora, which was to be created by Albertini, represented a woman advanced in age, consumed by the bitterness of life, and moreover with a son already grown up in Clement Cloveland (sic), to be portrayed by a tenor, Mirate; I thought that such an attractive and young artist would perhaps have ripped out my eyeballs, if I had persisted in making her represent that character. I therefore put aside the thought, preferring to devote myself to another work, rather than lose the good graces of that enchanting siren.

Pacini’s account, while containing some kernel of truth, was undoubtedly crafted to avoid upsetting la Albertini, who was still alive and kicking when his memoir came out. It is dubious at best whether, in mid-composition of an opera d’obbligo, he would have simply decided that the central role was too old and ugly for the prima donna, and definitely not one of the dramatic and vocal prowess Albertini was rumored to possess. No, it had to be Albertini herself who threatened (figuratively) the composer’s eyesight. “That enchanting siren” had a reputation as something of a “Karen”. She was not the ingenue Pacini implies: attractive, yes; but having debuted in 1842, she was already 31, hardly a newcomer to the stage for those days. A letter from Albertini to the Marzi brothers survives in the archives of La Fenice, the letters flattened like trees by the blast-wave from a meteor, so much so that they are virtually illegible, but the gist is clear enough: she threatens to pull out of the production of Otello over dissatisfaction with the casting. While no other letters from Albertini from the time are cataloged either by the Archivio Storico la Fenice, nor are any listed in the two major Pacini archives, it seems quite clear that Pacini must have been reversed in his course of composing the opera by threats - direct or indirect - that Albertini would refuse to sing the principal role. According to Mascari, the Pescia archive preserves a letter dated December 3 to Pacini from the Marzi brothers, acknowledging that they have received the “new” libretto of La Punizione. Thus, by late November La Donna dell’Isole had been marooned half-complete.

This is bolstered by an undated letter from Piave which had to have been penned between November 18 and December 3:

The more I think, the less I find the fit of the part of Cora to Sra Albertini impossible: such a part is beautiful, in my belief, because it is dramatic, passionate and when we have done the aria in it it will become even more apt to make singing in it, and of offering the artist and the maestro a double field on which to be applauded. As for the libretto as a whole (modesty aside) I find it not inferior to those who tour the world in the day. There are characters, positions, variety, and a few new color. The catastrophe then breaks away from the bloody conventions of the day, and the last duet of the recognition, to tell you the truth I like it very much.

Grudgingly, Piave agreed to set aside the libretto if the situation could not be saved. But Pacini always knew what side his bread was buttered on. He had made his decision to appease the prima donna, evidently, and after a few more announcements of La Donna dell’Isole, the press caught up with the change that had been made; by February, it was La Punizione that was on offer. As if to add insult to injury, the libretto was not by Piave, but by Cesare Perini (but no one was actually credited with writing the text in the published libretto).

That would seem to be the end of the story, but it was not. Piave, having poured heart and soul into a libretto of which he was proud, kept trying to convince Pacini to allow the opera to be produced: first in Fermo, then Bologna, then finally in Treviso. For the role of Cora, he had in mind the powerhouse soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, the creator of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, who was - according to Piave - enthusiastic about the role of the prophetess Cora. Piave went to the trouble of negotiating a contract terms with the Marzi brothers, who had stiffed Pacini for payment on La Punizione. The contract (generously?) would have remedied that default, but Pacini seems to to have been understandably piqued and refused. Piave, who had seen Barbieri-Nini in Treviso and was bowled over, was annoyed:

…it seems to me that you have lost a good opportunity: I have always told you so and I repeat it. And it seems to me that if you are counting on Milan for this opera, it would be better for it to be reproduced after a successful outcome in Treviso, instead of being a virgin. The scenes of La Scala are not always a bed of flowers. But let's make a point of it, since I am destined not to hear a single note of this Donna delle isole, and if Marzi or the Eternal Father were to ask me to return to the subject, or to something else [?] I would turn a deaf ear, also for the sake of saving postage stamps…”

Mysteriously, however, a notice in L’indicatore Teatrale of April 24, 1855 proclaims that La Donna dell’Isole will be performed at Treviso! How this notice appeared is a mystery I cannot pretend to solve. It is possible that Piave simply got ahead of himself and leaked to the press something that was not yet confirmed.

In any event, after seeing Barbieri-Nini triumph in the composer’s wildly popular Bondelmonte, he reprimanded Pacini further:

La Barbieri is supreme, Corsi unattainable, Agresti great, and the talented young Chiaramonte, the maestro's daughter, is a new star who will certainly shine with enviable light in the theatrical horizon. I am also pleased to announce that on the 21st of this month the entire company will come to the opening of the restored Teatro S. Samuele with this opera, and so those who were not lucky enough to hear it in Treviso will be able to admire it here. To give you an idea of the enthusiasm that rightly arouses in you I will tell you that they like it more than la Borgia and Mose, and L’ebreo. Why didn't we give La Donna dell’Isole!!! Auf!

If he was hoping to move the composer, he failed; for as we already know the opera was abandoned altogether.

The libretto of La Donna dell’Isole (based solely on Piave’s summary, which appears in its entirety in Antolini's excellent article) would have made for thrilling theater, and one can only regret that Pacini never finished composing it. With a singer like Barbieri-Nini in the title role, one can only imagine that Piave’s faith in the idea was justified, but perhaps Pacini had other fish to fry. A nascent project for Paris (the holy grail of commissions for an Italian composer) was in the works, a never-composed opera called L’incantatrice di Madrid; that commission eventually led to a substantial rewriting of Gli Arabi nelle Gallie however and La Donna dell’Isole was shelved permanently. Creating an edition of the portion Pacini composed (and performing the fragment) would certainly make a fascinating project.

Chapman & Hill engraving of Brenda from the 1833 Version of Scott's The Pirate; original in collection of Thea Cook


Theatrical Journals

Il Buon Gusto

Anno III, No. 12, 6 Nov. 1853 p.47

La Fama, 5 Dic. 1853, No. 97 Anno XII, p. 387.

L’indicatore Teatrali, 24 Apr. 1855, anno I, no. 35, p.4.

L’Omnibus Pittoresco, Napoli 10 Dic. 1853, No. 42, Anno X. p. 335

Il Pirata, Giornale Letterario-Teatrale “Un po’di Tutto,” Anno XIX. No. 36, 3 Nov. 1853 p. 143.

Lo Scaramuccia, Giornale Teatrale (Firenze)

Anno I, No. 9, 29 Nov. 1853, n.p.

Teatri, arti e letteratura

Anno 31, Tomo 60, Dic. 1853, Suppl. No. 1511.

Ibid. 1 Dec 1853; p. 115 Supplemento al No. 1510.

Ibid. Anno 31, Tomo 60, No. 1512, 10 Dic. 1853, p. 132.


Albertini, Augusta (1854); letter dated 27 Jan., 1854, Archivio Storico La Fenice, Ca.Ri.Ve./4_Cantanti/Albertini/03. Accessed at, November 17, 2022.

Books/Journal Articles

Antolini, Bianca Maria (1996); “La Collaborazione tra Piave e Pacini:”; in Intorno a Giovanni Pacini, Marcello Conati, ed..pp.191-216.

Gänzl, Kurt (2017); "ALBERTINI, Augusta [AITCHI(N)SON, Augusta Rosina] (b Bristol, bap 5 June 1823; d Florence, Italy, 23 January 1898)" , in Victorian Vocalists ed. Kurt Gänzl (Abingdon: Routledge, 29 Sep 2017 ), at accessed 02 Jun 2022 , Routledge Handbooks Online.

Mascari, Giuseppina (1999); “Contributo ad un catalogo delle opere di Giovanni Pacini. Melodrammi autografi e copie manoscritte conservati presso la Biblioteca Comunale di Pescia,” Fonti Musicali Italiane No. 4, pp. 161-205.

Mascari, Giuseppina (1998); “Da Lidia di Brabante a Niccolò de' Lapi. Le vicende di un'opera di Giovanni Pacini,” Rivista Italiana di Musicologia,

Mitchell, Jerome (1996), More Scott Operas: further analyses of operas based on the works of Sir Walter Scott.

Pacini, Giovanni (1875), Le Mie Memorie Artistiche (edite ed inedite). Capitolo XVI, p. 113., Ferdinando Magnani, ed. Firenze, p. 325.

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