Ópera y Teatro musical

Il burbero di buon cuore

Leonardo J. Waisman
jueves, 10 de junio de 2004
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Il burbero di buon cuore, the first production in a series of successful collaborations between Lorenzo Da Ponte and Vicente Martín y Soler, was the result—we are told—of a suggestion made by Emperor Joseph II himself as patron of the Italian opera in Vienna. The garrulous abbé tells us that, soon after his first operatic libretto turned out to be a failure,


…one day, encountering me by chance on one of his morning walks, he stopped me, and remarked most graciously: “You know, Da Ponte, your opera, after all, isn’t half so bad as they would like to have us think? You must take courage, and give us another one!”
Meantime [Stephen] Storace (brother of the diva) and Martini [Vicente Martín y Soler] arrived in Vienna, two young composers who hoped to place operas with the Italian theatre. The former had on his side his sister, a virtuosa of merit1,   favorite of the Sovereign himself; and the second, the Spanish Ambassadress, with whom also the Emperor seemed to be on friendliest terms.
After various manoeuvres and secret comings and goings on the part of the singers and the castus Abbas [the renouned poet Giambattista Casti], a great coup was prepared. They thought they had found a way of forcing me out of my post regardless of the Sovereign will. It was suggested, therefore –and Casti was at the head of the conspiracy– to have a libretto made for Storace by that same Brunati who had written the lampoon against me; and as for Martini, whose ears were filled every day with the story of my first fiasco, they concluded that he would never risk my verses with his music; and working in this double sense, they spoke ill to him of my poetry, and to me of his music.
“He is an excellent instrumentalist,” they said, “but as for the vocal –Lord deliver us!”
My royal patron very soon cut this knot. He suggested to Martini through the same Ambassadress to ask me for the words for an opera and to me he himself said:
“Why don’t you do an opera for that Spaniard? I think it would please!”
I selected the theme of the “Good Natured Grumpus” (Il Burbero di buon cuore) as the subject for our opera, and set to work. The moment my choice became known, Signor Casti, still stubborn in his twin design of obtaining the post of poet laureate and of persecuting me, whom he thought to be the sole obstacle to his progress, began saying aloud and in public that that was no subject for a musical comedy, and that it would not raise a laugh. He even made bold to say as much to Caesar who repeated the thing to me in these words:
“Da Ponte, your friend Casti claims that the Burbero will not make a laugh.”
“Your Majesty,” I replied, “we shall have to endure that. I shall be satisfied if he weeps.”
Joseph caught my twist of the meaning and added:
“I wish you luck!”
In fact the opera was put on the stage and was from the beginning to end applauded. It was observed that many spectators, among others the Emperor, sometimes applauded the strictly recitative parts. He met me as he was leaving the theatre, came up to me, and whispered:
“We have won!”
Three words that for me were worth a hundred volumes of praises!
The next morning I paid my call on the Count [Franz Xaver Orsini-Rosenberg, the Director]. He was sitting with his dear Abbé, gossiping. The grimness with which they both welcomed me filled me with alarm.
“What can I do for the signor poeta?”
“I have come to hear my sentence from the signor Direttore!”
“The signor poeta has already heard his sentence from our most kind-hearted public! How just a one, I am not in a position to say!”
In this intention I hurried to the palace. But I had scarcely crossed the threshold of the Prince’s room when he exclaimed in great jubilation:
“Bravo, Da Ponte! I liked both the music and the words!”
“Your Sacred Majesty,” I replied modestly, “Your Director seems not to be of that opinion!”
“It’s not the Director, but Casti speaking,” Caesar replied.
“But it is your triumph. You have made him weep! Go back home now; take courage, and give us another opera with music by Martini. We must strike while the iron is hot!”
Casti was somewhat embarassed, and did not have the courage to speak ill in the open of an opera everybody was praising. He took a middle course. He praised, but adding so many “buts” that the compliment was itself a censure.
“But after all,” he would say, “it’s only a translation. We must wait and see how something original might turn out…”2


Eliminating the touches introduced by Da Ponte to present himself as intimate and favorite of the powerful, the broad outlines of the story are credible3.  Joseph II is known to have shown great interest in opera, and to have devoted a legendary personal attention to the smallest details in government affairs.

Only a few of the singers that participated in the première are known to us: the prima buffa Anna (Nancy) Storace in the role of Angelica, the primo buffo Francesco Benucci as Ferramondo, and the beautiful Maria Mandini playing Marina4.  For the 1789 revival it was necessary to replace Storace, who had sung Il burbero in her farewell to the Viennese operatic stage in February 1787. Although we do not know the name of her replacement, we do know that of the new Madama Lucilla, Louise Villeneuve, whose substitute numbers were provided by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, since Martín y Soler was thousands of miles away in St. Petersburg.

The reasonable success of Il burbero di buon cuore, after its première on January 4, 1786, is, to some extent, measured in terms of the number of performances staged in Vienna and of productions in other centers. Although far short of the explosive European renown of the collaboration between Da Ponte and Martín y Soler that was to follow, Una cosa rara, or the sustained Viennese popularity of the last opera in the trilogy, L’ arbore di Diana, Il burbero was performed twenty times in four years: thirteen in the original version, and seven in the new 1789 production5.  This positions the piece on a third level of popularity, behind those operas that enjoyed fifty or sixty performances (Martín y Soler’s own Cosa rara and Diana, Salieri’s Axur, Paisiello’s Barbiere), and those that reached around 30 showings (Mozart’s Figaro, Paisiello’s La molinara, Salieri’s La scuola dei gelosi). According to Dorothea Link’s ranking, it occupies the eighteenth place, way ahead of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

Il burbero seems to have temporarily acquired the status of a repertory standard, not eliciting fiery enthusiasm, but being successful enough to belong to that group of pieces that, as Da Ponte said, “if performed thriftily, [they are] always advantageous for the box office”6.  Thus we can understand its unfailing monthly representations between the première and the following July, and then during the coming winter—a series truncated by the departure of the prima buffa7 .

Contemporary reception seems to have included mixed reactions, ranging from the tepid approval of the Wiener Realzeitung to a less cautious laudatory evaluation from the Gazetta di Napoli. While the Viennese periodical stated “After three performances one could conclude that, although the piece did not quite win the undivided approval of the public, it did not wholly fail either. The music has much that is new and some special beauties. Mme. Storace has distinguished herself, not only by the excellence of her singing, but also by her naive portrayal of Angelica”8.  The Neapolitan Gazetta commented “The show was much applauded, and Mme. Storace’s bravura admired”9.  Otto Jahn asserts that it was a great success10,  but a loyal opera goer confessed to some boredom after three performances11Il burbero had some resonance outside Vienna: there were productions in Prague in the same year of the première, in Venice, Trieste and Dresden (Das gutherzige Polterer) in 1789, in Rome and Bologna in 1790. Next came Paris (1791), Madrid (1792), London and Barcelona (1794) and St. Petersburg (1796, with the composer’s presence). Da Ponte and Martín y Soler’s next two explosively successful operas have somewhat outshone the one we are publishing; nevertheless, Il burbero di buon cuore deserves a better acquaintance with today’s public on account of its artistic and historic interest.


Plot summary


Angelica, Ferramondo’s niece, is in love with Valerio Argenti, a rich and well-born youth. Marina, the old man’s governess, favors the couple’s plans, but Giocondo, Angelica’s brother, objects to the relationship. He is bankrupt, partially due to the excessive expenses innocently incurred by his wife Madama Lucilla, who loves parties and luxury. Giocondo plans to place Angelica in a convent, not only because he has already squandered her dowry but also because he wants to avoid more expenses. When Angelica finds this out, she blames Lucilla for the plan and her shyness prevents her from confessing her love to her uncle, the one who could solve the problem.

The old grump Ferramondo says he hates both his nephew and his nephew’s wife in particular for their disorderly conduct. When he discovers Giocondo’s intentions with regard to Angelica, he conceives the idea of marrying her to his friend and chess-partner Dorval, and providing the dowry himself. Dorval agrees, but after hearing Angelica’s confession of her love for Valerio, he desists and promises to help her.

Although Valerio resolutely enters the house to speak openly to the old man and offers to solve Giocondo’s money problems and to marry Angelica without a dowry, he is forced by Angelica and Marina to hide instead of facing Ferramondo’s ire. When he is discovered, he poses as a jewel salesman.

Giocondo manages to be heard by his uncle, but the pardon and help he elicits do not reach his wife. When Lucilla, realizing her role in her husband’s difficulties, is repelled by Ferramondo, she faints, thus softening up the old curmudgeon. Marina takes this opportunity to reveal Angelica and Valerio’s love and to plead for them. The old man consents, grumbling “everyone leads me by the nose”.


The libretto: Da Ponte and Goldoni


Lorenzo Da Ponte arrived in Vienna in 1781, but it was not before December 1784 that he could see his first operatic libretto, with music by Antonio Salieri, on stage. The opera, Ricco d’un giorno, was a dismal failure. Da Ponte himself later wrote that the book was decidedly bad and the music not much better12. Casti’s criticisms had mainly targeted at the dramatic structure of the piece, but he had recognized Da Ponte’s poetic talent. Da Ponte, who showed respect for Casti’s competence in spite of his malevolence, chose for his project with Martín y Soler a plot already tried and proven13. His selection was Le bourru bienfaisant by Carlo Goldoni, one of the two French pieces with which the great playwright had put the finishing touches on his oeuvre in 1771-72, and one of the most acclaimed for its balanced and harmonious development. As Link notes, the work was well known to the Viennese public: first in French and then in a German version, the comedy had been on the Burgtheater’s stage for a dozen years14.

Link also makes a number of judicious observations concerning Da Ponte’s translation and adaptation. In the first place, by choosing a play written in French by an Italian who had been acquainted with that language for only ten years, the abbé called attention to himself as a translator and invited comparison with Goldoni. The playwright, in the year following the composition and première of our opera, would state in his Memoirs that Le bourru bienfaisant had been conceived from the beginning “in the French manner”, and had that nation’s seal “in the thoughts, in the imagery, in the manner, and in the style”15. Critics have pointed out that “French manner” meant, among other things, a modeling on Molière’s theater.

Secondly, observes Link, the librettist “adhered closely, both in structure and in language to the Goldoni play when converting it to a libretto”, introducing changes only when operatic conventions made them necessary. This included recasting three acts into two, concocting intrigues in order to have each act end with a noisy Finale, and inserting or cutting numbers and scenes so that each singer (except the prima buffa) would have one and only one aria per act. These transformations, in turn, led to others: the development of Giocondo’s character through his arias, or the shifting of the focus of interest from Lucilla to Angelica (prima buffa)16.

There were two Italian translations when Goldoni published his Memoirs: Pietro Condoni, Il burbero benefico and Elisabetta Caminer, Il collerico di buon cuore, both from 1772, and he himself was preparing his own (Il burbero di buon cuore, 1789)17. He was therefore well aware of the problems involved when he stated that translating it was “a thankless task and with little chance of success. There are certain phrases and figures of speech that lose all their spirit in translation”. Da Ponte faced that challenge and came off with flying colors. The Burbero libretto is not merely a linguistic translation and an operatic adaptation of the Bourru; it is indeed a cultural translation from French culture and politesse to Italian feeling and spontaneity, from Molière’s comedy to the commedia dell’ arte.

Dorothea Link had already hinted at this conclusion. Comparing the incident in the opera in which Ferramondo brusquely expels Lucilla and Angelica from his chess-room to its counterpart in the comedy, where Geronte shows his discomfort at having to pass beside Mme. Dalancour in order to reach his chambers, and she, noticing his uneasiness, steps aside, Link wonders: “Is this change due to converting a play into a libretto, or to making the cultural translation from French to Italian?”18.

I think the question incorporates a false dilemma: the adaptation as opera buffa is a cultural translation and entails a number of modifications of vocabulary, of manners, and of the author’s criteria for including or excluding data and events. An appreciation of this change might begin with a simple comparison of the two titles: the distinction between “beneficent”—a concept of the Enlightenment, referring to a social action—and “good hearted”—a spiritual quality, inherent to the individual. One describes an exterior behavior conditioned by context and observable in that context; the other implies feelings “essential” to the person’s nature. And it is this personal feeling that the opera highlights and develops, especially through arias in which each character is allowed a monologue. This is intrinsic to the genre—or at least traditional—and Da Ponte’s adaptation brings about this change of emphasis almost automatically when he inserts texts for arias, decreases the discursive content and suppresses passages with more intellectual than sentimental interest. The following dialogue between Giocondo / Dalancour and the servant Castagna / Piccardo illustrates how closely Da Ponte follows Goldoni’s plan step by step, even including vocabulary, and also how he shortens and versifies Goldoni’s text, taking advantage of Piccardo’s final monologue to introduce an aria for Castagna19.



Da Ponte

DALANCOUR: Tu non hai detto a mio zio ciò ch'io t'aveva ordinato.
PICCARDO: Perdonatemi, signore, glie l'ho detto, ma egli mi ha scacciato, secondo il solito.
DALANCOUR: Mi dispiace. Avvertimi de’ buoni momenti, in cui poter parlargli. Un giorno ti saprò premiare a dovere.
PICCARDO: Ve ne sono obbligato, signore, ma, grazie al cielo, non ho bisogno di nulla.
DALANCOUR: Sei dunque ricco?
PICCARDO: Non sono ricco, ma ha un padrone che non mi lascia mancar nulla. Ho moglie, ho quattro figliuoli; dovrei essere l'uomo più imbarazzato del mondo, ma il mio padrone è sì buono che li mantengo senza difficoltà, ed in casa mia non si conosce la miseria. (parte)











GIOCONDO: E non hai detto al zio/ quello che ti comisi?
CASTAGNA: Io gli volli parlar, e al ordinario/ mandommi alla malora.

GIOCONDO: Abbi pazienza e un giorno/ sarò grato, ti giuro.
CASTAGNA: Grazie, grazie, Signor; io non mi curo.

GIOCONDO: Come sei così ricco?
CASTAGNA: Son ricco abbastanza,/ se mai nulla mi manca e nulla m’ avanza.
GIOCONDO: E chi con quattro figli ed una moglie/ ti fa viver sì lieto e sì felice?
CASTAGNA: Stretta man, sobrie voglie,/ un bon salario ed un padron migliore/ è la filosofia d’ un servitore.
 Son trent’ anni che porto livrea;/ è il mestier che mio padre facea./ Non studiai la moral, la politica;/ anzi appena so far l’ abbicì.
 Pur in fondo un uom dotto mi credo/ e a un filosofo nulla la cedo/ per le cose imparate per prattica,/ miglior libro che s’ abbia oggidì.
 Ho imparato il necessario/ dal bisogno imaginario/ con criterio a separar,/ e la spesa col’ entrata,/ per non far qualche fritatta,/ sempre, sempre a misurar.
 Ho imparato a non far debiti,/ perche arriva il pagherò./ So ber acqua e mangiar cavoli/ se capponi e vin non ho.
 Poi se vien qualche disgrazia,/ qualche spesa affatto incerta,/ ho un padron che non si sazia,/ colla borsa sempre aperta,/ d’ aiutarmi in quel che puo. (parte)


Castagna’s aria illustrates another transformation intrinsic to opera: affording minor roles moments during which they can monopolize the audience’s attention. In the case of Il burbero, Da Ponte distributes arias very equitably among singers, thus setting up an actantial20  structure configured around oppositions absent from or merely implied in Goldoni’s play. To Giocondo’s unbridled prodigality he opposes Castagna’s sober frugality; against Ferramondo’s fury and irritability he pits Dorval’s mild character and temperance. The perception of these oppositions does not require analysis: they are there, embodied in arias.

Besides these almost inevitable processes—given the nature of Italian comic opera—the librettist aptly performs a series of operations that we shall discuss within the framework of a couple of scenes from the comedy and their parallels in the libretto. Scene 24 in the first act in Da Ponte’s corresponds to the fourth scene in Goldoni’s second act. Their respective beginnings are:


DALANCOUR: (vedendo sua moglie) Ah! Madama...
MADAMA: (a Dalancour) Io vi attendeva con impazienza. Ho udita la vostra voce...
DALANCOUR: Eccovi, o mia moglie, il signor Dorval. Io vel presento in qualità di mio cognato, e come sposo di Angelica.
MADAMA: (con gioia) Sì?
DORVAL: Io sarò pienamente contento, Madama, se la mia felicità potrà meritare la vostra approvazione.
MADAMA: (a Dorval) Signore, io ne sono lietissima. Mi rallegro con voi di tutto cuore. (a parte) (Che mi disse ella dunque del cattivo stato di mio marito?
GIOCONDO: Su, venite, Lucilla, venite,/ (addita Dorval) di mia suora lo sposo abbracciate.
LUCILLA: Ei lo sposo?
DORVAL: Lo sposo, che dite?/ se la scielta, Madama; approvate,/ doppiamente felice sarò.
(a 3, ognuno da sé)
LUCILLA e GIOCONDO: Or m’ avanza una dolce speranza/ che il mio core puo ben consolar.
DORVAL: Or gli avanza una dolce speranza/ che il suo core dovria consolar

The joy that all three characters share is the focus of development that Da Ponte envisaged and Martín y Soler realized in a broad, lyrical trio. Goldoni, instead, turns immediately from Mme Dalancour’s expression of happiness to her suspicions and musings about the relationship between her husband’s situation and the marriage project. If I were forgiven a bit of essentialism, I would describe this discrepancy as pure Italian feeling on one side, French verisimilitude and reason on the other. And the divergent continuation of the scenes follows along the same paths. In the comedy, after Dorval is gone, we have a long scene with the couple alone on stage (Scene 5) in a true domestic tête-à-tête. The wife reproaches the husband’s lack of assertion in front of his uncle and he is driven to the point of calling her “unbearable”—both only to end up begging each other’s forgiveness and turning to a discussion of what Angelica has insinuated to Mme. Dalancour with respect to M. Dalancour’s economic predicament.


In the opera, all three characters leave the stage, which is immediately taken over by Angelica in a lament scene (scene 25) that might have been taken directly from an opera seria. Next Valerio rushes in, ready to face all perils (Ferramondo as the Turkish army) in order to be united with his beloved. While he boldly declares “Omai tutt’ oso, io non posso piu soffrir”, the voice of the returning Ferramondo is heard. Angelica and Marina, mad with fear, do not know where to hide Valerio, and set off a hectic series of tugging, squeezing and pulling (scene 26). When Dorval, Castagna, Giocondo and Lucilla enter (scene 27), the farcical elements reign supreme. Valerio is discovered and passed off as a jewel merchant, Lucilla rails against him and against Angelica, Ferramondo rants and raves with anger and confusion. All this, of course, is appropriate for the culmination of the first act’s Finale, but the beginning of the second act also has a farcical tone. Ferramondo’s naive interrogation of the culprits (led by the cunning Marina) is an opportunity for tricks, whispered secrets, childish pranks—that is, for easy laughs (scenes 1 to 3). Only in scene 4, when Giocondo and Madama remain alone on stage, does Da Ponte’s version rejoin that of Goldoni, with the argument about money problems and the final revelation to Lucilla of the bankruptcy. The scenes and incidents cut from the comedy by the librettist correspond to complexities of an intellectual nature: reasonings, suspicions, plotting. The stretches that he added are either farcical or of sentimental interest.

The linguistic register and the characters’ manners is much more popular and direct in Da Ponte than in Goldoni. When the latter has Valerio ask “Il signor Geronte è in casa?”, the former transforms it into “È ‘l vecchio in casa?”. The action becomes less subtle, more physical. After a dramatic shock, Goldoni follows suit with a detailed explanation, Da Ponte, instead, with a “perplexity ensemble” or a musical brawl (I, scene 5). The librettist adds farce scenes such as the reiterated pantomime of Angelica’s one step forward – two backwards and her shy monosyllables within Ferramondo’s verbal torrent (I, scene 20 and II, scene 1). He invents scenes with hide-and-seek, disguises and turmoil, such as that of the jewel merchant.

In Da Ponte’s adaptation, the commedia dell’ arte lives again, untamed, undiluted, and untouched by Goldoni’s efforts towards stylization; together with sentimental expression it constitutes the Italian and operatic nature of Da Ponte’s and Martín y Soler’s Burbero di buon cuore.

Vicente Martín y Soler and the Music for Il Burbero


Since this collection already includes two summaries of the composer’s biography21,  we shall limit ourselves to the bare essentials. Born in Valencia on May 2nd, 175422,  we know next to nothing about his youth and musical studies. He was a choirboy at the cathedral of Valencia and perhaps stayed for some time in Madrid23.  Since late 1777 he was at the service of the court in Naples, where he had several ballets and opere serie performed: Ifigenia in Aulide, with a libretto by Luigi Serlio (1779)24Ipermestra and Partenope, both on Metastasio librettos. Other centers such as Turin (Andromaca, 1780) and Lucca (Astartea, 1782) also commissioned and performed his opere serie. But his career veered slowly yet decisively towards opera buffa: Il tutore burlato, recently discovered by Rainer Kleinertz in the Biblioteca Histórica Municipal de Madrid25L’amor geloso in Naples, In amor ci vuol destrezza in Venice and Turin, Le burle per amore also in Venice, and La vedova spiritosa in Parma. The composer apparently alternated his residence in Naples with visits to the court in Madrid.


Between 1782 and 1785, Martín y Soler established himself in Venice, moving on to Vienna, where he wrote for the court theatre three operas on librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte with resounding success. Il burbero di buon cuore (1786), Una cosa rara ossia bellezza ed onestà (1786) and L’arbore di Diana (1787) won him Viennese and European fame. Summoned to Russia by Catherine the Great as her chapelmaster, his stay in St. Petersburg (1788-94) was not propitious. Resigning his post, he traveled to London, where his old friend and collaborator, abbé Da Ponte, offered him lodging and work. The two of them produced two comic operas in 1795, La scuola dei maritati (also known as La capricciosa corretta) and L’ isola del piacere, before their falling out, apparently owing to amorous rivalries.

Once again in St. Petersburg, the Spanish composer took part in the production of his previous operas and wrote another opera buffa (La festa del villaggio, 1798) and several ballets (Tancrède and Le rétour de Poliorcète, 1799-1800). But his activities veered towards teaching and bureaucratic employment. He died in the Russian capital in 1806.

The music he wrote for Il burbero di buon cuore is, as a whole, characteristic of his production; although it includes a lesser proportion of numbers in song style when compared with the other two operas of the Viennese trilogy, Una cosa rara and L’ arbore di Diana. No doubt, this is partly due to the fact that Il burbero is a bourgeois comedy, while the other two have strong pastoral connotations26.  There are no bravura arias comparable in technical challenge and effect to those of the goddess in L’ arbore di Diana. Apart from this, the style is similar to that of the other two Viennese operas: a judicious blend of the serio and buffo styles27.  The exploitation of these two traditions is at times masterly, as in the farcical irruption of an easygoing, heartily coarse Ferramondo in the middle of the exalted lyricism of Dorval’s and Angelica’s duo (Act II, # 5, m. 39), or the use of a “Rossini” crescendo, quintessentially buffo, as a mean of conveying the gradual intensification of Valerio’s feelings at the end of his moving aria in serious style (Act I, # 3). Although based on the idioms of the comic tradition, several of the ensembles are indeed structured according to the fundamental principle of opera seria; first they develop an action (as if it were a recitative), then they stop the dramatic clock in order to allow the participants to display their feelings induced by the latest events (Act I, #1 and #10).

A distinguishing trait of Martín y Soler’s compositional art is the economy of means. Even though there are occasionally interesting harmonic sequences, shreds of counterpoint and unconventional melodies, the great majority of passages use nothing but alternations between the most ordinary chords, simplest modulations to dominant or relative keys, homophonic textures, and almost entirely predictable melodies (but this “almost” is significant)28.  From the point of view of the Bach – Mozart – Beethoven – Brahms canon, his music is poor in almost all respects, and has been assigned by connoisseurs (Kenner) to the second or third rank, as fodder for amateurs (Liebhaber). Nevertheless, Carl Dahlhaus has recognized that Martín y Soler belongs to one of the “twin cultures” of the nineteenth century: Franco-Italian opera, which he pits against German instrumental music (including Mozart’s operas and Wagner’s symphonic dramas)29.  This dichotomy still has a certain resonance in the dualism “classic / popular” that has dominated music in the twentieth century. The music of our Valencian composer, therefore, will continue to suffer by comparison—at least for some time to come, and musicological rehabilitation notwithstanding.

Martín y Soler is indeed a master of economy: by using minimal resources, staying entirely within convention and creating melodies and textures that can easily be performed without lengthy rehearsals, he shapes the narrative dramatically and treats the audience to sweet, catchy tunes that they may later sing in their homes and salons. His thriftiness in orchestral complexities and in counterpoint puts the orchestra at the singers’ service so that they may “create” music. As a composer, he is far from proclaiming himself the master of a text of which the interpreters are servants (as would Beethoven a few years later). Instead, he proposes his music as a vehicle through which the singers may captivate the audience—thus collaborating with the whole enterprise of opera production for the benefit of all concerned.


Let us take the Finale of the first act as an example of this economical management of resources. A simple glance at the score shows us that more than 90% of the time is spent in one the following three processes:
a) reiterated alternations between tonic and dominant chords
b) pedals on repeated notes with alternating 6/4 – 5/3 or 5/3 – 7/4/2, often accompanied with conjunct ascending or descending melodies
c) cadencial formulas including subdominant, dominant and tonic chords.

Monotony is avoided by effects of acceleration or deceleration, by changes of scoring, and by inflections or contrasts in rhythm and character—all of these, of course, subordinated to dramatic interest. In this parsimonious harmonic framework, a mere touch of variety becomes enormously effective: a simple deceptive cadence, the modulation to a minor key, an Italian sixth, the gradual ascents in the bass that build up tension towards the dominant. And a sudden modulation from C major to the dominant of A major emerges as a truly shocking event.

Another example of what Martín y Soler achieves with scanty means is Ferramondo’s aria in the first act (# 6). In accordance with the matter at hand, the composer chooses a pure buffo style for the number. After the initial maestoso, with parodistic implications—the general has decided to engage in the battle—and its corresponding contrastive dolce, an alternation tonic – dominant on a tonic pedal begins, with slow harmonic rhythm, full of interruptions, virtually without figuration, while the player begins to examine the chessboard. With his first moves, a quasi-melody in repeated eighth-notes appears above the pedal point (m. 14). A first tune in the violins and staccato pianissimo chords indicates that Ferramondo’s secret scheme has been set in motion (mm. 18-21). From measure 22 onwards the old man begins to push it forward in a parlante set over an instrumental scaffolding formed by a repeated motive, which we shall dub x, and tonic – dominant alternations. A faster and continuous movement in eighths tells us that the machinery is now going forward at good pace. In measure 30 the figure changes to a different motive and the harmony reaches a cadence that includes the subdominant. The winds, hitherto unnoticed, begin to accompany with a two-voiced melody. Measure 38 brings back motive x, now accompanying faster declamation. Our hero has taken his opponent’s Queen! The orchestral fanfare inflames him, and leads directly to a change in tempo (Allegro, m. 46). Here events topple into each other, always above a dominant-tonic alternation that has now accelerated to quarter-note pulse in quicker tempo and on a dominant pedal. Check!: tonic pedal and tonic-subdominant alternation in quarter-note rhythm. Check mate!: we cast aside the pedal and rise to fortissimo dominant – tonic. The first part of the aria closes with Ferramondo frantically enjoying his victory, yelling at top speed and at the top of his lungs; Martín y Soler has used up all of the text provided by Da Ponte. Now, the composer takes advantage of the convention of bi-partition of arias in order to show the old man going once again over his moves, testing and re-testing the effectiveness of his scheme—but this time incensed from the start by the foreknowledge of his coming victory. Just two words: “Veggiamo meglio” (let us see more carefully) are added to the libretto, and we are led directly into the passage based on motive x, without going back to the slower tempo in which it was initially presented. Immediately the violins take over the upbeat feminine motive A – F# – D, frequently employed beforehand by the singing voice, and reiterate it a number of times in eighth-note diminution, alternating with an answer on the dominant (D – C# – A). The rhythm of declamation is an accelerated tongue-twister, combining the previously presented phrases in a different, almost random, order. Next we have a cadencial closure and a coda in which, using snippets and techniques from earlier in the movement, Ferramondo relishes with gusto his approaching victory. The last few measures include a bridge towards the next scene: after the conventional close of his part Ferramondo summons Castagna with a few screams while the orchestra roars its final cadence.


Comparisons between our composer and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—already connected in musical historiography due to the quote of Una cosa rara in the Finale of Don Giovanni—become inevitable on account of the replacement of two numbers by Martín y Soler with two arias by Mozart, on the same texts, in the 1789 production of Il burbero di buon cuore. Both are for Madama Lucilla: “Chi sa qual sia” in the first act and “Vado, ma dove” in the second.

It is necessary to call into question the implicit or explicit assumption in current literature that the replacements were requested by the new soprano, Louise Villeneuve, who was not pleased with the quality of Martín’s arias. We may bring in, as relevant in this matter, the 1790 document of Da Ponte that we have already cited. Having listed six operas “di buon effetto” (of good effects), he goes on to say: “If we have these six operas for Easter—not to speak of Figaro, which does not displease indeed, of Cosa rara, and of [Da Ponte – Salieri’s] Axur”—without rehearsals or effort, we shall have enough time and convenience to choose and compose others (and precisely this shall be my undertaking) for the new virtuose, and to adapt the parts to their capacities and genres...”30  It is this last phrase that interests us: although Da Ponte may be talking about new operas to be composed, he may also be including the adaptations necessary when the “new virtuose”, like Villeneuve, take on the roles of singers no longer present in repertory works. Thus he makes apparent for us the institutional character of the operation of adapting an opera to new circumstances. For the 1789 revival, for example, a number of changes were introduced: besides Lucilla’s two numbers, Giocondo’s aria “Degli anni sull fiore” (I / 7) was replaced by “Mi perdo”, of manifestly inferior quality, with schematic instrumentation and dreadfully monotonous figuration in the violins. Whereas the original aria required the singer to be able to contrast tender lyricism with dramatic expression, the substitution only demands vigor and drama (the same as Giocondo’s second act aria, which was not replaced). The new aria frequently reaches a’, whereas both original pieces hardly touch g’.

Another modification for this revival concerned the role of Marina. Her recitatives were rewritten in a higher register by the mere expedient of drawing note-heads above her original notes. By way of example, here is her participation in the initial recitative of the second act:




The foregoing illustrates Da Ponte’s remarks concerning the necessity of adapting the music to the “capacities and genre” of the new singers. The new arias for Villeneuve are but instances of this procedure, since the replaced pieces by Martín y Soler often climb to high B-flat, whereas Mozart’s barely reach high G. For the role of Dorabella in Così fan tutte, also sung by Villeneuve, the Salzburg master rarely exceeds that limit and makes her function as second soprano in ensembles, thus showing that the register of Martín y Soler’s original arias was too high for her. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that in 1789 the Valencian composer was miles away from Vienna and could not therefore be easily asked to supply the required adaptations—Mozart was simply a necessary substitute. (By the way, we may wonder about the authorship of the accompagnato recitative that precedes the Mozartian “Vado, ma dove” [Appendix, N° 5], since the autograph only includes the aria, and only the aria is explicitly assigned to Mozart in KT70). It is probable that the combination of the aria’s technical difficulties and high register were responsible for its replacement by another aria (now lost) in Madrid, and by a duo with Giocondo (“Per salvarti, o sposo amato”, Appendix, N° 6) in the Venetian manuscript W2.

 Dorothea Link prefaces her well-structured comparison between Martín y Soler’s two arias and those of Mozart with the comment that “This comparison is not entirely fair to Martín, for it is a foregone conclusion that Mozart’s arias are artistically superior”31.  This statement embodies the canonic attitude according to which “artistic” is synonymous with the qualities that are found in Mozart’s music—it is inevitable that the latter will be judged superior and Martín y Soler found wanting. Not that we want to invert the terms: what we need is to place them in the context of the “twin cultures”. The esthetic goals of one and the other were fundamentally different, but even that recent and insightful study insists on evaluating Martín y Soler according to the tenets of German instrumental music32.

The two arias by the Spanish master (I / 9 and II / 2) share the economy of means of which we have spoken earlier: harmonies barely straying from the tonic, melodic ideas with family resemblance, transparent and homophonic orchestral textures. All of these afford the singer the opportunity to exercise her virtuosity and expressiveness in a single key, a single affect that may include shades but no contrasts, almost in the manner of the late Baroque. The aria represents an emotional type, not a realistic description of a person’s fluctuating state of mind.

Mozart, instead (Appendix # 4 and 5) employs a delightful orchestration in order to underscore contrapuntal effects in a texture where instruments almost compete with the voice in their presence and expressiveness. To demonstrate Mozart’s superiority, Link emphasizes expressive contrasts, both in the surface (p. 157) and in underlying structure (p. 156). Concerning the latter, we may deem it symptomatic that her analysis of the Mozartian “Chi sa” describes it in terms of a sonata form: first quatrain in the tonic, second quatrain in the dominant, with contrasting material; first quatrain in the tonic, second quatrain in the tonic with climactic expansion33.  Martín y Soler (as most Spanish composers of the eighteenth century) was not sympathetic to that procedure, the very emblem of German instrumental music. His excursions to the dominant are often fleeting, returning to the tonic immediately after cadencing on the new key; they are seldom accompanied by contrasting thematic material. He often gives the impression of purposefully avoiding dramatic and oppositional procedures, so beloved in the music of the Salzburg master34.  In Il burbero, in particular, we may discern an authorial stance of detachment: the opera is marked as a divertimento, as a pretext for a musical feast. It is because of this that, after dramatic action has been wrapped up and all conflicts satisfactorily resolved, we are treated to a protracted and leisurely rondo of 130 measures: with the pretext of a concluding moral maxim, we all celebrate the end of a lighthearted, carefree celebration.

The fact that Vienna received Martín y Soler’s music better than Mozart’s should be cause for wonder. It has been generally explained away as a manifestation of the incomprehension of Philistine audiences toward Great Art, an art that would be fully appreciated by future generations. We might look at it, instead, as a lever with which to pry open the package of Viennese classicism that cultural histories of music have bequeathed us. That too-idyllic image, that perfect harmonization between musical form and expression, between artistic tradition and innovation, between nobleman and bourgeois united by a common belief in the arts’ capabilities for raising the human spirit to transcendent realms, had not only fissures but even a reverse side: a multitudinous musical public whose artistic needs were perspicuity, simplicity and ease of comprehension. There is no moral or esthetic law that places these qualities below those of profundity, subtlety and complexity that German instrumental music would develop.



Nancy Storace, famous soprano whose activity was centered mainly around Vienna and London.

Memoirs of Lorezo Da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott from the Italian, edited and annotated by Arthur Livingston (Philadelphia and London, J. B. Lippincott, 1929), pp. 140-41, 144-46. Original edition: Memorie di Lorenzo Da Ponte da Ceneda scritte da esso (New York, 1823-27).

Da Ponte himself, in his Extract from the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte ... (New York, 1819), p. 10, quoted in Dorothea Link, “The Da Ponte Operas of Vicente Martín y Soler” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Toronto, 1991), p. 28, assigns the emperor a less active role in this incident.

“La Storace chanta bien, Benucci joua pairfetement, la Mandini nous fit voir ses beaux cheveux”. Personal diary of Zinzendorf, entry of January 4th, 1786, quoted in Otto Michtner, Das alte Burgtheater als Opernbühne: von den Einführung des deutsches Singspiels (1778) bis zum Tod Kaiser Leopolds II (1792) (Vienna: Hermann Böhlaus Nachf., 1970), p. 399.

O. Michtner, Das alte Burgtheater, pp. 484-502.

“L’arbore di Diana, dandosi con economia, resta sempre un’ opera vantaggiosissima alla cassa”. Lorenzo Da Ponte, “Copia di Memoria presentata da me alla Direzione il mese di Xbre dell’ anno 1790”, reproduced in O. Michtner, Das alte Burgtheater, pp. 441-43.

Between February 1787 and the revival of 1789, with a new cast, there is a single performance in August 1787. Nothing is known about its cast or its circumstances.

“Nach einer dreimaliger Vorstellung war zu schliessen, dass das Stück zwar nicht der ungeteilten Beifall des Publikums erhielt, doch auch im Ganzen nicht missfiel. Die Musik hat viel Neues und einige besondere Schönheiten. Mme Storace hat sie nebst der Vortrefflichkeit ihres Gesangen auch noch überdies durch ihr naives Spiel vorzüglich als Angelica ausgezeichnet”. Wiener Realzeitung, 1786, p. 45, quoted in O. Michtner, Das alte Burgtheater, p. 198.

“Fu molto applaudito lo spettacolo ed ammirata la bravura della Signora Storace”. Gazzetta di Napoli, vol 10. I take the quote from D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, p. 64, who quotes in turn Ulisse Prota-Giurleo, “Del compositore spagnuolo Vicente Martín y Soler, Archivi 27 (1960), pp. 145-56; 151.

W. A. Mozart, 4 vols. (Leipzig, 1856-59), IV: 183, quoted in Michtner, Das alte Burgtheater, p. 399.

“Il m’ennuya un peu”. Zinzendorf, entry for January 11, 1786, quoted in O. Michtner, Das alte Burgtheater, p. 399.

L. Da Ponte, Memorias, p. 88.

L. Da Ponte, Extract, p. 10, quoted in D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, p. 30.

D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, p. 30.

D. Link’s translation, in “The Da Ponte Operas”, p. 32.

D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, pp. 31-33, 81-87.

González Porto-Bompiani, Diccionario Literario, 10 vols (Barcelona: Montaner y Simón, 1959), V: 427.

D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, p. 87.

I use Avancinio Avancini’s edition: Il burbero benefico: commedia in tre atti di Carlo Goldoni, Collana di cultura classica (Milan: Vallardi, 1935).

Term used by Algirdas Julien Greimas in Structural semantics, interpreted from the French by H.S. Gill. (New Delhi: Bahri Publications, 1989).

In the Introductions to Una cosa rara y L’arbore di Diana.

Baltasar Saldoni, Diccionario biográfico-bibliográfico de efemérides de músicos españoles (Madrid: Imprenta Antonio Pérez Dubrull, 1868-81). Facsimile edition by Jacinto Torres (Madrid: Centro de Documentación Musical, 1986).

The reader may find a summary of available data (with new documentary findings) about Martín y Soler’s youth in Rainer Leonhard Kleinertz, “Zwischen Neapel und Madrid: Vicente Martín y Soler und das Spanische Königshaus”, Anuario Musical 51 (1996): 165-75. Previously Ulisse Prota-Giurleo had gathered important information about the Neapolitan years of the composer: “Del compositore spagnuolo Vincente Martín y Soler”, Archivi 27 (1960): 145-56. For a panoramic view of the composer’s life, the best source is Dorothea Link, “The Da Ponte Operas of Vicente Martín y Soler”, University of Toronto, 1991. (Chap. 1: Martin’s career). There are some additional data in the recent Vicente Martín y Soler by Giuseppe de Matteis and Gianni Marata (Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnànim y Diputació de Valencia, 2001).

Modern edition by Juan Bautista Otero, Isidro Olmo Castillo, Manuel Forcano and Óscar Gil (Barcelona: Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara, 1999).

It has been preserved there both in the original version and in an arrangement as a zarzuela with spoken dialogue, under the name of La madrileña.

Mary Hunter, “Bourgeois Values and Opera Buffa in 1780s Vienna”, in Opera buffa in Mozart’s Vienna, ed. Mary Hunter and James Webster (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 165-96 and Christine Martin, Vicente Martín y Solers Oper Una cosa rara: Geschichte eines Opererfolg im 18. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim:Georg Olms, 2001), pp. 88 ff, dispute the validity of the concept of “pastoral” in this context, proposing as a more adequate substitution that of “naive”.

An adequate description of these styles, as well as of “song style” may be read in D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, Chapter 5.

D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, pp. 135-53, discusses some small irregularities that lend interest to the style.

Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, transl. J. Bardford Robinson, California Studies in 19th Century Music, 5 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 8-14. Original German edition, Wiesbaden 1980. I take the liberty of projecting into the past a phenomenon that Dahlhaus discusses from Rossini and Beethoven onward.

“Avendo a Pasqua queste sei opere, per non parlare del Figaro, che pur non dispiace, della Cosa rara, e dell’ Axur, senza pruove e fatiche, ci resterà commodo e tempo bastante di sceglierne, e di comporne (e sarà questo preciso impegno dell’ onestà mia) per le nuove virtuose, e di adattare le parti alle loro capacità, e generi”. L. Da Ponte, “Memoria alla Direzione”, p. 442.

D. Link, “The Da Ponte Operas”, p. 153.

Cf. D. Link’s analysis of Ferramondo’s aria examined earlier: not finding “a succession of harmonic goals” such as she discerns in Mozart or Paisiello, and ignoring the dramatic acceleration we have described, she concludes that “Ferramondo’s aria lacks a degree of forward drive and formal clarity that makes the aria seem long”(p. 132).

This is usually called “sonatina form”.

See for example a non-sonata scheme in Angelica’s aria, I / 8.

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