Sicily’s most famous composer was born in Catania on 3 November 1801 to a family of professional musicians. He was something of a prodigy, composing already in his pre-teens. In 1819 he was sent to the Naples Conservatoire where, in addition to conventional academic exercises and study of Mozart and Haydn, he was encouraged by his mentor Niccolò Zingarelli to immerse himself in the folk music of Sicily and develop his characteristic song style. Zingarelli proudly followed his star pupil’s career; Norma was dedicated to him.
Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, was written for the Conservatoire in 1825 and its success led to the San Carlo management commissioning his next, Bianca e Fernando, premiered the following year (when it was renamed Bianca e Gernando out of respect for the late King Ferdinando).This in turn led to a commission from La Scala, Milan, for Il pirata (1827), another signal success, and one that spread his fame abroad. Thereafter Bellini led a charmed life as a composer, working only to commission, seldom hurrying (unlike Donizetti) and commanding generous fees. As a person he was liked by contemporaries for his charm, but he was also quick to take offence, jealous of such potential rivals as Donizetti, and a somewhat calculating womaniser.
The librettist of Il pirata was Felice Romani, who became a lifelong collaborator, supplying the texts for La straniera (Milan, 1829), Zaira (Parma, also 1829), I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Venice, 1830), La sonnambula (Milan, 1831) and Norma (Milan, also 1831). The two fell out over Beatrice di Tenda (Venice, 1833), one of Bellini’s rare – at the time – failures, but the composer’s view of Beatrice as ‘not unworthy of her sisters’ has been proved right. Romani was sorely missed in what was to be Bellini’s last opera, I puritani (Paris, 1835), to a well-meaning but somewhat amateurish libretto by Count Carlo Pepoli. The star tenor in Il pirata was Rubini, with whom Bellini also forged a professional relationship: he had sung in Bianca, and created the tenor roles in Sonnambula and Puritani. Pasta was another star with whom he worked regularly, in Sonnambula, Norma and Beatrice.
The most immediately striking aspect of Bellini’s style is his command of long-breathed melody, much admired by Verdi, and his fusion of melody with text, just as much admired by Wagner, and indeed emulated, not just in Das Liebesverbot but as far ahead as Tristan. But there was more to Bellini than elegiac melos: the full-frontal Romanticism and musical violence of Pirata was enormously influential, and at the time the martial duet ‘Suoni la tromba’ in Puritani appealed to audiences more than Elvira’s Mad Scene. Perhaps most important was his development of very carefully orchestrated accompanied recitative, or arioso, to separate set numbers, which pointed far ahead to through-composed opera.
Given what he had already achieved, Bellini’s early death from gastro-enteritis and liver infection, at the age of only 33, was as tragic a waste as that of Mozart.
Profile © Rodney Milnes, 2004