Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

main index    © Jeff Matthews   entry Jan. 2004


Metastasio in Naples

The "What-If" school of history is as futile as it is fun, so it's hard to say what might have happened to Italian opera if young Pietro Trapassi had not moved to Naples to study law. Trapassi is better known as "Metastasio." He was born in Rome in 1698 and died in Vienna in 1782. He is primarily remembered for his libretti, text of such quality that it revitalized Italian opera.

When the first operas started to play on Italian stages in the early 1600s, they were monuments to the admonition of Vincenzo Galilei (1520-1591—he is the father of the astronomer, Galileo) to other Florentine poets and musicians of the day not to let music get in the way of the story. "Singing should be just barely distinguishable from speaking," he said. However, such was the melodic and harmonic eloquence of such giants as Monteverdi and then the Neapolitan, Alessandro Scarlatti, that a century later the pendulum had swung completely to the other extreme. By 1700, Italian opera was about to expire from overwrought melody with banal and plotless doggerel hanging off the music.

As a child, Metastasio was "discovered" by two literary patrons. The boy, from a modest family, was taken with wandering the streets of Rome  and improvising poetry for passers-by, a feat so impressive that the patrons convinced Trapassi's father to give them custody of the child so that he might have an education worthy of his talent. Renamed "Metastasio" (a Greek form of his real name), the boy stayed in Rome for a few years, studying the classics—and producing at the age of 12 (!) a translation of the Iliad into Italian octave stanzas  He continued his poetry improvisations so intensively that his health suffered. His guardians took him to Naples in 1718, where it was understood he would study law and put poetry aside, at least for a while.


That did not last long. Once in Naples, he began to write poetry again. In 1722, he wrote, upon commission, a work for the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Naples was then in the middle of its brief existence as an Austrian vicerealm). The work was entitled Gli orti esperidi (The Gardens of Hesperides). It was set to music by Niccolò Porpora (1688-1768) one of the noted Neapolitan composers of the day. It was an immediate success. Then, in 1724 Metastasio wrote Didone abbandonata (Dido Abandoned), a work that Benedetto Croce called "the beginning of the great change in the literary merit of Italian libretti." It was set to music by Domenico Sarro and premiered at the San Bartolomeo theater in Naples in 1724. Sources claim that this first major libretto by Metastasio was more noteworthy than the music; thus, it was set to music once again, this time by another Neapolitan—and the most important Italian composer of his generation—Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) for subsequent performances in Venice and elsewhere. It met with great success, and established text once again as important in musical drama.

Metastasio took the time to study music in Naples, and was genuinely concerned about the compatibility of music and text. He left Naples in 1728 and eventually wound up in Vienna, but from his early works in Naples, his destiny was sealed, and the legal profession lost, no doubt, a learned professor of law or whatever else might have been down that road for Metastasio. By the end of his life, not only had his texts been set to music by some 400 different European composers, but they were widely read for their literary value.


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