"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 almost as an afterthought.
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.