Opera and the Popular Consciousness: Donizetti’s Il Furioso

Image of title page for Donizetti's Il Furioso

Opera is the product of many different influences. The earliest operas are classified as opera seria, a form of opera which often centred upon heroic or mythical figures. Blending music, dance, and spectacle, this genre developed under the dictates of the Camerata, a gathering of elite secular humanists in Florence who attempted to revive the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. It was, as its name suggests, a serious and often inaccessible kind of opera, restricted to all but this small circle of musicians and intellectuals. But the intelligentsia would not have the last word on the development of opera. The comic counterpart, opera buffa, developed separately but concurrently out of popular arts and entertainments, without the artistic and cultural prescriptions offered by the likes of the CamerataOpera buffa supplanted the distant, mythological individuals and narratives of the opera seria with characters and situations drawn from everyday life or the broadly drawn stock figures of the commedia dell’arte.

Influence across socio-economic lines would elevate opera to one of the most popular forms on entertainment between the 17thand 19th centuries.  Opera seria would not be contained, literally by the palace walls in which it developed, or metaphorically by the class distinctions that marked it as musical or academic exercise. In spite of the air of exclusivity that surrounded opera at its inception, it would not be long before opera seria gained a foothold in the popular imagination and the 17th-century saw the opening of the first opera houses to the general public.  By the 18th century, opera in general had acquired a popular following across social classes, with  members of the aristocracy often in attendance at opera buffa performances.

But, why is this important to our understanding of opera? With our modern sensibilities, it is easy overlook the immediacy with which opera was regarded in the popular consciousness. As Barry Zelechow notes, "the opera composer and the singers received the adulation usually reserved today for rock stars [and the] absence of the concept of a classical repertoire is an index of the popularity and vigor of opera as a mode of communication and entertainment." With the cross-influence and mass appeal demonstrated by opera, it is no surprise that this form of entertainment would become firmly entrenched in the cultural identity of Europe by the early 19th century. This is particularly true of 19th-century Italy.  Between 1815 and 1860 the Italian peninsula, for most of its history a collection of city-states, began the process of unification in a period known as Il Risorgimento. The political potential of opera was demonstrated in the construction of national opera houses, cementing the form's role in the creation of a national identity. Opera was in high demand across Europe, and opera houses functioned as centres of culture in almost every town and city in France, Germany and Italy. Il Risorgimento was a tumultuous period in which Italy renegotiated its political and national identity and began its journey towards becoming a modern, industrialized nation-state. 

We find an important musical example of this period of transition in Il furioso nell'isola di S. Domingo. Composed by Gaetano Donizetti, with text by Jacopo Ferretti, it premiered at the Teatro Valle in Rome in 1833, right in the midst of Il Risorgimento.  An opera semiseria, Il furioso tells the story of Cardenio, who takes refuge on the Caribbean island of San Domingo after the unfaithfulness of his wife drives him mad. Over the course of the opera, members of his family, including his repentant spouse, turn up on the island, Cardenio's madness is cured, and the couple's marriage is repaired. 

The story itself is not unusual to the opera semiseria genre.  Speaking directly the Risorgimento's drive towards urbanization, the characters of Il furioso are modern individuals who represent down-to-earth characters grappling with grounded, everyday problems like economic changes or marital infidelity, not the elevated, idealized figures of the opera seria.  As Martin Deasy writes,

[Il Furioso's] direct appeal to audiences' emotions is typical of the semiseria genre, rooted in the sentimental tradition of the late eighteenth century and closely aligned with the French comédie larmoyante. Responding to a growing bourgeois constituency, opera semiseria eschewed the exalted emotions of serious opera in favor of the less elevated concerns of the contemporary urban middle classes.  In place of the classical heroes and historical figures of serious opera, the semiseria stage was populated with modern individuals subject to the everyday tribulations of contemporary life.

What makes Il furioso interesting is this self-awareness in the face of changing society. Deasy, citing Emanuele Senici, notes that Il furioso attempts to downplay the clear references to contemporary Italian society, particularly the newly emerged bourgeois. Though it offers a microcosm of urban society on stage, the story plays out in a far-away, pastoral setting.  In doing so, Il furioso binds up quotidian problems up with an idealized location in which the challenges of domestic life might wreak havoc on the experiences (and sanity) of characters, but at a safe distance from the society in which these characters are rooted.

In the collections of the Fisher Library, there are a number of copies of the libretto for Il furioso, but of particularly interest is a copy from the premiere run of the opera in 1833. While this opera is inextricably tied to an important transition in Italy's identity as a nation, musically this work is also notable in its casting. Il furioso is unique in that it is the earliest opera to feature a baritone as the protagonist. Cardenio was written for and subsequently sung by Giorgio Ronconi, who at 22, was poised to make a career out of these roles which took advantage of the possibilities offered by  "the new voice type [. . .] for the representation of male wretchedness," and we see Ronconi’s name listed among the performers. Though Il furioso would eventually fall out of repertoire before the turn of the 20th century, that the singer's name is recorded here speaks to an important moment in which Italy's evolution as a nation and opera's evolution as a form coincide. 

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is grateful for the funding support of The McLean Foundation which enabled the digitization of our Italian Libretti Collection.

- Laura Lucci

Internet Archive Linkhttps://archive.org/details/ilfuriosonelliso00doni_0