Giovanni Pacini was born in Catania, Sicily on February 11, 1796. He first set out to compose operas and was well on his way with twenty-five under his belt, composers like Gioachino Rossini. Later, after Pacini worked on making his work less “superficial”, as some critics claimed, Giuseppe Verdi was all the rage.
The prolific Italian composer finished more than seventy operas before his death. Yet, he is rarely remembered artist whom we would like to remember today. We are doing so with a list of his works.
Our first Pacini opera is in three acts with a Salvadore Cammarano libretto. The plot was inspired by a Franz Grillparzer play, which in turn centers around Sappho, a female Grecian poet whose writings focused primarily on love. It is set during the celebrations for the 42nd Olympics during a game of poetry.
The first act opens with Saffo is protesting a social custom of tossing people deemed unfavorable from the Leucadian Leap. She does this by singing with the hopes that those tossed over will be saved by Apollo himself. Her success angers Alcandro, a high priest and he is forced to leave.
He gets his revenge though by stealing her love, Faone, for his daughter, Climene. In a jealous rage, our main character does the unthinkable and throws herself off the very cliff she was protesting. Apollo decides not to catch her and she drowns.
This opera premiered on November 29, 1840, in Naples at the Teatro San Carlo. The next performance was two years later at the Théâtre-Italien. The following year, in 1843, it opened in London at the Theatre Royal and made its way to New York in 1847. It was performed more in the nineteenth century much for than the next. Yet the 20th century saw a few revivals including two memorable ones at the Naples theater where it first premiered.
2. Carlo di Borgogna.
Gaetano Rossi wrote the libretto for this next Pacini composition, which is also performed in three acts. It premiered five years earlier than Saffo, at the Teatro la Fenice, in Venice on February 21, 1835.
Carlo has come to Burgundy after defeating his opponents in Liège. As women throw flowers at his feet one of them is Estella, and their love is evident when they see each other. Yet, Carlo is promised to marry Leonora, who is of English royalty. A fact that Estella is unaware.
Estella’s father, Arnoldo, has been a mentor to Carlo, but when he and his daughter learn of his promise to marry Leonora Arnoldo vows revenge. This Pacini opera then takes us into a war fought by the Swiss as opponents to our characters, who all, in one way or another, lose. The Swiss are victorious in war.
Not to be mistaken with the Tyler Perry character, this Pacini opera tells the story of a mythical Greek sorceress and Giasone, or Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts. The plot centers specifically around their marriage and Giasone’s decision to leave her and unite in marriage with Glauce. Medea’s revenge is to kill their children and then kill herself.
It opened on November 28, 1843, in Palermo, Sicily at the Teatro Carolino. Still, this was not the final version. Pacini reworked it and it was produced in 1845, with adaptations, at the Teatro Eretenio in Vincenza. Still not satisfied with the opera, Pacini reworked it again and had a third premiere in 1850 at La Fenice.
Of course, the composer still felt the work needed a rewrite and he spent more time on Medea. The final version premiered in 1853 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. After that, it was produced throughout Italy, Russia and South America for the next twenty years. Then it was forgotten, specifically due to other opera with a storyline like Pacini’s.
There were some productions in the 1900s including one in Savona, Italy at the Teatro Comunale Chiabrera in 1993 and another in 2006 at the Teatro Antico in Taormina, Sicily.
4. Maria, regina d’Inghilterra
The title translates to Mary, Queen of England and the setting placed in England in the year 1553. It follows Mary I, also known as “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of Protestants, who is in love with Riccardo Fenimoore, a voyager from Scotland. She dubs him Lord Talbot but then finds out he has been cheating on her with Clotilde, who has been promised to another man.
Mary sentences Fenimoore to die but once it is written she regrets her decision and tries to save him. Her Lord Chancellor, Gualtiero Churchill, executes Fenimoore anyway.
Like the other Pacini operas we’ve discussed thus far, this one is also performed in three acts. Leopoldo Tarantini based the libretto on the Victor Hugo play Marie Tudor. It premiered in Palermo at the Teatro Carolino in February of 1843.
5. Stella di Napoli
Salvadore Cammarano makes his second appearance on our list as librettist of a Pacini work with this opera. Teatro San Carlo appears again too as the host of the December 11, 1845, premiere. Success was found with this work in the beginning, but this is the time when Verdi was becoming famous and Pacini was said to be “overshadowed” by this rival. The setting is wartime in Naples, which was its own kingdom and in the process of being invaded by Charles VIII of France.
Old Marta helps some Aragonese soldiers and it is made evident that there is fury over the recent nuptials of Olympia of Acre with a Frenchman. A man named Gianni is angered and hurt to find that his daughter is in love with a knight from France, who has abandoned his promise of love to her.
6. L’ultimo giorno di Pompei
Our final Pacini opera for today was commissioned to commemorate Queen Maria Isabella, who was the Queen of the Two Sicilies. Andrea Leone Tottola penned the story Pacini composed his music too. It premiered in November of 1825 and was the third or many works Pacini premiered at the Teatro San Carlo.
Opening night was a grand success and this Pacini opera, soon after, was produced in France, Italy, Austria, and Portugal. Yet, once again, we are reminded that Pacini’s star faded quickly and he fell into obscurity when this opera stopped being reproduced well before the twentieth century and wasn’t revived until more than a century later. It was performed at Martina Franca, located in Taranto, Apulia, Italy, in 1996 at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, an opera festival held in the province.
The plot is set in 79 AD, when Mount Vesuvius erupted and tells a similar tale to the novel The Last Days of Pompeii, even though it came out a decade prior to the Bulwer-Lytton book. King Francis I of the Two Sicilies, the name of Italy and Sicily before they unified to become one in 1871, wrote to Pacini with his praise for the premiere. This work earned Pacini a seat on the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Giovanni Pacini passed away in 1867 in Tuscany.
Learn more about another great opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi.