Today, most people would think of an opera as a fixed piece of work, with musical numbers that don’t change from one performance to the next. In the 18th century, however, that was not the case: when an opera arrived at a new company or in a new city, it was adapted for the performers. One opera with a particularly interesting history was Giuseppe Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti: the subject of a recent Common Hour lecture at Trinity by John Platoff, professor of music.
Fra i due litiganti, as composed by Sarti, premiered in Milan, Italy, in 1782. A year later, it arrived at the Vienna Opera, where Francesco Benucci and Nancy Storace played the roles of Titta and Dorina, as they had in Milan. In an era when the performers were held in higher esteem than the composers or the piece itself, almost half of the arias were replaced for the stars in Vienna. Interestingly, the replacement arias were not composed by Sarti, but by anyone who happened to be available to help. It wasn’t a glamorous responsibility, Platoff said, but instead was considered to be a kind of grunt work.
“Operas were routinely altered when they moved to new cities with new performers,” Platoff said during his Common Hour talk.
However, Benucci and Storace were not new to Fra i due litiganti, having originated the roles in Milan. Arias were usually replaced at the request of a new performer, Platoff said, not someone who had previously played the same role. But because the performers were new to Vienna and working to craft their operatic personas, they wanted pieces that better reflected the comedic nature of their characters and the roles they would play throughout their careers.
Titta’s act 1 aria, “Quando saprai,” was replaced with a new song, called “Dunque ascoltate” After a few performances, however, Benucci returned to the original piece. Dorina’s aria, “Non fidarti,” was replaced in Vienna with a new piece by Storace’s brother, composer Stephen Storace. The replacement aria, “Compatite,” was a more comedic piece that better suited the character.
But this is where the opera’s history becomes even more interesting. The process didn’t continue from city to city. Instead, however, the Viennese version became the standard, performed in cities throughout Europe with few, if any, changes.
Platoff credits this phenomenon to the central role that Vienna played in 18th-century Europe. Though few today are familiar with Fra i due litiganti, it was enormously commercially successful. In fact, Mozart quoted one of the hit songs from Fra i due litiganti in his own Don Giovanni, a testament to the opera’s popularity and significance. The Viennese opera was home to Europe’s best singers and became Europe’s most reliable source of musical scores. So, it was likely that other companies would turn to Vienna’s version for their productions. Lacking the resources of Europe’s foremost opera company, they would simply perform the opera as they received it.
This summer, Platoff was invited to discuss the development of Fra i due litiganti and the importance of the Viennese version at a conference called “Giuseppe Sarti: Individual style, aesthetical position reception and dissemination of his works” at Berlin’s Universität der Künste. Additionally, Platoff will be presenting his research at this November’s meeting of the American Musicological Society and submitting a paper to the Journal of the American Musicological Society.
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