Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja
By Philip Eisenbeiss
Haus Publishing; 300 pp. $28.95
Domenico Barbaja was vulgar, musically unlettered, practically illiterate, often litigious and more than occasionally unscrupulous. He was also one of the greatest impresarios the opera world has ever seen. Taking over Naples's Teatro San Carlo in 1809, he fostered the early careers of Donizetti and Bellini and presented singers whose names, two centuries later, still resonate among opera-lovers — Isabella Colbran, Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Luigi Lablache. Most significantly, he brought in Gioacchino Rossini as music director, offering the premieres of ten of the composer's most important mature operas, including Armida, Mosè in Egitto and La Donna del Lago.
Five years ago, Philip Eisenbeiss, a one-time opera student turned banker, stumbled on Barbaja and soon found himself obsessed; this rewarding volume is the result. Bel Canto Bully is clearly not the work of a seasoned biographer, but the author's enthusiasm for his subject is unmistakable, and the story he tells is extraordinary. Born sometime around 1878 outside Milan to a poor farming family, the adolescent Barbaja started working in a coffee shop across from La Scala; in his mid-twenties he took over the lucrative gambling concession in the opera house's lobby, introducing the game of roulette and scoring a wild success. He moved to Naples in 1806, leaving his wife and children behind — providentially, since he went on to cut a wide amatory swath in his adopted city. (His mistress Colbran later became the first Signora Rossini.) He first ran the gambling tables in the city's royal opera houses, then three years later added the management of the theaters themselves to his portfolio.
As an impresario, Barbaja not only burnished Naples's reputation as a musical center; he made himself a hugely rich man, amassing an art collection that included works by Dürer, Caravaggio and Titian. He had a house on the island of Ischia and a grand beach villa in the village of Mergellina that featured its own theater (carved into a cliff) and the recent innovation of running water. His palazzo in the central city included a separate floor for distinguished colleagues; legend has it that he locked Rossini therein during the writing of Otello, keeping the composer plied with macaroni alla napoletana until the score was finished.
When the San Carlo burned to the ground in 1816, Barbaja helped rebuild it, with royal support, in an astonishingly short nine months. In the 1820s, he expanded his dominion to other cities, including the major houses of Milan, Paris and Vienna. But he soon found himself overextended, and the latter part of his career was just a pale shadow of his brilliant heyday.
The light that Eisenbeiss shines on his subject is sometimes dim. In his eagerness to present all that he knows, he occasionally loses the thread of the story, and he makes mistakes: secco recitatives are not "spoken." Eisenbeiss's scholarship, though exhaustive, isn't impeccable — he uses Stendhal's notoriously unreliable Life of Rossini as a primary source. Though he is diligent in presenting the political upheavals of the era, the book is at its best when the man himself comes into focus. In drawing a portrait of this intriguing figure, Eisenbeiss has performed a signal service.
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