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The Nearly Lost Work of a ‘Born Opera Composer’ Returns

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Historians try to be precise, so it is awkward to admit that I can’t recall exactly when I first noticed the existence of an opera by Carolina Uccelli. At some point, maybe about six years ago, the name jumped out at me from a list. I do recall my reaction. A female composer got an opera onto the stage in 1835? With an all-star cast? She must have been extraordinary!

That was the start of a journey that culminates this month with the modern premiere of Uccelli’s “Anna di Resburgo” by the Teatro Nuovo company, in Montclair, N.J., on July 20 and in New York on the 24. Uccelli was indeed extraordinary, and so is the single surviving opera by which we can assess her abilities. Behind it lies a human story, touching and somewhat sad, to which there is now a chance to add a happy postscript.

Italian opera was the single most competitive and economically significant branch of music worldwide in the early 19th century. No female composer ever established herself in it. Success for women, at the time, meant publishing miniatures for the salon, and Uccelli achieved that while still in her teens. But conceiving whole music-dramas and wrangling them through the marketplace was a gritty, cutthroat business; nobody could imagine a woman pursuing it.

The brave youngster who tried to make herself an exception was born Carolina Pazzini, in 1810, to an upper-class Florentine family. She had thorough musical training and gained a precocious local reputation for her singing and keyboard improvisations. Around 1827, when Italy’s leading publisher issued an album of her ariettas, she married the widower Filippo Uccelli, a celebrated and sometimes controversial physician who was supportive of her improbable ambitions. He passed along to journalists a letter from Gioachino Rossini in praise of her first opera, “Saul,” produced in Florence in 1830. He probably also paid some of its costs; one of Filippo’s students later wrote disapprovingly that the good doctor had squandered what should have been his sons’ inheritance on the “caprices” of their young stepmother.

The opening night of “Saul” was by all accounts a triumph, but later in its run came evidence of the prejudice that could greet a woman stepping outside her expected sphere. The Harmonicon in London reported that “the Florentines have been making themselves merry, as well in verse as in prose, upon this lady’s production, and the high and mighty protection which Rossini is known to have afforded her.” The German periodical Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung allowed itself a baseless hint that Rossini’s interest might have been more in Uccelli’s beauty than in her talent. The Florence journal Il Censore rebuked the theater for giving place to “feminine vanity.”

Others came to the debutante’s defense, but it was clear that even after a promising start, the road ahead would not be easy. It became harder when Filippo died in 1832, leaving the composer a widow at 22 with a young child to raise. But Alessandro Lanari, the impresario who had managed the “Saul” premiere, believed in her. In 1834 he was contracted to run the royal theaters of Naples, and there — after considerable difficulty in persuading the court committee that had to approve his plans — he brought “Anna di Resburgo” to the stage the following year.

Only one copy of “Anna” survives today, housed in the vast collection of the Naples Conservatory. It takes time to read an opera from a manuscript orchestral score. You have to decipher the calligraphy before you can start imagining the sounds, and this one is a particularly hasty job, full of errors and none too clear. But as I picked my way through it, appreciation gradually turned to admiration and eventually to outright amazement. This was the work of a born opera composer. This was the real thing.

Here is one way of putting it. Bel canto operas are structured in individual numbers — cavatina, duet, finale and so forth — and “Anna” is made of 12 such numbers. Not a single one is boring; not one sounds like padding, not one fails to embody and advance the story, not one falls in the wrong place. The 20-something beginner had a master’s grasp of opera as drama.

So why don’t we know about her? There are probably two main reasons. One is that — unlike Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann or Alma Mahler — Uccelli did not have a famous musical man in the family to draw attention. The other has to do with the fate of the work being revived this month.

The story of “Anna di Resburgo” (“Anne of Roxburgh”) is haunted by two feudal lords who have died before it begins — one murdered by the other in hope of seizing his lands. The killer left the dagger in the wound, then waited for the victim’s son to enter the room and be caught with weapon in hand. That son (the tenor of the opera) has fled into exile. His wife (Anna) has gone into hiding and left her infant son to be raised as an unknown orphan. The guilty patriarch confessed on his deathbed to his own son and heir (the baritone of the opera), but the latter, stricken with shame, has chosen to conceal the confession.

The action of the opera sees all this undone. The exile returns; the usurper recognizes the orphan and has him seized; the parents reveal themselves at risk of death. Anna, in a climactic scene, perceives the baritone’s guilty conscience and confronts him. When the condemned husband is about to be executed beside his father’s grave, the remorseful man reveals his own father’s crime, and a happy ending is snatched from the jaws of tragedy.

Uccelli was not granted such a happy ending; she had stumbled into the worst luck imaginable. Her opera was a rousing Scottish story of rival families and stolen lands, concluding with a dramatic scene in the ancestral cemetery. How could she have guessed that the premiere just before her own would share exactly those traits? It was called “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Tracing the chronology in hindsight is like watching the proverbial slow-motion film of an imminent train wreck.

The soprano Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani sang the premiere of “Anna” on Oct. 29, 1835, just four days after her 17th Lucia. She had been driving the Neapolitan audience to frenzies of applause with Lucia’s mad scene ever since the opening night in September. Anna is a great role, but it doesn’t contain anything quite like that. And it would have taken a miracle for the very next opera, set in the same ambience (Lammermuir Hills and Roxburgh are only 30 miles apart) and likely played on the same scenery (especially the two concluding tomb scenes), to be evaluated open-mindedly by a public besotted with Donizetti’s new masterpiece. There was a second performance of “Anna” on Nov. 3, and then the management turned to repetitions of operas from earlier in the season.

Good operas could flop. “La Traviata” and “Madama Butterfly” famously did so at first. But Verdi and Puccini were established stars; their fiascos were bound to get a second look. Uccelli was not only a beginner, but also one who had pushed herself into a place where many felt a woman had no business. Nobody came to the rescue with a revival of “Anna”; Uccelli never obtained another theatrical contract, and might not even have sought one.

She stayed musically active with frequent private and public performances, published songs in Italian and French, and made an impression sufficient to win one of the extremely few entries for female composers in the “Biographie Universelle des Musiciens” of François-Joseph Fétis. Star singers often joined in her recitals, reviewed with favor by critics throughout Europe, but blending in with a typical season’s concert fare rather than standing out as a theatrical hit would have done. In 1852 Uccelli and her soprano daughter Emma were featured at one of the celebrated Parisian salons hosted by Rossini, who decades earlier had supported Carolina’s bid for a place at the men’s table in opera.

Was she happy? Did she make peace with the career available to her? The only known portrait dates from sometime in the middle 1840s, and it is haunting: a gifted woman gazing into the distance at what might have been. I hope the revival of “Anna” will stimulate research; after spending part of every day for more than a year editing her opera, I long to know more about the person behind it.

A short notice in L’Italia Musicale in March 1858 informed readers of Uccelli’s death in Florence. By the time her name came up in the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano a few decades later, its correspondent could write that “if Fétis had not mentioned her, we would scarcely know of her existence,” and that state of affairs could easily have been permanent. Most of her music is lost; of “Saul” we have no trace. The published salon pieces, while elegant and idiomatically pleasing, would not by themselves have suggested a significant theatrical talent. But against all probability, the survival of one copy of one opera gives her a chance to speak for herself in the 21st century.

Better late than never. We can’t know what operas Uccelli might have written if she had been granted the career she so boldly sought, but the one she did leave behind is a gem. On page after page, she shows not just the assurance and expressiveness Rossini commended, but a daring capacity to experiment. A duet between solo flute and timpani? A spirited Italian cabaletta repeated in the academic form of a canon, with dovetailing entries of the tune one bar apart? A rapid-fire patter song that is not comic but deadly serious? Uccelli had these and more up her sleeve.

A final question one can’t help asking: Is there anything recognizably female about her music? How does, or how might, identity manifest itself in art? We can only vouch for our own reactions; others may detect a specifically feminine quality, but as far as I can hear, nothing in “Anna” would have carried a different level of surprise if it had come from an unknown Carlo Uccelli.

On the other hand, there is the story Carolina chose: a mother’s story. Mothers are rarely prominent in opera, and when they are, there is often something frightening about them. Norma comes close to killing her own children; Lucrezia Borgia, Medea and Azucena actually do. Much more often the drama centers on male desire and sexual rivalry, and these feature in “Anna di Resburgo” not at all. Instead there is the most maternal theme imaginable, Anna’s protection of her child at the risk of her own life. I doubt this happened at random. It is a stirring, inspiring story, and I am glad a mother stepped up to tell it in music.

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