3 October 2014 at 6.05pm | Comment on this article
Venice: city of corruption, sickness and decay – not to mention a great tourist destination. You've heard it all before, from Don't Look Now to Casino Royale. But the city has also played a crucial role in the development of opera – perhaps more than you might expect, given that we tend to consider the city's golden age to have ended with the 16th century. Venice has been home to countless opera premieres; it has provided a home for some of the most prolific Italian operatic composers; and its reputation of putrefying glory has directly inspired several great operas.
Claudio Monteverdi arrived in Venice in 1613 as the maestro di cappella of San Marco. He had already created opera's first masterpiece, Orfeo, in Mantua in 1607. In Venice he wrote the only two other of his operas to have survived, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea). The latter was probably his last work, written when he was 76 and first performed in 1643. It glorifies the ruthlessly ambitious Nerone and Poppea in their triumph over the forces of good and offers a compelling psychological insight into the pair, anticipating opera’s greatest anti-heroes.
Venice would see a host of major world premieres over the following centuries as it played a central role in the development of Italian opera. Venice-born Antonio Vivaldi had 30 operatic premieres in the city, including his Orlando furioso. Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote Cleonice and Ipermestra for Venice's carnival. Gioachino Rossini wrote ten operas for Venice, including Tancredi, L'italiana in Algeri and Semiramide; Vincenzo Bellini wrote two, including I Capuleti e i Montecchi; Gaetano Donizetti wrote five, including Belisario; and Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani, Attila, Rigoletto, La traviata and Simon Boccanegra were all first performed at the famous La Fenice opera house.
After all this activity, Venice more or less disappeared from the musical map towards the end of the 19th century – though the Italian premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen was given there in 1883, the same year in which its composer, Richard Wagner, died in the Palazzo Vendramin. The founding of the Venice Biennale in 1930 revived the city to the operatic world. The many major opera premieres that have taken place under its wing include Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Sergey Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel and works by Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Salvatore Sciarrino, to name just a handful.
And what of the operas in which Venice itself plays a role? Composers have delighted in exploiting not only the (assumed) atmosphere of degradation but also the music specific to the city, particularly the gondolier's barcarolle. Rossini's Otello is set entirely in Venice, and the offstage gondolier's serenade 'Nessun maggior dolore' ('There is no greater sorrow') just before Desdemona's dreadful demise is one of the opera's most effective moments. Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, on the unfortunate (if rather silly) death of the title character's long lost son at her own hands, was one of the great successes of his career. And both Donizetti and Verdi sought inspiration from the Venetian doges – particularly the conflicting demands of duty and familial love – in Marino Faliero and I due Foscari respectively.
Amilcare Ponchielli had his great hit with La Gioconda, in which the evil Barnaba has a malicious barcarolle 'Pescator, affonda l'esca' ('A fisherman awaiting the tide'). Jacques Offenbach set part of his fantasy triptych Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Venice, writing arguably the most famous operatic barcarolle in 'Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour' ('Beautiful night, night of love'). And Britten's Death in Venice paints a breathtaking portrait of the city: the fruit-sellers and their cholera-carrying strawberries; youths frolicking on the Lido; affluent tourists laughing at a bawdy song in Venetian dialect; and most of all the lilting call of 'Serenissima', at times languid, at others a cruel taunt of lost youth and spent passion – the perfect encapsulation of the dreams and desires this city has inspired.