Small picture of Donizetti




Book Review

Dr. Paul Micio


Bel Canto Bully –

The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja

by Philip Eisenbeiss (London, Haus Publishing Ltd, 2013), 300 pages, hard cover.


The following book review by Dr Paul Micio appeared in Newsletter 121, February 2014, pp.24-25.


Writing a biography on an historical character from the world of opera is never an easy task but it becomes that much more difficult when the subject of the book was practically illiterate, could not read music and left behind very little informative correspondence. Nonetheless, Philip Eisenbeiss succeeds in giving us an engaging account of this rough and often ruthless theatre manager. The author examines the impresario-composer relationships Barbaja had with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, as well as a host of other lesser-known opera composers, all set against the social and political background of the bel canto era in Naples, Milan, Vienna, Paris and London.

Domenico Barbaja (1777-1841) is a fascinating character and part of his fascination is the fact that he came up from less than nothing to become the most powerful impresario of the nineteenth century. Eisenbeiss admirably portrays Barbaja’s larger-than-life personality and his Machiavellian ways that were both feared and resented by composers and singers alike. Those like Donizetti and Rubini, who became famous enough, could hardly wait for their contracts to expire so they could attain their freedom and thus demand higher fees than what they were able to get out of the tough, foul-mouthed impresario.

Barbaja started out as a coffeehouse waiter and subsequently became a croupier, a job that would prepare him well for the highly lucrative position of having a monopoly on much of the proceeds from the gaming tables that were set up in the Neapolitan theatres. He was a titan of sorts and proved his great capacities for getting things done, as when he oversaw the reconstruction of the Teatro San Carlo in record time after it burned to the ground in 1816. Thanks to the great power he wielded by then and his enormous income from gambling revenues (he was reportedly wealthier than the Neapolitan king), he advanced part of the rebuilding costs out of his own pocket. Even before the fire, Barbaja and Rossini agreed that the next opera they would produce would be Otello. However, getting the hedonistic composer to finish the score in time for the reopening of the theatre proved to be no easy task, even though Rossini was then living at the Palazzo Barbaja. The impresario finally had enough of the prevarications from his star composer and locked Rossini in his room until, act by act, he had received the full score which was duly performed for the gala reopening of what was then the most magnificent – and most modern – opera house in all Europe.

Barbaja had recruited Donizetti after hearing several of his early successful operas. The fact that he was a facile composer appealed to the impresario who needed to keep his “machine” working at full tilt to appease the musical appetite of the opera-going public. Donizetti was first commissioned to write for the smaller house in Naples, the Teatro Nuovo, but La Zingara was such a success (running 28 nights in a row) that the opera opened the door to the San Carlo, for which Donizetti would write 16 operas. At this time, of course, the genius of the young composer had yet to fully blossom as he was still toiling in the shadow of Rossini. After attending a performance of Zoraida, in 1824, Stendhal would pen a letter in which he described the composer in these withering terms: “Donizetti is a tall, handsome young man, but cold and without a shred of talent.” But Barbaja knew talent when he saw it and he also discovered and mentored Bellini; most importantly, he introduced him to the librettist Felice Romani. Barbaja also owned the rights to many operas, including those by Donizetti. He was thus free to lease them out or resell them as he wished at whatever price he liked – at times even very cheaply – which infuriated the composer. Barbaja feared nothing and no one and was often in litigation with many of his associates, singers and composers, including both Donizetti and Rossini. Bellini was one of the few who, because of his enormous ego and high opinion of his own genius, refused to be bullied or underpaid by the gruff impresario.

Barbaja’s empire was not confined to Naples and he managed other theatres, such as La Scala in Milan, as well as holding the impresa of Vienna. Barbaja also had plans to take his company to Russia in 1825 but, because of the destruction caused by the great flood of 1824, in which about 10,000 people lost their lives, the trip had to be cancelled. Added to this, two of the impresario’s leading singers, Josephine Fodor and Luigi Lablache refused to make the arduous journey. By the late 1830s, Barbaja was leading the triumvirate that ran the Società d’Industria e belle arti which oversaw eight different theatres, but the heyday of Naples as the center of European opera was by then coming to an end. London and Paris, which paid higher fees, attracted the greatest singers. Rossini, who had a seven-year contract with Barbaja beginning in 1815, had moved to the City of Lights in 1824 and Donizetti was eager to leave Naples, Italian censorship – and Barbaja – and to move on to the Théâtre-Italien.

Eisenbeiss' book is enjoyable to read and the author is especially successful in evoking the atmosphere of the opera houses and elegant gambling rooms in the foyers of the Neapolitan theatres at the height of the bel canto era. His portrait of his iron-fisted subject, the ongoing battles with oppressive censorship, and the sometimes capricious nature of the singers and librettists (Romani drove everyone he worked with to distraction), make us realize all the more what a miracle it is that these masterpieces of lyric art ever managed to get composed. Barbaja played no small role in this operatic web of intrigue and Eisenbeiss does not exaggerate when he writes: "The intimacy of the relationship, the proximity of the professional interaction and the sheer intensity of the artistic collaboration that Barbaja maintained with Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and even with Pacini, was of a nature that no other impresario would ever repeat."