The world’s first opera, “Dafne,” premiered in 1600 at the Florentine court of the illustrious Medici. The Roman Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) was the composer. His second opera, “Euridice,” survived to our day and may be heard on YouTube. “Dafne” had been lost to time.
While opera developed and thrived in Italy, music in Russia was mostly liturgical.
The first opera performed in Russia was the comical “Calandro” by the Bolognese Giovanni Alberto Ristori (1692-1753) in 1731 when the exuberant August II of Poland had sent his Italian opera troupe to Anna Ivanovna of Russia for her coronation. Autocratic and imposing Empress Anna (1698-1740) detested boredom and welcomed the musicians to amuse her on long, winter nights.
Next, an Italian troupe of the Neapolitan composer, Francesco Domenico Araja (1709-1771), made an ambitious move to Russia. Araja’s opera “La forza dell’amore e dell’odio” so delighted the Empress that she invited more Italian troupes to perform in St. Petersburg. Spending 25 years in Russia, Araja wrote 14 operas at court, including the music for “Tsefal i Prokris” – the first opera composed with a Russian libretto in 1755. They say Araja was fond of Russian pancakes and sleigh rides.
In 1752, a private opera enterprise was directed by the Milanese Giovanni Battista Locatelli (1713-1785), showing an opera weekly at court and biweekly to the Russian public. The demand for opera and Italian composers was immense: the nobility hired Italian tutors for their children and built home-theatres to accommodate the troupes.
Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli built a new Opera house for 1000 spectators at the Winter Palace, as dozens of prolific Italian composers arrived to perform at court. Vincenzo Manfredini (1734-1799) was music teacher to Emperor Pavel Petrovich– the melancholy son of Catherine the Great, nicknamed “The Russian Hamlet”; Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779) from Apulia, was maestro di cappella at Catherine’s court for eight years; another maestro di cappella was the Neapolitan Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801), avid composer of cantatas and over eighty operas, of which “Il Matrimonio Segreto” (1792) is considered the masterpiece.
Some of the first Russian composers – Degterev, Davidov, and Kashin – had been mentored by Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802). Setting the stage for the 19th century – Russia’s golden age of music – the Italian composers had influenced their Russian successors. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Capriccio Italien” is a confession of love to Italy after Tchaikovsky’s trip to Rome.
The cultural exchange continued well into the 20thcentury despite the “Iron Curtain.”
Muslim Magomaev (1942-2008) – one of USSR’s legendary tenors, dubbed “The Soviet Sinatra,” was granted permission to study at La Scala. Magomaev’s masterful rendition of the “Cavatina di Figaro” and the dauntless charisma of “Bella Ciao” became some of his most popular performances in the USSR.
In December 1966, the Soviet-born Anna German (1936-1982) – famous for the silvering enchantment of her voice – signed a contract in Milan with CDI, becoming the first singer from behind the “Iron Curtain” to be recorded in Italy. She performed at the San Remo festival, was applauded in Sorrento, and received the award “Oscar Della Sympatia.”
In the 1980s – during Perestroika – a wind of change brought songs of Al Bano and Romina Power, Cellentano, Pupo, Ricchi e Poveri to Russia. Teenagers could be heard singing “Gelato al Cioccolato” in front of ice-cream stands; “Felicita,” “L’Italiano” and Robertino Loretti’s unforgettable “Jamaica” echoed from the open windows in summer. Toto Cutugno’s “Insieme” – winning the Eurovision contest in 1990 and becoming a hit in Russia – reminded of unity among the nations. Exchange programs between Italy’s and Russia’s conservatories have trained thousands of students and continue the tradition, reaffirming the bond between the cultures.
No Russian New Year’s program is complete without Italian hits of the 80s, such as “Vacanza Romana” by Antonella Ruggiero. Italian singers are regular guests on TV programs, performing duets with Russian pop stars at the Kremlin and other concert halls – tickets sold out months in advance. The Bolshoi Theater and opera houses around the country never fail to impress with the magic of Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini, Rossini and other immortal composers.