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Carlo Diacono: L’Alpino

“Diacono himself does not know what musical talent he possesses” – Mascagni



Carlo Diacono
27 Apr 2019

Carlo Diacono: L’Alpino

“Diacono himself does not know what musical talent he possesses” – Mascagni

Carlo Diacono: L’Alpino

By Brian Schembri courtesy of the Beland Music Society, Zejtun, Malta

Above: Carlo Diacono


Until quite recently and especially during the 18th, 19th and for half of the 20th century, the practice of symphonic music performance was almost non-existent in Malta. Consequently, Maltese composers of those times could never develop their professional activity in the symphonic field.

Since Monteverdi until the end of the 19th century, a composer seeking to establish a name in the profession was practically “obliged” to write opera - the genre par excellence which could show the technical and artistic mastery of composition. Thus, for Carlo Diacono (1876-1942), it must have been an absolute necessity to tackle and master this genre. This would not only enhance his already existing renommé as an exceptional composer, but also be the opportunity to live this artistic experience – the Mount Everest for almost every major composer in European music history over the centuries.

In 1903 Pope Pius X decreed the Motu Proprio regarding sacred music in churches.. This decision was intended to stop the vulgar and profane aesthetic tastes and habits that had slowly infiltrated sacred music through the years. Basically, the Motu Proprio aimed at obliging composers to produce sacred music in a kind of Palestrina style. Despite being maybe a necessary and healthy intention, this “cleansing” of sacred music created a new problem in Malta. As symphonic performance was non-existent in Malta, talented composers could only develop their art either as church composers within the restrictive parameters of the Motu Proprio or in opera, which for a Maltese composer would have been an extremely rare opportunity. One understands the seriousness of this drastic situation when one realizes that the Motu Proprio was declared in the same epoch when European art and music in particular was literally exploding with the creativity of such composers as Debussy, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Ravel, Satie, Sibelius and later of Bartok, Stravinsky, etc.

With L’Alpino, Diacono was finally able to write an extensive work free of the yoke of the Motu Proprio, that is, with all his creative fantasy burning within him. Thus, L’Alpino enables us to have a clearer understanding of Diacono’s authentic artistic and creative talents without the limits of a rather old-fashioned system already “depassé” imposed by the church.

The resulting work speaks for itself. L’Alpino not only demonstrates Diacono’s obvious exceptional talent, but that with this first (and sadly last, since his later projects were left unfinished) attempt at writing an opera, he created a work of quite exceptional quality. We also realize that despite the isolation of Malta from artistic revolutions that were occurring on the continent, Diacono was still able to build on the relatively limited references he had of the genre - those operas that were produced at the Royal Opera House in Valletta. In fact, L’Alpino shows clear relations with the Giovane Scuola/Verism trends as regards both musical language, as well as treatment of certain formal elements - a contemporary theme from actual life, a tragic death of the heroine, an Intermezzo, the choir singing in a Church just before the fatal tragic fall-out on the church piazza...

The vocal writing is obviously very Italian and the work is rich in beautiful melodic moments. A very strong orchestral presence of quite elaborate harmonic development often leads the melodic discourse around the declamations of the singers’ lines. Diacono’s language is predominantly 19th century, but it seems that some more recent influences are incorporated, such as the use of the whole-tone scale as well as more ambiguous and chromatic harmony. It should be remembered that all the composers of the last part the 19th century were in one way or another infused by Wagner’s genius. In his way, Diacono makes use of an intricate system of “leitmotifs” which gives the 3 act opera a strong sense of compactness and unity.

L’Alpino reveals a strong symphonic intuition that elaborates primary material into an organic unified work from the first opening chords, developing towards a conclusion. From the beginning of the opera in the first act, Diacono establishes a number of themes, which constitute the main motifs. The opening Maestoso theme seems to evoke the epic landscape within which evolve the more personal and intimate actions of various characters. Among the other themes one finds Nella’s beautiful lyrical motif singing upon interesting harmonic sequences, also associated her love for Enzo. Another lyrical motif is associated with her mother Anna Rosa while the more negative traits of Franz the foster father and Andrea, the spurned lover are evoked by insidious chromatic motif.

Naturally these motifs are not only heard when characters associated with them, are singing. In fact, the more “arioso” moments often carry new and different material. However these main motifs seem to emerge regularly even in their absence, while other characters or situations are somehow evoking them, or when the composer seems to wish to remind us of some dramatic intention, a memory associated with a character or an event related to them. What is more interesting, however, is the way Diacono treats these motifs symphonically, changing their musical character according to dramatic context. Like characters of a novel or play, that develop and change, throughout the unfolding of the story, so do these musical motifs, meeting with and against each other and developing according to the needs dramatic discourse and situations. It seems to me that the first act is actually a symphonic movement with voices. Though the construction is quite free, one can almost define an exposition, a secondary section (arioso and chorus) a third section where the four themes (among other material) are quite intricately developed building towards a conclusion which reminds us of the first two main themes, this time metamorphosed with quite emphatic pathos.

The second act has a more narrative structure linked with the evolving drama, and the material is less symphonically developed. In spite of this, Diacono still uses thematic development of main motifs to maintain the architectural sense of the whole work. In a moment of high drama (when Franz and Andrea are trying to convince Nella to accept Andrea and threatening her to forget Enzo), Diacono builds the tension of this scene on the first main theme, which from its original initial epic character, here takes a very dramatic turn. Apart from serving as material for this scene, the reappearance of the theme, albeit metamorphosed, creates a new reference point with thematic elements of the first act. Diacono’s efforts towards structure may be further witnessed in the second act as one notices similar reappearances of main motifs (in different variants) after new musical material is presented and significantly, before the increasingly frequent interventions of the choir. As a result, the final tutti ensemble of soloists, choir and full orchestra finishes off the second act with a cathartic sense of deliverance and hope resulting from the preceding dramatic turbulence.

The Intermezzo opening the 3rd seems to have been added at some later. If it was indeed added, one could attribute this inclusion to Cavalleria Rusticana’s strong influence on contemporary opera composers (including Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov!). However, there may have also been technical and artistic requirements for Diacono to write this jewel of Maltese orchestral music. Not only are we presented with motifs and melodies still to come in the third act, but Diacono, here as well, metamorphoses a melodic element from a Nella /Anna Rosa duet in the second act into a dramatic crescendo leading us into an passionate explosion of the first main theme as climax. This Intermezzo takes us into a world of calm and melodic beauty after the maestoso tutti finale of the second act and also acts as a real bridge by reminding us of thematic motifs. It guides our appreciation of the work as a whole unit, which develops organically from the beginning of the first act by the end of opera.

As with the 2nd act, the 3rd act reveals less symphonic development within itself.
New contrasting material is here juxtaposed and interspersed with purely orchestral excerpts accompanying the movement of the crowd, the marriage, the moment of the murdering shot and the confusion after the fatal moment. However, when viewing the opera as a whole work, one notices that Diacono’s regular use of main leitmotifs help us follow the dramatic action, while also creating references in the listener’s memory enhancing the feeling of structured development. Naturally, such structure also depends on the relation of contrasting elements. An interesting example is when Andrea is preparing to fulfill his tragic revenge. We are presented with the theme of the most serene, intimate and somewhat sentimental quality (which we had already heard in Intermezzo) which creates an absolute contrast to the Andrea’s state of mind and ominous words about death. This also offers opportunities to an acting singer to develop Andrea’s complex character more deeply.

The choir’s interventions accompany the development of events in moments of light song, patriotic exclamations and more significantly while singing in sacred style during the marriage in the church. Diacono here seems to remind us somewhat of his profession as Maestro di Cappella, since this specific music scene evokes in many ways, albeit in a free manner, church music according to the Motu Proprio.

After a series of scenes with new musical material, including an attractive song like melody very reminiscent of the epoch’s style accompanying the happy spouses and guests coming out of the church, one notes that the further we move towards the tragic end of the opera, the more frequent do the main motifs that we discovered in the preceding acts reappear. They seem to interact and confront each other with more urgency. One example occurs during the singing religious music in church with the “negative” theme of Franz and Andrea intervening into the sacred chorale as Andrea is seen preparing to murder Enzo. Later, while Nella is dying, the material is almost entirely built on these key motifs, appearing one after the other, decorated in different colours and character. One seems to be replaced by another in an almost liquid manner, thus again creating a continuous musical discourse between themselves.

Here, the composer recalls the love duet of the first act, naturally transformed into the painful moment of Nella’s death. Again, we notice Diacono’s attention to musical structured form throughout the entire work. As the first act closes with the two main motifs of ecstatic character, so does the opera conclude, albeit with a different variant of Nella’s and Enzo’s love motif, this time transformed thanks to the whole tone harmonies into a passionate heart-rending cry. In a certain sense, the conclusion of the work expresses the tragic outcome in a dramatic way through the use of the main motifs that constituted most of the first act.

As its title says, this is indeed a melodramma in the best tradition of Italian opera, on the one hand definitely appertaining to Verismo, while at the same time related with more traditional patriotic evocation of Verdian notions – a work, that although was the composer’s first attempt in the art of opera, testifies not only to his general mastery of composition and dramatic theatrical talent, but also to a powerful symphonic intuition. With this flair, Diacono succeeds on making the listener remain emotionally involved in the teatralo-literary process and also involved in the purely musical development. This he manages to do without major technical breakthroughs and without relying on material effects. Diacono still believes in the potential expressiveness of sound itself, as is manifested by melody, harmony and organic counterpoint. He organizes all this with a creative structural sense, which though free and flexible, still creates a sense of extensive unity. This is why, as in all his works, using very simple and devoid of spectacular superficial means, he manages to convince the listener to follow him and join him in the journey, eager to hear what is to happen till the logical conclusion of the entire musical process.

Brian Schembri La Frette sur Seine 6.05.2018

Published courtesy of the Beland Music Society, Zejtun, Malta.

Click here for additional information regarding L’Alpino and Carlo Diacono.

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