Other Worlds, Dame Nellie Melba and Oscar Wilde, Savoy Hotel
Two of the greatest performers of their time had an unlikely friendship, and crossed paths in London and Paris at key points in their lives.
The song was one that I had heard before,
But where I knew not. It inclined to sadness;
And, turning round from the delicious fare
My landlord's little daughter Barbara
Had from her apron just rolled out before me,
Figs and rock-melons -- at the door I saw
Two boys of lively aspect. Peasant-like
They were, and poorly clad, but not unskilled;
With their small voices and an old guitar
Winning their way to my unguarded heart
In that, the only universal tongue.
This excerpt is from the large poetical work Samuel Rogers completed in 1828 after his extensive travels in Italy. It sold poorly when first published but undeterred, Rogers commissioned illustrations from well known artists of the time, including J.M.W. Turner, extended his poem and had a lavish illustrated edition published in 1830. This version was a great success. Although celebrated in his time, Samuel’s work has been overshadowed by those of his friends and contemporaries: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley.
It seems that music rather than literature was the art that flourished in this town. Santa Maria Maggiore, the Romanesque church of Bergamo, has an 800-year-old history of musical teaching and singing. Progressive composers were based here to become maestro di cappella, and the town has been the birthplace of many great musicians, including Gaetano Donizetti.
One of the masters of the bel canto opera, Gaetano Donizetti, was born the fifth of six children in 1797 to a poor family, with no tradition of music. They lived in the underground part of a house just outside the walls of the old city. Of his birthplace, Donizetti wrote:
…I was born underground in Borgo Canale. One descended the stairs to the basement, where no ray of sunlight had ever been seen. And like an owl I flew forth…
At the age of nine he was accepted as a choirboy at Santa Maria Maggiore. The maestro di cappella of the church at the time was the exceptional Bavarian composer Johann Simon Mayr who had set up a school for the extra musical training of his choirboys. Donizetti thrived, quickly surpassing all other students, and just three years later he composed the first of his musical pieces. Mayr made many intercessions to keep Donizetti in his school and provided a number of important introductions that led to his stellar musical career. He also sent him for further training in Bologna.
Donizetti was extraordinarily prolific, completing over 7o operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs and many other vocal and instrumental works in the 25 active years of his career. He often completed operas at the rate of three a year. They were admired for their melodic freshness, technical fluency, stage sense, and dramatic irony.
Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) was Donizetti’s most impressive achievement. It was based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (1818) one of his famous ‘Waverley novels’. Scott’s works were tremendously popular in Europe at the time, and his novels and poems became the source for over fifty operas. Lucia paired local Scottish colour (haunted, medieval castles, dilapidated ruins, stormy landscapes) with a Gothic romance about thwarted love. Lucy, the the star crossed heroine, goes mad in the central scene which became an operatic prototype, inspiring many emulators.
Donizetti’s life was full of sadness. His wife Virginia died after just ten years of marriage and none of their three children survived more than three days after birth. Some believed he never fully recovered from such loss. Unlike his rival, Bellini, he was genial and modest. A kind man who gave encouragement to other composers and his pupils, he said towards the end of his life:
My heyday is over, and another must take my place. The world wants something new. Others have ceded their places to us and we must cede ours to still others…I am more than happy to give mine to people of talent like Verdi.
Verdi was greatly influenced by his work, as was another rising star, Puccini.
When he was forty-five, Donizetti developed symptoms of paralysis and dementia, and was eventually committed to an asylum in Paris. Five years later he was moved to his home town of Bergamo where he stayed at Palazzo Scotti as the guest of a wealthy family. He died soon after his arrival and is buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he had first started as a choirboy just over forty years before.
This is from Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love). The young rustic romantic Nemorino has bought a love potion to win the heart of his ultimate woman, Adina, and has just discovered it works:
‘She loves me! Yes, she loves me, I see it. I see it.’
And this just had to be sung by Caruso, didn’t it? This is a recording that took place at Carnegie Hall in 1904.
I have a story about Lucia di Lammermore that has gone down in our family history. Many years ago, my mother Sheila approached a stylish woman at her local shopping centre asking, ‘Where did you get your hair done?’ She duly made an appointment and set off across town to Sydney’s Rose Bay. The salon was swanky with a water view, big vases of flowers (gladioli were then the rage) and real percolated coffee. Shortly after settling in, she looked up to see the only other customer walk in that morning: Dame Joan Sutherland. The hairdressers fussed over her and admired her dress – a bargain, Joan told them, picked up for nicks in a summer sale.
She introduced herself to my awestruck mother and produced a tape recorder. Joan explained that she needed to rehearse for the opening night of Lucia di Lammermoor at Sydney’s Opera House. Would Sheila mind terribly if she sang along to the music while she was having her hair done? For once, my mother was almost lost for words. She managed to say no, she wouldn’t mind, and Joan replied: ‘ Do feel free to sing along.’ This is Joan Sutherland in the mad scene from that very production. She was famous for mastering the extraordinarily difficult pyrotechnics required in this scene. It was a role that she first played at Covent Garden in 1959 and for which she won international recognition.
Years ago my dear friend Tracey told me if I ever had the chance to visit Bergamo, I shouldn’t hesitate. So when I discovered a Ryan Air flight to Milan would land at Bergamo airport, I decided to spend some extra time here.
Having just emerged from a Cornish winter I was hit by southern warmth as soon as I walked across the tarmac. It was late afternoon and the light was bright and golden, almost Australian. I found myself in an airport bus full of tremendously loud, gesticulating businessmen, mums, dads and young people. While waiting for the bus to fully load with passengers, the driver and conductress proceeded to seduce each other with their eyes, words and gestures.
The city of Bergamo has two parts. There is a neoclassical and modern town on a flat plane, then a steep ascent (via funicular) to the Romanesque and Renaissance buildings of the old upper city, or Città Alta, a glorious, 16th century bastion of haphazardly winding lanes and piazzas at the top of a hill.
I stayed at UpTown B’n’B and was looked after by the golden-hearted Jesus Armando who cooked the most delicious Venezualan breakfast the next morning. Rising at dawn, I watched the town awaken. The trickle of people arriving at the bakery while it was still quite dark had swelled to a crowd by 8 am. The old people out early to buy bread, drink coffee or walk their dogs were soon joined by clusters of children dashing up the street for the school bus, stopping to buy sweets on the way, followed by mums and dads escorting their little ones to school. I walked up the main street leading to Piazza Vecchia, the heart of the city, past ancient libraries and the 52 metre high tower. The walls of many of the buildings bear exquisite traces of murals or trompe-l’oeil. There seemed to be a visually beautiful surprise around every corner.
And then there was the food. This area is famous for its cheeses – Gorgonzola, Taleggio and Stracchino – its creamy polenta, and ravioli stuffed with sausage meat and smothered in sage butter. Bergamo’s lush valleys and temperate climate produce delicious figs, pomegranates, berries of all kinds, courgette flowers, mushrooms and lemons. And the patisseries are incredible. It’s all invitingly displayed in beautiful specialty shops. No wonder they call Bergamo ‘utero matero’, because just like a big mother, it gives you everything. I walked and swooned, stopped and ate, then walked some more. The coffee, oh. The gelato, oh. Those yellow saffron cakes that contain a gooey pocket of runny chocolate in their centre…
By late afternoon locals come out into the streets for la passeggiata.. The mountains in the distance turn deeper shades of blue, and the lights of the lower city begin to sparkle in the valley below. Did I mention it was magical?
Yet I am now haunted by the faces of the old people in these photographs. Bergamo has a recent, unenviable record. It was the town hardest hit by Coronavirus in Italy’s most infected province. People speak of having lost an entire generation here. Anna Bonalume is a freelance journalist originally from Bergamo, and in this article offers possible explanations as to why Bergamo suffered far more than most.
The Tate Gallery have a number of watercolours by Turner of scenes from Italy that were used to illustrate Samuel’s poem.
La Casa Natale is a museum just outside the gates of the old city, dedicated to Donizetti.
Learn more about Donizetti from the Donizetti Society
Listen to Luciano Pavarotti’s version of Una Furtiva Lagrima
A short video tour of the Citta Alta
The Accademia Carrara Museum just outside the city gates has a fine collection of Renaissance paintings.
This Guardian article features a guided tour of culinary Bergamo by the late chef Antonio Carluccio who claimed the town is a perfect place for traditional country food.
VisitBergamo is the city’s official tourism website.
Gammond, Peter. An Illustrated Guide to Composers of Classical Music, Lansdowne Press, 1980
Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Nineteenth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music, Oxford University Press, 2006