Carlo Diacono: L’Alpino

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

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.

image_description=Carlo Diacono
product_title=Carlo Diacono: L’Alpino
product_by=By Brian Schembri courtesy of the Beland Music Society, Zejtun, Malta
product_id=Above: Carlo Diacono