By Clarissa Lablache.

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Historically when Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote Il Crociato in Egitto, he gained a strange distinction of being the last operatic composor of importance to write for the male soprano voice. For two hundred years the great castrati reigned in splendour, mutilated in the name of art, they dominated the stages of Europe, and reaped rewards that few other singers could obtain. Futhermore they can not be ignored, for the tradition, or if you will the history of bel canto is inextricably linked with the development of the vocal powers of the castrati.

Almost the last of his kind, and certainly the most important was the powerful voiced castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti. Appearing in one of Meyerbeer's early operas, he delighted in astounding audiences with his dazzling coloratura technique, vocal prowness and outrageous attire. Many things written about him, give one the overwhelming impression he was a sort of singing Liberace of the his age.

After, Giacomo Meyerbeer's first operatic attempts in Germany failed, he returned to Italy. Overwhelmed with admiration after attending Rossini's Tancredi, Meyerbeer quickly changed his style of writing - adopting an Italian genre, laced with German harmony. This decision dramatically brought about a turning point in his career for the better. Subsequently, when Meyerbeer was invited by Venice to write an opera for the carnival season in 1824, he accepted, and his Il Crociato in Egitto, [The Crusader in Egypt] was born. The well known French soprano Enrichetta Meric-Lalande took the role of Palmide, most likely assuring the operas' immediate success.

Writing the title role for Velluti was a brilliant idea of Meyerbeers' knowing Velluti had contrubuted to the interest in Rossini's first and only opera written for a castrato in 1813 -- Aureliano in Palmira eleven years earlier. Opera Rara's Don White wrote: "Il Crociato-mania spread like wild fire." Another opera also brought Meyerbeer notice in Milan was L'Esule di Granata in 1822, when it was written for Luigi Lablache, Rosmunda Pisaroni and Adelaide Tosi, all major singers of the day.

Meyerbeer's Il Crociato became a milestone in his career. It was pivotal in that it marked the transition between bel canto opera, and his more well known grand French dramatic style that came later. It also was his first "International" opera. Opening at London's King's Theatre in the Haymarket,[1825] it was not only Velluti that delighted and fascinated the London public, but, another famed  "super star" of the time - Maria Malibran. The role was originally assigned to the famous actress Madame Vestris, but she refused to sing because she detested to be on the same stage as Velluti.Some people looked on him as a freak, though an excellent singer, his voice took on a harsh quality at time resembling a peacock's scream. Manuel Garcia, the father of Malibran, occupied the leading tenor position at the King's theatre then, wrote an aria for Maria which was substituted for: "Ah ch'io l'adoro ancor" [Ah I still adore him.]The libretto for was Il Crociato in Egitto was written by the Italian poet, Gaetano Rossi. Here the opera opens with the hero in a very bad predicament. And his situation does not get any better, when he arrives in the Sultan's Palace.

"In an expedition to the coast of Egypt, which took place in the Sixth Crusade, in the neighbourhood of Damietta, a band of Knights of Rhodes, commanded by Esmengarde de Beaumont , was surprised , betrayed, and after a most heroic resistance overpowered, by the superior numbers of the enemy. Armand d'Orville, a young Knight of Provence, was one of this valiant band. Fainting from loss of blood, he had remained among the slain. He returned to himself; night came on, and he saw no other means of escaping from the disgrace of slavery, than by concealing himself in the spoils of an Egyptian warrior who had fallen on the field. He hoped by mingling with enemy, to discover their plans and to find a favourable moment to excape. "   (From and old libretto)

Now if that is not a good opening to a story, I wonder what is. What is interesting and perplexing, apparently there were so many different editions to the score and libretto, it seems that opera was never performed the same way twice. Everyone incerted different arias, for different cities, and different singers, so it becomes pretty hard to determine who wrote what. Meyerbeer, interchanged his opera arias, even after their first performances, and tampered with them continually.

As we see later in Paris, Meyerbeer, changed Il Crociato again, adding yet another aria for the great Giuditta Pasta, who took over the Velluti role. Meyerbeer moved ahead with the times, and by the entrance of his first French work -- Robert le Diable for L'Opera in 1831, clearly  his mature and now successful operas had assimilated the French milieu and he created a new French Grand Opera style. Robert le Diable, fairly electrified the Parisians, and caused the Paris L'Opera to prosper financially.

The question is raised as to why operas like Il Crociato in Egitto are not performed today? Part of the reason certainly is that some of Meyerbeer's Italian operas require a type of florid singing that died out during the last half of the 19th century. Another reason is that the stories of many of these operas were sometimes far-fetched, yet, to me so is Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti, and I for one think that with clever staging, its not an impossibility to revive some of Meyerbeer's wonderful operas.

Certainly that did not stop a concert production by The Malibran Society of Los Angeles. [April 26,1987. The west coast premiere in fact].

Clarissa Lablache


Angus Heriot:  The Last Castrati.

H. Bushnell:  Maria Malibran 

Scores of: IL Crociato in Egitto.[Opera Rara of London]

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