The opera Ruggiero was neither desired by its authors, nor was it appreciated by the Milanese public to whom it was dedicated. Instead, it came into being at the behest of the empress Maria Theresa, and was intended to celebrate the marriage in 1771 of her son Ferdinand, archduke and governor of Austrian Lombardy, to Maria Ricciarda Beatrice d’Este.
However, the debut of Ruggiero was scheduled the very day before the first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s serenade Ascanio in Alba, a factor that, as his father Leopold notes in his letters, completely thwarted any possible success of the ageing Hasse’s latest offering. In addition to being conceived against the Hasse’s will, the opera was based on a libretto that had been shelved after being written for a quite different celebratory occasion, that of the marriage of Marie Antoinette with the dauphin of France. Moreover, not only would Ruggiero not be performed again for over two centuries, but there seems to be no recording made of it, although now a critical edition exists.
Why, therefore, this urge to resume the opera and give an integral performance of it?
The reasons for a performance are certainly there, particularly for the city of Milan, because Ruggiero is indelibly tied to the city’s past, as it was intrinsically tied to events that saw the instatement as governor of the city and Lombardy of the young Habsburg prince, Archduke Ferdinand who, although overshadowed by his domineering mother, identified closely with the city, and was flanked by his wife Beatrice, herself largely Milanese by culture and education, and who in his twenty-five years governance over the city devoted a great deal of his attention to the opera houses. We are indebted to Ferdinand that after fire destroyed the Teatro Ducale in 1776, Maria Theresa succumbed to his insistence and allowed the Teatro alla Scala and the Cannobiana to be built, and that the nearby town of Monza had its own opera house, run directly by the Archduke until the arrival of the French in 1796.
Another reason for listening to this opera concerns the close connection of two major musical figures of the day, Johann Adolf Hasse and Mozart, whose lives converged on this particular occasion. While Ruggiero is Hasse’s last opera, Ascanio in Alba was the fifteen-year-old Mozart’s second opera for Milan, so it was a case of one opera by the “elder” and the other by the “younger” of the two composers, as noted by Leopold Mozart in a letter dated 19 June 1771. The association of these two works was deliberately programmed by the organisers of Milan’s musical calendar as a way of directly contrasting the traditional and “official” work of Hasse commissioned by Maria Theresa, and the lightweight “serenata” by Mozart proposed by the local authorities.
But mostly Ruggiero should be approached for its intrinsic musical value, as the last logical composition in the logical line of opera moulded by the poet and librettist Metastasio (pseudonym of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698–1792) and Hasse, who was quite aware of the fact that he could not cater to the current tastes of the public.
After listening to Ascanio in Alba performed complete by Musica Rara, it will be interesting therefore to hear Hasse’s work alongside it. In this way we are recreating that historical event that took place in Milan some 229 years ago.
Maria Theresa’s Ruggiero was intended to exalt and lend grandeur to celebrations held for the marriage of her son the Archduke Ferdinand with Maria Ricciarda Beatrice d’Este, niece and heir to Francis III, the last duke of Modena. The union of the two had been decided long before in Vienna for political reasons, namely, to absorb the still rogue duchy of Modena into the Habsburg dominion. The two betrothed were still children at the time of the decision, and were meeting now for the first time, to take their vows on 15 October 1771 in Milan Cathedral. From this moment on, Ferdinand would effectively become governor of Milan and Lombardy. Maria Theresa wished the public celebrations to be a memorable spectacle, with festivals, banquets, processions, races, and games, all offered by the crown, along with opera performances at the Royal Ducal Theatre. She herself determined which opera would be written and performed for the occasion, and had personally charged the librettist and composer she had the most esteem for, respectively Metastasio and Hasse.
The subject of the opera was chosen some years earlier for a libretto commissioned by the empress from Metastasio for the occasion of the marriage of her daughter Marie Antoinette to the dauphin who became Louis XVI of France. The idea was to hinge on the literary tradition of French chivalry. The librettist felt the undertaking assigned to him to be one of “long and arduous” toil that ill befitted his advanced age, and accepted only out of a sense of duty toward the sovereign, turning to the last three cantos of Ludovico Ariosto’s famous Orlando Furioso. The characters of Bradamante, Ruggiero, Charlemagne and his court justified the references to France for the occasion of this nuptial bond with the Austrian royal house. After struggling over the libretto, Metastasio was unable to complete it, and the Viennese court abandoned the idea of performing a theatrical spectacle for the princely wedding. In a letter of 1769 Metastasio himself commented that he had been “glad to quit work on the opera” and happily postponed its conclusion to a time far in the future, even though it was very close to the date imposed for the work’s completion. However, the empress ordered him to finish it come what may, and collected the completed libretto for her own use and leisure.
Now, when this new occasion arose with the marriage of her son Ferdinand, the empress fetched the libretto for Ruggiero from her shelves, and ordered Metastasio to make it suitable to be set to music and performed in Milan.
The task of writing the music was assigned to Johann Adolf Hasse, the sovereign’s favourite composer.
For over thirty years Hasse had enjoyed close ties with the imperial family, a bond he had endorsed with compositions written personally for special occasions during the years he served at the imperial court of Saxony. Even after his move to Vienna in 1760, Hasse continued to compose operas and serenatas for the court, although he n was no longer in their employ. As a girl, Maria Theresa had received tuition from Hasse, and in 1744 had even sung in a private performance of the maestro’s opera Ipermestra. Over time, two had grown fond of each other.
The librettos of nearly all Hasse’s operas were written by Metastasio, with whom he had created a type of opera seria that dominated the theatres for several decades in the 1700s. In the court of Vienna, the duo Hasse and Metastasio represented the traditionalist current of opera at the time, which was countered by the current of “reformers” (Calzabigi, Gluck, Angiolini), who enjoyed the protection of the director of the imperial theatres Giacomo Durazzo and Chancellor Kaunitz. In this duel between the two “sects”, in which a certain component of Freemasonry was present among the reformer clique, the empress was decidedly partisan toward Hasse and Metastasio, and for this reason she preferred to entrust them with the creation of Ruggiero.
While Metastasio had laboured unwillingly and without pleasure over the libretto, for his part the seventy-one-year-old Hasse found the commission from Maria Theresa a virtually impossible feat.
Plagued by gout, which affected his hands so badly that sometimes he was unable to write, furthermore, he had avowed never to write another piece for the theatre, a part of his career that he considered over and done, preferring to devote himself to the composition of sacred music. (This decision is clearly stated in his correspondence with a Venetian friend, Gianmaria Ortes, conserved in the Museo Correr in Venice, and now published in its entirety by Livia Pancino). Hasse revealed to Ortes his misgivings about not being in touch with the new fashions and tastes in Italian theatres, and asked his friend for information. The replies Ortes supplied unsettled him: “From what I gather, the lack of decency in what is currently happening in Italian opera is most disconcerting, and I would loath my own work to turn into a drama danced to music” (Hasse to Ortes, 12 January 1771).
Despite these qualms, Hasse set to work on writing the composition.
On 20 August Hasse travelled from Vienna to Milan (his arrival is noted by Leopold Mozart in a letter to his wife dated 31 August 1771). Hasse himself noted to Ortes (5 October 1771) that he had set off during a nasty attack of gout, and had needed to be conveyed to the carriage in a litter, “but fortunately recovered on the way, and luckily arrived here at the end of August”. With him was his daughter Pepina and his “ancient servant Franz”, and he was carrying a letter written by Maria Theresa on 17 August addressed to her future daughter-inlaw Maria Beatrice. In the letter the empress presented her former music tutor with words of affecting warmth, which are worth reproducing here: “Madame ma chère fìlle. Je vous recommande le porteur [Hasse] de celle-ci, souhaitant qu’il ne prenne la goutte en chemin ou à son arrivée. Il est vieux; il a été mon maìtre de musique il y a trente-huit ans. J’ai toujours estimé, de préférence à toutes autres, ses compositions; il a été le premier qui a rendu la musique plus agréable, plus légère. Il a travaillé beaucoup; il se peut qu’il ne réussisse à cette heure plus si bien, mais je lui sais toujours bon gré, d’ avoir entrepris avec tant de vivacité cet ouvrage, et de se rendre mème à Milan.”
That September the city of Milan was aswarm with preparations for the imperial festivities, which Maria Theresa wished to be lavish and a pleasing event to remind everyone of the union of the archduke her son. Indeed the celebrations lasted for the entire month of October, and are chronicled both in the report that appeared in the Gazetta di Milano, and in the full account written by Giuseppe Parini, and published some years later in Milan in 1825 (Descrizione delle feste celebrate in Milano, per le nozze delle LL. Altezze Reali Arciduca Ferdinando d’Austria e l’Arciduchessa Maria Beatrice d’Este fatta per ordine della R. Corte l’anno delle medesime nozze MDCCLXXI da Giuseppe Parini).
Hasse set about preparing the performance of the opera with the singers and orchestra, modifying the score he had brought with him from Vienna. The rehearsals for Ruggiero alternated with those for Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba, which was due onstage the evening after the premier of Ruggiero. The first orchestra rehearsal for Ruggiero took place on 21 September.
Other rehearsals followed on 5 and 13 October. According to Parini’s Descrizione (p. 746), the orchestra was “greatly increased from the usual number”.
The cast of singers included some of the greatest virtuosos of the day.
They were the same soloists who would perform Ascanio the following evenings. The main roles were taken by the singers Antonia Maria Girelli Aguilar, Giovanni Manzuoli (or Manzoli), and Giuseppe Tibaldi, all of wide renown but all past their prime, with their careers receding behind them.
The soprano Girelli (wife of the oboist Sante Aguilar) was a regular star in theatres both in Italy and abroad. During this period she was a regular at the Teatro Regio in Turin; and in the season 1766/67 she had interpreted the part of Aspasia in Mitridate Re di Ponto by the Italian composer Quirino Gasparini (1721–78). In January 1771 she sang in a Turinese production of Paisiello’s Annibale in Torino, an opera that Leopold Mozart and his son may have attended during their stay in the city from 14 to 31 January that year. In Hasse’s Ruggiero, the soprano took the part of Bradamante, and of Silvia in Mozart’s Ascanio.
The virtuoso Florentine castrato Manzuoli (in the title roles for both Hasse and Mozart) had an exceptionally powerful voice and great qualities as an actor. He was in great demand and paid lavishly by theatres all over Europe. In Vienna he had performed Hasse’s Alcide al bivio in 1760, becoming the idol of the city. While in London he had triumphed at the King’s Theatre in 1764/65, which is where the Mozarts first met him. Initially his voice was pitched for soprano, then contralto, but despite this the Vienna court deemed him ideal of the title role of Ruggiero, even though such parts were generally taken by sopranos. With these performances in Milan of the operas of Hasse and Mozart in 1771, Manzuoli ended his career.
The tenor Tibaldi from Bologna (Charlemagne in Ruggiero; Aceste in Ascanio) had studied under Padre Martini and was a member of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna as a singer. He was also composer and choirmaster. In 1767 he took the role of Admeto in the first performance of Gluck’s Alceste in Vienna.
The minor roles were taken by singers of less renown, but otherwise well established in the theatres in Italy. They included Adamo Solzi, another soprano castrato, who sang Leone in Ruggiero and Fauno in Ascanio. Geltrude Falchini (soprano, seconda donna) sang Clotilde for Hasse and Venere for Mozart. Lastly, the tenor Vincenzo Uttini was Ottone, Ruggiero’s confident (but no part in Ascanio).
The sets were designed by the Galliari brothers from Piedmont (Bernardino, Fabrizio, and Giovanni Antonio), who for some thirty years had overseen the designs for the Regio Ducal Teatro in Milan and the Regio in Turin, and who had also provided their talents for many magnificent temporary set-designs for various celebrations held at the court in Vienna.
The libretto also carries the names of the costume-designers or, as they are dubbed, the “inventors of the clothes”, and these are Francesco Motta and Giovanni Mazza, who must have been very busy at the time, given that “the period in which the drama is set, and the action that takes place, required a type of costume and clothing and scenes rarely seen in our theatres” (Parini, Descrizione, pp. 746–47). The entire representation was reportedly “dazzling for its sumptuousness, variety, and sheer wealth of different costumes, sets, and every other form of decoration” (Ibid.).
Inserted between each of the three acts was a brief ballet, the first entitled La contesa fra Marte e Apollo (The Battle between Mars and Apollo) was directed by one Charles Le Picq, a choreographer who had studied under Jean-Georges Noverre, and had worked in Stuttgart and Vienna, but since 1769 had been active in Italy. His dance sequences for Ruggiero full of stunning scenery devices, such as the descent of Apollo on his sun-chariot, drawn by four white horses.
The second and even more elaborate dance interlude was entitled Pico e Canente ossia il ritorno dell’età dell’Oro (Pico and Canente, or the Return of the Golden Age). Here the choreographer was Jan Favier, another pupil of Noverre in Stuttgart, and collaborator with Le Picq. The subject was liberally drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and represented the fable of Picus, king of Latium, and the nymph Canens. The stunning production involved four changes of scenery: Temple of Saturn, Beaches of the Tiber, Circe’s Palace burned by fireballs and swallowed into the ground, and the Palace of Amor and Hymene. The lead dancers were surrounded by crowds of dancers impersonating sages, genii, nymphs, guards, and crowds of the populace. Everything concluded joyfully, alluding allegorically to the return of the Golden Age thanks to the reign of Maria Theresa, and showed two enflamed hearts inscribed with the names of the two spouses.
The production of Ruggiero on 16 October 1771 was anything but a triumph: as predicted by the theatre’s managers and by Hasse himself, the opera was lacking in the kind of elements the public had come to expect. The theatre was short of stage machinery for spectacular scenery effects, there was no variation in the choruses or ballets, and there were long series of recitatives. As Hasse wrote to Ortes: “On its first night, my Ruggiero suffered all the mishaps that can befall a theatre production. In truth it fared much better indeed on the successive three performances, but in these countries the outcome of the premier decides its fate: the worst thing is that now there will be no repeats, while the prima donna has lost her voice due to a violent attack of catarrh.
That said, I am unruffled because I know for certain I have nothing to reproach myself for.”
The following evening Mozart’s pastoral opera met with much greater success and enjoyed a greater number of repeat performances during the ensuing evenings. While Leopold Mozart exulted for the success of his son, the empress was mortified for the lack of acclaim awarded Hasse’s efforts, and wrote to her son the archduke on 6 November, saying that around her people kept declaring its music tasteless, and she felt miserable for “le vieux Hasse”. The following December Maria Theresa gave audience to Hasse and his daughter at the court in Vienna. “Her Majesty made a gift to Pepina of a handsome gold casket containing a pair of sumptuous brooches set with diamonds,” wrote Hasse to Ortes on 7 December. “And to me she gave a superb gold box set with a portrait of the Archduke Ferdinand. […] It is clear that this sovereign has a great soul and how much I should be grateful. […] Never was I paid so magnificently for a work done.”
The opera Ruggiero was staged at the San Carlo in Naples on 20 January 1772 under the baton of Francesco Lenzi. The soloists were now Gaspare Pacchierotti (Ruggiero), Cecilia Davies (Bradamante), Arcangelo Cortoni (Charlemagne), Pietro Santi (Leone). Some alterations to the score had been made for this production by Hasse himself while still in Milan; the main change was to the finale Licence scene, which in Milan celebrated the princely couple, and here was replaced with a multi-part ballet representing the double wedding of Ruggiero with Bradamante, and Leone with Clotilde.
The present performance adheres to the original score for the Milanese production. The autograph manuscript is kept in the library at the Milan Conservatory, and was consulted alongside the critical edition published by Klaus Hortschansky (Cologne: Arno Volk Verlag Hans Gerig Kg, 1973). Some cuts were made to the dry recitatives.