Article by David Chernaik
I first came across the music of João de Sousa Carvalho when I conducted one of his few published works, the overture to L’amore Industrioso. It seemed strange that I had not previously heard of this Portuguese composer, who was clearly someone of great talent and ability. I was amazed to discover that he had written twelve operas and many choral works.
He was highly regarded at the time as both composer and teacher, and was even referred to as “the Portuguese Mozart.” I was keen to know more, and in particular I wanted to find out whether the rest of L’amore Industrioso matched the high level of skill I had seen in the overture.
When I started working on the manuscript, which I found perfectly preserved in Lisbon’s Ajuda Palace Library, I realised that I had stumbled across the rare thing, a delightful work by an unknown composer. I found it to be beautifully written, funny, and reminiscent of Mozart’s later operas. I was immediately struck by similarities of style, plot, and musical detail to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. I decided to investigate any possible links: could the two composers have met? Could Mozart have seen the score? I started by looking at the period during which L’amore Industrioso was written.
During the 18th century Portugal was still immensely wealthy, and the Kind used part of this great wealth, derived from the discovery of Brazilian gold, to create an Italian-style court which was the equal of any in Europe. At this time Italian opera, both opera seria and opera buffa, was very popular, and Italian composers were resident in European cities from Lisbon to St. Petersburg. Young Portuguese composers were sent to Italy to study, and particularly to learn to write Italian opera. So the 16 year-old João de Sousa Carvalho was sent to Naples in 1761 to study at the Sant’Onofrio Conservatory, where he remained for six years. He wrote L’amore Industrioso in 1768, and it was performed 10 times in Lisbon in 1769. Surprisingly, these were its only performances, apart from a heavily-cut version in Portuguese in 1980.
Italian opera, in particular comic opera, was thriving, and the theatres were full of people listening to the latest operas (and also eating, drinking and playing cards). There was a constant demand for new operas, and there were many prolific composers turning out new works, or new versions of old works. Most of these operas are not forgotten, as are their composers. Most opera lovers today, if asked to name the major composers of Italian operas in the 18th century (as opposed to Italian composers of operas) would start with Handel and Mozart, and then hesitate, not really sure what or who came between them. It is amazing to think that there were only 27 years between Handel’s last opera and Mozart’s first. During this brief but fertile period the style of Italian opera which reached its peak with Mozart’s da Ponte operas evolved and developed.
The development of Italian opera buffa was driven by a writer, Carlo Goldoni (whose play, A servant to two master, was recently revived to great acclaim in London). Goldoni was credited with transforming the improvised farce of commedia dell’arte into an urbane literary comedy of manners. He is also credited with inventing the ensemble finale. He took the stock characters of commedia dell’arte – Pantalone the old fool, the servants Harlequin and Columbine, the charlatan Doctor, and so on, and transformed them into three-dimensional characters with human motivations and weaknesses, and in this way he was able to create a style in which comedy could be deepened by the use of feeling and emotion. Many of the elements of the commedia style remained, including wordplay, jokes based on regional accents and physical humour, with the added elements of social and moral comment. The resulting combination of humour and pathos formed the basis of Italian opera for much of its subsequent history. L’amore Industrioso is an excellent example of the new style, with its central story of the trails of young lovers set against a background of bourgeois vulgarity and impoverished aristocracy.
It was easy to see why the young and talented Portuguese composer chose to write a comic Italian opera. It was also becoming clear to me that Mozart had not invented the style he used so well, but had in fact taken an existing style further than anyone thought possible. L’amore Industrioso is certainly the best example I have seen of the kind of model Mozart had in mind when writing his own Italian operas, but was there a more specific connection? I could understand similarities in plot and character, but it was harder to explain the many musical similarities I found, and I was determined to find out more.
The young Mozart spent three years travelling around Italy with his father at the time that Sousa Carvalho was finishing his studies in Naples. By the time Mozart reached Naples in 1770, the Portuguese composer had returned to Lisbon, and L’amore Industrioso had been performed. However, Mozart did visit the Sant’Onofrio Conservatory where Sousa Carvalho had studied, and had lunch with Joseph Doll, one of his teachers. Could this meeting help explain the stirking similarities between Giulietta’s cavatina Sventurata, a chi finora and Barbarina’s L’ho perduto, or between Basilio’s aria Cospetto del demonio and Bartolo’s La vendetta? What is certain is that Mozart spent his time in Italy absorbing all the information he could, and learning from the many musicians he met. There is no record of the two composers meeting, but they certainly “breathed the same air”, and who is to say that Joseph Doll didn’t say over lunch, “My dear Mozart, I received a copy today of some scenes from an opera by my favourite ex-pupil, now back home in Lisbon…Basilio…Count…Countess…Notary…clever servants…and some lovely music. We must look at it together after lunch!”
The scene at the conservatory was vividly described by Charles Burney, who painted a picture of a large room full of boys all singing, playing instruments or writing at once. I except that the serious work was done in the classroom, where there was presumably a little more discipline. Judging from the evidence of L’amore Industrioso, the students were obviously well taught, and left fully equipped to take the writing of Italian opera to all corners of Europe.
L’amore Industrioso is interesting for its place in history, as an excellent example of classic opera buffa, for the way it sheds light on Mozart’s later Italian operas, but most of all as a delightful and accomplished work in its own right, by a composer of great skill and subtlety. There is natural simplicity of expression, a lightness of touch, and a feeling that it concerns real people with very modern desires and weaknesses. The Enlightenment views of society, class and humanity are combined with the traditional humour of commedia dell’arte in a way that helps to show why Italian opera buffa was so popular at the time, and why this opera in particular deserves to be heard and seen again.