Felice Romani a man of words

Article by Adrian Mourby

The man who was to become one of the most successful librettists of his day was born in Genoa, Italy in 1788. At university Felice Romani displayed his considerable expertise translating French literature into Italian and co-authored a six-volume dictionary of mythology and ancient history. He had been hoping for an academic career but when it became clear the University of Genoa would not be offering a post he left Italy, travelling through France, Spain and Greece and through the German-speaking states. In Vienna Romani claimed to have been offered the post of court poet to Emperor Francis of Austria but he chose instead to return south of the Alps and set up shop as a man of letters in Milan around 1812 or 1813. Here Romani quickly became a man of the theatre too. Despite the impressive slew of operas attached to his name, Felice Romani was not just a librettist. He also published journalism and had a hand in opera management.

The early nineteenth-century world of Italian opera was more like Hollywood in the 1930s than opera as we think of it today. It was a factory with a voracious appetite for talent and novety. The ability to come up with a sequence of words that would inspire a composer was the basic requirement of the dramatic poet in Felice Romani’s time and nothing remarkable. To be a successful librettist you needed many more strings to your bow.

The impresario Petracchi, one of Romani’s first employers, laid out the ground rules very clearly in 1821: “Reason dictates that the first task of the Dramatic Poet is to select the plot [but] because the poet cannot select the plot before the company has been decided; and since companies are not definitely fixed until three or four months before the premiere, the poet must, in this short space of time, decide on the plot and write the drama.”

Speed was one of Romani’s great skills. His average annual earnings as a librettist were around 3,500 lire from an average of four libretti a year. This put him in the same pay bracket as a junior University lecturer whereas most librettists in Italy were only earning about the same annual income as a schoolmaster. Poor Francesco Longhena, man of letters and translator of the mighty Manuale della storia della filosofia, managed only 1,000 lire a year for much of his career.

Flexibility was also an essential skill. Time and time again Romani would conceive of a drama only to find that additional singers had been added to the company so additional parts had to be created. On one occasion he accommodated a second prima donna by rapidly reassigning a character intended to be sung by the tenor. There was no room in the early nineteenth-century opera factory for standing on one’s dignity. Professionalism meant finding a creative way of doing what you were told, although Felice Romani did learn when to stand his ground.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century a poet’s contract with his impresario extended beyond coming up with a story, adapting it to the demands of the assembled company and writing the necessary verse. Many librettists, as soon as they handed in their manuscript, began work on assembling props and costumes. Some even directed the singers on stage.

As far as we know Felice Romani’s first commissioned libretto was La rosa bianca e la rosa rossa (1813), a story from England’s Wars of the Roses which was set by Simon Mayr for Genoa. It was subsequently reset by Pietro Generali (in 1818) and Tomás Genovés y Lapetra (1831). Romani’s next libretto, also from 1813 and also for Mayr, was Medea in Corinto, which was subsequently reset by Prospero Selli (1839) and Saverio Mercadante (1851). A third opera from the same year was Aureliiano in Palmira for Rossini. Romani was just four years older than the 21-year-old Rossini, who at this time was already being talked up as the “Italian Mozart”. The two men would work together on three more operas, including Il turco in Italia (1814 ) but it was to be with Bellini and Donizetti that Felice Romani would do his best work. He produced seven libretti for Bellini and ten for Donizetti. In both cases inspiring some of the best bel canto operas ever written.

The fact that Romani’s operas were so frequently reset was not just a tribute to the quality of his writing; it also reflected the much more fluid nature of intellectual property in early nineteenth-century opera. Romani’s librettos, for which he was usually paid around 850 lire, were bought outright by impresarios and managements. Ownership of a plot — even of a text – often came down to who shouted loudest. In 1833 Romani adapted (some might say pirated) the plot of Victor Hugo’s Lucrezia Borgia as a libretto for Donizetti, but when the composer took that opera to Paris in 1840 Hugo was important enough and angry enough to take an injunction against any further performances.

After initial successes in theatres in Milan and beyond, there were some lean years. In 1825 Romani was only commissioned to write one libretto, Giulietta e Romeo, and in 1826 none at all, but during the Milanese carnival season of 1830–31 the 44-year-old poet suddenly hit the jackpot when Teatro Carcano premiered Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s La sonnambula, both from Romani’s librettos. Anna Bolena not only made Donizetti’s name, it resulted in Romani being taken more seriously by the city. He started being offered binding contracts to work with one impresario rather than journeyman work. By the 1833 Romani was so much in demand that he was able to earn a massive 6,800 lire, from which we can assume he produced seven or eight libretti that year, a number of them for companies outside Milan – and outside the terms of his contract.

Such a workload was unsustainable and Romani started missing deadlines and quarrelling with impresarios. At one point work on the libretto for Caterina di Guisa (1833) fell so far behind that the management of the theatre in question sent in bailiffs, who burst into Romani’s home and demanded he hand over the completed text. It was well within their contractural right to do so, but Romani argued that he had begun writing an opera for three soloists and been landed with an additional prima donna whom he was trying hard to incorporate. The theatre’s representatives made it clear that if the libretto and opera were not completed immediately he would be paid nothing for his work. Romani appealed over their heads to the impresario Gottardi who gave him just twenty-four hours to complete the new libretto.

It must have come as a relief therefore in 1834 to be offered the post of chief editor and writer for the ministerial paper Gazzetta ufficiale piemontese by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (whose capital was in Turin at the time). The court’s patronage boosted Romani’s annual earnings to 9,180 lire with a guarantee that his salary would continue after his retirement. The middle-aged Romani might be a civil servant now but at last he had achieved financial security.

Nevertheless Romani could not resist the opportunity to try and produce libretti in his spare time. He took on new work in 1835 but ended up getting himself into hot water when he missed deadlines.

One of Romanis’ least successful collaborations – if it can be called a collaboration – was with the 27-year-old Giueppe Verdi. Normally the composer would meet with Romani and the impresario to discuss a story that might suit the available singers. In 1840 however, after the relative success of Oberto at La Scala, the impresario Merelli decided he wanted a comedy from Verdi, and just handed him a selection of libretti he had already bought from Felice Romani. Verdi, suffering from the recent deaths of his wife and two children, was not taken with any of them, but “because the matter was of some urgency, I chose the one which seemed to me to be the least bad”.

Un giorno di regno was an unmitigated disaster. Verdi’s heart was not in the piece and Romani’s libretto was considered heavy handed, ill-suited to La Scala and even (because tastes changed sorapidly in Milan) already old fashioned. Un Giorno contained none of the wit and humanity that the poet had provided for Donizetti eight years earlier with L’elisir d’amore. Even Romani had his off-days but the effect on Verdi was to make him vow to give up composition for good. It took a lot of charm and bullying on Merelli’s part to coax Nabucco from him a year later and relaunch the young genius’ career. Incidentally, Verdi did go on to set two of Romani’s songs in his 1845 cycle Album di Sei Romanze but he never engaged with him again as a librettist.

Romani married in 1842. He was 54, his wife (and, later, biographer) was much younger. Life had reached a period of contentment as Felice Romani coasted towards retirement but then in 1849 he lost his job at the Gazzetta and had to fight to get the pension promised him fifteen years previously. By the 1850s he was working on libretti again: La spia ovvero Il merciaiuolo americano for Angelo Villanis (1850), Edita di Lorno for Giulio Litta (1853) and Cristina di Svezia for Sigismond Thalberg (1855).

Romani died in 1865 at the age of 77 having written at least 90 libretti (the exact number will never be known) but having failed in his ambition to publish a definitive edition of them all. Nevertheless at the end of his life he was highly regarded in Italy and could claim to have worked with all the major Italian composers of his day.

So why was Felice Romani so successful? His reputation rests on the sheer volume of libretti he produced and the even greater number of operas that they inspired. There is no doubt that Romani was a talented man of the theatre, and that his work got to be so good because he had so much practice. At the beginning of his career he learned fast and, after a gradual start, he was responsible for many of the enduring operatic highlights of the late 1820s and early 1830s: Il turco in Italia (Rossini 1814), Margherita d’Anjou (Meyerbeer 1820), Francesca da Rimini (set by 11 composers from 1823 onwards), I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini 1830), Anna Bolena (Donizetti 1830), La sonnambula and Norma (Bellini 1831), L’elisir d’amore (Donizetti 1832), Beatrice di Tenda (Bellini 1833) and Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti 1833).

Latterly Romani’s style – like Rossini’s – failed to move with the times and, as we have seen, Verdi, that devourer of libretti, wouldn’t touch him. Nevertheless his work was always competent. He could think on his feet and adapt rapidly to the (almost inevitable) last-minute changes in company personnel that were common at this time. When La Scala imposed a prima donna who was neither young nor beautiful on Romani’s Therese, ou L’orpheline de Geneve (presented in 1824 as Amina) Romani accepted that the word “orphan” had to be dropped from the title but added “The title of the libretto can easily be changed, not so the age of the orphan. I propose not to speak either the beauty or the youth of the protagonist.”

Romani was also canny enough to avoid getting his work held up by censors. In 1824 he wrote to Franchetti, intendante of La Scala: “Concerning the observations of the censor, communicated to me when the work was already finished, I flatter myself that I had anticipated them.”

And he understood singers and what they were capable of, even though he was not the person actually composing the music. In 1832 Romani resisted the management of Milan who were under pressure from the police to substitute one singer, Fabbrica, with another, Cecconi. “Neither I nor the maestro (Saveirio Mercadante) have need of this singer,” he wrote back. “She will not suit… I am especially responsible to the public for the drama, and if the public does not find the drama adapted to the characters, or the characters to the drama, nothing will excuse me, neither will the caprices of the management save me.”

He was, despite the occasional missed deadline, a consummate professional. Donizetti summed up his skills beautifully on one occasion when looking over a substandard libretto he was being urged to set: “I have the old libretto; it won’t suit today’s fashions unless Romani, who can do everything, rewrites more than three quarters of it.”

Adrian Mourby writes on cultural tourism around the world and occasionally contributes to programmes on BBC Radio 3 and 4. He is currently acting as dramaturg on a new production of Idomeneo at Wienerstaatsoper and finishing his fifth novel