Being the composer of an opera which has reached undisputed and timeless success is certainly a blessing; still, it is a blessing not without its downsides, the most important of which is the fact that excessive concentration on the one immortal masterpiece may overshadow the composer’s other works. This is the fate of Francesco Cilea, one of the greatest Italian composers who lived between nineteenth and twentieth century, and whose fame is indissolubly bound to an opera performed on the most important stage worldwide, Adriana Lecouvreur. This opera certainly deserves its planetary success, but this sadly eclipses his other feats, both in the operatic field (where, possibly, Adriana is not his true masterpiece) and in that of instrumental music, which is largely and unjustly forgotten. This Da Vinci Classics album, therefore, bringing into focus some hidden pearls of Cilea’s output, has the undeniable merit of inviting reconsideration of his instrumental creations and of their doubtless value. Cilea was born in 1866 in Palmi, by Reggio Calabria, at the southernmost “tip” of the Italian peninsula’s “boot”. His father was a lawyer with a musical penchant, and, given the child’s precocious intelligence, Giuseppe sent Francesco at the young age of 7 to a private boarding school. Giuseppe’s intention was to provide Francesco with the education equipping him for a successful career as a lawyer. However, at the boarding school Francesco became enthralled by music. In spite of his parents’ misgivings over the musical career and its uncertainties, the child Francesco sought and obtained permission to attend the courses at the Conservatory of Naples. Indeed, Francesco Florimo, who was the Conservatory’s legendary librarian at the time, upon hearing the child had guessed and foreseen the important musician he was to become. And thus it came that Francesco Cilea dedicated his full attention to music. He was fortunate with his teachers, who were among the best musicians of their generation. He began his formal piano studies with Beniamino Cesi, who was one of the leading figures in the Italian pianism of the era; Paolo Serrao, who taught him harmony and counterpoint, was no less appreciated. When Cesi had to quit his teaching activity, Giuseppe Martucci (who was an appreciated composer in turn) took over, and his teaching proved fundamental for Cilea. The boy’s fellow students were also among the most promising musicians of their own generation – suffice it to mention Umberto Giordano, another operatic composer whose fame lasts until present day. After a decade spent studying hard at the Conservatory, Cilea was ready for a career in music. Already during his years as a pupil, his musical and human qualities had earned him some roles of responsibility, as the teaching assistant in the class of counterpoint. Immediately after his diploma, he was given a post; although he would relinquish teaching during the central years of his artistic development, to resume it later, his qualities as a teacher were unanimously acknowledged. His graduation exam consisted in the creation and performance of a three-act opera, by the title of Gina (1889); such was the success that the young musician was immediately approached by Sonzogno, one of the two leading music publishing companies in Italy at the time. They commissioned him an opera, by the title of La Tilda. In spite of a huge success, on the national and international plane (with acclaimed performances in Vienna), Cilea was never pleased with La Tilda. Its subject did not accord with his aesthetics, and he later rejected it. The opera following suit, L’Arlesiana, suffered an opposite fate: in this case, the audiences were never entirely conquered by the work, which the composer kept revising throughout his life. In L’Arlesiana, as in other later operas, Cilea could count on the legendary voice of a young Enrico Caruso, who championed his works with his unforgettable artistry. True, undisputed success came with Adriana Lecouvreur, whose performances travelled like wildfire throughout the globe. Notwithstanding this, Cilea’s next and last opera did not enjoy comparable popularity. His Gloria, indeed, is very little known today; it failed to impress the audiences due to its modernity, which should encourage today’s listeners to familiarize themselves with it. Such was the criticism, and especially the heavy atmosphere of rivalry and opposition, that Cilea left the world of opera for good, never to return to it (although he did consider some other libretti). He focused mainly on teaching; among his most important “late” works is a symphonic poem on lyrics by Sem Benelli, commemorating Giuseppe Verdi; and, of course, his purely instrumental works. Jointly with those written in the very first years of his compositional activity, these works span the entire arch of Cilea’s creativity, from the youthful attempts to the most mature accomplishments. This Da Vinci Classics album collects some significant examples from Cilea’s piano and chamber music output, demonstrating, on the one hand, the continuity in his overall aesthetic perspective, and, on the other, the evolution in his musical thought. Among Cilea’s earliest compositions is the Scherzo, written in 1883 when he was barely seventeen. As was to be expected, the composer’s full personality was not yet developed by then, and influences from great musicians of the (recent) past are clearly discernible. In particular, in this piece the Schumannesque flavour is unmistakable, but, at the same time, the young musician’s capability of handling form and content creatively is equally unchallengeable. From the same period dates a Danza calabrese, a dance inspired by the folk music of his native land, Calabria. Calabria is a region with a powerful musical tradition, also thanks to the multitude of peoples and cultures who inhabited it in the centuries. The result is a uniquely Mediterranean perspective, where ancestral traditions encounter more recent standpoints, creating a fascinating blend. In spite of this, Cilea – who was very strict in his self-censorship – later deplored this work, and hoped for it to be destroyed; fortunately, this did not happen, and we can enjoy the freshness of this piece by a very gifted teenager. Chopinesque influences are obviously found – and openly declared – in the A la mazurke op. 35; even though the indebtedness of these compositions to the great Romantic masters is evident, Cilea manages to reinterpret such influences creatively, without simply rehearsing what has already been told by them. Other youthful pieces, such as Canto del mattino op. 5 (“Morning song”) and La petite coquette op. 9, fully belong in the genre of the musical vignettes. They are remarkably unpretentious, in both their length and content. Evidently conceived for the enjoyment of a readership and public of amateurs, they offer what they promise: simple pleasure, genuine delight, the freshness of an inspiration which never fails, but also an immediacy which is rather engaging. Cilea’s careful and skilled management of the components of musical composition (harmony, counterpoint, and above all a touching melodic vein) is evident, and the result is rewarding. Similarly colourful and pertinent to the genre’s demands is his Berceuse op. 20, while with Aria campestre we are led to an open-air context, where the evocation of nature and of the countryside is balanced by the composer’s clever use of harmony. The Foglio d’album op. 41 (“Album leaf”) was issued by Sonzogno, the publishing company who had “adopted” Cilea since his very debut, in 1906. The composer was evidently fond of this work, even though he probably wished to improve on it, as was usual for someone as meticulous and precise as he was. Proof of this is the fact that he revised it up to his last years, and issued a new version in 1944, published by Suvini Zerboni. The Tre pezzi op. 43 are among Cilea’s most mature and stimulating piano works. Here, Cilea’s interest in the harmonic explorations is palpable, just as happens with the refined orchestrations of his works which is clearly in dialogue with the most daring French experiments (most notably, those by Massenet). In the case of this piano work, the composer’s interest seems to turn toward France, but also to Germany. The set is made of three pieces, whose fascinating titles allude to poems by Felice Soffrè. Still, these Tre pezzi pursue some simplicity; some novelties which had already entered Cilea’s musical language seem to be put aside for a moment. The difference with, for instance, Festa silana and Serenata a dispetto is clear. In these latter works, in fact, we observe a language which does not eschew the provocations of the twentieth century. Neither the traditional Romantic pianism nor the patterns of Italian operatic verism shape the musical material; Cilea’s language here is bathed in modernity, while never losing its refinedness, its nuances, its elegance. Some works recorded here derive from originals which had been conceived for other instrumental media. For instance, this same Serenata a dispetto had been created as a violin and piano duet, but demonstrates its flexibility in adapting itself perfectly to the new medium. Invocazione (“Plea”) also originated as a work for violin and piano, by the name of Melodia. These allusions to chamber music lead us to the other major work in this collection, the imposing Cello Sonata. With it, we are brought back in time to 1888, when Cilea was still very young (he was just 22). It is a piece overflowing with melody; here, one realizes why the cello is commonly considered as the instrument closest to the human voice. Singing permeates the whole work, entrusted to both the cello and the piano; Cilea’s penchant for efficacious melodies and intense harmonies is self-evident already in this youthful work. The Sonata opens with an Allegro presenting itself in the most charming and engaging fashion; it immediately conquers the listener, and strikes for the skilled handling of the difficult balance between piano and cello. At the Sonata’s heart is the touching Romanza, whose melancholic profile is enhanced by the composer’s use of unusual turns of phrases and harmonizations. The slightly exotic varnish one perceives can be understood as vaguely “Eastern”; certainly, though, it reveals the young musician’s originality and his quest for hitherto unexplored musical gestures. The concluding gentleness of the Romanza makes room for the brisk pace and complex writing of the Allegro animato which closes the piece. In spite of the virtuosic demands of this piece, the listening experience is simply enjoyable, delightful and decidedly fresh. Together, these works contribute to an efficacious representation of Cilea’s compositional palette and of his evolution as a composer, while granting immediate listening pleasure with their charming tunes and brilliant accompaniments.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Born in Brindisi (Italy), she began her piano studies at six and achieved a full-score Conservatory graduation at “Tartini” Conservatory of Trieste (Italy) in 1990, guided by Luciano Gante.
During her university engineering studies, from 1990 to 1995 at the Milan Polytechnic University, she regularly kept receiving piano lessons from Ilonka Deckers, who transmitted her Russian piano school technique and teachings.
After achieving her civil engineering master graduation, Sandra Conte participated to many masterclasses and courses with Vitaly Margulis, Franco Scala, Charles Rosen, Simone Pedroni, Piero Rattalino and Lev Naumov, who defined her as “a true musician”.
In 2007 she achieved the master degree in piano performing at “G.Verdi” Conservatory of Milan, studying with Leonardo Leonardi and Edda Ponti. In the same period she applied herself to ancient instruments practice, attending Ruggiero Laganà’s class and she improved her musical improvisation skillness with Danilo Macchioni.
She took part to many national and international piano competitions, gaining prizes and nominations, including a second place at the “Concourse Musical de France” (Paris).
She performed for several musical seasons and festivals such as “Scuola Normale di Pisa” Concert Season, “Società dei Concerti” of Milan, “Festival di musica da camera” of Cervo, “Kyoto International Students Music Festival”, “Amici del loggione” of Teatro alla Scala, “Mito Festival”, “Festival Liszt” of Bellagio, “Ravello Festival”, "Accademia Chigiana" of Siena, “Ravello Festival”, Italian Cultural Institutes of Paris and Budapest, “Società del Quartetto” of Milan. In june 2008 she played the first Beethoven Concerto at the Milano Auditorium, conductor Matthieus Manthanus. In 2008 and 2009 she collaborated, as soloist, with the Orchestra Arteviva directed by Matteo Baxiu.
Since 2009 she has played with the cellist Luca Colardo, who became her husband in 2018.
In 2010 the Duo Colardo-Conte was awarded with the Rancati price of the Conservatory of Milan and in 2011 with the “Premio Nazionale delle Arti”, the most important national competition for the students of italian Conservatories. In 2014 the Duo gave a concert at Quirinale Palace in Rome at the presence of the Italian Republican President, broadcast live on Rai Radio 3 and in 2017 they made their debut at Carnegie Hall in New York in the “New York International Artists Competition” winner concert.
In 2018 italian music magazine Amadeus published a cd of the Duo with complete works for cello and piano by Chopin and Debussy.
Sandra Conte studied composition with Fabio Vacchi, Sonia Bo and Gianni Possio in the Conservatory of Milan, achieving a “magna cum laude” degree in 2011.
She is author of chamber music pieces, incidental music for theatrical representations, and Two Operas.
She is author of chamber music pieces, incidental music for theatrical representations, and Two Operas: La Strega Bombolona, (The Krapfen Witch), performed at the Ariosto Theater of Reggio Emilia in spring 2005 and La Gatta Bianca, (The White She Cat), awarded with the first prize in the Fedora Chamber Opera Competition and performed at the Teatro Coccia of Novara in september 2013.
She taught Piano for children at “Luca Marenzio” Conservatory of Darfo and Complementary piano at “Giuseppe Verdi” Conservatory of Turin. Now she is professor in Elements of music composition at “Antonio Vivaldi” Conservatory of Alessandria.
Francesco Cilea: (b Palmi, Reggio Calabria, 23 July 1866; dVarazze, nr Savona, 20 Nov 1950). Italian composer and teacher. The son of a prominent lawyer, he was intended by his father for the same profession; however, the influence of Francesco Florimo, the famous archivist and friend of Bellini, procured him entry to the Naples Conservatory in 1879, where his teachers included Paolo Serrao, Beniamino Cesi and Giuseppe Martucci, and his fellow pupil Umberto Giordano. There he made rapid progress, becoming a maestrino in 1885. His Suite for orchestra (1887) was awarded a government prize and on 9 February 1889, his final year, his opera Gina was performed at the conservatory. Despite a poor libretto the editor Sonzogno thought sufficiently well of it to commission from him an opera on a fashionable low-life subject. La tilda was given with moderate successs at the Teatro Pagliano, Florence, with Rodolfo Ferrari as conductor and with Fanny Torresani in the title role. Sonzogno included it in his Italian opera season mounted later that year in Vienna, where it earned the gratifying approval of Hanslick. Cilea spent three years on the composition of his next opera, L’arlesiana, to a libretto based on Alphonse Daudet’s play, for which Bizet had supplied incidental music. The text of Rosa Mamai’s aria (‘Esser madre è un inferno’) was provided by Grazia Pierantoni, the wife of the senator in whose house Cilea was staying at the time. The opera was well received at its première at Sonzogno’s Teatro Lirico, Milan, where it helped to launch Caruso on his international career. Not until the following year, however, did L’arlesiana achieve its definitive three-act form.
In 1900 Cilea began work on his most famous opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, whose subject appealed to him because of its 18th-century ambience and its mixture of comedy and pathos. The première proved another triumph for Caruso as well as for the composer. At a season of operas mounted by Sonzogno at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, in 1904, Alfred Bruneau singled out Adriana Lecouvreur as the worthiest product of the Italian ‘giovane scuola’. A projected collaboration with Gabriele D’Annunzio on Francesca da Rimini came to nothing owing to Sonzogno’s unwillingness to meet the poet’s financial demands. In his search for a subject that would offer a choral dimension Cilea turned to Gloria, a story of star-crossed lovers set in 14th-century Siena at the time of the siege. Despite the advocacy of Toscanini the opera was cooly received and failed to circulate; nor did a revised version of 1932 to a new text by Ettore Moschini fare substantially better. A last operatic attempt,Ritorno ad amore, foundered on Renato Simoni’s failure to complete the libretto. From then on Cilea ceased to compose for the stage. His only other large-scale work was the ‘Poema sinfonico’ Il canto della vita for tenor, chorus and orchestra, written to a text by Sem Benelli in commemoration of the Verdi centenary in 1913. The previous year Leopoldo Mugnone had conducted a revival of L’arlesianain Naples, for which he had persuaded the composer to enlarge the part of Vivetta and cut the aria of Rosa Mamai and her scene with L’Innocente. The result so disappointed Cilea that he withdrew the score from circulation for the next 20 years. It was not heard again until a radio transmission in 1932. The Museo Cilea in Palmi contains the manuscript of an unpublished ‘Intermezzo arlesiana’ dated 1938.
Until his retirement in 1935 Cilea pursued a distinguished career in musical education. He taught harmony and the piano at the Naples Conservatory from (1890–92), and held the chair of harmony and composition at the Istituto Reale (later the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini) in Florence (1896–1904). In 1913 he assumed the directorship of the Palermo Conservatory, moving to that of the Naples Conservatory, a post which he held for nearly 20 years. He was elected to the Academy in 1938. Though justifiably proud of his record as a teacher, he regarded it as secondary to his operatic career, which he believed to have been blighted by the intrigues of others.
More of an all-round musician than most of his colleagues of the ‘giovane scuola’, Cilea shows a lighter touch. Besides Bellini, his chief gods were Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. An accomplished pianist, his keyboard writing is always inventive, and several of his pieces composed between the wars show an attempt to come to grips with the styles of Ravel and Casella. If his operas conform to the manner of Mascagni and his school, they never descend to brutal excess. Thematic recurrence plays an important part in them, even though the motifs themselves are rarely very theatrical. If Adriana Lecouvreur remains his most popular opera, largely due to its appeal to the aging prima donna, his best-loved single aria is the ‘Lamento di Federico’ from L’arlesiana, to this day one of the gems of the tenor repertory.
From The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians