By Lawrence Mays

“. . . the house was very much crowded, the band was good, and the music worthy of Signor Piccini [sic]; full of that fire and fancy which characterise all the productions of that ingenious and original composer.”

—Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)

C112-13My Ph.D. dissertation was originally going to be about “exotic operas,” particularly those with allegorical Moon settings and those set in fantastical realms based on Amazon mythology. While researching the topic, I read Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s description of a 1770 dramma giocoso by Niccolò Piccinni (1728–1800) titled Il regno della Luna.[1] In contrast to the majority of “Moon operas”—which are really set on Earth—this work involves five Earth people actually traveling, in an unspecified future epoch, to the Moon, where they encounter a society radically different from that of late eighteenth-century Europe. They find a kingdom in which women have complete political power and may terminate marriage as they wish, and where relations between the sexes are flexible, with polygamy being condoned. The kingdom places no value on military prowess and has no need for an army, and its citizens happily respect the ruling hegemony. It has no commerce or trade but shows technological development well beyond that of Earth—in particular, the citizens have achieved immortality. The interaction between the visitors and the Lunar “others” is an allegory for some less-than-ideal European contemporaneous behavior, while the Lunar society represents a possible Enlightened future polity. At the outset, I inferred that the work was prototypical science fiction—a presentation of a plausible future history that was unique in opera of the period. Here was an exotic opera which aligned with my interests both in Moon settings and in societies dominated by women. Intrigued, I embarked on the preparation of a critical edition with exegesis, which became the focus of my dissertation and eventually the basis for an edition in the Recent Researches in Music series.

Statue of Piccinni

Statue of Niccolò Piccinni in his hometown of Bari, Apulia, sculpted in 1884 by Gaetano Fiore. Photo by the author.

In 1770 Piccinni was riding high on a wave of popularity for both serious and comic opera, not only on the Italian peninsula but also throughout Europe. He had perhaps one of the most prolific years in opera history with nine premieres, six of them in comic genres. His popularity had risen sharply since the runaway success of his 1760 opera buffa La buona figliuola. Charles Burney’s journal reports favorably on several performances of Piccinni’s operas—the quote above refers to a production in Florence in September 1770 of the intermezzo La pescatrice. In April that year Burney saw Il regno della Luna in Milan, though his journal entry is by comparison somewhat perfunctory: “After the carnival he composed a burletta, called Il Regno nella [sic] Luna, for the performers, who are still here.” As was customary in Milan at the time, the premiere included entr’acte ballets, in this case Aci e Galatea and Gli Americani. Although pantomime ballet was popular in the city, the performances on this occasion were not to the taste of the audience. Count Pietro Verri—a leading intellectual in Milanese society—commented positively on the opera but condemned the principal dancers as “due stupidi pantomimi” and described the premiere overall as “uno spettacolo insipido assai” (a rather insipid show).[2] Fortunately, Il regno della Luna was subsequently reprised a total of seven times in Dresden at the Piccolo Teatro di S. A. S. E. di Sassonia, between 1773 and 1775—each time in a shortened version without ballets.

The music for the Milan premiere has been lost, and at first it appeared that the only source was a microfiche copy held by the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., of a complete diplomatic transcription of the music of the Dresden version. It proved impractical to get a copy of this source. Meanwhile, in 2014, the manuscript from which the transcription was made appeared in the catalog of the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek (SLUB) in Dresden, and my university library purchased a high-resolution digital copy. Although this manuscript is the only extant complete music source, it is somewhat problematic. It is a presentation copy made for the Hofarchiv by an unnamed Dresden court copyist as part of a program to document performances in the Piccolo Teatro. Manuscripts of this kind were generally not used for performance—although typically clean, they frequently contain uncorrected errors and have limited cues for conductors or performers. This source, however, included forty-nine corrections made with a graphite pencil, suggesting that it may have been used for performance at some time. Although I adopted most of these corrections, there were numerous other apparent errors and inconsistencies, and as a result my edition includes over one hundred and fifty critical notes.

Comparing the printed libretto for the Milan premiere with the Dresden libretto and manuscript, it was clear that four arias and several passages of recitative had been cut for the Dresden productions. The original number of arias may partly reflect the fame of the singers engaged for the premiere—from whom the audience would expect a quantity of set pieces proportionate to their reputation. As detailed in the edition, two of the recitative cuts in the Dresden version are somewhat detrimental to the sense of the narrative. One particularly unfortunate omission is the Lunar man Astolfo’s explanation in act 1, scene 3 of the Lunar realm’s history of subjugation and the freer society that developed there once political power was passed to the women. Otherwise, however, the cuts make little difference to the drama.

This work was in the vanguard of late eighteenth-century opera reform, in which composers began to reject formal conventions in the service of a more flexible approach to music drama. Although Piccinni’s setting shows his predilection for the Italian style, with clear melody-accompaniment textures and balanced periodic phrasing, his progressive compositional proclivities are evident. The music of Il regno della Luna features flexible forms and structures that enhance the music’s continuity with the action; simple harmonic plans with limited modulations; and orchestral parts that do not detract from the ascendancy of the vocal parts, functioning primarily to reinforce emotions and clarify meanings. The variety of aria types is noteworthy, encompassing seria parody, catalog, aria di portamento, sentimental statement, cantabile, statement of nobility, parlante, and cavatina. Ensembles of various types represent nearly one half of the closed musical numbers—a reflection of opera buffa’s focus on social interactions. Piccinni’s use of the orchestra is particularly exemplified in the striking word painting in the accompagnato recitative “Misero voi” (no. 18). Here Stellante, a mathematician from Earth, describes constellations as threatening imagined personified beings—the Bear, Crab, Scorpion, Dog, etc. The orchestral phrases augment the meanings in the text, and there is a sense that the orchestra is the main bearer of the music. Cleverly stylized folk song is also a common characteristic of Piccinni’s music, as seen in the duet “Bella cosa è il poter dire” (no. 6), in which the Earth women Frasia and Lesbina acclaim their approval for Lunar social and sexual mores while noting the sorry state of the men. The melodic and harmonic simplicity, parallel thirds and sixths, and iambic rhythms are reminiscent of traditional Neapolitan folk song. Finally, the chorus plays an important role throughout the opera. Each act begins or ends with the chorus, which functions as an onstage audience to the dramatic action and almost as an additional character. A particularly striking example can be heard in the finale of act 2, where the chorus’s sepulchral denunciations of the Earth men’s treachery—“Ahi razza infida! Ahi teste, che fanno orror, pietà!”—act as a rondo theme, repeated five times. While opera reformists Jomelli and Gluck exploited the chorus similarly in opera seria, such exploitation is unusual in comic opera and is testament to Piccinni’s eclecticism and flexibility.

Piccinni aimed to portray natural human behavior, including the expression of emotions. Although the opera is described as a dramma giocoso—a genre usually characterized by distinct character types—Piccinni blurs the distinctions, creating more approachable and sympathetic personages. The Lunar queen Astolfina is the only clear parte seria. Yet one of her arias (no. 10, “Meglio rifletti al trono”) has a concluding envoi, a feature usually only found in parti buffe. In his supplication for the queen’s hand in marriage, the buffo bass Spaccone—a soldier from Earth—sings a section of orchestral secco recitative with a complex chromatic harmonic progression (no. 17), a style normally the preserve of seria characters. Elsewhere, Piccinni avoids stereotyping character types by incorporating elements inconsistent with typical music settings. Astolfo, for example, confronted with the apparent reluctance of the two Earth women to enter into a bigamous relationship with him, expresses his frustration in a parody of a lament aria (no. 12, “Ah se a ferirmi il cor”).

Written at a time when opera was the most widespread artistic forum for social and political issues, Il regno della Luna deals with the prominent talking points of its age perhaps more comprehensively than any other single piece of contemporaneous music drama. The views expressed in the libretto align strongly with those of Giuseppe Parini, an influential and prolific author in the Italian Enlightenment, and I have inferred that he either wrote it or had substantial input into it. Il regno della Luna is an extraordinary opera by a composer who deserves to be better known, and it stands as a testament to the most forward-looking musical and ideological ideas of its time. It is my hope that a full production based on the current edition may appear in the not-too-distant future.

Lawrence Mays (Ph.D. Australian National University, 2018) is currently an independent scholar in Canberra, Australia. Prior to his Ph.D. study, Dr. Mays was awarded a Bachelor of Music in voice performance (Australian National University, 2009) and a Master of Philosophy in Music (Australian National University, 2013). His research interests center on eighteenth century Italian comic opera. For his master’s degree, he performed in a production of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, and his thesis comprised a detailed comparison of dramatic construction in the recitatives of Pergolesi’s and Paisiello’s settings of this intermezzo. He has recently published a chapter on the historiographic aspects of Niccolò Piccinni’s Il regno della Luna in Performing History: Approaches to History across Musicology, ed. Nancy November (Brookline, Mass.: Academic Studies Press, 2020). Dr. Mays is now collaborating with the Italian musicologist Dr. Lucio Tufano on a critical edition of Piccinni’s 1792 opera buffa La serva onorata, a Neapolitan reworking of Da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro whose score demonstrates the evolution of Piccinni’s compositional style following his long sojourn in Paris. Dr. Mays studies classical mandolin with a teacher in southern Italy and is a chorus member of the National Opera Company based in Canberra (pandemic restrictions permitting). Prior to studying music, he practiced medicine for many years in various capacities, and he has published in the field of health services research.

[1] Pierpaolo Polzonetti, Italian Opera in the Age of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 96–100.

[2] Pietro Verri and Alessandro Verri, Carteggio di Pietro e di Alessandro Verri (dal 1766 al 1797), vol. 3, Agosto 1769–settembre 1770, ed. Francesco Novati and Emmanuele Greppi (Milan: Casa Editrice L. F. Cogliati, 1911), 261.