Erin Bryan seeks to re-awaken interest in long-neglected soprano arias

Assistant Professor of Music and soprano Erin Bryan is researching and bringing back to the stage many of the late operas of Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774), an Italian composer of the Neapolitan School.

While many of the composer’s instrumental pieces are performed today, many of his final works for voice “remain largely overlooked, unedited and unaddressed,” Bryan says. “Of the nine operas penned during his final years in Naples, only a handful exist in modern editions. …

“For Jommelli’s contributions to be better understood and appreciated, thorough and intentional study should be done of his manuscripts and the circumstances surrounding these compositions. In particular, the late soprano opera arias of Niccolò Jommelli merit presence in current Western musical dialogue, as the composer’s advances with form and texture demonstrate a rich and revolutionary palette of text expression.”

Jommelli’s operas were praised by the like of W.A. Mozart, Bryan says. “In a letter to his sister dated 29 May, 1770, W.A. Mozart wrote, ‘The day before yesterday, we attended a rehearsal of the opera by Signor Jommelli, which has been well composed and which I truly like,’” Bryan says.”To have one’s artistry praised is a joy; to be praised by Mozart, arguably an immortal honor.

“Then again, perhaps such honor can never be truly immortal. One week after his May letter, Mozart would modify his judgment of Jommelli’s Armida abbandonata to refer to it as ‘beautiful, but too intellectual and too antique for the theatre.’

“Charles Burney, writing as not only a music historian but also as a contemporary of Jommelli, posited that the Neapolitan composer’s artistic output could be organized into three distinct stylistic periods: his first years in Italy, a more musically robust period in Stuttgart, and the final years in Naples, where some argue that the composer’s style appeared flawed due to the German influence.”

She says these final Neapolitan operas do not commonly find a place in Western musical conversation. “While an easy conclusion would be that this music is simply neither beautiful nor remarkable enough to warrant editing, another possibility is that initial negative reviews, geographic preferences, and a myriad of musicological circumstances have rendered these works nearly obsolete for over two centuries.”

Focusing on Jommelli’s late treatment of the soprano voice in a variety of musical and dramatic contexts, she hopes to demonstrate that it is not a lack of talent that has obscured Jommelli’s works for voice. She has produced modern editions of four arias that will allow sopranos to branch out from the safe familiarity of the 18th-century operas already in the vocal canon, provide new repertoire for Ripon College voice students, and shed light on this often-overlooked composer.


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