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Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 11 Giuseppe E Bonavia

Last week’s blog Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gave us an insight into the life and works of composer Giuseppe Malfiggiani. In todays’ blog we shall take a look at the composer Giuseppe E Bonavia.

The composers I have discussed so far were all professional musicians. Today’s blog, however, is about a composer, Giuseppe E Bonavia, who was an amateur, a dilettante, but the performed opera he wrote enjoyed one of the greatest successes in the history of locally produced Maltese operas.

Bonavia, a colourful and complex public figure, was born in Valletta in 1831 into a prosperous middle-class family. He was a man of many talents and, besides Maltese, was fluent in English, Italian, French, German, Arabic, Hindi and Russian. He studied music for many years with Giuseppe Burlon. It must have been the death of his Maltese teacher in 1856 that unsettled Bonavia and made him give up his music studies. Now 24 years old, he decided instead to embark on a series of travels to perfect the languages he was learning. He finally settled, around 1866, in Cairo, capital of Egypt, a land that was then receiving a good number of Maltese migrants. Probably due to the languages he knew, Bonavia was appointed interpreter to Khedive Isma'il Pasha (Ismail the Magnificent) and helped to bring to a safe conclusion a number of delicate diplomatic assignments. As a lasting symbol of drama and music in the centre of Cairo, Isma'il Pasha was also instrumental in building the magnificent Khedivial (Royal) Opera House which opened on 1 November 1869.

In Cairo, Bonavia also founded, in 1870, The Egyptian Messenger, which became Egypt’s leading English journal. Under his sound management, it flourished so much that it rendered Bonavia not only one of the most influential persons in Egypt but also made for him, in a few years, a very handsome fortune.

Bonavia’s sojourn in Cairo must have influenced him profoundly in two directions – a growing awareness of the importance of political power, and a renewed love of opera first nurtured in Malta’s Teatru Manoel and rekindled in Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House. He was now wealthy enough to be able to concentrate on his burgeoning interests.

From Cairo, Bonavia went to Milan to study in the Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Verdi where his teachers included Alberto Mazzucato (1813-1877) and Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897), then to Berlin to continue them privately with Martin Röder (1851-1895), German composer, conductor and teacher of singing. Amazingly, he must have been in his middle/late forties when he undertook these studies. Would his age, in relation to ‘normal’ students, acted as a constraint to his aspirations? Given his clearly extrovert character and, additionally, his knowledge of languages, this was unlikely.

His permanent return to Malta must have been around 1880 when, in the intensifying political movement for effective Maltese representation in local government, he started taking an active part in politics as a member of Sigismondo Savona’s Reform Party. In the 1888 Council of Government Representatives Election, Bonavia was not successful, obtaining only 52 votes. However, in 1892, he was elected as representative for the third district (Floriana, Hamrun, Pietà, Msida) with 174 votes, and in 1895 for the fifth district (Vittoriosa, Senglea) with 448 votes.

Meanwhile he also started composing. Pietro Paolo Castagna in his L-Istorja ta’ Malta bil-Gżejjer Tagħha lists his works: two operas - Ginevra di Monreale and Rosamunda; a grand symphony executed in London’s Crystal Palace; several funeral and two triumphal marches; a number of waltzes, galops, mazurkas, songs and arias; other sacred and profane works.

Ginevra di Monreale, a lyric drama in 4 acts to a libretto by Enrico Golisciani, was presented as an additional production to the Teatru Rjal’s 1889-90 planned schedule, and was given three times towards the end of April 1890 to overflowing houses. The distinguished cast was headed by three greatly talented singers, soprano Inez Biliotti, tenor Giuseppe Clara and baritone Antonio Scotti and its artistic success were pronounced. Newspapers termed it a masterpiece and the greatest triumph ever achieved upon the stage of the Teatru Rjal.

The opera was also given at Milan’s Teatro Alessandro Manzoni in September 1892. However, there, it did not achieve the favourable result that was justly expected.

Bonavia composed another opera Rosamunda to a libretto by Ruggero Serge. The Teatru Rjal had planned to present it in May as part of the 1891-92 season’s programme. Despite the libretto being printed and put on sale, the opera was never produced, and no reason ever given. However it is known that certain rehearsals were held in Bonavia’s house with diverse people present.

Bonavia died in 1897, aged 66, in his summer house in Marsascala. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to locate the score of any of Bonavia’s compositions, including his two operas, and it must be assumed that his manuscripts fell victim to the havocs of time, exacerbated by the Maltese nation’s neglect of its musical heritage.

In next week’s blog Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin will give us the first of 2 blogs dedicated to a whole dynasty of composers – The Nani Dynasti.