Book review: 'Bel Canto Bully' by Philip Eisenbeiss

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 7:00pm

Bel Canto Bully: The Life of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja

by Philip Eisenbeiss

Haus Publishing

Hong Kong author and opera fanatic Philip Eisenbeiss' refreshing take on 18th-century Italian impresario Domenico Barbaja tells of how the wheeler-dealers 200 years ago, as they do now, played a crucial part in shaping music history.

Barbaja, born of a poor family near Milan, negotiated his way from being a lowly uneducated waiter to the most powerful (albeit still uneducated) impresario of his day, who wielded remarkable influence over the major opera centres then - Naples, Vienna, Milan, and arguably Paris - through tussling with the great Gioachino Rossini for leading vocalists and beyond.

Barbaja's business acumen was evident from the very start when he invented a frothy mocha coffee and marketed it to devastating effect while working in a small café outside the Teatro alla Scala.

He was then lured into the opera world by potential gambling revenues - gambling, not stage happenings, was apparently the major attraction of operas at that time. Barbaja never looked back.

A rogue with a quick mind, he made his name at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, where he bargained hard with various monarchs, built a grand palazzo for himself, amassed a huge collection of artwork, and created superstars that included Rossini's erstwhile wife, Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, with whom Barbaja had an affair.

During his rule of the Neapolitan opera world, he also commissioned scores of operas by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and various names that have now been forgotten - though none of them were masterpieces. He expanded his empire to Vienna, and then Milan, but as with all cunning operators, was quick to terminate any unprofitable business, was ruthless in his dealings with anyone who crossed his path and, eventually, lost the trust and respect of virtually all his protégés and business partners as a result.

Any romantic notion that the music world two centuries ago was less subject to commercial interests than the present day is quickly dispelled by the tale of Barbaja, which is well couched in a detailed description of its historical context: the book tells also of the rise and fall of Naples as a metropolis.

Occasional overreliance on quotes by French writer Stendhal notwithstanding, the book is a delightful read, and it should appeal to opera lovers as well as anybody who has an interest in 18th-century entrepreneurship.