Cimarosa: Secret Marriage Overture

Domenico Cimarosa was born of poor working parents in the town of Aversa which stands a little north of Naples. Showing early musical abilities, he was admitted to the Naples Conservatory and was to remain there 10 years. Like Vivaldi in Venice some 70 years earlier, he gained early employment as music master at a local Girls’ Conservatory, a post he held for 5 years.

His first opera, Le Stravanganza del Conte, was produced in Naples in 1772. For the next 15 years he commuted between Naples and Rome, producing seven or eight operas.

Cimarosa’s growing reputation as an opera composer resulted in an invitation from Catherine the Great of Russia to the post of Maestro di Cappella in St. Petersburg. He left that city in 1791 for Vienna. While in Vienna he displaced Antonio Salieri as Kappelmeister for two years before returning to Naples. Back in Naples, he held the post of organist to the Chapel Royal until 1799.

Now caught up in revolutionary fervour following the Bourbon French army’s occupation of Naples, he found himself in prison for his part in writing a revolutionary hymn. Upon his release, and somewhat disillusioned, he made tracks for St. Petersburg, only to die in Venice en route.

The Secret Marriage was first performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1792 (two months after Mozart’s death) in the presence of Leopold II, for whom Mozart had written La Clemenza di Tito just a few months earlier. Cimarosa’s new work so impressed the Emperor that he invited all the participants back to his Palace, where the opera was repeated.

The opera is to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati after George Colman the elder’s play of 1766, “The Clandestine Marriage”, written in collaboration with David Garrick.

Set in Bologna in the 18th century, the opera revolves around the attempts of the rather old, rather deaf dithering father, Geronimo, to marry off his elder daughter Elisetta to the richest suitor available, only to find that she is already married to the man she loves. Not to be thwarted, the suitor transfers his attentions to the younger daughter, Carolina, and it would appear that love overrides financial gain, and all live happily ever after.

Cimarosa wrote some 60 opera “buffa”, of which The Secret Marriage is perhaps the most substantial in terms of dramatic content. It also has a most attractive score. Productions of the opera keep popping up from time to time. During the 1965 and 1967 seasons, Glyndebourne gave 20 performances.

In listening to the music of Cimarosa, one hears a style which shows the influence of Mozart, while anticipating Rossini by some 20 years.

The overture opens with three purposeful chords. However, any implied high drama is soon dispelled as the music becomes jocular, with scurrying string passages, fanfares, and for good measure rhythmic passages from the timpani.