[Picture: First page of the libretto of Sesostri re di Egitto]
Within the world of Baroque opera, there are far too many operas to be cognisant of them all, let alone a handful of them. Nevertheless, because I’m fascinated by unknown and lesser-known operatic works, Wikipedia is a wonderful venue for low-commitment research. Therefore, venture with me as we discover the opera “Sesostri re di Egitto” by Baroque composer Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677-1726).
Who Was Bononcini?
Born in Moderna, Italy, Antonio is the little-known brother of much more known Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), composer and cellist (among other things). He’s most widely known for his impressive catalogue of operatic compositions but particularly his opera “Xerxes” (1694). This was modeled of earlier Italian versions (Francesco Cavalli’s Il Xerses, 1655), and included the aria “Ombra Mai Fu,” although the opera would be later adapted and the aria transformed by G.F. Handel. But back to his brother!
Having been born to a musical family, his father Giovanni Maria Bononcini a violinist and composer by trade. In his youth, Antonio studied with Giovanni Paolo Colonna (1637-1695), Italian composer and organist, praised for his sacred music and stellar ability to navigate between classical sophistication and the baroque stylized sensibility. He started his musical career in the orchestra of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, although he’d begin to compose his first works in the late 17th century (around the 1690s). Interesting is that he would go onto write 12 cello sonatas, a historical event given the fact that only one other composer had written solo material for the instrument, the famed cellist Domenico Gabrielli having written quite a few works.
In 1700, he moved to Vienna with his brother and played at several venues before settling into service with Emperor Joseph I. He was even acquaintanced with George Telemann, a contemporary of J.S. Bach and criminally undervalued. In 1705, he became Kapellmeister (Chapel Choir Master) for Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, although returning to Italy in the early 1710s with his brother to become the maestro di cappella (Italian version) of Moderna. He lived a small bit in Rome but moved back in 1716 where he set up shop as a cellist and composer with the Molza Theater. It was during this time when he would write a good amount of his operatic works.
He’d go onto get married and have five children (four sons and one daughter), although none would continue the bloodline of musicians.
Now The Opera!
Premiered on February 2, 1716 at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, Bononcini’s opera tells the story of the fictious king of Egypt named Sesostris who is alleged to have explored Europe. Modern research notes that this mythical king is most likely Senusret III, a very real individual and the fifth Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. The libretto, in the old Italian language, was written by two individuals, Apostolo Zeno, a journalist turned poet, and Pietro Pariati, a well-known poet and librettist who created other works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (set by J. J. Fux in 1715)
The opera is in three acts and is modeled after the melodramma, in the 17th-century this term was synonymous with opera (it’s not the English over-the-top thing until the 19th-century). Featuring seven parts and a seven-instrument orchestra, the work could be considered a chamber work by today’s standards, although not a wise choice. Interesting still is its dedicated person, Prince Eugene of Savoy and Piedmont (a highly successful military commander of the Hapsburg Dynasty). He was known for his patronage of the musical and intellectual arts, aiding persons such as J. J. Rousseau and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
I hope you found this post interesting. Until next time!