Long lost Scarlatti opera found at UC Berkeley to be performed in June

by Kathleen Scalise

Berkeley -- Lost for centuries and finally discovered in UC Berkeley's music library, an opera by famed composer Alessandro Scarlatti will see its first performance in 300 years at the 1996 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition June 1.

John Roberts, a Handel scholar and head of the UC Berkeley music library since 1987, found the only complete score of Scarlatti's long lost "L'Aldimiro" on the shelves of his own collection.

"Scarlatti's name has a great cachet," said the delighted Roberts. "He was an extraordinary composer, though we rarely get to hear his operas. He's one of the great figures in the history of Italian music."

During an era dominated by Italian opera, Scarlatti turned Naples into a major center of opera composition beginning with the "L'Aldimiro" production in 1683, but many of his 60-odd operas survive only in fragments or are completely lost.

The 300-page "L'Aldimiro" manuscript Roberts discovered in 1989 is in excellent condition. Bound in parchment and copied in an elegant hand, it has no title page or other identification. So the library knew it only as an untitled anonymous work until Roberts chanced upon the thick volume while preparing for a music bibliography class.

"As soon as I saw it, I knew it was important," said Roberts. "It was clearly a contemporary copy of a late 17th century opera and there simply aren't that many of them in the world."

He took a shortcut identifying the manuscript. p>"I asked myself what would be the best thing this could possibly be and the answer was obviously an Alessandro Scarlatti opera," Roberts said with a laugh. "Then I looked through his list of operas and recognized the name of a character I had seen in the manuscript."

Fortunately, Roberts was able to confirm his guess quickly. Fragments from "L'Aldimiro" exist in library collections in England and UC Berkeley's music library had microfilm copies. When Roberts compared the copies against his find, the two scores matched.

Roberts points out two famous composers bear the Scarlatti name, Alessandro and his son, Domenico, known for harpsichord sonatas.

Alessandro Scarlatti was "the most famous and important Italian opera composer of the late Baroque period," said Roberts. Born in 1660, Alessandro Scarlatti died in 1725 after a long career principally in Naples and Rome.

"L'Aldimiro" was one of his early successes, known to have been performed in nine cities.

As for UC Berkeley's manuscript, "you can see it's been used quite a lot. The pages have been turned many times," said Roberts, pointing out smudges that darken the page corners.

Still "it's in excellent condition for its age," he said.

It is likely this particular score was used in a performance at Livorno in 1686, possibly sponsored by Prince Ferdinand de Medici, son of the ruler of Tuscany and one of the leading patrons of music in Italy, said Roberts.

The opera's storyline is a comedy of errors. "It's one of those stories having primarily to do with love in which there are a long string of misunderstandings. They liked these ingenuous constructions in which people were constantly getting it wrong," said Roberts.

The music is composed for seven characters, which include several sopranos but also an alto, a tenor and a bass, and calls for a four-part string orchestra.

"It has many catchy melodies," Roberts said. "The music is really very refined though not obviously complex. I think it's a wonderful piece and I've grown to admire it more and more as I've worked with it."

The library purchased the manuscript in 1959 from a Florentine family as part of a larger collection and "didn't pay much for it," said Roberts.

Most of the material in the collection belonged to a man named Bartolomea Nucci, a minor composer in the early 18th century. Two Vivaldi arias survive only in the collection, which also contains several other complete operas.

As to the manuscript's monetary value, Roberts was reluctant to speculate, preferring to consider it a remarkable opportunity for scholarship and performance.

"It's exciting to find the music, but what you really want is to have it performed," he said.

UC Berkeley Music Professor John Butt will direct "L'Aldimiro" with a cast of professional singers June 1 and June 3 at 7 p.m. in the Zellerbach Hall Playhouse. Tickets are available for $24 through Cal Performances, (510) 642-0212.

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