(1752-1837) was his second favourite composer, and he also spoke highly of Cimarosa (1749-1801) and, as we shall see, Valentino Fioravanti (1764-1837). This was a very coherent group of composers whose careers coincided for nearly two decades, and whose styles were rooted in Neapolitan tradition.
The youthful author of Clisson et Eugénie surely had no conception that he would be able to offer his patronage to Paisiello, yet such was the pace of events that in autumn 1801 he was able to invite the ageing composer to Paris on staggeringly generous terms—a salary of 12,000 francs a year, 12,000 francs in relocation expenses, a magnificently furnished apartment, and the use of one of Napoleon’s own carriages. (The average French worker had an annual income of about 400 francs.) Paisiello accepted, and arrived in Paris in April 1802 to become the First Consul’s private maître de chapelle. The cultural significance of the appointment was obvious, and it provoked much jealousy among French composers. But it was politically significant too, especially in the wake of Cimarosa’s death in January 1801. Both of these leading Neapolitan composers had lent their support to the revolutionary Parthenopian Republic founded in Naples in 1799, with French backing. The Republic survived only for a few months, and when Ferdinando IV returned to power there were severe reprisals. Cimarosa was imprisoned and exiled, and his tragically early death was widely blamed on his sufferings. Paisiello, more politic, got off much more lightly, merely being suspended from his duties for two years, but his story still resonated with Cimarosa’s, and both composers could be seen as victims of reactionary forces. Napoleon was doubtless delighted that the sort of composers Rousseau loved were associated with the revolutionary cause in this way. Paisiello stayed in Paris for two and a half years, before leaving with a generous pension. In that period, he met Napoleon on numerous occasions, the two men
Giovanni Paisiello, painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1791
regularly dining together tête-à-tête.
Is it possible to say more about what Napoleon looked for in an opera? I think there is, for Francesco Florimo records, on Paisiello’s own authority, something that Napoleon sometimes said: ‘Your music, dear Paisiello, is all admirable, but the Cantatrici Villane is your most beautiful opera.’ This was like Donizetti being praised for Norma, for Le cantatrici villane (‘The Rustic Singers’) was by Fioravanti. Paisiello, according to Florimo, responded ‘with a smile on his lips and rage in his heart, merely nodding his head’. This intriguing story admits of more than one reading. Florimo seems to take it for granted that Napoleon was simply misremembering, but Le cantatrici villane, premiered in the 1798-9 season (the exact date is disputed), was a recent opera, and the French
Opera, May 2021