By Virgilio Bernardoni
Luigi Illica was still taking his first steps as a librettist when he came out on top in a selection process organized by Genoa City Council and began work on an ambitious project for the Teatro Carlo Felice in late 1889. The idea was to create an opera about the exploits of Christopher Columbus – who was born in the city – so that the 400th anniversary of his bold voyage of “discovery” could be celebrated in 1892. At the time Illica was just over 30 years old. He was a writer with an exuberant personality who mainly worked in the world of theatre. He knew Arrigo Boito and was an established member of the second wave of the Scapigliatura movement in Milan (his first play was a costume piece called I Narbonnier-Latour that he wrote with Ferdinando Fontana). He first ventured into libretto writing for operas in 1889, when he worked with Francesco Pozza onIl Vassallo di Szigeth for Antonio Smareglia. Next came the first libretto that he wrote all by himself: La Wally, for Alfredo Catalani. Working with the latter earned him a place in the Casa Ricordi stable and this would soon lead to the big turning point in his career as a librettist. Along with Giuseppe Giacosa, he was asked to complete and add the finishing touches to the libretto for Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which had gone through a drawn-out, complicated writing process.
By 1889 Alberto Franchetti had already been chosen as the composer of the Genoese opera celebrating the epic deeds of the great navigator and he was already familiar with Illica. Proof of this was provided by the first letters sent to the librettist by both Franchetti and his father Raimondo. In addition, one would suppose that they knew each other due to the literary and musical circles in which Illica moved. One of his acquaintances from this sphere was Ferdinando Fontana, who wrote the libretto of Franchetti’s first opera, Asrael. All the same, the two young writers of Cristoforo Colombo did not always get on and see eye to eye. Illica only agreed to the libretto being published under his name from the second version (the one with three acts) onwards and Franchetti chose to work with other people on his subsequent operas (including Fontana once again). Illica played a part in the negotiations between Franchetti and Puccini over the right to set La Tosca by Victorien Sardou to music, but even his involvement on that front did not pave the way to new joint projects between the two of them. They did not team up again until eight years after their first opera, when they worked on Germania. By that time Illica was the top Italian librettist around. The results were discussed at length and the opera was not staged until 1902. In the end, they definitively demonstrated that Illica and Franchetti’s dramaturgical outlooks were incompatible and they were not well suited to working together.