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Verdi knew the people of Naples were a superstitious lot. When his opera Alzira got a poor reception there in 1845, his friends in the city said the work must have been cursed. Four years later, Verdi returned to Naples with a new opera, Luisa Miller. This time he was hoping the musicians would concentrate on rehearsing without getting distracted by talk of curses and supernatural forces. As it turned out, that was too much to ask.
At his hotel, Verdi noticed a group of men standing guard at the door to his room. When he went to dinner, they followed him downstairs, staying as close behind as they could. He recognised them; they were supporters of his music and had been among the few Neapolitans to show any enthusiasm for alzira a few years before.
But why the attention now?
No matter where he went, he found the group hard on his heels: at the theatre, at restaurants, even in the park, the men refused to leave him alone.
When he learnt the reason, it came as no surprise. They were protecting him, they said, from supernatural forces. The failure of Alzira, it had been decided, was due to the influence of a jealous musician named Vincenzo Capecelatro. He was said to have the evil eye, and had cursed the opera simply by greeting the composer before the performance. Surveillance was necessary to ensure that Verdi and Capecelatro did not meet again, inflicting a similar curse on the new work.
Verdi was a rational man, and had little time for these superstitions. In fact, he and Capecelatro were old friends and got on well, at least when they had the chance to meet. But like it or not, it was clear he was going to be vigilantly guarded right up to the opening night.
The plan worked, or so it seemed. The performance began well and the audience was far more responsive than it had been for Alzira. The first two acts went without a hitch, and each was followed by rapturous applause.
Then disaster struck.
During the interval before the last act, Verdi was on the stage organising the singers, when a man rushed on and flung his arms around the composer. That instant, a large piece of the set came crashing down onto the stage, exactly where Verdi was standing. He noticed just in time, and managed to jump out of its way. Verdi turned to the man, who was still clinging to him. It was Capecelatro! Verdi’s friend had finally found an opportunity to greet the maestro, apparently bringing with him his famous bad luck.
The performance never recovered. The singers, still shaken by the incident, could not concentrate, and the audience went home grumbling that the finale did not live up to the potential of the earlier acts. Verdi wasn’t too worried; he put the problems down to first night nerves. But for his mortified Neapolitan friends there was no doubt about it – the evil eye had struck again.