After more than 200 years in obscurity, the last unreadable pages of an opera by Italian composer Luigi Cherubini have been deciphered with the help of one of the most advanced X-ray machines on the planet.
Cherubini’s 1797 opera Médée was a moderate success in its day but the critics complained that it was too long. So in what appears to have been an act of testy defiance, the composer blacked out the closing lines to make the piece shorter. Ever since, opera companies have had to perform the piece in its incomplete form.
Scientists at the University of Manchester and the Stanford University Linear Accelerator Center used an intense X-ray to reveal the final pages of the aria "Du trouble affreux qui me d'evore" ("The terrible disorder that consumes me"), effectively peering under the thick smudges of carbon that are blacking out the closing lines.
“It was exciting to help retrieve the lost notes of the opera,” said Dr. Roy Wogelius, a geochemist from the University of Manchester in a statement. “We used the same X-ray technique for the manuscript as we do to acquire chemical details from fossil animals and reveal details we also had no idea we could ‘see’ until we started using synchrotron light.”
X-ray fluoroscopy involves shooting beams of X-rays at a target – a manuscript, a painter's canvas, fossils – and then collecting the fluorescent signals given off by the chemicals in the various pigments. The ink used to blot out the final pages produced its own light; the X-ray could map out that light and allow the scientists to see underneath it.
The technology was used in 2005 to reveal hidden text in an ancient manuscript by the Greek mathematician Archimedes.
Cherubini (1760-1842) was a highly influential composer, admired by contemporaries such as Beethoven as well as later composers, including Brahms. Medée, based on the Euripides tragedy, is respected for its keen psychological insights and skillful use of harmony and orchestration. The opera saw a revival when Maria Callas sang its difficult title role in 1952, and it appeared Pier Paolo Pasolini's film version of Euripides's tragedy in 1969.
Below: Watch the full opera from Théâtre de la Monnaie in Bruxelles (minus the discovered aria):