Tragedia lirica in 3 acts
Libretto : Giovanni Emanuele Bidera, after Casimir Delavigne’s Marino Faliero
Donizetti’s 45th opera.
First performed : Théâtre Italien, Paris, 12 March 1835, a couple of months after Bellini’s Puritani premiered at the same theatre. Rossini had commissioned both composers to write operas for Paris. Both were hits, but only Puritani has survived.
- MARINO FALIERO, Doge of Venice (bass)
- ELENA, his wife (soprano)
- FERNANDO, his nephew (tenor)
- ISRAELE BERTUCCI, Chief of the Arsenal (baritone)
- STENO, young Patrician, one of the Forty (baritone)
- LIONI, Patrician, one of the Ten (tenor)
- IRENE, Elena’s maid (soprano)
- VINCENZO, the Doge’s servant (tenor)
Synopsis, based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
The young patrician Michele Steno publicly accuses Elena, the wife of doge Marino Faliero, of adultery; she rejected his advances. He isn’t wrong, though, because Elena loves the doge’s nephew, Fernando. The Council of Forty punish Steno so lightly that Marino conspires with Israele Bertucci, chief of the plebeians, whom Steno also insulted. During a masked ball, Fernando defends Elena against Steno, and goads him into a duel that costs him his life. When Faliero tells Elena of Fernando’s death, the conspiracy is betrayed. Faliero is arrested and condemned to die. He forgives his wife, who watches the execution through a window and then collapses lifeless.
We know how Italian serious opera is supposed to work. There’s a soprano and a tenor couple, and a wicked bass or baritone who threatens their love. At the end, the tenor and soprano both die.
Marino Faliero doesn’t play that way. The tenor dies in the middle act, in which the soprano doesn’t appear at all. And our sympathies are with the bass, the husband cuckolded by his wife and his nephew.
That cuckolded husband is Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice.
The historical Faliero was an old man when he became Doge: 80 when he was elected by the aristocratic councils of the Ten and the Forty (September 1354), and 81 when he was executed six months later for conspiring against those same aristocrats (April 1355). Tradition has it that his second wife Aluica Gradenigo’s affair with Michele Steno was his motivation for the conspiracy.
In Donizetti’s opera, Steno tries to seduce Faliero’s wife – here named Elena – but fails. The Doge’s enemies scrawl obscene graffiti on the walls of the Rialto, libeling his wife. Faliero’s nephew Fernando, who loves Elena, kills Steno, but dies in the effort. Throughout the opera, the Doge acts for personal reasons. As he tells the conspirators:
E il doge ov’è?
Questa larva è già sparita,
sol Falier vedete in me.
(And where is the Doge ?
That phantom is already gone,
you see in me only Faliero.)
Politics and personal matters intertwine, as they do in Verdi’s two later operas about Venetian and Genoese Doges, I due Foscari (1844) and Simon Boccanegra (1857). Verdi’s operas may be better, but Donizetti’s work is dramatically effective, and surely an inspiration for his great successor.
Consider Act II, a taut, tense half hour that shows Donizetti’s mastery of atmosphere.
It takes place on the Piazza di S. Giovanni e Paolo, by night. The conspirators pass by in a gondola, singing a melancholy chorus. Offstage, a voice sings a barcarolle. Fernando enters, determined to avenge the insult to his uncle and aunt. A clock strikes three. The Doge arrives, masked, to meet the conspirators. They threaten to kill him when they discover his identity, but he quells them. The conspirators draw their swords and swear an oath. Thunder and lightning. They hear a cry; it is Fernando, mortally wounded – but he has killed Steno. As the curtain falls, the Doge vows revenge. This is strong theatre.
I’d recommend the 1977 RAI recording, starring Cesare Siepi, Marisa Galvany and Giuliano Ciannella.
There’s also a Naxos recording, recorded at Bergamo in 2008. The orchestral detail is better, but I’m not so keen on the singing. The problem is the role of Fernando, composed for Giovanni Battista Rubini, an extraordinary tenor who created roles for both Bellini and Donizetti. Ciannella doesn’t attempt some of the notes; Ivan Magri does, but not always happily. It really calls for a Juan Diego Flórez.