TORVALDO E DORLISKA
Dramma semiserio in 2 acts
Libretto: Cesare Sterbini, after Francesco Gonella’s Lodoïska
First performed: Teatro Valle, Rome, 26 December 1815
Reception: Fiasco – but remained in the repertoire until the 1830s, and was performed throughout Europe.
For the dossier, see here.
One doesn’t think of Rossini as a Socialist, calling for the workers to rise and overthrow the aristos. He was a wit and bon viveur, who wryly accepted human nature and the world as it was, and enjoyed life’s pleasures: eating, drinking, making love, singing, and sleeping. Not for him Verdi’s political operas calling for liberty and the Italian nation, or Wagner manning the barricades in the company of the anarchist Bakunin.
Torvaldo e Dorliska, though, is almost Marxist. It pits the heroism of the workers against the tyranny of a corrupt and decadent aristocracy. Workers of the world, one might almost imagine the steward Giorgio saying, you have nothing to lose but your chains – and there are plenty of chains in the Duke of Ordow’s castle.
The Duke may well be the nastiest character in any of Rossini’s operas; only Gessler, the Austrian governor in Guillaume Tell, is as rank a villain. The Duke is a tyrant – but he is also, in the Pesaro production, psychotic. He tries to throttle Dorliska, and beats her. Michele Pertusi’s performance is menacing.
By the end of the first act, the Duke has imprisoned both Dorliska and her husband Torvaldo. Torvaldo might have entered the Duke’s castle in disguise, determined to rescue his wife, but it’s Giorgio who saves the day. He decides to work against his master; he persuades the other servants to help him get rid of the Duke; and he and his sister, the housekeeper Carlotta, release the prisoners from their cells. The aristocracy are tyrannical or inept; salvation comes from below, from the ordinary, decent man.
Rossini was working in a popular genre: the rescue opera, which came out of the French Revolution, and told tales of captivity, sudden rescue from death, villains thwarted, and couples reunited. The most famous example, of course, is Beethoven’s Fidelio, which turned the genre into a sublime hymn to the brotherhood of man.
Rossini’s opera isn’t on the same level as Beethoven’s, or up to the heights of his own mature masterpieces composed between 1815 and 1822. The music is often too agreeable for the situation; pleasant but not memorable; or was recycled for other operas (including La Cenerentola), and works better there. There is a fine trio, though:
The opera is theatrically effective, particularly in the Pesaro production. The final scenes are exciting: swords wave, the angry villagers break in, and the snarling Duke receives his comeuppance.
Director Mario Martone seizes on the possibilities of a small theater. The singers move among the audience; they walk down aisles, sing from lodges, or duel on a walkway between the orchestra and the audience. The imaginative sets boast moving stairs, a cage that rises out of the floor, and a terrific forest.
This may be only a minor work, but the production is excellent. Get hold of it as soon as you can, and bask in Rossini.
DVD (and CD) of the 2006 performance at the Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, conducted by Victor Pablo Pérez and starring Darina Takova, Francesco Meli, Michele Pertusi, Bruno Praticò, and Jeannette Fischer.
From Naxos: the 2003 Bad Wildbad performance conducted by Alessandro De Marchi and starring Paola Cigna, Huw Rhys-Evans, Michele Bianchini, Mario Utzeri, and Annarita Gemmabella.