Tragedia lirica in 3 acts
Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano, after Luigi Marchionni’s adaptation of Eduard von Schenk’s play, Belisarius (1820)
First performed: Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 4 February 1836
Belisarius (c. 505-65 A.D.) commanded the Byzantine emperor Justinian (r. 527-65)’s armies. Justinian’s reign is remembered as a high point in Byzantine history, and the legal systems of many countries to-day are based on Justinian’s Code of Law.
Belisarius reconquered much of the Roman Empire’s Mediterranean territories, controlled by barbarians since the fall of the West in 476. Nevertheless, he fell from favor, and was tried for corruption – partly due, the historian Procopius believed, to the enmity of Justinian, and his abominable wife Theodora, an ex-harlot.
Procopius depicted Belisarius himself as a weak man, in thrall to his wife Antonina, a corrupt woman who subdued him with her magic arts, while she slept with his adopted son.
Belisarius is the subject of a rather dry 1938 novel by Robert Graves.
Donizetti’s opera uses a legend that Belisarius was exiled and blinded by Justinian, and ended his life as a beggar.
Act I: Triumph
Belisarius returns in triumph to Byzantium, having subdued the Goths – but he doesn’t get the warm welcome he expected. His wife Antonina has learnt from a slave that Belisarius killed their son Alessi. She plots with Eutropius, commander of the palace guard, to frame Belisarius for treason against Justinian. Before the emperor and senate, she also accuses her husband of filicide. Belisarius explains that he dreamt his son would destroy the empire, and ordered a slave to abandon him on a beach. He is led away to prison.
Act II: Exile
Belisario has been exiled and blinded. Alamiro, a captured prisoner freed by Belisario, vows in revenge to capture Byzantium.
Belisarius’s daughter Irene follows her father into exile; she will look after him.
Act III: Death
Belisario and Irene, wandering in the Balkan mountains, come across Alamiro’s army. Alamiro learns that he is really Belisario’s son Alessi – the one presumed dead – and his men release him from his oath to attack Byzantium. Belisarius defeats the barbarians, but is hit by a dart, and is carried dying to Justinian’s tent. Antonina confesses that her accusation was false, and collapses on her husband’s corpse, accursed by all.
“Belisario,” Donizetti wrote, “is less studied, but I know that in the theatre it made an effect and it could not deceive a public without having some merit. Anyway, for myself I place it as a work below Lucia.”
He’s right, but Belisario is a tuneful and entertaining work, with several strong scenes.
Parts of the score are, as critics say, conventional – Irene’s aria in Act I, for instance – but the best parts are certainly vintage Donizetti. The Act I finale has a good sextet, comparable to the famous one in Lucia, and an exciting stretta.
Act II is, as both William Ashbrook (Donizetti and his Operas) and Jeremy Commons (Opera Rara, 2013) argue, one of Donizetti’s best inspirations. Alamiro has a powerful two section aria: “Ah si tremendo annunzio”, a haunting larghetto where he learns of Belisarius’s treatment, and “Trema, Bisanzio!”, a rousing cabaletta. It’s one of those tunes that, once heard, lodges in the brain; I’ve been humming it for the last week. Intense situations always kindled Donizetti’s imagination; here, a daughter caring for her blinded father is the basis for a tender duet that recalls Verdi’s father/daughter scenes.
Act III has a couple of good trios, and the obligatory aria finale for the prima donna – who has been offstage since the end of Act I.
The story, though, lacks intimacy; certainly when compared to two of Cammarano’s other libretti for Donizetti, Lucia and Maria di Rohan. It’s not the fault of the Classical setting; Cammarano’s Roman libretti for Mercadante are powerful. The action here seems to take place at a distance, and it sometimes feels like we’re watching representations of the situation, rather than the drama itself. While Act II is powerful, Act III is weaker; the deaths of Belisario and Antonina don’t make much emotional effect.
Several of the characters are types – Irene and Alamiro, in particular. Belisarius himself is largely seen from the outside; unusually, he gets no aria of his own, except for the impressive passage in Act I where he recounts his dream.
A more interesting story could have been told about Belisario’s relations with his wife and his adopted son, although this may have drawn comparisons to Fausta (1827), another Byzantine opera where a stepmother falls in love with her stepson.
Cammarano’s libretto also echoes Greek tragedy: the general returning from the war to meet a wife who wants vengeance for a dead child (Agamemnon and Clytemnestra); the blind old man, cared for by his daughter (Oedipus and Antigone); the recognition of the lost son by a trinket (Orestes).
Opera Rara, 2013. With Nicola Alaimo (Belisario), Joyce El-Khoury, Camilla Roberts, Russell Thomas, and Alastair Miles, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers conducted by Sir Mark Elder.
A stylish, blessedly straightforward production from Argentina, but not all the singers can pull it off.