Melodramma in 3 acts
Composer: Saverio Mercadante
Libretto: Gaetano Rossi, after Victor Hugo’s Angélo, tyran de Padoue
First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 11 March 1837
For lovers of Italian opera, Mercadante is the great neglected composer. His reform operas are the missing link between bel canto and Verdi, and, for half a decade, made him Italy’s maestro-in-chief. Rossini had gone to Paris and retired; Bellini had gone to Paris and died; and Donizetti had gone to Paris, Vienna, then mad. And Verdi still had to appear on the scene.
These days, Mercadante is rarely performed, bar the occasional festival performance at Martina Franca or Wexford.
Il giuramento, Mercadante’s 41st opera, was his first international hit. Based on a play by Victor Hugo, also the source for Ponchielli’s Gioconda, its busy plot involves a jealous nobleman who locks his mistress in a crypt, and a heroine who goads the man she loves into killing her.
It abounds in the “strong passions, but not violent ones, coups de scène, variety of genre, of forms, opportunities for gentle and robust vocal pieces, orchestral colors, original, grandiose choruses, large concertati pieces” that inspired the composer. (Letter to Cammarano, 1839)
The opera takes place in Syracuse, Sicily, in the 14th century.
Manfredo, Count of Taormina, is going to marry Bianca, but she loves Viscardo. The Count also loves Elaisa, a wealthy woman from northern Italy, but she, too, loves Viscardo. Viscardo doesn’t love her; he loves Bianca. So Elaisa hates Bianca , and wants to kill her – but Bianca pleaded for Elaisa’s father’s life when Bianca’s father was going to kill him, so Elaisa swore a vow of gratitude to Bianca. Oh, and Brunoro, Manfredo’s secretary, also used to love Bianca, but now hates her. (He’s only in the first act, though.) Got all that?
Elaisa is holding a party in her palace gardens. Viscardo arrives, searching for Bianca, and sings a rather nice love song:
Manfredo tries to make love to Elaisa; she recognizes Viscardo; and all three sing of the torment of being near their loved one. Brunoro, meanwhile, plans his revenge.
Brunoro has his chance; he helps Viscardo arrange a meeting with Bianca, scheming all the while to betray the pair to Manfredo. Bianca remembers her lost lover Viscardo:
Viscardo re-enters her life – followed by Elaisa, who wants revenge. But Bianca recognizes Elaisa from her childhood. The oath of the title, and her love for Viscardo, compel Elaisa to lie to Manfredo to save her enemy. Brunoro, meanwhile, has stirred up the people of Agrigentum to attack Taormina. Manfredo leads his army against the traitor.
The Syracusans have defeated Agrigentum, and Brunoro is dead. Viscardo has written a love letter to Bianca:
He learns, however, that Bianca is dead. Manfredo has intercepted the love letter, and locked Bianca in his family tomb.
Elaisa goes to the tomb to save Bianca. Manfredo has given her poison to kill her rival, but she will give Bianca a powerful narcotic instead. The two rivals commiserate over their mutual love for Viscardo.
Bianca swallows the drug in Manfredo’s presence; she collapses, apparently dead, and Manfredo rushes off with ferocious joy.
Elaisa has brought Bianca to her own palace to recover; she will reunite the two lovers, but longs for death.
When Viscardo arrives, she goads him into killing her; she tells him that she poisoned Bianca. Viscardo, infuriated, stabs her to death. At this point, Bianca awakes, and Elaisa reveals that she saved her for Viscardo. She dies in the arms of the man she loved, and who killed her.
The plot is conventional bel canto fare: a complicated romantic quadrangle, jealousy, love, hatred, revenge, and multiple murder. But it doesn’t sound conventional.
A thoughtful response to the French grand opéras of Meyerbeer and Halévy, with their extended scenes, rich harmonies and orchestration, and propulsive dramatic movement, Il giuramento was the first of Mercadante’s “reform operas”, which introduced a new musical language to Italy.
“I have continued the revolution begun with Il Giuramento,” he wrote to his friend Florimo while composing Elena da Feltre. “I have varied the forms, abolished trivial cabalettas, exiled the crescendos; concision, less repetition, some novelty in the cadences; due regard paid to the dramatic side; the orchestration richer, without swamping the voices; long solos in the concerted numbers avoided, as they obliged the other parts to stand coldly by, to the harm of the dramatic action; not much big drum, and very little brass band.”
Contemporary critics recognized Mercadante’s importance. Il lucifero praised Il giuramento’s “perfect blend of French declamation, German harmony, and Italian melody”  – the same qualities for which Meyerbeer’s operas were praised, and which would earn Mercadante the nickname “the Italian Meyerbeer”.
 Quoted in Stefan Zucker, “Saverio Mercadante”, Bel Canto Society
The German critics, rarely enthusiasts for Italian opera, also admired Mercadante’s science. Liszt considered “the latest works of Mercadante … without question the most carefully thought out of the contemporary repertory”.
“Mercadante is a noble exception among his colleagues,” the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (Leipzig) wrote. “Quite apart from the fact that he invests his scores with visible care and is at pains to achieve his finest effects in the instrumental accompaniment, he is also commendably concerned to achieve a certain degree of aesthetically dramatic truth, at least at those moments where unavoidable necessity does not compel him to worship at the shrine of fashion.”
Quoted in Michael Wittmann, “Meyerbeer and Mercadante? The Reception of Meyerbeer in Italy”, Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 5, No. 2 (July 1993)
Verdi himself would build on that language, and many musicologists, in Michael Wittmann’s words, see Mercadante as “the ‘missing link’ between Bellini and Verdi”. Pierre Scudo, Marco Marcelliano Marcello, and Amintore Galli all believed Mercadante’s innovative orchestration, retreat from the bel canto style, and concern for dramatic truth and expression over purely musical values, influenced Verdi’s.
Il giuramento‘s tremendous success at once established Mercadante’s leading position – at least until Verdi’s Nabucco in 1842. Verdi has completely overshadowed Mercadante; while the younger composer would go further, there should be room on the opera stage for both great musicians.
- Patricia Wells (Elaisa), Beverly Wolff (Bianca), Michele Molese (Viscardo), G.B. Colmagro (Manfredo), conducted by Thomas Schippers. Spoleto, 1970. CD: Memories 4174.
- Mara Zampieri (Elaisa), Plácido Domingo (Viscardo), Agnes Baltsa (Bianca), and Robert Kerns (Manfredo), with the Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orchestra, conducted by Gerd Albrecht. Vienna, 1979. CD: Orfeo d’Or. Easily the best cast, the clearest sound, but it’s heavily abridged.
- Jolanta Omilian (Elaisa), Carmen Gonzales (Bianca), Piero Visconti (Viscardo), and Luigi de Corato (Manfredo), conducted by Bruno Campanella. Martina Franco, 1984. CD: Fonit Cetra FBN 82.
- Giovanna De Liso (Elaisa), Giuseppe Morino (Viscardo), Martine Olmeda (Bianca), Marc Barrard (Manfredo), Elizabeth Procuronoff (Isaura), and Pascal Aubert (Brunoro), with the Orchestre Philharmonique des Pays de la Loire and Chœurs de l’Opéra de Nantes, conducted by Giuliano Carella. Nantes, 1993. CD: Nuova Era 7179/80. Tom Kaufman (through whose excellent site I discovered Mercadante) thought this was the go-to recording; it’s the most complete, but I’m not keen on Morino, and the sound is less forward than the Albrecht.
- Maria Vitale (Elaisa), Miriam Pirazzini (Bianca), Amedeo Berdini (Viscardo), Rolando Panerai (Manfredo), Aldo Bertocci (Brunero), and Liliana Pellegrino (Isaura), with the Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI di Milano, conducted by Alfredo Simonetto. Milan, 1952.
- Annabelle Bernard (Elaisa), Agnes Baltsa (Bianca), José Carreras (Viscardo), and Robert Kerns (Manfredo), conducted by Gerd Albrecht. Berlin, 1974.
Try to watch:
An amateur recording of a 2002 Wexford production.