Opera seria in a prologue and two acts
Libretto: Giacomo Saccherò
First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 12 January 1844
Great minds think alike; my friend Phil posted about this opera on his blog this morning.
“I am waiting with anxiety the news of the fiasco of Caterina Cornaro at Naples,” Donizetti wrote to his brother-in-law.
And the composer’s fears were justified. The audience hated it; the critics panned it; and it was taken off after five performances. The last opera premiered in his lifetime was a disaster.
Donizetti originally intended the work for Vienna in 1843, but pulled it when he learnt that Franz Lachner’s Catharina Cornaro had been a hit there in 1841.
Unable to supervise the rehearsals, Donizetti entrusted the Naples production to Mercadante. Despite his fellow composer’s best efforts, the work was miscast. The opera house’s company had a mezzo instead of a soprano, while the baritone and tenor, Donizetti feared, didn’t understand their roles. Censors, too, made the libretto hard to follow.
The Neapolitans thought it sounded too much like other Donizetti operas, that he had palmed off an inferior work, or even that it might not be his music at all.
Donizetti revised the work for Parma in February 1845, where it did better. It then vanished until 1972, when Leyla Gencer sang the title role in Naples, and Montserrat Caballé in New York and Paris.
Contemporary critics have not been enthusiastic.
William Ashbrook (author of the definitive Donizetti and his Operas, 1982) thought the opera showed “Donizetti’s striving to invoke greater brevity, incisiveness and vigor in his score in response to the dynamic Zeitgeist of the 1840s”. Nevertheless, “in spite of some very striking passages, Caterina Cornaro cannot be counted an unmitigated success”. Much of the music was rote, and the musician was “only fitfully interested” in the characters.
Charles Osborne (The Bel Canto Operas, 1994) calls many of the numbers “conventional”, “disappointingly mundane”, “nondescript”, “not very individual”, and “dull”.
Jeremy Commons, editor of the score for Opera Rara, believes, however, that the opera is musically valid and dramatically effective. “Masterpiece, perhaps no; but an opera which, each new hearing, gains an increasingly firm footing in our hearts, undoubtedly yes.”
- CATERINA CORNARO (soprano)
- ANDREA CORNARO, her father (bass)
- GERARDO, a young Frenchman (in the prologue betrothed to Catarina) (tenor)
- LUSIGNANO, King of Cyprus (baritone)
- MOCENIGO, a counsellor of the Duke in Venice and Venetian ambassador in Cyprus (bass)
- STROZZI, a leader of mercenary cut-throats (tenor)
- A KNIGHT OF THE KING (tenor)
- MATILDE, Catarina’s confidante (mezzo-soprano)
- Knights, Ladies, Gondoliers, Populace, Soldiers, Cut-throat ruffians, Guards
SETTING: Venice and Cyprus, mid-15th century
Based on William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his Operas, 1982
A hall in the Cornaro palazzo, Venice
The Venetian patrician Andrea Cornaro has promised his niece Caterina to a French knight, Gerardo. The Council of Ten have other ideas, however, and order Andrea to break off the engagement, and give Caterina to Lusignano, king of Cyprus. Andrea forbids the wedding.
Caterina’s private apartment
Mocenigo tells Caterina that assassin will murder Gerardo unless she renounces him. Gerardo comes to her room to persuade her to elope. To save his life, she tells him that she no longer loves him.
A square in Nicosia
Mocenigo, now Venetian ambassador to Cyprus, and his henchman Strozzi are trying to start a rebellion to gain the island for Venice. They learn that Gerardo has come to Cyprus, and order assassins to kill him. Lusignano saves his life, and discovers that Gerardo was Caterina’s fiancé.
A private chamber of the Queen
The Venetians are slowly poisoning Lusignano, in preparation for an invasion. Gerardo, now a knight of Rhodes, warns the king and queen.
An atrium or open-air courtyard in Lusignano’s palace; at the rear, a square in Nicosia
The Cypriots, led by Gerardo, drive out the Venetians.
Lusignano is fatally wounded, and dies in Caterina’s arms. The people acclaim her as sovereign, and Gerardo returns to Rhodes.
Caterina Cornaro is conventional, fairly run-of-the mill Donizetti. There are some good bits: a furious stretta at the end of the Introduzione; the tenor cabaletta “Morte, morte! Fur troppi gl’insulto”; and the women’s chorus “Oh ciel! che tumulto!”. Otherwise, it’s the sort of work that does bel canto no favours. The tunes are half-familiar, and there’s no interesting orchestration.
If that were all, it would be forgettable – one of the dozens of minor operas Donizetti churned out over his career.
The problem, though, is that it’s impossible for me not to think of Halévy’s Reine de Chypre – which means comparing a failure to a first-rate work! La reine is imaginatively scored, and often moving; Donizetti sounds downright tawdry next to it. Compare, for instance, Caterina’s aria; the Gerardo / Lusignano duet; or the (inappropriately jolly) quartet to their counterparts in Halévy.
Carmen Giannattasio (Caterina Cornaro), Colin Lee (Gerardo), Troy Cook (Lusignano), Vuyani Mlinde (Mocenigo), Graeme Broadbent (Andrea Cornaro), Loïc Félix (Strozzi/A Knight of the King), Sophie Bevan (Matilde). BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Parry – conductor. Opera Rara 2013, recorded 2011.