Tragedia lirica in 4 acts
Composer: Antonio Cagnoni
Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni, after Shakespeare
Composed c. 1880-1885.
First performed: Martina Franca, 19 July 2009, conducted by Massimiliano Caldi
King Lear – where Edgar loves Cordelia, Edmund barely exists, the dramatist has little feeling for Shakespeare, and the composer lacks imagination?
“Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!”
- RE LEAR (baritone)
- CORDELIA, his daughter (soprano)
- GONERILLA, his daughter (soprano)
- REGANA, his daughter (mezzo-soprano)
- Il duca di CORNOVAGLIA, Regana’s husband (tenor)
- Conte di GLOSTER (bass)
- EDGARO, his legitimate son (tenor)
- EDMONDO, his illegitimate son (baritone)
- Il conte di KENT, noble loyal to Lear (baritone)
- Il MATTEO (The Fool) (soprano)
Great hall in the palace of King Lear
The elderly King Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters Gonerilla, Regana, and Cordelia. In an excess of senile vanity, the king proposes a contest: each daughter will receive territories in proportion to the love for her father her words demonstrate. Gonerilla and Regana accept, but Cordelia refuses to compete, as she is convinced that her true feelings would be lost in adulation. Lear, spitefully, divides the part of the kingdom that would be hers between her sisters, and banishes her. Lear also exiles the vassal Edgaro, secretly in love with Cordelia, who tried to defend her.
Countryside near Dover
Gonerilla, despite their flattery, turned out to be unfaithful to their father, and rebelled. Lear decides to go to the castle of the Duke of Cornwall, Regana’s husband, in the hope she will be milder. Edgaro, meanwhile, confesses his love to Cordelia, and promises that he will find Lear to beg his forgiveness for her.
A magnificent hall in Regana’s palace
A party is underway. Lear also arrives, but quarrels violently with his daughters. The furious king curses Regana and Gonerilla, and leaves.
A thick wood; very far away, Glocester’s castle
Edgaro wanders the woods as a beggar. He meets his father, the Count of Gloster, whom Regana blinded to punish him for taking Lear’s part. Shortly thereafter, Lear himself arrives; he has lost his reason, and wanders ranting. At the sight of Edgaro and his father, Lear mistakes them for the ghosts of Regana and Gonerilla, and fears they will attack him.
Garden near Cordelia’s house
The king, lovingly welcomed, recovers his wits and makes peace with his daughter, recognising that she was the only one to cherish true affection for him.
A hall in Glocester’s castle
The people, led by Cordelia and Edgaro, have rebelled against the cruelty of Regana and Gonerilla, and defeated their troops. Edgaro threatens to kill Regana, but she tells him that Cordelia has fallen into the hands of his half-brother Edmondo, secretly a partisan of Regana’s, who has promised to kill Cordelia if anything happens to Regana.
The rebels’ camp, not far from Glocester’s castle
The people dance and sing to celebrate their victory – but Cordelia’s body is carried in on a bier. The heart-broken Lear dies of grief.
Cagnoni’s Shakespeare opera was first performed more than a century after the composer’s death.
Antonio Ghislanzoni (librettist of Verdi’s Aida and the revised Forza del destino) finished the poem by 1885, and Cagnoni worked on it over the next decade.
Tentative plans to mount the work at La Scala in the mid-1890s fell through, and Cagnoni’s score was printed in 1900, four years after his death.
The opera then languished in obscurity until the Valle d’Itria Festival staged it in 2009, riding on the success of Cagnoni’s comic opera Don Bucefalo in 2008.
Anders Wiklund (Donizetti Society Newsletter 108, October 2009) considers it a conservative work, a summing-up of 19th century musical history:
“Cagnoni has filled it all with music that has its starting point in the past, the 1840s, with the dramatic elegance of Donizetti and the strong dramatic accents of Verdi, linked to present-day Wagnerian chromaticism, a blend of the subtle French harmonic of a Gounod and a Massenet and dashes of verismo and Puccinian sentiment. In its own right, Re Lear thus becomes the Swansong of Italian 19th century opera!”
Verdi long dreamt of composing an opera of King Lear, his favourite Shakespeare play.
“At first sight, Lear is so tremendous, so intricate, that it would seem impossible to make an opera of it,” he told his librettist Salvadore Cammarano in 1850.
“However, after examining it closely, it seems to me that the difficulties, great as they are, are not insuperable. You know, we need not turn Lear into the sort of drama that has been customary up to now. We must treat it in a completely new way, one that is vast and shows no regard for convention.”
That’s one approach. The other is to get a second-rate composer to write a thoroughly conventional opera.
If that’s your idea of music theatre, look no further than Antonio Cagnoni’s Re Lear.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of the masterpieces of humanity; Cagnoni’s opera isn’t.
It’s like an amateur painter trying to paint an elemental, tempestuous drama – in watercolours.
Cagnoni and his librettists seem to have little sense of drama. Lear’s quarrel with Goneril, the blinding of Gloucester, and the death of Cordelia – to name but three major events – happen offstage while we’re watching drinking songs and dances, or Edgar moon over Cordelia. (Yes, in this version, Edgar loves Cordelia.)
Edmund, Shakespeare’s malignant genius, barely exists; he’s a voice at the party in Act II, and doesn’t appear in Acts III and IV.
The score is, frankly, insipid. The first act is nondescript, with a flatulent rumtitum tune from the banda. Act II gives Cordelia a forgettable aria; Edgar’s ardent but short-breathed declaration of love, and a low-key love duet; and a finale that, apart from Lear’s curse, lacks power.
The same feebleness is apparent in Act III, the storm scene. It’s pleasant, conventional music, with an agreeable sotto voce woodman’s chorus. It shouldn’t be pleasant or agreeable, at all; it should be overwhelming, tempestuous, apocalyptic. The scene calls for the resources of a Berlioz or a Verdi – something along the lines of the Requiem’s “Dies irae” or the opening of Otello. Cagnoni’s treatment sounds more like Verdi on an off-day, or a half-memory of Macbeth and Ballo in maschera (the Fool as an Oscar type). And this is one of the better pieces in the score.
Finally, with the Lear / Cordelia duet at the end of Act III, something seems to have sparked Cagnoni’s imagination. It’s warm and tender, with a kind of questing wonder.
Act IV is banal, with a tedious half-dialogue duet for Edgar and Regan, and a misplaced bout of jolly dancing. At least it doesn’t have a happy ending.
It’s probably a good thing Verdi never saw it.