68. Re Lear (Antonio Cagnoni)

  • 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

RE LEARBaritone Costantino Finucci
CORDELIA, his daughterSoprano Serena Daolio
GONERILLA, his daughterSoprano Maria Leone
REGANA, his daughterMezzo-soprano Eufemia Tufano
Il duca di CORNOVAGLIA, Regana’s husbandTenor Giovanni Coletta
Conte di GLOSTERBass Vladimir Mebonia
EDGARO, his legitimate sonTenor Danilo Formaggia
EDMONDO, his illegitimate sonBaritone Cristian Camilo Navarro Diaz
Il conte di KENT, noble loyal to LearBaritone Domenico Colaianni
IL MATTEO [The Fool]Soprano Rasha Talaat

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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!”

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.

It’s probably a good thing Verdi never saw it.

Cagnoni’s Shakespeare opera was first performed more than a century after its 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.

The opera left critics perplexed.  Dinko Fabris (la Repubblica) and Giovanni Fornaro (http://www.drammaturgia.it) thought the music skilful enough, but the opera simplistic, even superficial.

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!”

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.



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 Re Lear.jpg



Great hall in the palace of King Lear

  1. Introduzione


Countryside near Dover

2. Scena ed Aria (Edgardo)

3. Scena e Duetto (Cordelia, Edgardo)

A magnificent hall in Regana’s palace

4. Finale II


A thick wood; very far away, Glocester’s castle

5. Preludio, Scena e Romanza (Edgardo)

6. Coro e Tempesta

7. Scena e Quartette (Matteo, Edgardo, Lear, Gloster)

Garden near Cordelia’s house

8. Coro, Scena e Duetto (Cordelia, Lear)


A hall in Glocester’s castle

9. Scena ed Aria (Regana)

10. Scena ed Duetto (Regana, Edgardo)

The rebels’ camp, not far from Glocester’s castle

11. Coro e Ballabile

12. Scena e Finale ultimo

10 thoughts on “68. Re Lear (Antonio Cagnoni)

  1. I’m surprised you bothered with this poor old thing. Although it does have some okay/fine moments in act three, the score is gravely pallid, like the watercolours as you said, and I will never get over how awful that act four Edgar/Regan duet is and Cagnoni’s bizarre tendency to lapse into dance music. One hearing and you understand why it wasn’t published until after Cagnoni died and wasn’t performed until 2009. It seems like an example of an opera that should never have been performed at all but somehow eventually got lucky. It was a calculated error on the part of Valle d’Itria. Don Bucefalo is in a totally different genre than this and also close to 50 years older, premiered when Cagnoni was only 19. It isn’t particularly good either but it is better than this pseudo-Shakespearian travesty. I would be interested in hearing some of his other operas, like his Francesca da Rimini from 1878, just to see if he was always pallid or if by Re Lear he was just out of practice.

    One thing about it that might be of historical interest would be that the libretto isn’t really based on Shakespeare’s play, at least in part, but on an Italian translation of a tragicomedy adaptation by Nahum Tate, the librettist of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Tate had Edgar and Cordelia fall in love with each other and gave the thing a happy ending. This was more popular with the general public in Britain (David Garrick would only star in the Tate version), but many critics found that it turned Cordelia into a static romantic heroine by not killing her off, although Samuel Johnson was apparently appalled by the death of Cordelia and refused to read the original ending.

    There are also Cagnoni’s influences, or rather the fact that he can never make up his mind who and what they are. We start off with anemic Verdi, then anemic Donizetti, then more Verdi, and eventually traces of Wagner (the final chord is obviously taken from Wagner although I’m not sure if it is the revision of Dutchman, Gotterdammerung, Tristan, or Parsifal and Lear slips out of madness in the duet with Cordelia to something that sounds a lot like the sleep motif in Die Walkure). Why Cagnoni thought that mixing styles like this would resulting in anything other than a musical Frankenstein’s monster is beyond me. But, the Lear-Cordelia duet is rather lovely and there are a few patches of inspiration. It isn’t enough to salvage the whole work, but it does make this all worth a listen, possibly two, but nothing more.

    Looking forward to Adriana Lecouvreur, I hope you are able to bring out the French aspects of the scoring and subject material and if you’d like use some of Forman as well. There are four segments the I feel he ignores completely: (Maurizio’s act 2 arioso, the ballet, the prelude to act 4 and Adriana’s Poveri fiori, the last two to the same slightly pallid melody), and there is the fact that he gives a lot of one star items to an opera he ultimately gives an Alpha to (literally the entire review from after the Princess’s three star aria until the two star death scene is just seven one star items and although he comments on the ballet it is assigned no star value at all). Now I know that Cilea’s work is always musically stretched thin, basically to its breaking point, but what do you think? Is Forman right and am I just making much ado about pallid music?


      1. Merciful heavens, is that EVERY opera?!? I kid I know its only about 1/40th of all the operas ever written, but still that is basically every opera that people bother performing and then some. You might be missing Gluck’s Merlin, but I haven’t a clue where you would find a recording. I think you are missing Die Feen, but you might be working on it. Adriana was missing but that might be because you are reviewing it now. There is De Koven’s and MacFarren’s Robin Hood. I’m guessing that the random generator is your computer overlord? There are a few others but I’m working on one of them right now. 🙂 Makes sense though if you have over 1000 operas you have to choose from.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh! I’d forgotten Die Feen!

        I decided to use a random generator because it meant I’d have to listen to operas I normally never would. Like Zillig’s Das Opfer – a Nazi opera about Scott of the Antarctic, with the victory dance of the penguins.


      3. Oh my goodness where did you find Zillig’s Das Opfer!?!? I’ve been looking everywhere for it! Penguin defeats man! I’m completely serious, where!


      4. Nowhere, I’m afraid! Sorry to disappoint you; it was an example of an obscure opera.


  2. Oh, I’ve loved this story since I saw it in an article about “Worst opera Librettos”. Just the idea of penguins defeating humans in the Antarctic as an opera is just too awesome. How is Adriana going? I’m excited about that as much as the penguins!


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