Tragedia lirica in 4 acts
Composer: Saverio Mercadante
Libretto: Marco D’Arienzo
First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 12 February 1857
- PELAGIO (baritone): Filippo Coletti
- ABDEL-AOR, governor of Gijón (tenor): Lodovico Graziani
- BIANCA, Pelagio’s daughter (soprano): Fortunata Tedesco
- GIRALDA, Bianca’s companion (contralto): Schiavi
- ASAN, captain of the Moors (bass): Marco Arati
- ALIATAR, guard on Abdel’s rooms (bass): Nicola Monti
- MENDO DE QUEXADA, Spanish nobleman (bass): Michele Benedetti
- A GIJONESE (tenor): A. Lauri
- Arab soldiers, men, and women, Spanish soldiers, men, and women
The historical Pelagius was a Visigoth, first king of Asturias.
His victory over the Moors at the Battle of Covadonga (722) – the first Christian victory in Iberia after the Muslim conquest of Hispania in 711-718 – marked the beginning of the Reconquista.
In Mercadante’s opera, Pelagio’s daughter Bianca loves and marries a Moor: Abdel-Aor, governor of Gijón. She hesitates between her husband and her father.
Pelagio is captured by Abdel-Aor, but his daughter releases him, and he leads the Christians to victory. Abdel-Aor then stabs her, and leaps to his death from a balcony. The Christians vow eternal revenge against the Arabs.
Pelagio was Mercadante’s last opera – and a triumph.
“Pelagio is a grandiose work, full of nobility and distinction, remarkable for the elevation of ideas,” wrote the correspondent for the Courrier franco-italien (26 February 1857).
“The applause, the bravos, the curtain calls made this night a magnificent ovation for the artists, and above all, for the composer, who had to appear before the fanatical public after almost every piece. In a word, Pelagio is in all points worthy of Mercadante; it’s a carefully considered score, where nothing is left to chance; a real masterpiece of science and orchestration, which will obtain an immense success on all the stages of Italy and abroad.”
I wish Opera Rara would record this, with the sort of cast they can assemble! The only commercial recording – Dynamic, taken at Martina Franca in 2008 – leaves much to be desired.
The baritone, Costantino Finucci, and the soprano, Clara Polito, are both solid, even good without being world-class. Tenor Danilo Formaggio, is, however, strident, and often sounds hoarse or strangulated. His voice heaves around, flopping like a fish on dry land, while he struggles to find the right note. The chorus is raucous and badly out of tune.
The opera badly deserves better. It has at least one first-rate number, and possibly others that would be if the singing were better. It’s compact and dramatically compelling. What more can one want from Italian opera?
Mercadante avoids the operatic conventions; his music rarely does what you expect it to. His melodies have an unusual shape; he’ll often change moods midway through a number; and he may well be Italian opera’s greatest orchestrator of the ottocento. His music is robust and masculine, but without early Verdi’s coarseness.
Bianca has an effective entrance aria in the Act I introduction. She pours out her soul to the night air, looking forward to the marriage. Her father, appalled, listens from below. A chorus of maidens cross the river on boats with lights.
In the next scene, Bianca has a fine cavatina:
The act ends on an love duet, backed by a chorus, with exotic rhythm and harmony.
The highlight of the opera is the remarkable father-daughter duet in Act II. It’s tight and dramatically concentrated, with rapid changes of mood. Pelagio reveals himself to his daughter, who thinks him dead; he curses her for loving a Muslim, and tries to persuade her to leave. Abdel’s voice, accompanied by a harp, briefly makes the duet a trio, as Bianca hesitates between staying with her husband, and going with her father. It’s a terrific duet, whose mastery of form, great tunes, and drama remind me of Rossini’s great Terzettone in Maometto II, on a smaller scale.
“The second act duet is admirable,” the the Courrier franco-italien wrote; “Mercadante has rarely been so inspired.”
Act III seems flatter. Pelagio has a rather conventional scene with chorus, notable for its Risorgimento sentiment.
Freedom fighters will save the beloved homeland from the foreign invaders.
The trio where Pelagio confronts Abdel and Bianca was one of the most admired pieces at the première.
“The terzetto drove the audience wild; it would suffice, by itself, to assure the triumph of Pelagio; it caused a furore; we can’t think of anything more beautiful in the repertoire.”
The modern singers make a hash of it. Pity; Mercadante’s ensembles can be great. It leads into a concertato finale, the only one in the opera.
The short Act IV (21 minutes) is great music drama. It consists of only one number, made up of Bianca’s beautiful, sad prayer, accompanied by harp and cello; a furious duet that ends with murder and suicide; and a finaletto.