- Dramma per musica in 2 acts
- Composer: Gioachino Rossini
- Libretto: Giovanni Schmidt, after Carlo Federici’s Il paggio di Leicester, itself after Sophia Lee’s novel The Recess (1785)
- First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 4 October 1815
SETTING: Late-16th century London, in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603)
CHARACTERS: ELISABETTA [Elizabeth I] (soprano); the Earl of LEICESTER, commander of the army (tenor); MATILDE, his wife (soprano); ENRICO, her brother (mezzo-soprano); NORFOLK, a grandee of the realm (tenor); GUGLIELMO, captain of the guards (tenor)
ORIGINAL CAST: IsabellaColbran as Elisabetta; Andrea Nozzari as Leicester; Girolama Dardanelli as Matilde; Maria Manzi as Enrico; Manuel Garcia as Norfolk; Gaetano Chizzola as Guglielmo
In 1815, the millionaire impresario Domenico Barbaja engaged Rossini to write an opera for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, one of Europe’s two great centres of opera. Rossini was the rising star of Italian opera; although the illiterate casino owner was no music lover, he knew what the public would enjoy.
The Naples period includes many of Rossini’s most innovative works, but Elisabetta belongs to his early period. It was the composer’s first opera for Naples, and indeed his first opera heard south of Rome, so he wanted to present a discerning audience – perhaps the most demanding in Italy – with his best ideas. He recycled tunes from as far back as Demetrio e Polibio, his first opera written at 14. This may account for the over-familiar, twice-heard quality of much of the music.
The production itself was magnificent. It featured three of the finest Italian singers of the time: the great soprano Isabella Colbran in the title role (wearing a costume modelled on Elizabeth’s own clothes), and the tenors Andrea Nozzari and Manuel Garcia as Norfolk and Leicester. Colbran was every inch the queen, an admiring Stendhal wrote.
“As Elisabeth, she had no gestures, nothing theatrical, nothing of what the vulgar call poses or tragic movements. Her immense power, the important events that a word from her mouth could bring about, everything was painted in her beautiful Spanish eyes, at certain moments so terrible. It was the look of a queen whose fury is only retained by a moment of pride; it was the manner of a woman still beautiful long accustomed to having her merest whim obeyed. Seeing Mlle Colbran speak to Matilde, it was impossible not to feel that this superb woman had been an absolute queen for 20 years… All this was read in the tranquility of the queen’s movements. The few movements she made were torn from her by the violence of the passions that tore her soul, none by the intention of being obeyed.”
Colbran went on to create a dazzling series of roles for Rossini: Desdemona (Otello), Armida, Elcia (Mosè in Egitto), Zoraide, Ermione, Elena (La donna del lago), Anna (Maometto II), Zelmira, and Semiramide. And marry the composer.
“At last my Elisabetta has been staged, and it was received with fanaticism,” Rossini wrote to his parents. “A revolution of applause and at the end a call upon the stage where I must have remained for eight minutes receiving the evvivas…” The Neapolitans, Stendhal wrote, were drunk with pleasure; the audience were prepared to be severe, but the young composer won them over. “Rossini’s charming style soon seduced them. All the great emotions of opera seria, with no tedious interval between.”
The operatic old guard were less enthusiastic. “All your music sins by its lack of pathos,” the dilettanti told Rossini. “It is nothing but magnificence, like the talent of your prima donna… Admit that you have sacrificed expression and drama to the embroideries of Colbran.” “I sacrificed to success,” Rossini retorted.
Success it may have been, but Elisabetta is one of Rossini’s weakest scores: plenty of vocal display, little inspiration or freshness. This is what his detractors think his serious operas are: mechanical coloratura, stock gestures, and trivial phrases. The whole thing leaves me cold.
Even Stendhal admitted this: “The music of Elisabetta is more magnificent than pathetic; throughout, the voices are like clarinets, and the most beautiful numbers are often only concert pieces. But we were far from criticizing coldly at the first performance. We were delighted; that’s the only word.”
The overture was lifted from Aureliano in Palmira; Rossini recycled it again the next year, for The Barber of Seville.
There is almost nothing of interest in the first act. It opens in the throne room of Whitehall Palace, where courtiers celebrate Leicester’s victory over the Scots – much to the anger of the Duke of Norfolk (No. 1: Introduzione: ‘Più lieta, più bella apparve l’aurora’). Elisabetta’s entrance aria (No. 2: Coro e cavatina: ‘Esulta, Elisa, omai in giorno si beato’) is a heavily decorated showpiece, festooned with runs and roulades. The cabaletta ‘Questo ben lo comprendo’ – already used in Aureliano in Palmira – appeared yet again in The Barber, in Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’. Elisabetta is in love with Leicester – but he is secretly married to Matilde, daughter of Mary Queen of Scots. A trivial, scampering chorus (No. 3: ‘Vieni, o prode, qui tergi i sudori’) greets Leicester. To his horror, he recognizes Matilde and her brother Enrico among the Scottish hostages. Matilde has followed him, seeing a rival in the queen. Their duet (No. 4: ‘ Incauta! che festi seguirmi perchè?’) is conventional. So is Matilde’s aria (No. 5: ‘Sento un interna voce’); the andante is dull, and the allegro is one of those Rossini tunes you feel you’ve heard before – and probably have.
The scene changes to the royal apartments. Leicester foolishly tells Norfolk all; his ‘friend’ promptly betrays him to the Queen, accusing the general, his wife, and her brother of treason in a duet (No. 6: ‘Perchè mai, destin crudele’). In the finale (No. 7), a malevolent Elisabetta offers throne and marriage to Leicester, then has him and his fellow ‘conspirators’ arrested. The centre of the finale is a dry quartet designed (like almost everything else) to showcase Colbran’s voice. The allegro ‘Quegl’indegni sien serbati’ comes from Aureliano in Palmira. To be fair, Stendhal notes that the duet ‘Incauta! che festi?’ won over a hostile first night audience, and enthusiasm mounted like one of the composer’s patented crescendos throughout the first act. But then they had never heard Rossini before.
Act II picks up the story in the royal apartments. Elisabetta forces Matilde to renounce her love for Leicester to save the life of all three prisoners. This ensemble (No. 8: Scena e Terzetto: ‘Dov’è Matilde?’) is the major number in the act; it contains a lovely andante duet for the two women (‘Non bastan quelle lagrime’).
The scene changes to an atrium or vestibule leading to the dungeons of the Tower of London. A gloomy chorus (No. 9: ‘Qui soffermiamo il piè’) sets the tone. Norfolk – banished from England – persuades Leicester’s followers to help him free their general in a standard Rossinian aria.
The final scene takes place in Leicester’s prison cell, where the unhappy man awaits execution. The prelude (from Ciro in Babilonia) leads to a scena and aria (No. 10: ‘Della cieca fortuna… Sposa amata … respira’). The hypocritical Norfolk tries to incite Leicester to rebel against the throne in an allegro duet (No. 11: ‘Deh, scusa i transporti d’un misero’). Elisabetta urges Leicester to flee through a secret passage; he refuses. Norfolk is discovered lurking behind a pillar, sword in hand to assassinate the queen; but the three prisoners disarm him. Elisabetta sentences Norfolk to death, forgives the others (in a fine andante), and quells the uprising (No. 12: Finale: ‘Fellon, la pena avrai’). Some called the final aria ‘Bell’alme generose’ a catalogue of the qualities of a fine voice; Stendhal was impressed in the theatre, but in the cold light of day complained the principal song was muffled under a deluge of inappropriate ornaments and roulades which seemed to be written for wind instruments, not for a human voice.
Barbaja offered Rossini a contract for several years to write two new operas a year, and to work as musical director of the Teatro San Carlo and the Teatro del Fondo. Eight more operas followed, several among the composer’s masterpieces. Elisabetta’s importance, Jeremy Commons argued, was “to pave the way for those greater achievements and set the musical patterns that were to be developed in the years that followed”.
For a more enthusiastic review, see Phil’s Opera World.
- Jeremy Commons, Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra, Opera Rara 2002
- Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
- Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
- Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824