195. Elena da Feltre (Mercadante)

  • Dramma tragico in 3 acts
  • Composer: Saverio Mercadante
  • Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano
  • First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 1 January 1839

CHARACTERS AND ORIGINAL CAST

  • BOEMONDO, lieutenant of Ezzelino III            (tenor)              Anafesto Rossi
  • IMBERGA, his daughter                                   (soprano)          Emilia Gandaglia
  • SIGIFREDO, father of                                       (bass)               Pietro Gianni
  • ELENA                                                            (soprano)          Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis
  • GUIDO                                                            (baritone)         Paul Barroilhet
  • UBALDO                                                         (tenor)              Adolphe Nourrit
  • GUALTIERO                                                   (bass)               Michele Benedetti

SETTING: The city of Feltre; 1250.


PLOT

Elena da Feltre is a gloomy opera of obsessive love and betrayed friendship. The opera takes place in the late thirteenth century, in the northern Italian town of Feltre, Veneto, during the civil war between the Guelfs (pro-Pope) and the Ghibellines (pro-Holy Roman Emperor). Elena degli Uberti is the daughter of Sigifredo, a Guelf nobleman and political fugitive. To save her father’s life, Elena is forced to give up the man she loves, and marry the one she doesn’t. Can you guess what happens next? That’s right; her father is executed anyway, so Elena goes mad and dies of grief.

Act I. Scene 1: A room in Ubaldo’s palace. Boemondo, lieutenant of the tyrant Ezzelino III da Romano, wants Guido to marry his daughter Imberga, whom Guido hates. He asks his friend Ubaldo’s help to elope with Elena; they will marry in a chapel by night, then flee. Ubaldo, however, is in love with Elena himself; rather than lose her to his rival, he will kidnap her. Scene 2: A hall with paintings in Sigifredo’s palace. Elena eagerly looks forward to her wedding to Guido. She believes her father Sigifredo has taken refuge in the Guelf-sympathetic town of Belluno; so she is dismayed when he returns to the castle, disguised as a pilgrim. Belluno has fallen to the Ghibellines, and Sigifredo only narrowly escaped, hoping only to die in his daughter’s arms. Ubaldo and his men come to abduct Elena; Sigifredo defends his daughter, at the risk of his own freedom. He is dragged off to prison, and Elena faints in her servant’s arms.

Act II. Scene 1: A chamber in the municipal palace. Sigifredo is in a secret dungeon, awaiting execution. Elena begs Boemondo to spare her father’s life; to save him, she learns that Guido must offer Imberga his hand. Elena reluctantly consents to become Ubaldo’s wife. Scene 2: Boemondo’s apartments. Guido, meanwhile, was found trying to leave the city, and escorted under armed guard to Boemondo’s apartments. Boemondo tells him that Elena betrayed him; her fiancé will soon see her perfidy himself. Scene 3: A magnificent hall, splendidly decorated. The Ghibelline courtiers (including Ubaldo) celebrate their victory over the Guelfs. Boemondo and Imberga make a show of their mercy; Elena will not be punished for her father’s misdeeds. The unfortunate woman is forced to declare that she loves Ubaldo, and swears to be faithful to him as his wife. Guido proposes to Imberga, then leaves in a rage.

Act III. Scene 1: A hall in Sigifredo’s palace, as in Act I. Guido and Imberga’s wedding is due to start. Elena is praying for strength before her mother’s portrait. Guido enters, and asks whether she was forced to marry Ubaldo. Hearing the chapel bells (a reminder of the menace to her father), Elena repeats the lie that she never loved Guido. He curses her and leaves; he will offer his hand to another, then die. Scene 2: A room in Ubaldo’s dwelling, as in Act I. Sigifredo is dead; Ubaldo (gone to rescue him) has discovered his headless corpse. Ubaldo is full of remorse; he blames himself for the death, and vows vengeance against Boemondo. Scene 3: Elena’s room. Elena, pale as death, is lying on a couch. The hour has passed for when Ubaldo should have brought her father home. She overhears Guido and Imberga’s wedding procession, then Ubaldo and the servant Gualtiero enter with the news that Sigifredo is dead. “Killed by the axe and by me!” Elena exclaims. She has a vision of her father awaiting her in Heaven, then dies.


COMMENTARY

Mercadante, you may recall, was a major transitional figure between the bel canto of Rossini and the melodramma of Verdi. Influenced by French grand opéra, he attempted to create a more dramatic, less musically conventional Italian opera, one that united French declamation, German harmony, and Italian melody.

Mercadante famously set out his ‘reform’ program in a letter while composing Elena da Feltre:

“I have continued the revolution begun with Il Giuramento [1837]. I have varied the forms, abolished trivial cabalettas, exiled the crescendos; concision, less repetition, some novelty in the cadences; due regard paid to the dramatic side; the orchestration richer, without swamping the voices; avoided long solos in the concerted numbers, as they obliged the other parts to stand coldly by, to the harm of the dramatic action; not much big drum, and very little brass band.”

Elena da Feltre was Mercadante’s first opera for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, since Zaira (1831). His rival Donizetti had dominated the theatre since the 1820s; seventeen of his operas had been performed there, but when Ferdinand II banned Poliuto as sacrilegious, Donizetti left for Paris, leaving the way open for Mercadante. Eight more operas followed over the next 20 years, including Mercadante’s final opera, Pelagio (1857). Elena was also Mercadante’s first with Salvadore Cammarano, best-known for his libretti for Donizetti (notably Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux, but also Belisario and Maria di Rudenz) and Verdi (Il Trovatore, among others).

The opera was only a half-success when it premiered in Naples, according to the Revue et gazette musicale. The dilettanti only appreciated two or three pieces, among them Ubaldo’s big scene in Act III. Ubaldo was played by the great French tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who created several of the important grand opéra roles (Masaniello in Auber‘s Muette de Portici, Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Robert le Diable, Gustave III, Eléazar in Halévy‘s Juive, and Raoul in Les Huguenots). The tenor caused a furore, the R&GM stated; recalled onto stage, the Neapolitans lavished him with bravos every time he appeared. In fact, the opera opened and closed that night. Liddell suggests this was because Mercadante was not able to rehearse the work; the censors were unhappy with the libretto; and Nourrit was unwell (liver disease and mental problems). Ubaldo was to be one of the tenor’s last roles; he committed suicide two months later.

Elena was performed in Bologna and Genoa in 1839; FLorence, Barcelona, Lisbon and Vienna in 1840; Parma in 1841; Venice and London in 1842; and La Scala, Milan, in 1843, for 20 performances. With the advent of Verdi, it vanished after the 1860s until resurrected by RAI in 1970, and in Wexford, Ireland, in 1997.

Revolutionary claims aside, Elena da Feltre is a dismal work. The story is lugubrious, and the music is craftsmanlike but uninspired (except for the Act II finale).

In Il Giuramento and in other late 1830s/early 1840s works, Mercadante both condensed his numbers and varied their form in pursuit of dramatical truth, and paid closer attention to the orchestration and harmony than was common among Italian composers, earning the admiration of the severe German critics, including Liszt.

Elena da Feltre, however, seems cold and laborious; the subject does not appear to have captured Mercadante’s imagination; he seems to have concentrated on formal, orchestral, and harmonic researches perhaps because there was little in the story to inspire him melodically.

Certainly, the innovations appear to be at the structural level only; the Gramophone critic Michael Oliver, for instance, notes that Mercadante avoided cabalettas in expected places; used dissimilar melodies in duets; and a startlingly declamatory aria incorporates a lyrical Andante and a slow cabaletta. “His abrupt shifts into unexpected keys can be joltingly dramatic; his use of solo instruments is imaginative…”

But the music itself makes little impression on the listener. We do not find, as in Donizetti or Verdi, those instantly memorable, arresting melodies that are the glory of ottocento Italian opera. (Oliver points to this: “His melodic language is less individual, but always graceful, singable, and often satisfyingly long-breathed.”) For Liddell, this is Mercadante’s chief defect, and the explanation for his obscurity.

“The main obstacle to his lasting success was his inability to tap the rich vein of melodic inspiration which characterised all his important rivals, and that this, coupled with an inability to instil a sense of dramatic momentum into his recitative, is what finally undermines the impact of his work. Indeed, it is not difficult to feel that the effect of his reformist ideals was to reduce rather than strengthen the dramatic and musical vitality of his operas.”

Liddell suggests that Mercadante’s reforms are exaggerated; they may have been novel for the composer – who had spent five years (1826–31) in Spain and Portugal, only to find Bellini and Donizetti dominating Italy – but by the time Elena appeared, the conventions of Italian opera were changing. “‘Traditional’ operatic forms and fashions were already in flux by 1839, and what Mercadante actually achieved in Elena does not seem to me to mark him out as being specially reformist.”

Donizetti, for instance, had gradually reformed Italian opera from within; since 1831, his concern had been with drama and emotion, rather than (as in Rossini) providing a vehicle for splendid singing. Almost a decade before Mercadante composed Elena, Donizetti wrote one of his most adventurous operas, Imelda de’ Lambertazzi (1830); terse and showing a mastery of vocal and orchestral masses, it failed because it was too advanced for his audience. Donizetti (like Mercadante) was well aware of the innovations of French grand opéra; he responded with L’assedio di Calais (1836), effectively a French opera in Italian guise.

Nevertheless, Mercadante’s best works are both intensely vital and melodic. Giuramento has an almost extravagantly sensationalist plot (it is the same as Ponchielli’s La Gioconda), but Mercadante’s music is compelling, even electrifying at times; he believes in the situations – or at least the characters’ intense emotions – and makes the wilder events (poisonings, stabbings, tombs) theatrically truthful. His two later Roman operas, Orazi e Curiazi (1846) and Virginia (1866), set the anguish and desperation of their heroines against the majesty and pomp of empire, oaths, and battles. But Elena da Feltre seems merely gloomy and conventional, its characters and its music equally morose.

All the numbers in Act I seem rather cold. The Introduzione (No. 1) consists of a chorus and bass/tenor duet; both are dry. Elena’s melancholy romanza ‘Ah! si del tenor amor mio’ (No. 2) is sedate, and does not quicken the pulse. The finale (No. 3) consists of a brisk terzettino and ensemble; rather predictable.

Mercadante shows slightly more inspiration in Act II. Elena and Ubaldo’s duet ‘Il mio sangue i giorni miei’ (No. 4) contains Ubaldo’s menacing description of the scaffold that awaits her father. The second scene is a long, rather dull aria for Guido; its tenderness verges on the maudlin. The final scene begins with a chorus (No. 5) that is proto-Verdian in its rushing rhythms; the melody forms the fast movement of the overture. The finale (No. 6) encloses a tragic quintet ‘Ahi! dura terra, e non ti schiudi ancora ?’ – easily one of the better pieces in the opera. The stretta is loud but ordinary.

Act III opens with Elena’s attractive, long-breathed prayer (No. 7); her duet with Guido, ‘Ardon già le save faci’, is dramatic, but not melodic. Ubaldo’s aria (the big tenor solo) begins with a horrified description of Sigifredo’s corpse; the cabaletta rousing troops to vengeance was and would be better done elsewhere. The opera ends with a scene for the prima donna; its 20 minutes are musically arid and dramatically inert, bar one affecting phrase towards the end. Many of Mercadante’s other operas end with a dramatic confrontation; here, the soprano plaintively expires.


RECORDING

Monica Colonna as Elena; Nicola Ulivieri as Guido; Cesare Catani as Ubaldo; Stefano Rinaldi-Miliani as Sigifredo; Elena Rossi as Imberga; Luigi Petroni as Boemondo; Lorenzo Muzzi as Gualtiero. Wexford Festival Opera Chorus and National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland conducted by Maurizio Benini. Recorded: Wexford, 1997. Marco Polo, 1999.

The recording (Wexford Opera Festival) isn’t particularly good, either – second-rate (at best) singers in a dry acoustic. The British press, Liddell suggests, were unimpressed.

WORKS CONSULTED

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