- Melodramma semiserio in 2 acts
- Composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer
- Libretto: Gaetano Rossi
- First performed: Teatro Nuovo, Padua, 19 July 1817
|TEOBALDO, prince of Provence||Tenor||Luigi Campitelli|
|RETELLO, prince of Provence, twin brother||Bass||Luciano Bianchi|
|ROMILDA, daughter of the Duke of Brittany||Mezzo||Benedetta Rosamunda Pisaroni|
|LOTARIO, count of Sisteron, Grand Chancellor of Provence||Tenor||Agostino Trentanove|
|COSTANZA, his daughter||Soprano||Caterina Lipparini|
|ALBERTONE, châtelain of Sénanges||Bass||Giovanni Lipparini|
|ANNINA, his niece||Soprano||Annetta Lipparini|
|PIEROTTO, Teobaldo’s foster-brother||Bass||Nicola Bassi|
|UGO, Teobaldo’s squire||Bass||Francesco Desirò|
At last we can hear all six of Meyerbeer’s Italian operas. Naxos published a recording of the first, Romilda e Costanza, last month; the first shall be last, so to speak.
Romilda e Costanza is a rescue opera, set in mediaeval Provence. The genre is associated with the end of the 18th century / early 19th (e.g. Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion; Cherubini’s Lodoïska; Beethoven’s Fidelio), but was still popular in Italy. Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska, for instance, appeared in 1815, two years before Meyerbeer’s opera.
The late king of Provence has left two twin sons: Teobaldo (a tenor, and therefore good) and Retello (a bass, and wicked). The two women of the title are rivals in love for Prince Teobaldo, heir to the throne; Teobaldo was once betrothed to Costanza, but the inconstant prince has fallen in love with Romilda, daughter of the Duke of Brittany, a former foe. (Romilda spends the opera disguised as a pageboy, as the heroines of Margherita d’Anjou and Il crociato in Egitto will adopt male disguise.) At the end of the first act, Retello seizes the throne, and secretly locks away his brother in the tower of an old Gothic castle. Romilda and a couple of loyal followers save him, just as he is about to be murdered; they discover his prison by singing a ballad (a device borrowed from Grétry). In a display of magnanimity that would not disgrace an opera seria monarch, Teobaldo forgives his brother.
Earlier this year, I discussed Meyerbeer’s second Italian opera, Semiramide riconosciuta (1819). To recap:
Jakob Liebermann Beer was born to one of the wealthiest families in Prussia. One of his brothers mapped the Moon; another was a poet and playwright. Jakob showed remarkable talents for music at an early age. By the age of nine, the child was performing piano concerti in public; Leipzig papers predicted a glorious career for the prodigy. He studied with Clementi and Zelter, then with the Abbé Vogler, regarded as the German master of counterpoint; there Carl Maria von Weber, later famous as the composer of Der Freischütz, was the youth’s fellow pupil and close friend.
Meyerbeer’s first operas Jephtas Gelübde (1812) and Wirt und Gast (Alimelek) (1813) were unsuccessful; audiences found the music too academic, especially compared to the Italian operas then popular. (Weber, however, praised Wirt und Gast.) On the advice of Salieri, Meyerbeer went to Italy to learn to write for the human voice – as Handel, Hasse, and Gluck had done before him, and as the young Wagner hoped to do. Although Meyerbeer disdained Italian opera, seeing Tancredi in Venice opened his eyes to the delights of Rossini and bel canto.
“At that time all Italy was feasting in sweet ecstasy,” Meyerbeer wrote in a letter in 1856. “The whole country had finally found, it seems, a long hoped-for Paradise. All that was needed to complete their happiness was the music of Rossini. In spite of myself, I – like all the rest – was caught up in this gossamer web of sound. It was as if I were bewitched in a magic garden. I did not want to go into it, but I could not help myself. All my feelings, all my thoughts, were of Italy. After having lived there for a year, I felt as if I were a real Italian. I thought as an Italian, felt and experienced like an Italian. Obviously such a complete transformation of my inner life would have an effect upon my style of music. I did not want, as so many suppose, to imitate Rossini or to write in the Italian manner, but I had to compose in the style which my state of mind compelled me to adopt.” (quoted in Letellier, Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Critical Life and Iconography)
Romilda e Costanza, opened in Padua in July 1817. Five more operas followed:
- Semiramide riconosciuta – Turin, February 1819
- Emma di Resburgo – Venice, June 1819
- Margherita d’Anjou – Milan (la Scala), November 1820
- L’Esule di Granata – Milan (La Scala), March 1822
- Il Crociato in Egitto – Venice (La Fenice), March 1824
These operas gained Meyerbeer his first international successes. Margherita was translated and performed throughout Europe; Crociato (regarded as late as 1844 as one of his three immortal operas) was performed as far away as Brazil. Weber reproached Meyerbeer for ceasing to be himself and imitating Rossini to attain an easy popularity – but Meyerbeer was not a servile imitator; he kept his science and genius for harmony and orchestration, but combined them with Italian form and melody.
“He understood that what the public wanted to find in his scores, what they admired in them, were grace and wit far more accessible to the vulgar than the treasures of science and genius which his first works contained,” Francis Roch (Revue genérale biographique, 1845) wrote. “Reserving for better and less fanatical times both the excellent traditions of the Abbé Vogler’s school and the gigantic inspirations that boiled in his thoughts; leaving aside what Weber admired and envied, he began to write in the Italian manner. This time, popular enthusiasm was not lacking.”
Meyerbeer had originally intended Romilda e Costanza for the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice; the already wealthy young musician agreed to compose the opera for free, and even purchased the libretto out of his own pocket, but withdrew his score when the impresario expected him to pay 100 louis d’or for production costs. Meyerbeer took the opera to Padua’s Teatro nuovo. Even then, trouble dogged the opera. The premiere was delayed twice because of Meyerbeer’s ill health; the prima donna Pisaroni tried to sabotage the opening night, believing Meyerbeer had promised to marry her; and the seconda donna Lipparini was having a scandalous affair with a young nobleman.
But the work was a success. “The great merit of this opera is beyond dispute, in which an exceptional German control and instrumentation is combined with the sweetest, most delightful singing,” the Wiener Sammler enthused. “The famous Pacchiarotti and Calegari publicly expressed themselves of the opinion that they had not heard such music in Italy since Cimarosa and Paisiello” (quoted in Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer). Productions soon followed in Venice (1817), Milan and Florence (1820), Munich and Copenhagen (1822), and Lucca (1829).
The opera is not “Meyerbeerian” in style; it is not a five-act historical epic in which individuals are caught up in great events, solo singers pitted against choral masses, ending in a fiery apotheosis. And the characters (as in much pre-Verdian opera) are stock figures rather than the vivid, original personalities Scribe drew for Meyerbeer. We do not find the heady Meyerbeerian blend of novel orchestral texture, scintillating rhythms, unusual harmonies, bel canto vocal display, arresting melody, and almost through-composed recitative. Instead, it shows Meyerbeer assimilating the Rossinian style of the time: a series of elegant cavatinas and ensembles, and fleet buffo bass patter, separated by secco recitative.
Rossini was still relatively early in his career; he had begun his Naples period, but not yet attempted the experimental masterworks. Romilda was produced in July 1817, midway between La gazza ladra (May) and Armida (Nov), and a year after The Barber of Seville and Otello. Like Rossini’s operas of the time, it contains much attractive, accomplished music without being (as far as we can judge from a recording alone) theatrically riveting. But already conversant in this idiom, Meyerbeer would transform it within a couple of operas. (Rossini himself asked his librettist for an “introduzione alla Meyerbeer” for his Semiramide, 1823.)
Piotr Kaminski passes over Romilda briefly as an apprentice work, mixing the Rossinian form with the already outdated style of the past century. Meyerbeer expert Robert Letellier, more appreciatively, considers it “nigh-perfect mastery of a musical-dramatic idiom hitherto foreign to him”; Meyerbeer takes the framework of the coda Rossini, but paints in the style of Mozart. Sergio Segalini suggests Paër or Mayr; Romilda’s aria “Se il fato barbaro” is built on a similar harmonic construction.
Certainly, Mozart (Meyerbeer’s favourite composer) seems to influence the work. Teobaldo’s elegant cavatina “Ombra amata, qual amico in te perdei” brings to mind perhaps Don Ottavio’s arias (Don Giovanni), before leading into a Rossinian cabaletta. Costanza’s Act II scena ed aria “Odiarlo! … e lo poss’io?” recalls Donna Anna’s “Or sai chi”, while the exhilarating sextet “Egli sciolto! Oh tradimento!” is modelled on the Don Giovanni sextet or the Act I finale more than on Rossini.
But Romilda also sows seeds Meyerbeer will reap in decades to come. The duetto for mezzo and buffo bass, “E così da me s’invola… Tu che vanti il più bel core”, is a voice combination Meyerbeer enjoyed; it anticipates not merely the duet in Margherita d’Anjou but, more seriously, the Valentine (Falcon soprano) / Marcel duet that is at the heart of the Huguenots. The low-lying female takes the more lyrical melodic line, while the bass has a grumbling, more declamatory line. The chorus “Fra l’ombre ci guida distorte il favor” will be revised in Act IV of Le Prophète. The Act I finale shows Meyerbeer can already handle long scenes, stringing together musical sections like beads; it contains an a cappella ensemble (“Segreto fremito”) and two strettas divided by a mezzo / soprano duet; the second stretta is a vocal and orchestral tempest. Meyerbeer is experimenting with scenic effect: a Provençal wedding procession at the start of Act II (with conventional buffo bass aria) is interrupted by drumbeats and a mournful march as the soldiers bring their prisoner to the castle.
Note also the terzetto in Act I for tenor, mezzo and soprano; the final section “Che barbaro tormento” (also recorded by Opera Rara) is lovely. So too is the quartet “Caro ben, se vivi ancora”; the melody is exquisite.
The Donizetti Society complained that the 2019 Wildbad performance seemed under rehearsed, inadequate, and uncommitted – a rather harsh judgement. The Naxos recording is not as polished as Opera Rara, true, but the cast acquit themselves more than adequately. The standouts for me are tenor Patrick Kabongo (Teobaldo) and soprano Luiza Fatyol (Costanza); although slow to warm up, she reveals a tone reminiscent of Joan Sutherland’s.
Don’t expect a masterpiece, by any means, but Meyerbeer enthusiasts will find much to intrigue them, and bel canto fans much to enjoy.
- Sieghart Döhring, “A rescue opera with a love triangle”, Naxos, 2020
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006
- Robert Ignatius Letellier, An Introduction to the Dramatic Works of Giacomo Meyerbeer: Operas, Ballets, Cantatas, Plays, Ashgate, 2008
- Sergio Segalini, Diable ou prophète ?: Meyerbeer, Beba, 2005
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