200. Il paria (Donizetti)

  • Melodramma in 2 acts
  • By Gaetano Donizetti
  • Libretto: Domenico Gilardoni, after Casimir Delavigne’s play (1821)
  • First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 12 January 1829


AKEBAREHigh priest and leader of the Brahmins, Neala’s fatherBassGiovanni Campagnoli
NEALAPriestess in the cult of the sun, Akebare’s daughterSopranoAdelaide Tosi
ZARETEIdamore’s fatherBassLuigi Lablache
IDAMORELeader of the army and Zarete’s sonTenorGiovanni Battista Rubini
EMPSAELEBrahmin and Akebare’s confidantTenorDomenico Chizzola
ZAIDEPriestessContraltoEdvige Ricci

SETTING: Benares, 16th century

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Il Paria is, like Meyerbeer’s Huguenots, a passionate plea for a world free from prejudice, set in an India of fanatical Brahmins and “accursed” untouchables, of temples and massacres. One of Donizetti’s early works (the prolific composer’s twenty-ninth), it was not a success, and was forgotten after only six performances; Donizetti ransacked the score for his breakthrough opera Anna Bolena the next year, and for Il diluvio universale (1830), Torquato Tasso (1833), and Le duc d’Albe (circa 1839). Opera Rara’s recording released earlier this month allows listeners to discover the work Donizetti expert William Ashbrook considered the composer’s finest achievement to that point.

The scene is Benares, in the  sixteenth century. “Cruel human tyranny hides under the veil of religion…” (Act II) The brahmin leader Akebare (like his counterpart in Beaumarchais and Salieri‘s brilliant Tarare) is a religious hypocrite, intent on domination over all the castes; he poses as a man of prayer only to secure power, and dreams of destroying Idamore, the popular warrior chief. His daughter Neala, however, loves the general. Since Idamore has defeated the invading Portuguese army, Akebare offers him his daughter’s hand. Neither knows that Idamore is really a pariah (untouchable, Dalit), or that his mother was murdered by Akebare in a massacre of his tribe. It is death for a pariah to enter the temple grove, but Idamore’s father Zarete crosses the boundary, searching for his son. Appalled to learn that his son heads the army, Zarete accuses Idamore of treachery; reconciled, the two agree to escape to the desert lands. Idamore reveals his identity to Neala; she is horrified at first, but her love overcomes her prejudice.

IDAMORE: You are leaving? Can I not be granted just one ­final glance? Your hand, look: you allow me to hold it to my heart, my only beloved, but the earth is not opening up, not trembling! Nor is the sky covered with bloody clouds! Nor do voices of contempt rise up against us from the highest Heavens! Look, Neala, we were not struck by lightning! all is calm and untroubled, nature is before us, see how every palm tree is tranquil; how the night star with its silver rays shines around me, smiles at me. And you alone cruelly condemn to tears the one who adores you?

NEALA: At these words, the horror I felt for your caste is draining away.

Act II (trans. Opera Rara)

She agrees to accompany Idamore on his flight. Zarete, however, believes that his son has deserted him; he is captured on the threshold of the Brahmin temple – an offence punishable by death for an untouchable. Idamore confesses his true identity, and is sentenced to die with his father; Neala, too, is likely to die for loving a pariah. Death is nothing to Zarete; he has the moral victory. He tells Akebare that his prejudice is wrong; they are both equal before God.

ZARETE: I wish for death, it is necessary. I do not fear it. I desire it. But you, august Brahmin, who ensnares human hearts in such misdeeds, how are you different from the Pariahs you exile as guilty? Do we not have blood in our veins as you do? Have you seen the rays of the sun darken because of us? Or water dry up, and fruit wither on the branch? You are dust just as I am, you, great Brahmin, are dust. We are all creatures of the same God; there is no difference between the Priest and the son of the desert, and in the fi­nal resting place everybody will be equal! In his paternal embrace God will receive us all!

Act II (trans. Opera Rara)

Condemned to death, Zarete and Idamore have a prophetic vision of an egalitarian future:

Our miserable fate, the massacres and horrors, will be revealed over time to distant, more civilised descendants! And the cruel laws, which protect the oppressor, will be destroyed by the people of a distant future age!

Act II (trans. Opera Rara)

Unfortunately, Dalits are still victims of racism in modern India, even though “untouchability” was outlawed under the constitution. Religious prejudice was a theme important to Casimir Delavigne; he collaborated with Scribe and Meyerbeer on Les Huguenots, which offers interesting parallels: the father who is also a murderous bigot; religion to justify hatred; martyrdom as an expression of sublime love.

Donizetti’s early period is too often dismissed as imitation Rossini; Il paria is a more robust, stormier score than one might expect. It is, Ashbrook believes, a watershed: “the first of Donizetti’s scores to give an adequate and consistent preview of his mature style”. With its massive ensembles, percussion, trumpets, and lovers separated by religion, it resembles French grand opéra. Act I opens with a superb Introduzione, encompassing a sextet hymn to the sun, a warlike chorus praising Brahma, and Neala’s nightmare vision of a pariah invading the temple. The act also features Zarete’s aria (bass) in search of his son; Idamore’s cavatina / cabaletta, studded with high C’s; and a long duet for father and son. In Act II, we find the lovers’ duet; and another scene for Zarete, remembering the massacre of his people; it is almost Verdian in its intense writing for the bass voice. The high point is undoubtedly the finale, set at the wedding ceremony. It opens with a magnificent chorus, “Brama, autor dell’universo”. There are two quartets: in the first, Zarete calls for tolerance; in the second, Zarete and Idamore exult in their martyrdom, while the implacable brahmins rejoice at their deaths.

Il Paria may not reach the heights of Donizetti’s later masterpieces, but it deserves far better than to be forgotten after six performances.


Marko Mimica (Akebare), Albina Shagimuratova (Neala), Misha Kiria (Zarete), René Barbera (Idamore), Thomas Atkins (Empsaele), and Kathryn Rudge (Zaide), with the Opera Rara Chorus. Sir Mark Elder conducting the Britten Sinfonia, London, 2019; Opera Rara ORC60.


  • William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his Operas, Cambridge University Press, 1982
  • Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
  • Roger Parker, “Il Paria emerges from the shadows”, Opera Rara 2020

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