201. Gismondo, re di Polonia (Vinci)

  • Opera in 3 acts
  • By Leonardo Vinci
  • Libretto: Francesco Briani
  • First performed: Teatro delle Dame, Rome, 11 January 1727

CHARACTERS

GISMONDOKing of PolandCastrato
OTONEGismondo’s sonCastrato
GIUDITTAGismondo’s daughterCastrato
PRIMISLAODuke of LithuaniaCastrato
CUNEGONDAPrimislao’s daughterCastrato
ERNESTOOf Livonia, in love with GiudittaCastrato
ERMANOOf MoraviaCastrato

SETTING: Poland, 16th century


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two years ago, I raved about Leonardo Vinci‘s Catone in Utica (1728) and Artaserse (1730), perhaps my favourite opera seria. Both were resurrected by the countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, for their dramatic power, their superb melodies, and as showcases of modern countertenor singing. Cencic resurrected another opera by Vinci, Gismondo, performed in Gliwice, Poland, in September 2018.

Gismondo is a sweeter, gentler work (at least until the battle in Act III), its plot more static, and it does not reach the heights of the other two works, but Vinci admirers will certainly enjoy it.

The original cast were all castrati. Gismondo was composed for Rome, where papal edict forbade women appearing onstage. The Gliwice production is not quite the countertenor feast Artaserse is; there are only four of them (Cencic and the Ukrainian Yuriy Minenko returning), and three soprani.

Gismondo began as an homage to monarchic virtues. The libretto was written by Francesco Briani (Venice, 1708/09, composer Antonio Lotti) to honour Frederick IV of Denmark; Vinci adapted the work to honour the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, living in Italy, and married to a Polish princess. But it is also an opera about diplomacy and the aftermath of conflict.

Gismondo (=Sigismund August II), king of Poland, is negotiating peace with Primislao, Duke of Lithuania, after a costly civil war. Marriage could bring the factions together: Gismondo’s son Otone and Primislao’s daughter Cunegonda are in love, while Gismondo’s daughter Giuditta secretly loves Primislao. But masculine honour, stubborn pride, and unjust anger prove an obstacle to peace. The haughty Primislao demands a settlement worthy of his fame and greatness; he quarrels with one general, Ernesto; and another general, Ermano, sabotages the peace process to avenge his brother’s death. Primislao, insulted, believes Gismondo has publicly humiliated him, and declares war. The final act takes place on a battlefield strewn with corpses; the defeated Primislao is believed dead, and Cunegonda seeks revenge on her former lover Otone. But Giuditta rescues the wounded Primislao, and all the lovers are reconciled.

Gismondo and Primislao, Dr. Boris Kehrmann argues in the essay accompanying the CD, are contrasting epitomes of good and bad governance: Gismondo represents reason, consistency, and mercy; Primislao typifies passion, inconsistency, irascibility and cruelty. There are mythological parallels, too, I would add: Primislao is associated with Mars, the bloodthirsty god of war (whom the Greeks detested for his brutishness), and his love interest Giuditta with Minerva (wisdom and strategy).

The three finest arias in the work are Otone’s nightingale simile aria “Quell’usignolo”, a vision of pastoral tranquility, recorders and horns imitating chirping birds; Gismondo’s “Sta l’alma pensosa”; and Cunegonda’s revenge aria “Ama chi t’odia, ingrato”.

Other notable arias include:

  • Act I: “Vado ai rai” (Otone); “Tutto sdegno è questo core” (Ernesto); “Nave altera, ch’in mezzo all’onde” (Primislao); “Se soffia irato il vento” (Gismondo)
  • Act II: “Tu mi tradisti ingrato” (Cunegonda); “Assalirò quel core” (Otone); “D’adorarvi così” (Ernesto)
  • Act III: “Di rispondi” (Cunegonda)

SUGGESTED RECORDING

Listen to: Max Emanuel Cencic (Gismondo), Yuriy Mynenko (Otone), Sophie Junker (Cunegunda), Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (Primislao), Jake Arditti (Ernesto), Dilyara Idrisova (Giuditta), and Nicholas Tamagna (Ermano). Maestro di capella: Martyna Pastuszka; maestro al cembalo: Marcin Swiatkiewicz. Orchestra: [oh!] Orkiestra Historyczna. Gliwice and Vienna, 2019. Parnassus.

Accompanying essay: Dr. Boris Kehrmann, “Baroque Opera Reloaded / Baroque Opera is Modern Opera: Francesco Briani’s and Leonardo Vinci’s Gismondo

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