216. I Medici (Leoncavallo)

  • Azione storia in 4 acts
  • Composer and librettist: Ruggero Leoncavallo
  • First performed: Teatro dal Verme, Milan, 6 November 1893

LORENZO DE’ MEDICIBaritoneOttorino Beltrami
GIULIANO DE’ MEDICITenorFrancesco Tamagno
GIAMBATTISTA DA MONTESECCO, Papal captainBassGiovanni Scarneo
FRANCESCO PAZZIBassLudovico Contini
BERNARDO BANDINITenorGiovanni Pagliano
Archbishop SALVIATIBaritoneGaetano Biancardi
IL POLIZIANOBaritoneVittorio Bellati
SIMONETTA CATTANEISoprano liricoAdelina Stehle-Garbin
FIORETTA DE’ GORISoprano drammaticoAdele Gini Pizzorni
Simonetta’s motherMezzo-sopranoFederica Casali

SETTING: Florence, 1471 to 1478

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Like many young composers of his generation, Leoncavallo fell under the spell of Wagner, the magician of Bayreuth. He envisaged a trilogy, Crepusculum, set in Renaissance Florence that would be the Italian answer to the German Ring.

“What a great era for the artist, for the philosopher, and for the historian this grand period in our history, the Renaissance! How much blood and how much filth…” [i]

I Medici is the first and only completed part; it revolves around Giuliano de’ Medici (1453–78), younger brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–92), his relationship with the consumptive beauty Simonetta Cattanei (1453–76) and the tormented ‘Fioretta’ (Antonia) Gorini, and ends with his assassination by the Pazzi conspirators on the orders of the Pope. The next two operas – never written – would have concerned the investiture of Fra Benedetto to Savonarola’s death (Gerolamo Savonarola) and from the death of the Duke of Candia to the death of Alexander VI (Cesare Borgia).

In a letter published in La Sera (16 October 1893), Leoncavallo explained that he was writing an epic poem with epic music: “Faithful to the lofty principles of Bayreuth, I wish to create a national poem.”[ii] Again, in a letter to his friend Giosuè Carducci, he explained he wanted to write “epic Italian music”:

“Rather than musical romanticism or … composers who content themselves with re-evoking old legends and dramas of contrasting emotional and theatrical scenarios that are always the same, is it not preferable to musically influence our heroes, our renaissance? Wagner took his subjects from the Rhine legends, though how more human to have a tragic musical unity [made up of] Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici, Gerolamo Savonarola and Duke Valentino (Cesare Borgia), the Italian princes…”[iii]

I Medici is beautiful and grand, although only the last half is dramatic. Act I depicts Giuliano’s meeting with the two young women in the hills near Florence. It is the most blatantly Wagnerian of the acts: the prelude, a kind of grandiose hunting fanfare, features a melody that strongly resembles the Ride of the Valkyries; the lush love duet quotes Tristan und Isolde; and the act ends with a phrase from the Siegfried Idyll. The act also includes Giuliano’s declaration he cares little for love compared to the Classics, “No! de l’antica Grecia”, and Simonetta’s melancholy, andantino rispetto “Come amava il suo damo!”.

The Wagnerian influence recedes in the next few acts, replaced by grand opéra and Verdi. Act II, set in the Piazza Santa Trinita by night, features many of the hallmarks of French opera. It opens with a conspiracy quartet (ending in an impressive march), similar to Rienzi. Much of the act is spectacle: Lorenzo’s serenade outside his mistress’s house, which develops into a crowd scene and a ‘Contest of Song’ (a nod to Tannhäuser, perhaps?); and a lively dance, “Ben venga maggio”, for which Leoncavallo set a poem about May by Poliziano (1454–94), who appears as a minor character.

Maggiolata, scene from the performance at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan of Act III of the I Medici, opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Italy, engraving after a drawing by E Ximenes, from L’Illustrazione Italiana, Year XX, No 47, November 19, 1893.

Simonetta, unable to dance, is invited to sing; excited by the music, she collapses. The act ends with Fioretta’s declaration that she loves Giuliano, before rushing off – an effective curtain.

Act III features a staging tour de force: the set depicts the Ponte Vecchio by night; part of the stage is Fioretta’s house, the wall taken away to show the interior. The act is short, but Leoncavallo is inspired. It begins with Fioretta’s dramatic monologue and arioso, “Che Iddio ti benedica!”, expressing her self-loathing for loving Giuliano, while Simonetta is gravely ill. The act contains a superb septet, showing three scenes unfolding simultaneously on the bridge and in Fioretta’s house: the Pazzi conspirators plot to murder the Medici in the church the next day; Simonetta overhears their conversation from the balcony; and Fioretta tells Giuliano that she is carrying his child. The inspiration, of course, is the quartet in Verdi’s Rigoletto, but this is worthy to stand by the model. It was applauded for 12 minutes, Dryden notes, “one of the most moving moments in Leoncavallo’s career”[iv]. Despite learning that Giuliano is Fioretta’s lover, Simonetta resolves to save and warn him – but dies before she can. “And so God has condemned the Medici to die!” shouts the conspirator Montesecco.

Act IV takes place inside Santa Reparata, the next day, where Mass is being held. The inspiration seems to be the Cathedral Scene in Meyerbeer’s Prophète (1849). The act opens with a “gran Scena religiosa”, which is a magnificent display of counterpoint. It begins as a mass, sung by priests on- and off-stage, a children’s choir, and the congregation; over this are added first the mutterings of the conspirators, stirring up the crowd against the Medici, and then Fioretta praying for forgiveness. Swiftly, the conspirators stab Giuliano, and attack Lorenzo; the elder Medici brother calms the crowd, then wins them back to his cause, reminding them of his ancestors’ service to Florence. As a quote from Mark Antony as the act’s epigraph shows, Leoncavallo clearly had the funeral orations in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in mind. The mob rush out to burn down the conspirators’ houses and throw the murderers into the Arno. The dying Giuliano recognizes Fioretta as his wife, then expires. Alone, Lorenzo reflects that his path to the throne is clear.

For all its merits, it received only a mixed reception. According to Dryden[v], Italian critics thought it “an interesting though unoriginal work … [that] assimilated Wagner and Meyerbeer rather than presenting its own individual style”. Similarly, La Stampa[vi] complained: “In I Medici, we have a historical opera like many before it and many that will come after… We have neither an era nor a set of living and true figures; we do not have, in a word, that human counterpart to Wagner’s mythical trilogy to which Leoncavallo aspired.” Mascagni, Leoncavallo’s rival after the success of Pagliacci, unjustly called it “heavy and boring,” lacking “the shadow of a melody, for the little there is, is not original”[vii].

But La Corriere della Sera[viii] praised Leoncavallo as “a conscientious artist” with “serious aspirations”. Its admirers included Kaiser Wilhelm, who, impressed by Leoncavallo’s ability to “glorify his country’s history”, commissioned a national German opera about Prussia and the Hohenzollern, Der Roland von Berlin[ix].

[i] Konrad Claude Dryden, Leoncavallo: Life and Works, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007, quoted in p. 51.

[ii] Quoted in Dryden, p. 51.

[iii] Quoted in Dryden, pp. 51–52.

[iv] Dryden, p. 52.

[v] Dryden, p. 52.

[vi] Giuseppe Depanis, “Il libretto e la musica de I Medici”, La Stampa, 12 November 1893.

[vii] Quoted in Dryden, p. 53.

[viii] Quoted in Dryden, p. 52.

[ix] Dryden, pp. 55–56.

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