217. Ugo, conte di Parigi (Donizetti)

  • Tragedia lirica in 2 acts
  • Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
  • Libretto: Felice Romani, after Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis’s Blanche d’Aquitaine
  • First performed: La Scala, Milan, 13th March 1832

BIANCASopranoGiuditta Pasta
ADELIA, Bianca’s sisterSopranoGiulia Grisi
UGO, Count of ParisTenorDomenico Donzelli
FOLCOBassVincenzo Negrini
LUIGI V, King of FranceContraltoClorinda Corradi Pantanelli
EMMAMezzo-sopranoFelicita Baillou-Hillaret

SETTING: Paris, 10th century

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Ugo, Conte di Parigi was written for La Scala’s 1831–32 Carnival season, like Bellini’s Norma; it featured the same brilliant cast – prima donna Giuditta Pasta, soprano Giulia Grisi, tenor Domenico Donzelli – but flopped.

“Time pressed for the composer of the music,” wrote the Gazzetta privilegiata di Milano[i]. “The actor-singers had scarcely time to study the whole of their parts passably; some were visibly fatigued; and the demands of the public, who were extremely numerous on the first night, were as great as ever, even though it was Lent. And yet, we repeat, the success was very fortunate. A work in which the instrumentation is the creation of a master-hand; beautiful, though not always new, motifs; well thought-out dramatic movement; the orchestra always occupied and the interest well distributed – all this won the most flattering applause for Donizetti.” But at the end of the night, the critic continued: “The auditorium remained cold and could scarcely rouse itself to the point of newly acclaiming the singers as well as the composer.”

Ugo was performed only five more times in Milan, and had only six further productions in the next fifteen years – including in Prague, Madrid, and Lisbon – before vanishing from the stage altogether.

Is Ugo, Conte di Parigi a bad opera? No; just unremarkable. It’s not as formulaic as Mercadante could be in his early operas, but there’s little to distinguish it from hundreds of other Italian operas produced at the time. The story is a vehicle for singers, a concert in costume, and the melody often takes a back place to florid vocal display. Half the score is borrowed from earlier operas, and the other half was recycled in later, better ones, including Sancia di Castiglia, Il Furioso di San Domingo, Marino Faliero, Pia de’ Tolomei, and Gabriella di Vergy

Part of the blame lies with the unwieldy libretto. Bis’s play, on which the opera is based, concerned a double regicide in ninth-century France: Lothair (r. 954–86) is murdered by his wife Emma; five years later, his son, Louis V (r. 986–87), is murdered by his queen, Blanche d’Aquitaine, who then kills herself.

The Italo-Austrian censors[ii] butchered the libretto, reducing it, Ashbrook[iii] states, to a ‘puzzle’. “The modifications demanded were so many and of such a kind that, by dint of cuts and changes, the action was left disfigured and crippled,” recalled Romani’s widow.

The opera dropped the regicide plot, except through veiled hints, and focused on Blanche’s (Bianca’s) passionate love for Hugues Capet (or Ugo), who loves her sister, Adelia. In this version, Bianca is only Luigi’s fiancée, not his wife. She plots to murder her sister and Ugo. Critics from Ashbrook and Charles Osborne to m’comrade Phil have found the jealous Bianca unsympathetic in the extreme – another reason, they suggest, for the opera’s failure. At the end, confronted by the remorseful Emma (guilty of a crime she does not name), Bianca poisons herself instead. “Convulsione e morte,” Donizetti noted, doodling a skull and crossbones in the score.

Half the score is borrowed from earlier operas, and the other half was recycled in later, better ones, including Sancia di Castiglia, Il Furioso di San Domingo, Marino Faliero, Pia de’ Tolomei, and Gabriella di Vergy.

The overture, for instance, was reused in Parisina; the majestic first section opens with three solemn chords, while the brilliant allegro hurtles to the finish in proper Rossinian style.

Act I takes place in the Palace of Laon, where Ugo, regent of France since Lothair’s death, crowns the young Luigi. In the grandiose, floridly written Introduzione, the introductory chorus comes from Imelda de’ Lambertazzi and was reused in Parisina, while other parts were recycled for Sancia di Castiglia.

The palace atrium.

Bianca is meant to marry Luigi, but has fallen in love with Ugo. The prima donna’s aria di sortita, “Ah! quando in reggio talamo”, is ornate but conventional vocal display. So, too, is the duet for the two sisters, “Io lo vidi… Ah! chi non l’ama”, which is well written, but seems empty; I can’t detect much melody under all the ornamentation. Its cabaletta reappeared in Il furioso di San Domingo. The scene ends with a big quartet, “Ti raffrena”; it lasts 17 minutes, and makes little impression.

A room in the royal palace of Laon.

Adelia and Ugo’s duet, “Li saprà. Vogl’io svelarti”, is certainly better. In the finale, Luigi suspects Ugo is Bianca’s lover, and arrests him for treachery. The larghetto “È giunto l’orribile istante” is quite good; it resurfaced in Sancia. But the stretta is tepid.

The prison.

Act II opens in the prison where Ugo has been confined. The prelude comes from Imelda, and made its way to Il Furioso. Ugo and Bianca’s duet “Tu lo sdegni?”, one of the more important pieces in the score, develops into a trio with Adelia; it has a pretty larghetto amoroso section, “Ah! che in van sir io cimento”. Soldiers free Ugo, and want him to rebel against the king, but he remains loyal.

The scene changes to the royal apartments. The attractive women’s chorus “Il suon dell’armi” was reused in Sancia. Luigi’s “Prova mi dai, lo sento”, the major mezzo aria, feels like an aria finale con coro; it is pleasant, if, like most of the score, florid and conventional.

Royal apartments.

Ugo ends with the prima donna’s dramatic scene: at  night, in the middle of a storm, she contemplates murdering her sister and husband at the wedding, is confronted by the queen mother, so swallows poison. Parts were reused in Furioso.

Opera Rara recorded it in 1977, and it was staged in Donizetti’s hometown of Bergamo in 2003.

[i] Quoted in Jeremy Commons, Opera Rara, pp. 27–29.

[ii] Quoted in Jeremy Commons, Opera Rara, p. 11.

[iii] William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his Operas, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 326.

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