219. Maria Padilla (Donizetti)

  • Melodramma in 3 acts
  • Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
  • Libretto: Gaetano Rossi, after Jacques-François Ancelot’s Maria Padilla
  • First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 26 December 1841

DON PEDRO, Prince of CastileBaritoneGiorgio Ronconi
Il Duca RAMIRO d’AlbuquerqueBassGaetano Rossi
DON RUIZ de PadillaTenorDomenico Donzelli
DON LUIGI, Conte d’AguilarTenorRainieri Pochini
DON ALFONSO de PardoBassAgostino Berini
BIANCA di FranciaSilentUnknown
DONNA MARIA PADILLA, Don Pedro’s daughterSopranoSophia Löwe
DONNA INES PADILLA, Don Pedro’s daughterMezzoLuigia Abbadia
FRANCISCA, Maria’s duennaMezzoTeresa Ruggeri

SETTING: Castile, 14th century

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

How far will an ambitious woman go for love? Maria Padilla is the secret wife of the king of Spain, Pedro of Castile and Leon (r. 1350–69), known as the Cruel or the Just. Everyone, however, believes she is his mistress, not his wife; her secret brings disgrace to her family, and causes her father’s madness. Finally, when Blanche of Bourbon arrives from France to wed the king, Maria resolves to claim her rights.

Maria Padilla was Donizetti’s first opera for La Scala, Milan, since the disaster of Buondelmonte (Maria Stuarda) in 1836. It appeared in the same season as Verdi’s Nabucco, and, although overshadowed by that historic première, ran for 23 performances.

“The situations”, Donizetti claimed, “are magnificent…. The music is bella, bella, Bellissima, worthy of Mercadante and Bellini.”

Nevertheless, the opera ran into problems with the censors, forcing Donizetti and his librettist to write three endings. In the first draft, based on Ancelot’s play, Maria Padilla seizes the crown from her rival, then stabs herself; the censors objected, believing that was hardly fitting conduct for a queen. In the version performed at Milan, Maria Padilla dies of happiness (or accession of blood) instead.

Finally, in the version staged at Trieste in 1842, the opera ends happily; Maria is acclaimed queen, and her father’s sanity is restored. That, in fact, is the most historical; Pedro married Blanche in 1353, then divorced her three days later when he learnt she was his bastard brother’s lover, and the French would not bring a dowry. Maria survived until 1361, possibly dying of plague; two of her daughters by Pedro married the sons of Edward III of England.

Donizetti scholar William Ashbrook[i] considers Maria Padilla one of “Donizetti’s richest and most original scores”. The orchestration, he argues, has “an overall richness and dramatic allusiveness that reveal Donizetti’s development in this aspect of composition” – a greater use of the banda than in any other opera; motivic ideas in various guises recur more frequently than in Donizetti’s previous scores, and lend many scenes a peculiar sense of homogeneity. Similarly, Jeremy Commons[ii], for Opera Rara, states that Donizetti’s exposure to French opera (and orchestras) led to more attention to detail, while returning to familiar Italian forms like the cabaletta.

For my part, I consider Maria Padilla a good average Donizetti. (My colleague Phil likes it more.) Although tuneful, it is not one of his most inspired or dramatically interesting works. After the end of Act I, Maria Padilla and Pedro share no other intimate scene together, only appearing in the two finales. Blanche de Bourbon only appears in the final scene, and never sings. Nothing comes of the destruction of Maria’s marriage papers by her father. And, as most critics have pointed out, the happy ending feels dramatically inappropriate.

Act I is set in the castle of Padilla, where Maria’s elder sister Ines is about to marry Don Luigi, Count of Aguilar; the wedding guests include one ‘Mendez’, who is really Don Pedro, Prince of Castile, in disguise. He enters Maria’s bedroom at night to abduct her, and the couple elope. Ines’s cavatina “Eran gia create in cielo” is a lovely piece, ending with a really brilliant cabaletta, “Sorridi, o sposo amato”. Maria’s cavatina, “Un Amore cinto di regal serto”, in which she recounts her dream of being hailed queen, is less interesting. Pedro’s aria di sortita, “Lieto fra voi ritorno”, develops into an attractive sextet. The scene in Maria’s bedroom opens with an expressive andante theme; the duet that follows, “Core innocente e giovane”, is dramatically excellent (Maria meeting Pedro’s declarations of love with sarcasm), but the stretta, although tuneful, seems too operatic, too “sung”.

Act II takes place two years later, in the palace of Seville; Don Pedro is now King of Spain, and Maria has been installed as his mistress. The act gets off to a swing with a brilliant, Spanish-style chorus of courtiers, “Nella reggia dell’amore”, praising (but secretly mocking) Maria. Her father, Don Ruiz de Padilla, swears vengeance against the king who disgraced his honour in a rather dull cantabile (“Il sentiero di mia vita”) and cabaletta (“Ma una gioja ancor mi resta”). (The father is the principal tenor role, like Eléazar in Halévy’s Juive.) The best piece in the act is the duet for the two sisters, “A figlio incauta di reo trascorso”, with an attractive allegretto “Di pace a noi bell’iride”. An early critic, Filippo Cicconetti, called it “a work of rare beauty, and of incomparable spontaneity”[iii]; while Ashbrook[iv] considers it “the last great virtuoso duet and perhaps the most demanding in the tradition that extends all the way back to [Rossini’s] Tancredi.” The Gran Scena e Duetto in which Ruiz confronts the king, strikes him with his gauntlet, and is sentenced to the bastinado is conventional, and does not rise to the height of the situation. Maria, horrified by her father’s treatment, tears off the jewels Pedro gave him, throws them at his feet, and storms out. The Finale disconcerted early audiences by its abruptness: it consists of an effective stretta only, lacking the expected slow (concertato) movement.

The notable feature of Act III is a mad scene for tenor: Don Ruiz, after his torture, has lost his wits; he does not recognise Maria, and destroys her marriage writs – the only proof of her legal rights. Several critics have compared the father / daughter duet to Verdi in its dramatic intensity, but I find it excessively long. Cannons announce the arrival of Bianca, and Maria drags her father to the throne room. The final scene consists of a pompous allegro chorus, with banda onstage; Don Pedro’s romanza, “Ah! quello fu per me”, touched with nostalgia (the enjoyable cabaletta, “Lasciar Maria, sempre adorata”, was written for a French production); a fine largo ensemble, “Ah! Senti all ogn’ora estinguersi”; and Maria’s cabaletta, “Oh padre, tu l’odi?”.

Maria Padilla was regularly performed until 1859, including in Peru and Brazil; its last known performance in the 19th century was in 1869. Opera Rara resurrected it in 1973, for the 125th anniversary of Donizetti’s death, and recorded it in 1980.

Listen to

Lois McDonall (Maria Padilla), Della Jones (Ines Padilla), Graham Clark (Don Ruiz di Padilla), and Christian du Plessis (Don Pedro), with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alun Francis, Opera Rara, 1980.

Works consulted

  1. William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his Operas, Cambridge University Press, 1982
  2. Jeremy Commons, “Maria Padilla”, Opera Rara, 1980.

[i] William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his Operas, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 456–58.

[ii] Jeremy Commons, p. 42.

[iii] Quoted in Commons, p. 30.

[iv] Ashbrook, p. 458.

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