- Melodramma tragico in 3 acts
- Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
- Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano, after Lockroy and Badon’s Un duel sous le cardinal de Richelieu (1832)
- First performed: Kärntnertortheater, Vienna, 6 June 1843
|RICCARDO, Conte di Chalais||Tenor||Carlo Guasco|
|ENRICO, Duca di Chevreuse||Baritone||Giorgio Ronconi|
|MARIA, Contessa di Rohan||Soprano||Eugenia Tadolini|
|Il VISCONTE DI SUZE||Bass||Friedrich Becher|
|ARMANDO DI GONDI||Tenor||Michele Novaro|
|DE FIESQUE||Bass||Gustav Hölzel|
|AUBRY, Chalais’s secretary||Tenor||Anton Müller|
|A FAMILIAR of Chevreuse||Bass|
|Knights, the king’s cabinet, pages, guards, domestic servants of Chevreuse|
SETTING: Paris, during the reign of Louis XIII [around 1630]
Or: A Duel under Richelieu. Three duels, in fact, one for each act. The first takes place before the opera has even begun. Enrico, Duke of Chevreuse, has killed the Cardinal’s nephew, and been condemned to die; the nephew wanted to marry Maria, Countess of Rohan, who is secretly married to Chevreuse. To save his life, Maria implores Riccardo, Count of Chalais, Louis XIII’s favourite, to seek the king’s pardon; she takes advantage of his love for her. Chalais in his turn challenges Armando di Gondi to a duel, and Chevreuse agrees to be his second. So ends the first act. The second duel takes place during Act II, but Chalais does not fight. Maria prevents him, fearing he will be killed; she loves him. Instead, Chevreuse goes in his stead, and is wounded. The third duel takes place at the climax of the opera. Chevreuse discovers a love-letter Chalais wrote Maria, and challenges him to another duel, by pistol. Rather than fight Maria’s husband, Chalais turns the gun on himself, and blows his brains out. “Death for him!” snarls Chevreuse to his wife; “A life of shame for you!”
There is a tendency these days to claim Maria di Rohan is one of Donizetti’s greatest works, of the calibre of Roberto Devereux and Lucia di Lammermoor: his tightest, most naturalistic serious opera, subordinating music to the needs of the drama. Jeremy Commons, for instance, calls it “one of the strongest, most dramatic, and musically rewarding operas in the entire Donizetti canon”[i], “an intensely dramatic and dark-hued masterpiece”[ii]. It is, Commons[iii] argues, the composer’s most ‘advanced’ opera, in which situation and words, not form, determine music, melody comes from the characters’ psychological state, and Donizetti pays meticulous attention to harmony, instrumentation, and dramatic progression. Similarly, William Ashbrook[iv] praises “the stress laid on dramatic values in the score and the composer’s adroit setting of the text” [v]. It “contains the most cumulatively powerful solution [Donizetti] ever provided to the aesthetic problems posed by [Romantic melodrama]”: giving “musical coherence and credibility to an intense plot whose denouement is tragic and inevitable” through quickening the dramatic pace and streamlining the musical numbers[vi].
Perhaps that critical esteem is why I find it so disappointing. Granted, it is an opera with little fat, a rapidly moving work that hurtles to its end. Donizetti avoids many of the conventions of bel canto opera: there are no ensembles, no choruses after Act I, little virtuosic display, and no mad scenes. The acts are through-composed, declaimed as much as sung, and the orchestration is modern for its time. But it is surprisingly underwhelming. The music too often seems thin, a score of melodramatic posturing; there are no ‘big’ tunes, so it is less memorable compared to more traditional Donizetti operas; and the situations are unconvincing: Why does nobody talk and explain the situation, rather than feeling insulted and killing people? An honour society, I suppose. These concerns seldom arise in, say, Lucia or Verdi’s Trovatore, which are more ‘operatic’, whereas a naturalistic work like Rohan demands more justification for characters to act.
Act I, set at the Louvre, is the most conventional; it consists of a dull opening chorus, three arie di sortite, and a finale. Chalais’s cavatina “Quando il cor di lei piegato” is nondescript, and Maria’s cavatina “Cupa fatal mestizia” makes little impression. But Chevreuse’s “Gemea di tutto carcere”, in which he thanks Chalais for his life, is excellent; it shows the character’s masculine frankness. In the finale, the court learns that Richelieu has fallen, and that Maria is Chevreuse’s wife, dismaying both her and Chalais. It consists of a rather good largo (“D’un anno il giro è omai compito”) and a grand stretta (“Fia vero! plauso al Conte”).
Act II takes place in Chalais’s townhouse. Yet another solo aria: Chalais’s “Alma soave e cara”, although this cantabile piece is more attractive than his first. Later, there is a vigorous but extremely short martial duet for Chalais and Chevreuse, preparing to fight the duel; it scarcely begins before it finishes. The act ends with Maria and Chalais’s duetto finale, “Ecco l’ora!”; it is theatrical, melodramatic, and largely declamatory, the singers’ voices only joining at the end. The situation recalls Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots: the woman tries to restrain her lover from going to his death, and declares her passion. The honours are with Meyerbeer.
The final act takes place in Chevreuse’s townhouse. In William Ashbrook[vii]’s view, Act III represents Donizetti’s summit of achievement as a musical dramatist. Maria has a prayer, “Havvi un dio in sua clemenza”, with a plaintive oboe accompaniment. However, it is not until the last 20 minutes that Maria di Rohan becomes a good opera; it is the final scene that impressed its admirers. Chevreuse has a superb jealousy aria, “Bella, e di sol ventito”, that puts some critics in mind of Verdi. The final number is an effective duet-trio that ends with Chalais’s suicide and Chevreuse damning his wife.
Maria di Rohan was a success when it premièred in Vienna. “Donizetti has composed an opera for Germans, with that aura of seriousness and dignity that lies so close to the German character,” wrote the Allgemeine Wiener Musikzeitung[viii].
Donizetti revised the opera for a Paris production in 1843; the minor tenor character of Gondi became a mezzo part (sung by Marietta Brambilla) with a ballata in Act I and a cavatina in Act II. Later productions added a cabaletta for Chalais in Act I, a larghetto section in the Act II duetto finale, and in Act III, a larghetto duettino for Maria and Chalais, and a cabaletta after Maria’s prayer.
José Bros (Chalais), Christopher Purves (Chevreuse), and Krassimira Stoyanova (Maria di Rohan), with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, London, 2009; Opera Rara.
[i] Jeremy Commons, Opera Rara, p. 8.
[ii] Commons, p. 39.
[iii] Commons, pp. 8, 37–39.
[iv] Ashbrook, p. 179.
[v] Ashbrook, p. 179.
[vi] Ashbrook, p. 497.
[vii] Ashbrook, p. 180.
[viii] Quoted in Ashbrook, p. 179.