244. L’oracolo (Leoni)

  • Music drama in 1 act
  • Composer: Franco Leoni
  • Libretto: Camillo Zanoni, based on The Cat and the Cherub, by C. B. Fernald
  • First performed: Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, UK, 28th June 1905, conducted by André Messager


UIN-SCÎ, a learned doctorBaritoneVanni-Marcoux
CIM-FEN, proprietor of an opium denBaritoneAntonio Scotti
HU-TSIN, a wealthy merchantBass 
UIN-SAN-LUI, Uin-Scî’s sonTenorCharles Dalmorès
HU-CÎ, Hu-Tsin’s little sonSilent 
AH-JOE, Hu-Tsin’s nieceSopranoPauline Donalda
HUA-QUÎ, Hu-Cî’s nurseContralto 
A policeman
An opium maniac
A fortune-teller
Chinese men, women, and children

SETTING: The Chinese quarter of San Francisco.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

At the turn of the century, Westerners toured San Francisco’s Chinatown, eager for sensation. They wanted to see temples and pagodas, opium dens and crime. L’Oracolo is the operatic equivalent.

It takes place in a single day, compressed into barely an hour. It begins and ends with a cock crowing; in between are opium maniacs, gamblers, Chinese New Year celebrations, dragon dances, kidnapping, and two murders.

The main rôle is the baritone: the villainous Cim-Fen (created by Antonio Scotti, later a principal artist at the Met for three decades). The opium-dealer desires a merchant’s niece and the merchant’s money; he kidnaps the merchant’s son, murders the niece’s lover, and is then murdered himself by his victim’s father.

The opera is based on the American playwright Charles Bailey Fernald’s one-act play, The Cat and the Cherub (1897), which aimed “to present a quick succession of powerful scenes illustrating the peculiar atmosphere in which the scene of the play was laid”. The Daily Telegraph described it as “a grim little play … wherein, with no little dramatic force and a certain strange order of fantasy, horror on horror’s head accumulated”.

For all its sensationalism, the work is musically and theatrically effective. The composer was Franco Leoni, an Italian who studied with Ponchielli, then moved to London after his first opera (Raggio di Luna, Milan, 1890) failed to impress his fellow countrymen. L’Oracolo, however, shows that he knew what to do. The opera was a triumph in London – “a success to which its fluency, its fancy, its melodic grace, and its feeling for character all contribute,” The Daily Telegraph wrote.

The score is almost cinematic: snatches of offstage choruses (e.g., the gamblers at the end of scene 1) act almost as dissolves, linking scenes. There are novel sound effects (clocks, foghorns, roosters). Pentatonic scales, Chinese themes (or Italian ideas thereof), gongs and xylophones provide Chinese colour. So do a majestic hymn, “Tien Ciang-Ti”, that leads into a bustling market scene, and a fortune-telling ensemble, “Ome tofa”. The opera’s most spectacular scene is the dragon procession (“Il drago! Il drago!”), during which Cim-Fen kidnaps the merchant’s son.

The young lovers Ah-Joe and San-Lui provide the lyrical element: two love duets, one at dawn (“Bianca luce silente, alba spaziosi”), one before San-Lui sets off to rescue the boy from the gambling den (“Ah-Joe… Uno sgomento improvviso m’invade”); and Ah-Joe’s moving lament, “Ferito … l’hanno ferito”, for her murdered boyfriend. The venerable Uin-Scî’s moralising aria, “Pensa prima all’uomo lussurioso”, wraps up the opera: “Set your thoughts upon a man whom lust of gold and the false tinsel of worldly power make a prey to evil desires…”

The Daily Telegraph acknowledged that despite “many temptations to extravagance and exaggeration … what strikes the critical hearer at once … is the ingenious manner in which fancy and imagination – aided by a very ample technique – have been kept within due bounds”. The Manchester Guardian, however, unfavourably compared Leoni to Mascagni and Puccini. “Signor Leoni’s melodies are of a somewhat conventional cut. He can be picturesque up to a certain point, but cannot rise to the translation of real drama into music.” Nevertheless, the critic thought the scoring was “remarkably clever all through and much richer in effect than is usual with much of the young Italian school”.

L’oracolo was performed in New York, where it remained in the Met’s repertoire from 1917 to 1926; Scotti chose it for his farewell performance in 1933. The baritone’s troupe, the Scotti Grand Opera Company, performed it throughout the USA. San Francisco’s Chinese population was less pleased: in 1937, apparently, they protested that the work was racist. It has been recorded twice, and was resurrected at Wexford in 2018. I wish the Met would put this on; they have the resources and taste for spectacle.

(See also Phil’s review.)


Joan Sutherland (Ah-Joe), Tito Gobbi (Cim-Fen), Richard Van Allan (Uin-Scî), Ryland Davies (Uin-San-Lui), Clifford Grant (Hu-Tsin), and Huguette Tourangeau (Hua-Quî), with the National Philharmonic Orchestra and John Alldis Choir, conducted by Richard Bonynge, London, 1975. Decca 4443962. (The CD cover shows an Indonesian barong rather than a Chinese dragon.)

Ashley Holland (Uin-Scî), Peter Sidhom (Cim-Fen), Franz Mayer (Hu-Tsin), Carlo Ventre (San-Lui), Annalisa Raspagliosi (Ah-Joe), and Katharina Magiera (Hua-Quî), with the Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester, conducted by Stefan Solyom, Frankfurt, 2009. Oehms OC952.

Further reading

2 thoughts on “244. L’oracolo (Leoni)

  1. Thank you for this — I just had to check it out. Just fabulous and a really colorful score. I was only able to get the Frankfurt recording digitally. It’s really good, but it makes me wonder about Sutherland. She still sounded pretty good in 1975. I have no idea how this would play now. Probably not well.


    1. Thanks, Gregory.

      The Sutherland recording is available from Presto. No libretto, though. The Internet Archive has a copy.

      How would it play? Given complaints about Turandot, Butterfly, and the Mikado (and any other opera set outside Europe), probably not well, as you say.


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