La forza del destino (Giuseppe Verdi)

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO

Opera in 4 acts

By Giuseppe Verdi

Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave, after Ángel de Saavedra’s
Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835)

First performed: Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 10 November 1862.

Revised version: La Scala, Milan, 27 February 1869.

Reception: The premiere in St Petersburg was only a muted success, and Verdi, unhappy with the work, revised it for Italy.  It did well enough for much of the later nineteenth century, but hit low ebb in the early twentieth century, when Wagnerian aesthetics dominated.  Since then, it’s become regularly performed.  It’s supposed to be cursed, though.  Pavarotti refused to perform in it, and clutched his testicles whenever it was mentioned, in case the scenery collapsed on him or (as happened to one baritone) he dropped dead onstage.

Dossier.


COMMENTARY

Alexandre_Charles_Lecocq_-_Giuseppe_Verdi_-_La_forza_del_destino.jpgLa forza del destino is a vast, even unwieldy, opera – and one of Verdi’s most difficult works.  He mixes scenes, moods and operatic styles in an opera that takes place over nearly a decade, and, its critics say, violates every notion of dramatic unity and common sense.

Don Alvaro (tenor) – an Incan prince in disguise – accidentally kills his girlfriend Leonora’s (soprano) father, the Marquis of Calatrava.  He throws down his gun, which promptly goes off and shoots the old man, who hangs onto life just long enough to curse his daughter.  Don Carlo di Vargas, her brother (baritone), vows to find both her and her lover, and kill her.  Leonora puts on a monk’s robe and becomes a hermit living in a cave.  We don’t see her again until the end.

Don Carlo enlists in the Spanish army, and swears an oath of friendship with another officer – who turns out to be Don Alvaro!  The two fight a duel.  Don Alvaro becomes a monk, but Don Carlo pursues him to the monastery, and goads him into another duel by calling him racist names.  Don Alvaro fatally wounds him – outside a hermit’s cell.  The hermit appears – it’s Leonora!  Don Carlo kills her, and then dies.  (In the opera’s original version, composed for St Petersburg, Don Alvaro then hurled himself off a cliff.)

Act IV.png

And the opera is full of gypsy girls, beggars, pedlars, and monks.  And the soprano doesn’t appear for half the opera!

“It is hard to decide,” Michael Forman (The Good Opera Guide, 1994) writes, “whether Verdi was just out of practice, wasn’t really trying, or had temporarily lost his marbles.”

If one views the play from a Classical perspective, as many critics seem to do, the work necessarily seems a mess.  But it’s not Classical; it’s a Romantic opera, written under the influence of Victor Hugo.

Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, the play on which Verdi based his opera, was written by the Duke of Rivas, a liberal man of letters and devotee of Hugo.  The opera, as one early review recognized, puts the principles of Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell, effectively the Romantic manifesto, into practice: mixing high-born and low-born characters, comedy and tragedy, the ugly and the beautiful, to show the world in all its complexity.

The opera doesn’t violate the Aristotelian unities of time and place so much as ignore them; it’s not interested in them.  Instead, the opera’s aesthetics are based on kaleidoscopic variety.

Scene follows scene in dizzying array: aristocratic mansions; taverns in Spanish villages; monasteries; battlefields and military encampments during the War of Austrian Succession.  Smaller roles proliferate: Preziosilla the gypsy girl (a cousin to Carmen) singing French opéra comique-style arias; and the grumpy monk Fra Melitone, a Rossinian buffo bass.

Other sections of the score nod to opera and symphonic music.  The overture has often been called Beethovenian, the monks’ curse and prayer is French grand opéra (modelled on Meyerbeer’s Blessing of the Swords), and Leonora’s arias are Bellinian in their long lines.

Verdi uses the chorus as a protagonist in its own right, as Meyerbeer did in his grand operas (notably in Les Huguenots and Le prophète) and Mussorgsky did in Boris Godunov (clearly influenced by both Meyerbeer and Forza).  In Verdi’s earlier operas, the chorus was often a faceless group; block-like assemblies of types (bandits, soldiers, sailors), who sing en masse, and mainly exist to provide musical backing to the lead singers.  Here the chorus are crowds of individuals: guests at a Spanish tavern, watching dances, and praying as pilgrims pass by; soldiers in a military encampment, gambling and drinking; war victims asking for food from a monastery.  They are humanity celebrating and suffering.

All of this was necessary for Verdi to write what he called “an opera of ideas”.  Like Meyerbeer and Wagner, he used the broader dimensions of grand opera for a philosophical work.

Forza is an opera about the role chance (or fate) plays in our lives, despite our good intentions – and how we deal with this.

We can never fully control our lives, Verdi suggests, because they are changed by outside forces.  The chance firing of a pistol, thrown down by a man trying to avert bloodshed, ruins the lives of the Calatrava clan, sending them into a years-long spiral of pursuit, hatred, revenge and fratricide.  On a larger scale, we are caught up in the events of history.  Larger events and social forces – politics, war, poverty, starvation – affect the masses.  We may not be able to control our lives, but, as the Padre Guardiano tells the monk Melitone, we can have compassion for those who suffer.

The St Petersburg version is nihilistic.  It ends with a stage littered with corpses, and Don Alvaro’s howl of despair against the universe as he leaps to his death: “I am a messenger from hell!  Let the earth open!  May hell swallow me!  May the heavens fall!  And may mankind perish!”

Verdi was unhappy with the original ending, and changed it after meeting the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a saint.

The second version ends on a note of Christian resignation, with Alvaro and the Padre Guardiano (Father Superior) kneeling by Leonora’s corpse.  Leonora may have died, but, she promises Alvaro, they will meet again in heaven.  Mankind, the opera suggests, cannot understand the ineffable; God (or, for the agnostic Verdi, the universe) moves in ways we cannot fathom, but there is a purpose to every action, even if we cannot grasp it.


MUSIC

The opera is theatrically effective, but listening to it on CD can be dispiriting, because it’s less tuneful than Verdi’s other mature operas.  Much of the opera is in functional arioso (heightened recitative), but there are a couple of great arias and some impressive set-pieces.

“Madre, pietosa Vergine!” – Leonora flees to the monastery for refuge from her brother, who plans to kill her.

 

“Il santo nome di Dio …  La vergine degli angeli” – The Padre Guardiano tells Leonora that she can become a hermit – but anyone who approaches her will be cursed.

The finale that ends the opera:


RECORDINGS

Forza DVD.jpgWatch: The 1984 Met performance, starring Leontyne Price (Leonora), Leo Nucci (Don Carlo) and Giuseppe Giacomini (Don Alvaro), conducted by James Levine.

Listen to: The 1955 Decca recording, starring Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), Mario Del Monaco (Don Alvaro), and Ettore Bastianini (Don Carlo), conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Tosca – Giacomo Puccini

TOSCATosca poster

Melodrama in 3 acts

By Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, after Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (1887)

First performed : Teatro Costanzi, Rome, 14 January 1900

Dossier.


COMMENTARY

Tosca is one of a half-dozen operas that everyone knows: the one where an opera singer (performed by an opera singer) performs “Vissi d’arte”, and knifes an over-enthusiastic admirer.

It’s a masterpiece of verismo opera, the Italian style of the period after Verdi’s last operas, which focuses on realistic (often working class) characters and situations, violently intense emotions, and just plain violence.

Tosca has all of those: torture, attempted rape, murder, death by firing squad, and suicide.  But it’s a sophisticated work, and one with plenty of heart and great melodies.

The opera opens with a series of ominous, fortississimo chords associated with Baron Scarpia, Rome’s corrupt chief of police.  Scarpia lusts after the opera singer Floria Tosca, whose boyfriend Mario Cavaradossi is a revolutionary.  When Cavaradossi helps a political fugitive to flee, Scarpia arrests him and offers Tosca a bargain: save Cavaradossi’s life at the cost of her virtue.  Cavaradossi, though, must appear to die; he will face a firing squad, but the guns will be loaded with blanks.  Scarpia, though, has no intention of keeping his word; Cavaradossi is a rival, and must die.  Tosca accepts the odious bargain – and then stabs Scarpia to death.

The heroine is one of the great roles in all opera: a passionate, sensitive soul who lives only for art and for love, but who becomes a murderess.

Who is Floria?  What is she?  A spitfire?  A sophisticated woman of the world?  An innocent in a political world?  Headstrong, or vulnerable and uncertain?  Like all great roles, a talented actress can find new dimensions.  I say “actress”; the part calls for a soprano who can both sing and act, rather than planting herself at the front of the stage and delivering to the footlights.

Maria Callas was, many believe, the definitive Tosca.

In this 1964 Covent Garden production, her performance is mercurial, always in motion, balanced by Tito Gobbi’s portrayal of Scarpia as an ironic, laughing sadist – a man so in command he can remain suave and gentlemanly even while torturing and blackmailing his victims.  We see the moment when Tosca contemplates killing Scarpia; she lowers the wineglass to the table with almost glacial slowness.  She is ferocious in the murder, as implacable as Clytemnestra stabbing Agamemnon.  Even her forgiveness of the dead Scarpia sounds as inexorable as a hanging judge’s pronouncement.  The Greek soprano is a Eumenide.  Then she is desperate to flee from the scene of the crime – but she cannot.  She acts under compulsion, sobbing as she places the candles by the corpse, and kisses the crucifix that she lays on Scarpia’s breast.  She veers about the stage, looking for an escape, for a clue to her guilt, for anything left behind – and then the music calls her to her senses.  The drums sound, and she rushes from the stage, leaving the door open in her haste.

Shirley Verrett, in the Met’s 1978 production (online here), plays a more vulnerable Tosca.  She steels herself when Scarpia approaches her, and looks nauseated by his touch.  She spots the knife; the thought of murder enters her head; she recoils from both the knife and the idea, drinks wine to give herself courage…  The deed done, she is terrified by her act.  She almost flings the crucifix onto Scarpia, and stumbles blindly out.

The part of Tosca may call for a singing actress, but Puccini also uses the metatheatricality of the role for dramatic effect.  Tosca is an opera singer, a star of the stage – and reality and theatre blend around her.  Scarpia mockingly applauds her performance while she begs him not to torture Cavaradossi: “Tosca on the stage was never more tragic!”  She retells the murder as an encore performance for Cavaradossi.  We see how she would play it as an actress, but this also sanitises the crime; she distances herself from the deed while she turns the messy details of the murder into drama.  She gives directions to Cavaradossi how to play the death scene, and applauds his “acting” when he’s shot.  And here Puccini does something very clever.

Tosca thinks, until the very end, that she will get a happy ending.  Remember: the opera is set in 1800; this was the time of the rescue opera, in which villains may capture a husband or wife, but which invariably ended with tyrants defeated and lovers reunited.  (The most famous today is Beethoven’s Fidelio.)  She knows how this should go, based on her stage experience.  She hasn’t realised she’s in an Italian verismo opera circa 1900.

In the long, agonisingly long, execution scene, Puccini uses the difference between what she expects to happen and what is happening, to ratchet up the tension until strained nerves start to scream.

“How long is this waiting!” Tosca says.  “Why are they still delaying?  The sun already rises.  Why are they still delaying?  It’s only a comedy, I know, but this anguish seems to last for ever!”

She praises Cavaradossi’s performance – “There!  Die!  Ah, what an actor!” – and is radiantly happy until she turns over Cavaradossi, and realises that she’s been rejoicing at her lover’s death.

The action may be tragic, but, as William Berger (Puccini Without Tears, 2005) [1] suggests, works on several levels.  It’s simultaneously a gripping melodrama and an allegory about the triumph of love and liberty over cruelty and tyranny.

[1] Berger sees the opera as a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, building on Nietzsche, possibly via Peter Conrad.  It’s a brilliantly illuminating essay.

The opera pits revolutionaries (Cavaradossi and his friend Angelotti) against the despotism of Scarpia and the Bourbons, who ruled Rome at the time.  Napoleon, advancing on Rome, is seen as a redeemer, a bringer of liberty.  [2] When he hears of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, Cavaradossi, who has just been tortured by Scarpia’s men, rises threateningly towards Scarpia and sings: “The avenging dawn now rises to make the wicked tremble!  And liberty returns, scourge of tyrants!”  When he learns she killed Scarpia, he calls Tosca an avenging angel, justice inspired by love.  Their final duet (as in Verdi’s Aida) is a sort of anthem, imagining the triumph, the apotheosis of love.  They may not enjoy that happiness here on Earth, but their souls will enjoy it in heaven.

  [2] This is partly the French source (Sardou’s play).  Illica also wrote the libretto for Franchetti’s Germania, where Napoleon is a despot.


IAGO’S FAN

Scarpia, in Act I, compares himself to Iago:

Per ridurre un geloso allo sbaraglio
Jago ebbe un fazzoletto, ed io un ventaglio!
Iago had a handkerchief, and I a fan
to drive a jealous lover to distraction!

Italian operagoers would have taken the reference to mean the character in Verdi’s Otello, not to Shakespeare’s villain.  Scarpia is, like Jago, a manipulator who lies to trap a couple and who turns another’s jealousy to his own ends.

On another level, it’s a statement of artistic purpose.  Puccini is declaring himself Verdi’s heir.  Verdi himself had heard Illica read his libretto to Sardou; more, he had, according to legend, “seized the manuscript from the librettist’s hand and read the passage [Cavaradossi’s farewell to life] in a voice trembling with emotion” (Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Puccini, 1983).

Just as La Bohème is descended from La traviata (Parisian setting, heroine who leaves boyfriend for what she thinks is his own good and who dies of consumption), here Puccini is using the complex, villainous Verdi baritone who’s the enemy of the couple in love.  He’s implicitly saying that he is the modern composer carrying on the Italian tradition, using Verdi’s tropes, set to modern, through-composed, post-Wagnerian music.


MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS

“Tre sbirri, una carrozza”: The Act I finale.  Scarpia sends his men to follow Tosca; he will use her jealousy to capture both her and her lover Cavaradossi.  For him, the rope; for her, his arms.

 

“Vissi d’arte”.  Tosca’s great aria.  Scarpia has delivered his ultimatum: yield to him, or Cavaradossi gets it.  What, she asks God, has she done to deserve this?

 

“E lucevan le stelle”.  Cavaradossi’s farewell to life, and a tenor warhorse.


SUGGESTED RECORDINGS1976 Tosca.jpg

Watch: The 1976 film starring Raina Kabaivanska (Tosca), Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi) and Sherill Milnes (Scarpia), with the Ambrosian Singers and New Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Bartoletti.  The film, directed by Gianfranco de Bosio, was shot on site in Rome.

The 1978 Met Opera production starring Shirley Verrett (Tosca), Luciano Pavarotti (Cavaradossi) and Cornell MacNeil (Scarpia), conducted by James Conlon.  Directed by Tito Gobbi.

 

Callas Tosca.jpgListen to: The 1953 EMI recording starring Maria Callas (Tosca), Giuseppe Di Stefano (Cavaradossi) and Tito Gobbi (Scarpia), conducted by Victor de Sabata.

 

 

 

 

 

Macbeth – Giuseppe Verdi

MACBETH

Dramma lirico in 4 acts

By Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, after Shakespeare’s play (1606)

First performed: Teatro della Pergola, Florence, 14 March 1847

Revised version: Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, 21 April 1865

Dossier.


RECORDINGS

Watch: The 1986 film starring Shirley Verrett and Leo Nucci, conducted by Riccardo Chailly:

 

Abbado Macbeth.jpgListen to: Verrett again, opposite Piero Cappucilli, in the 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Claudio Abbado.

 

A film of this production was broadcast on RAI:


REVIEW

Verdi, like Berlioz and Wagner, was a Shakespeare fanboy.

“He is my favourite poet,” he told a critic; “I have known him from my childhood and read and reread him continually.”

Shakespeare inspired him to compose some of his finest operas, most famously Otello and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Second Henriad).  He’d toyed with the idea of turning both Hamlet and King Lear into opera.  (The scene between Lear and Cordelia at the play’s end became the father­­–daughter duet in the last act of Luisa Miller.)

His adaptation of Macbeth is easily the best of Verdi’s early galley operas, which were too often full of sound and fury, signifying … little.  This is an intense, claustrophobic opera that points the way to Verdi’s mature masterworks.

Here he creates an atmosphere of palpable evil from the start.  The prelude, with its sinister figures on strings, harsh brass, and winds shrieking like the owl, describes the loneliness of damnation, lost in night and cut off from hope and every decent human feeling; it is as desolate as Herrmann’s score for Psycho.

The murder of Duncan is masterly.  Macbeth resolves to go through with the crime, and pursues the dagger of the mind that floats before him, marshalling him the way that he was going.  The bell strikes – “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell”.  Macbeth stumbles out of the murder chamber, stricken with guilt and terror, and his wife tries to reassure him.

The murder is discovered, and the act ends in an ensemble that strikes like the wrath of God.

In Lady Macbeth, Verdi created one of his great roles for a soprano, a part that demands an actress as well as a singer.  He wanted Lady Macbeth to look ugly and evil – and called for a singer with a “hard, stifled and dark” voice, not a tweeting songbird.

Her sleepwalking scene is justly famous, Lady Macbeth singing in broken half-tones, a woman half-mad with guilt trying by candlelight to cleanse her hands of the blood only she can see.

The problem is Macbeth himself.  Verdi’s opera lacks a sense of Macbeth’s fall from greatness.

Macbeth’s tragedy, for Shakespeare, is that he sacrifices his conscience to ambition.  He may have been a “worthy noble”, loved by his king and esteemed by his peers, but once launched on his bloody career, there is no stopping him.  He becomes ever more ruthless, wading through blood to seize and secure the throne of Scotland, the milk of human kindness curdling in his breast.

Verdi’s character lacks inwardness.  Shakespeare’s tyrant may be a “butcher” and “Bellona’s bridegroom”, a man of war, but he is also sensitive and introspective, in thrall to his imagination and his nerves.  His good nature wars with ambition in his breast; he resolves not to go through with the bloody business of murdering Duncan, but his wife goads him into action (I.vi).  “Infirm of purpose!”  She disparages his manhood, accuses him of cowardice, and reassures him.  Verdi cuts this scene, which is crucial for understanding both Macbeth’s character and his relationship with his wife.

Verdi’s Macbeth is an out-and-out villain, a man of action rather than reflection or remorse.  Words, for the Italian, to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.  We do not see what he was like before he met the witches, and the only time Macbeth shows much human feeling is his aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore”, based on Macbeth’s penultimate soliloquy (V.ii, with the line “My way of life / Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf”).

Verdi and his librettists also misunderstand Banquo’s role in the play.  He is a moral contrast to Macbeth.  Both men hear the witches’ prophecy, but only one man falls.  The witch’s prophecy tempts Banquo, but he overcomes that temptation, keeping his “bosom franchised and allegiance clear” (II.i).

These, though, are quibbles.  “This tragedy,” Verdi wrote, “is one of the greatest creations of man…  If we can’t make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.”

Verdi may rest easy, sleeping well after life’s fitful fever.  Unlike the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, he has little to trouble his conscience.

Germania – Alberto Franchetti

GERMANIA

Dramma lirico in a prologue, 2 scenes, and an epilogue

By Alberto Franchetti

Libretto : Luigi Illica

First performed : Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 11 March 1902

Reception: Franchetti’s most popular work.  At its première, considered the “work of a great artist” – but the audience thought the opera emphasized the patriotic theme to the detriment of the love story.

For the dossier (characters, costume and stage designs), see here.


RECORDING

The recommended recording is the 2007 Montpellier recording, starring Gustavo Porta, Silvio Zanon, and Manuela Uhl, conducted by Renato Palumbo.

 

 

 

English / Italian libretto

Tenor arias from the opera:

 

 

 

 

Germania DVD.jpgThere is also a DVD of a Deutsche Oper Berlin performance, which I have not seen.  Here’s the trailer:

 


REVIEW

And now for something truly obscure…

When I first encounter an unknown opera, I listen to it purely as music.  When I heard Franchetti’s Germania, I was impressed.  It’s STUNNING.  Glorious choruses, post-Wagnerian symphonic writing, beautiful arias, and a strong sense of drama.  It sounds like a cross between Puccini and Mahler.  Feast your ears on this:

 

 

Why, then, did it vanish, along with Franchetti’s other operas?

Let’s take a step back.  Franchetti was, for a time, Puccini’s main rival, and two of his operas, Asrael and Germania, were smash hits in Europe and the Americas.  He was also, like Meyerbeer, a wealthy Jew, and Mussolini banned his operas under the Racial Laws of 1938.

What, though, was an Italian composer doing writing an opera about German nationalism and resistance to French tyranny?

Franchetti was a Germanophile.  He studied in Munich and Dresden, where he wrote his first symphony, and held German citizenship (apparently to divorce his wife; divorce was illegal in the Catholic stronghold of Italy until 1970).

It’s also less about nationalism (in its jingoistic sense – my mother, drunk or sober, as Chesterton said) than about something far nobler: the love of country that inspires heroic deeds.

The opera focuses on three German students, all resisting Napoleon’s occupation of Germany in 1806.  Worms, a liberal, and Federico Loewe, a radical, both love Ricke.  She is engaged to Loewe, but Worms has seduced her.  This is a classic triangle in the line of Donizetti or Verdi, complicated by the fact that all three are well-intentioned, high-minded, young idealists.

 

Prologue
(Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)
Prologue - Federico gives a letter to Ricke.png
Federico gives a letter to Ricke.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

 

The love element is, however, less important than politics.  The opera is about the ideal of fatherland – what makes people fight and die for the liberty of their homeland – rather than the intimate love triangle.

With scant regard for Aristotle, each scene is set months or years apart.  It seems a series of set-pieces, like Verdi’s early historical pageants, rather than a concentrated narrative flow.  Like Verdi, the emotional core of the situation is what matters; dramatic effect is more important than how to get there.  It might be dramatic, but is this cogent drama?  Yes, once one grasps that the opera is like a sprawling historical novel, unified by its political theme, rather than by the characters’ emotions.

Prologue: Worms and students, disguised as millers, plot resistance against France.

The bookseller Johann Philipp Palm is hiding in the mill; he is a political fugitive, charged with selling treasonable material: a pamphlet that urged Germans to take arms against the French.  German philosophers, poets, and musicians – among them Weber (making him, with Mozart and Salieri, one of the few opera composers to appear as a character in an opera!) – and students from every corner of Germany visit Palm in hiding, and dream of a German nation.

They sing an anthem based on Weber’s Wilde Jagd.  Palm is betrayed by the poor boy Jebbel, and led away by the police.  (He was judicially murdered.)

 

 

 

Jane e Palm, in primo piano il plenipotenziario Otto.png
Jane and Palm; Otto, the French Minister at Monaco, in the background.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

Scene I: Only this intensely dramatic and beautiful scene is intimate character-driven drama in the traditional Italian sense. Ricke and Federico marry.

Act I - Stapps parla agli sposi Federico e Ricke.png
Stapps speaks to the married Federico and Ricke.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

 

A love duet between the newlyweds is interrupted by the return of Worms, whom they think dead.  What will this mean for their marriage?  Will Ricke tell Federico that she has had an affair with Worms?  Worms resolves to leave.  When he has gone, Ricke decides to leave her husband, and, leaving her husband of an hour a note, sets out into the woods.

Federico realises the truth, and vows revenge.  All this in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Federico e Jane
Federico and Jane.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

Scene II: The meeting of the Louise-Bund, a branch of the Tugendbund (League of Virtue), a secret society established to revive the Prussian national spirit after Napoleon defeated their armies at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Worms is now head of the society, dedicated to overthrowing the French.  The pastor Stapps, who married Ricke to Federico, carries in the remains of his son, Friedrich, who tried to assassinate Napoleon in Vienna and was shot.  Jebbel confesses to betraying Palm to the police, and is sentenced to die, but Ludwig Adolf Wilhelm von Lützow recruits Jebbel for his army; Jebbel will be given the chance to redeem himself on the battlefield.  Federico appears, masked, and challenges Worms to a duel.

Act II - Un adepto mascherato in piedi davanti a Worms e agli altri Fratelli.png
A masked adept standing in front of Worms and other Brothers.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

Worms is prepared to die, but Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen Consort of Prussia, suddenly appears, and reconciles the enemies.

Act II - Apparizione di una Donna e di uno dei suoi figli con in mano un mazzo di gigli azzurri.png
Appearance of a Lady and one of her sons, holding a bunch of blue lilies.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

“These two men, enemies in love, but brothers in patriotism, grasp the weapons once more, embracing, crying in tones rendered sublime by the emotion and enthusiasm of this great moment.”  This effectively resolves the love triangle.  In a majestic, hymnal ensemble, all present vow to “Die – die – die for Germany!”

Epilogue: The aftermath of the Battle of Leipzig (16–19 October 1813), also known as the Battle of the Nations, the largest pre-WWI battle, in which Napoleon was defeated for the first time. Ricke finds Federico dying; the two lovers are reunited.

Act III - Ricke vaga sul campo di battaglia.png
Ricke wandering on the battlefield.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

Worms has died on the battlefield, clasping the standard; Ricke covers his body with it, forgiving him.

“The sun’s last rays throw a lurid light in the western sky, and reveal in deep shadow the impressive spectacle of an army in retreat.

“The Grenadiers pass in silence across the dying sun!  No more the song of triumph floats round the victorious standards, the eagles of the standards, with outstretched wings, resembling a flight of terrified birds.  One solitary figure rides quite alone, on whom the red sun, red with blood, dances, his fine head bowed in thought on his breast.  It is Napoleon.  Within this blood-red halo of sunset (sunset, indeed!) he rides, alone with his great glory and his great defeat; his generals follow in silence, with all that vast shadow of horses, heads, plumes, arms and standards, across this tragic sunset, like some huge fantastic cavalcade of spectres.

FEDERICO: Germany!  Free!

“So Federico dies in the arms of Ricke, with a vision of his country set free.

“Without a tear she gently lays down the beloved dead; sinking beside him, she drops her head upon the lifeless heart and awaits the approaching night, for these two their first and eternal wedding night.

“And in the distance, fading away on the red horizon, still moves that blot, a joyless, songless army.”

Act III - Federico fra le braccia di Ricke, sullo sfondo Napoleone e il suo esercito in ritirata.png
Federico in Ricke’s arms; in the background, Napoleon and his army retreating.  (Source: Archivio Storico Ricordi)

CURTAIN


 

Torvaldo e Dorliska – Gioachino Rossini

TORVALDO E DORLISKA

Dramma semiserio in 2 acts

By Gioachino Rossini

Libretto: Cesare Sterbini, after Francesco Gonella’s Lodoïska

First performed: Teatro Valle, Rome, 26 December 1815

Reception: Fiasco – but remained in the repertoire until the 1830s, and was performed throughout Europe.

For the dossier, see here.


REVIEW

Torvaldo DVD.jpgOne doesn’t think of Rossini as a Socialist, calling for the workers to rise and overthrow the aristos.  He was a wit and bon viveur, who wryly accepted human nature and the world as it was, and enjoyed life’s pleasures: eating, drinking, making love, singing, and sleeping.  Not for him Verdi’s political operas calling for liberty and the Italian nation, or Wagner manning the barricades in the company of the anarchist Bakunin.

Torvaldo e Dorliska, though, is almost Marxist.  It pits the heroism of the workers against the tyranny of a corrupt and decadent aristocracy.  Workers of the world, one might almost imagine the steward Giorgio saying, you have nothing to lose but your chains – and there are plenty of chains in the Duke of Ordow’s castle.

The Duke may well be the nastiest character in any of Rossini’s operas; only Gessler, the Austrian governor in Guillaume Tell, is as rank a villain.  The Duke is a tyrant – but he is also, in the Pesaro production, psychotic.  He tries to throttle Dorliska, and beats her.  Michele Pertusi’s performance is menacing.

By the end of the first act, the Duke has imprisoned both Dorliska and her husband Torvaldo.  Torvaldo might have entered the Duke’s castle in disguise, determined to rescue his wife, but it’s Giorgio who saves the day.  He decides to work against his master; he persuades the other servants to help him get rid of the Duke; and he and his sister, the housekeeper Carlotta, release the prisoners from their cells.  The aristocracy are tyrannical or inept; salvation comes from below, from the ordinary, decent man.

Rossini was working in a popular genre: the rescue opera, which came out of the French Revolution, and told tales of captivity, sudden rescue from death, villains thwarted, and couples reunited.  The most famous example, of course, is Beethoven’s Fidelio, which turned the genre into a sublime hymn to the brotherhood of man.

Rossini’s opera isn’t on the same level as Beethoven’s, or up to the heights of his own mature masterpieces composed between 1815 and 1822.  The music is often too agreeable for the situation; pleasant but not memorable; or was recycled for other operas (including La Cenerentola), and works better there.  There is a fine trio, though:

The opera is theatrically effective, particularly in the Pesaro production.  The final scenes are exciting: swords wave, the angry villagers break in, and the snarling Duke receives his comeuppance.

Director Mario Martone seizes on the possibilities of a small theater.  The singers move among the audience; they walk down aisles, sing from lodges, or duel on a walkway between the orchestra and the audience.  The imaginative sets boast moving stairs, a cage that rises out of the floor, and a terrific forest.

This may be only a minor work, but the production is excellent.  Get hold of it as soon as you can, and bask in Rossini.


RECORDINGS

Suggested:

DVD (and CD) of the 2006 performance at the Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, conducted by Victor Pablo Pérez and starring Darina Takova, Francesco Meli, Michele Pertusi, Bruno Praticò, and Jeannette Fischer.

Torvaldo CDFrom Naxos: the 2003 Bad Wildbad performance conducted by Alessandro De Marchi and starring Paola Cigna, Huw Rhys-Evans, Michele Bianchini, Mario Utzeri, and Annarita Gemmabella.

La scala di seta – Gioachino Rossini

LA SCALA DI SETA

Farsa in 1 act

By Gioachino Rossini

Libretto: Giuseppe Maria Foppa

First performed: Teatro San Moisè, Venice, 9 May 1812

Notes: Rossini’s fifth performed opera.

Reception: Muted.  Critics thought the libretto was plagiarised, and the opera vanished after 1825.  Resurrected in 1952, it is now frequently performed.  (Charles Osborne, Bel Canto Operas)

For the dossier, see here.


REVIEW

 

The scampering overture – the best-known piece from the score – sounds, as someone said, like a “brightly coloured puppy chasing its tail” – and then skidding to a halt.

Rossini himself was a young dog when he composed the opera, barely five years old.  (He was born on leap year day, 1792, and the opera was performed in May 1812.)

One can imagine the composer, bright-eyed and inquisitive as a terrier, trotting through his garden, chasing melodic butterflies that perched on flowers, sniffing out interesting harmonies buried under the rose bushes, and gamboling in the sunlight of Italian opera.

He is prodigal in melody with the open-handedness of youth.  Here an elegant aria for the soprano, there an aria for the buffo bass as he drinks himself to sleep, yonder an excellent quartet.

The opera is adapted from a French farce.  Dorvil climbs up the “silken ladder” to meet Giulia, the girl he has secretly married; her guardian wants her to marry the foppish Blansac.  A drunken servant misunderstands his mistress’s plans to meet her husband, tells the wrong people to meet her, and, by the end, five characters are hiding in the room – one in a cupboard, another under a table, a third behind the fire grille, and so on.

Rossini’s music is joyous.  It dances merrily, fleet-footed and flirtatious.  It twinkles and smiles.  Other composers may use music to express the depths of the psyche, the heights of the cosmos, or man’s search for God; music, for Rossini, is an end in itself.


RECORDINGS

Scala seta DVD.jpgTry the DVD of the 1990 Schwetzingen Festival production, starring David Griffith, Luciana Serra, Jane Bunnell, and David Kuebler, conducted by Gianluigi Gelmetti.  An excellent naturalistic production, with a talented young cast.

 

 

 

 

Rossini one act operas.jpgOn CD, Marcello Viotti’s 1992 recording, starring Fulvio Massa, Teresa Ringholz, Francesca Provvisionato, and Ramón Vargas.  This comes in a box set, Rossini: The Five One-Act Operas, with La cambiale di matrimonio, Il signor Bruschino, L’occasione fa il ladro, and L’inganno felice.  A terrific bargain!

Both Scala di seta productions have Alessandro Corbelli, one of the great Rossinian singers, as the buffo servant.

 

 

Nina – Giovanni Paisiello

NINA, O SIA LA PAZZA PER AMORE

Commedia per musica in 1 act

By Giovanni Paisiello

Libretto: Giuseppe Carpani and Giovanni Battista Lorenzi, after Benoît-Joseph Marsollier de Vivetières’ Nina ou La folle par amour

First performed: Belvedere di San Leucio, Caserta, 25 June 1789

Revised: Teatro dei Fiorentini, Naples, in 2 acts, autumn 1790

Reception: Enthusiastic, and popular in Italy until 1845.

For more information about the opera, see the dossier.


REVIEW

Nina is a hard girl to like.  She’s mad, and gloomily so; like most gloomy things, she bores.  She believes that her lover is dead, killed in a duel by the man her father wanted her to marry.  And so she mopes, pines, and laughs hysterically, until reunited with her lover.

These days, her composer, Giovanni Paisiello, is best known for composing the original Barbiere di Siviglia.  He was a favorite of the crowned heads of Europe; Napoleon considered him “the greatest composer there is” – but, on the strength of Nina, it’s easy to see why Rossini supplanted Paisiello.

The opera is static.  Most of Act I is an extended mad scene, lasting more than half an hour.  One has to admire it, if only as a display of stamina, but it doesn’t make for entertaining drama.  There’s also a shepherd’s aria, accompanied by bagpipes – guaranteed to put your teeth on edge.

There are some fine things in the score:

Nina’s aria “Il mio ben quando verrà”;

the quartet “Comè!  Ohimè !  Partir degg’io”;

Lindoro’s cavatina and aria “Questo è dunque il loco usato…  Rendila al fido amante”;

and the duet “Oh momento fortunato!”.

The rest of the score sounds like Mozart, but not as good; and the finest thing in the filmed production (Zurich 2002) is by Mozart: the concert aria “Ah, lo previdi”.  As an interpolation, it smacks of self-indulgence.

That filmed production does the opera no favours.  The opera should be a pastoral semiseria, a sentimental piece with a happy ending.  The director, Cesare Lievi, reads: “Delightful garden, bordering a park on one side, and on the other a main road, which one reaches through a majestic gate” – and thinks: “Basement of an asylum, with peeling walls, and one chair.”  O God, another opera about mad people, set in a lunatic asylum!

This is a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli.  Bartoli was a sympathetic Angelina in Rossini’s Cenerentola; she has an excellent voice, but…!  Here she channels Helena Bonham-Carter: all frizzy hair and wild eyes.  She rolls around on the floor in spasms, kicking her heels, and cramming flowers into her mouth, like a cross between Nebuchadnezzar and a two-year-old.  Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

The young Jonas Kaufmann, playing her presumed dead lover, shows why he is one of the great tenors of the generation.  Blessed with a fine voice and natural stage presence, he lights up every scene he’s in.


MUSIC

Suggested recordings:

Nina - Hirsch.jpgHans Ludwig Hirsch’s 1998 Arts Music recording, starring Jeanne-Marie Bima, William Matteuzzi, Alfonso Antoniozzi, Gloria Banditelli, and Natale De Carolis, with the Hungarian Chamber Chorus Concentus Hungaricus.

 

 

 

 

Nina - Bonynge.jpgRichard Bonynge’s 2003 Nuovo Era recording, starring Marina Bolgan, Don Bernardini, Francesco Musinu, Fiorella Pediconi, and Giorgio Surian, with the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo “Bellini” di Catania.