Sadko – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

SADKO           (Садко)

Opera-bylina in 7 tableaux

By Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Libretto: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with the assistance of Vladimir Stasov, Vasily Yastrebtsev, Nikolai Shtrup, Nikolai Findeyzen, and Vladimir Belsky

Compiled from the bylina Sadko, the Rich Trader, the Tale of the Sea King and the Wise Vasilisa, The Book of the Dove and other ancient ballads and Russian tales

First performed: Solodovnikov Theatre, Moscow, 7 January 1898 (Old Style 26 December 1897)

Dossier: roles, musical structure, set designs.


Sadko DVDWatch: The 1994 performance from the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev, and starring Vladimir Galuzin (Sadko), Marianna Tarasova (Lyubasha), and Valentina Tsidipova (Volkhova).

This beautiful production uses Konstantin Korovin’s set designs from a 1920s production.

You can watch the production here:

Sadko CDListen: Philips released a CD of the same performance, which is available on the Decca set Rimsky-Korsakov: 5 Operas.  The other four operas are Kashchey the Immortal, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, The Maid of Pskov, and The Tsar’s Bride.  It’s a terrific bargain – but it doesn’t come with any libretti.



Sadko is easily the best opera I’ve covered so far on this blog—but it may be an acquired taste.

Russian mythsRimsky-Korsakov, one of classical music’s great orchestrators, casts his spell.  For musical imagination and a sense of wonder, it’s stunning – but anyone expecting an opera like Puccini or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will be disappointed.  There’s little in the way of psychology or naturalism, but that’s not what Rimsky-Korsakov is interested in here.  (Those who want a more dramatically conventional opera should check out The Tsar’s Bride.)  He wanted to recreate the world of Russian legends, which are less known in the West.  I grew up reading myths and legends, including Russian folktales, so this is home territory for me.

The opera is based on the bylina, the Russian epic poems telling the adventures of heroes – Ilya Muromets, the giant Svyatogor, and Vladimir Bright Sun, Prince of Kiev.  They were often performed to calm the sea, which surges and crashes, rises and falls, through this opera from the opening bars.

Sadko is a minstrel who wants to become a merchant trader.  He dreams of sailing blue seas and exploring distant lands.  Just as Sadko goes in search of new countries, Rimsky-Korsakov searches for new territory.

In each new work of mine, I am trying to do something that is new for me.  On the one hand, I am pushed on by the thought that in this way, [my music] will retain freshness and interest, but at the same time I am prompted by my pride to think that many facets, devices, moods, and styles, if not all, should be within my reach.

Sadko is a multi-faceted jewel, glowing with as many hues as the ever-changing, restless sea.

Rimsky-Korsakov paints nature (the sea, meadows, rivers, storms), the supernatural, Sadko’s heroism, and his wife Lyubava’s despair.  He travels from the human world – the bustling city of Novogorod, with its guildhouses and piers – to the shores of Lake Ilmen, ships on the sea, and the depths of the ocean, the realm of the Sea King and his daughter Volkhova.

Foreign merchants sing of the wonders of their homelands: Varangia (where the Vikings live), with its surging ocean and craggy cliffs;

the proud trading city of Venice, where the Doge marries the sea each year; and the diamond-studded caves of India, a fabulous land of pearls, sapphires, and phoenixes whose singing makes men forget everything.

The hypnotically lovely Song of the Indian Merchant (once retooled as a jazz hit – and do listen to this orchestral rearrangement) may be the only famous extract, but the whole score is wonderful, mixing Rimskyan instrumental magic with grand opera and Wagnerian symphonic writing.

While Rimsky-Korsakov tried to do something new with each work, the opera reworks a 30-year-old musical tableau (1867, revised 1869 and 1892), which depicts the sea, Sadko’s visit to the Sea King’s court, the dance at the marriage of the King’s daughter, and a wild storm.  The composer “used the material of my symphonic poem for this opera, and its motives as leitmotifs for the opera”.

Sadko, like many Russian operas, shows the influence of French grand opera, with its dramatic tableaux, big choral scenes, and ballet.  The story reminded me of Meyerbeer’s Africaine (Vasco da Gama); the visionary hero defies the authorities, is rejected, and loves two women, one an exotic princess from a distant realm.  Rimsky-Korsakov was justifiably proud of Tableau IV, a scene in a public place (a pier), with the foreign Merchants’ arias and counterpoint choruses of merchants, pilgrims and townsfolk.

The opera is also a response to Wagner.  Rimsky attended the first Russian productions of the Ring in 1888–89.  He admired Wagner’s orchestration, but detested Wagnerism, “a kind of a cult, a sort of religion in art”, and believed that Wagner corrupted the next generation of Western musicians.  (See Muir and Belina-Johnson, Wagner in Russia, Poland and the Czech Lands.)

Like Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his own libretti, but to different aesthetic ends.  Wagner wrote “myth drama”, sublimating music to drama, and using Norse or German myth and legend to reveal what he thought were universal truths about the human condition.  Rimsky-Korsakov emphasized music over drama; he uses music to depict a particular legend (here, the life of a twelfth-century Novogorodian merchant, the creation of the river Volkhova, and the city’s river/maritime trade), but the legend is also a scaffold for the music; the story serves the music.

This isn’t to say that the opera lacks feeling.  The small, intimate Tableau 3 focuses on Lyubava, who fears Sadko doesn’t love her.  He sails off in Tableau 4; his voyage means freedom, success, and adventure to him, but a living widowhood to her.  We’re invited to simultaneously admire Sadko’s courage and sympathise with the wife he deserts.

In the opera, he upbraids the wealthy merchants who hoard gold, rather than trading; the merchants see him as a troublemaker who sides with the down-and-outs; and he wins their goods in a wager and uses them to clothe the poor.  He becomes a hero of the people in Aleksandr Ptushko’s excellent 1952 film (winner of the 1953 Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion), which uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s score.

He stirs up the folk, and overthrows the capitalists, who gorge themselves while the poor suffer – but realizes that throwing the merchants’ riches at the poor, and giving them sumptuous clothes, hasn’t helped the genuinely poor: the lame, the aged, the beggars.  He vows to trade with the world to benefit his community.

“Go, Sadko, work for the people!”

Les contes d’Hoffmann – Jacques Offenbach


By Jacques Offenbach

Opéra in a prologue, 3 acts, and an epilogue

Libretto: Jules Barbier, after Barbier and Michel Carré’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, based on Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann

Notes: Offenbach’s last opera.  There is no fixed score, and various versions exist, as Offenbach died before he could complete the work.  The Venice (Giulietta) act, for instance, wasn’t performed at the première, and the Antonia act was moved from Munich to Venice so they could use the famous Barcarolle.  Two of the finest pieces in the score – the aria “Scintille, diamant” and the Septet – weren’t composed for the opera.

First performed (without the Venice act): Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 10 February 1881

First complete performance: Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 13 November 1911



illustration.jpgOffenbach’s last work is astonishing.  It’s an opera of ideas rather than of feeling; it comments on the nature of opera and the creative artist’s imagination, while blending science fiction and fantasy with comedy.

And it features a drunken poet, a robot, mad scientists (one with a collection of eyeballs), a singing painting, a courtesan and a dwarf out of a Weimar cabaret, four devils, and the artist’s Muse.

Heady stuff for the 1880s.

Hoffmann is the protagonist of his own opera.  The conceit is that he tells his drinking cronies the stories of three women he loved: Olympia (in Paris), really an automaton; Giulietta (in Venice), who stole his reflection; and Antonia (in Munich), who sang herself to death.

He reveals at the end that all three women – the wind-up doll who sings mechanical coloratura, the heartless courtesan who fakes emotion, and the consumptive soprano who surrenders her life to her desire for fame and glory – are the same woman: the opera singer Stella.

The three heroines are (as the Seattle Opera Blog suggests) embodiments of opera:

  • Olympia, in the comic Paris act, is French coquetterie, a doll who’s trotted out to display her accomplishments for her wealthy admirers, just as many singers and ballerinas eked out their earnings by genteel prostitution;
  • The decadent Venetian courtesan Giulietta is Italian vocal virtuosity and faked emotion. Significantly, she has no aria of her own, but only sings in duets. If an aria is an expression of interiority, she has no self to express; she counterfeits emotion, and can only do so in duets or ensembles.
  • Antonia is the star singer’s ego. The villain appeals to her vanity, and makes her destroy herself by luring her into singing an Italianate cabaletta, a crowd-pleasing aria that shows off the soprano’s high notes.

Offenbach parodied grand opera – particularly Meyerbeer and Rossini – in his opéras bouffes.  Here, in a full-blown opera, he condemns opera itself as empty spectacle catering to singers’ vanity.

Hoffmann, like Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and Wagner’s Meistersinger, is also about the creative artist.  Berlioz and Wagner show the revolutionary Romantic genius triumphing over his bourgeois critics / rivals in love and getting the girl.  Hoffmann – dreamer, poet, and idealist – is unsuccessful in love; his art is his consolation.

His Muse, disguised as his friend Nicklausse, accompanies him on his adventures.  She is ambiguous, even sinister; she blocks Hoffmann, and even helps the Enemy (the villain in each episode, all played by the same baritone) thwart his efforts to find true love.  She needs Hoffmann to suffer to create stories.

(Is artistic inspiration a parasite?)

Hoffmann takes events, the raw material of truth, and turns them into literature.  Those stories are fictionalized versions – not memories – of what happened.  The bulk of the action – three whole acts – doesn’t take place.  (I can only think of one near-contemporary opera with a similar idea: Saint-Saëns’s Timbre d’argent, also by Barbier and Carré.)

This is sophisticated stuff, and anticipates twentieth century literature: an unreliable narrator and a narrative that calls attention to its own fictionality and critiques its form.

It is only a small step from Hoffmann to the absurdist, Modernist operas of the twentieth-century – to Strauss, Korngold, Weill and Hindemith.


Oeser edition: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Luciana Serra (Olympia), Jessye Norman (Giulietta), Rosalind Plowright (Antonia), José van Dam (Villains), Ann Murray (Nicklausse/the Muse), conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, Brussels Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, EMI 1988

Hoffmann Shicoff.jpg

Kaye-Keck edition: Roberto Alagna (Hoffmann), Natalie Dessay (Olympia), Sumi Jo (Giulietta), Leontina Vaduva (Antonia), José van Dam (Villains), Catherine Dubosc (Nicklausse), conducted by Kent Nagano, Opéra National de Lyon, Erato 1996

HOffmann Keck.jpg

Inauthentic, but well sung: Plácido Domingo (Hoffmann), Joan Sutherland (Heroines), Gabriel Bacquier (Villains), Huguette Tourangeau (Nicklausse), conducted by Richard Bonynge, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Decca 1971

Hoffmann Sutherland.jpg

DVD: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Gwendolyn Bradley (Olympia), Tatiana Troyanos (Giulietta), Roberta Alexander (Antonia), James Morris (Villains), conducted by Charles Dutoit, Metropolitan Opera of New York 1988

Imaginative performance, using a traditional score.  Watch it online at the Met’s website.



Macbeth – Giuseppe Verdi


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



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:


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 (  “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


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.


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:



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.


(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)



Torvaldo e Dorliska – Gioachino Rossini


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.


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.



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


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.



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.


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


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.


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.


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.