Alfredo Catalani: Edmea (1886)

I have decided to write a review for each of Catalani’s operas. There are only five of them and one is already up, that being of course 1890’s Loreley. Whereas Loreley is a revision of Catalani’s second opera, Elda (which has never been recorded, thus there will be no review for it, nor has it even performed entirely; it’s 1880 premiere was in a condensed version that was around half the length of the original score and thus the reasoning for the revision named Loreley), and demonstrates traces of what is termed “Wagnerism”, Edmea is basically a nostalgic look back on what opera used to be. Written between 1883 and 1885, one could easily be mistaken that this opera was written by Verdi in the 1860s, such was Catalani’s ability to mimic a variety of styles (his music contains traces from at least a dozen different Italian, German, and French composers), here it is the Verdian Golden Age, although there are traces of the younger age of the work in the score.

The opera was rather successful in its first year, receiving performances in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Nice, and across Italy. It was also the first of Catalani’s operas to be performed in Germany. After Catalani’s death in 1893 it disappeared until the revival of interest in Catalani that took place between 1903 and the 1920s when the Verismo of the 1890s crashed and burned. Since the Second World War however Edmea has received only a single production, which is the origin of this recording from Catalani’s hometown of Lucca in 1989 released through the Italian label Bongiovanni. The image above is the CD label depicting the production’s set for Act 2 Scene 1.

The plot of Edmea is based on a play by Alexandre Dumas fils entitles Les Danicheff. The libretto was originally intended for the Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes who was himself a curious and highly successful chapter of Italian operatic history. The story concerns a girl adopted into a noble family who falls in love with the son of her protectors, is married off to a servant of said family, goes insane, is returned to sanity by her lover, and is widowed so she can marry the man she loves. The opera is set in Bohemia around 1600.

Total Running Time:  1 hour 48 minutes. Thanks to Ulrich Dunnebach

CREDITS:

Edmea………………..Maria Sokolinska Noto
Conte di Leitmeritz……Graziano del Vivo
Oberto,suo figlio……..Maurizio Frusoni
Barone di Valdeck……..Angelo Nosotti
Ulmo, vasallo…………Mario Chingari
Fritz, giullare……….Pierre Lefebvre
L’ oste………………Guido Pasella

Coro e orchestra lirico sinfonica del
Teatro del Giglio di Lucca
Massimo de Bernart, conductor
Lucca, September, 1989

ACT 1: A Castle on the Elbe River. 36:30 minutes

0: Prelude. Hard timpani with some rather dramatic strings. This almost sounds like the film score for a film set in Arabia. Then some calming high violins that get agitated. The original theme returns with timpani in combination with the high violins. Crescendo. Woodwinds (oboe?) and harps and strings for the remainder, ends rather angelically **.

3: This entire chorus reminds me of the Spinning Chorus from the second act of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman *. Starts calm, then French horn giving us some forelonging.

7:Edmea tells us what is troubling her, namely her relationship with Oberto, the son of her protector. This aria sounds like Bellini wrote it *. A very simple orchestral accompaniment,  Catalani allows the voice to demonstrate Edmea’s emotions. A brief return of the spinning motif as Oberto enters and dismisses the women.

11: The love duet, Edmea/Oberto. This thing sounds like Verdi wrote it in places, others have traces of Massenet **. It starts off hastily, but around half way through Edmea takes up a beautiful line. Then there is a violent exchange from the orchestral, (possibly because Oberto extracts a vow from Edmea that she would die before loving another man) but the last two minutes fly on a wonderful melody.

19: This is an incredible good baritone aria for Ulmo as he contemplates his wedding to Edmea which he knows is unwanted by her (although plotted by the Count) and yet he is in love with her. Very Verdian in style **. Menacing in places, disparing perhaps (?), but much of it is incredibly soft. Look out especially for the last two minutes.

25: This theme will return later, sort of a oom-pah-pah, and represents the Count, but it still sounds like Verdi. Listen for three to five minutes in when Edmea pleads with the Count not to marry her off to Ulmo, this along with Ulmo and the Count’s reactions are the best part *.

32: Period dance music (minuet?). The minister arrives and the marriage contract is signed, Edmea goes mad and runs away (terrified that the Count is forcing her to break her vow to Oberto), presumably to drown herself in the Elbe river which is conviniently just outside the castle. Ulmo runs after her, the wedding bell turns into an emergency alert call and the chorus praying to God with the Count praying that his son never finds out what he has done **.

ACT 2: 40 minutes

Scene 1: A Beergarden at an Inn, around two weeks later. 12 minutes.

3: There is a lively but brief prelude, starts with flutes and strings, then builds. The Jesters arrive headed by their leader Fritz, a tenor, naturally. Exciting bit just before Edmea arrives. To everyone’s confusion, Edmea is in beautiful clothes, and she is totally mad. At first I thought that this scene immediately followed the first act, it actually is weeks later. Edmea’s mad scene is incredibly understated, the chorus equally underplayed and rather glum. Edmea starts going about saying she is the Queen of the Fairies, searching for her king (seriously, this is what the libretto says!). She is mad, but the scene is rather good, and this is uniquely perhaps the only understated mad scene in all opera **. Five minutes into this we get this odd combination of Wagnerian and Verdian traits in the music. The first time the music really sounds like the Catalani of Loreley and La Wally. There is some modulation and a climax that is a total non-Italian animal as the leader of the jesters says he will pay Edmea and Ulmo (who has followed her) bill and they will join his troop who are about to perform for a Baron in honor of the birth of his new son.

Scene 2: The Gardens of the Baron’s castle. 28 minutes.

12: There is no transition interlude between the two tableaux. Instead we have some very Germanfest sounding band music. This turns into a rather good Choral-Waltz. A group of women converse with and about Oberto, specifically that he was the lover of a now dead woman and that this is a shame because he is very handsome **.

15: Oberto’s aria. A combination of Verdi and Bellini, thus Bel Canto. The entire part of Oberto is written in a bel canto style, possibly the last time this has happened, yet there is something in the harps and violins (bringing back themes from the prelude) that is more modern. The last three minutes seem to be foreshadowing Puccini and remind us of the past, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, at the same time. A remarkable feat for a composer as overlooked as Catalani. This is possibly the best number so far ***.

21.30: The Baron arrives, traces of the waltz music from earlier, with his court. The Jesters arrive.

25: Edmea is heard in the distance singing a sad song. Oberto calls out Edmea’s name upon recognizing her and quickly realises that she is insane.

30: Ensemble, almost an act finale, but not quite. Very Verdian but with a completely different orchestral accompaniment. Beautiful though. Watch especially for the last  2 and a half minutes when everything comes together, including Edmea’s sanity. ***

36: But the act is not over yet. First Fritz and the Jugglers start off with this theme that sounds like a fragment of a Western film score. Then we are back in Verdi land, a bit of Ponchielli too. Edmea demands that Oberto take her away from Ulmo and the Count. He agrees ***.

ACT 3: A Pine Grove on the Count’s Estate. 31:30 minutes

0: Prelude. Trumpets, then strings running everywhere, then a kind of waltz theme and a return to the minuet theme from act 1. Then bang! Trombone and strings fighting. Crash, then slowly floating away again **.

3: Trumpets. Female chorus again, as with the first act, discussing Edmea, specifically how she is still secretly married to Ulmo even if she is under Oberto’s protection. Edmea in the distance, some coloratura and a repeat of the mad scene music.Not amazing, but not bad either *.

7: Edmea’s aria. I am not sure if it is foreshadowing the future or returning us to the past. There is something about this number, and the third act, and in comparison to the first and second acts is incredibly modern and very similar to Catalani’s later opera La Wally.

13: Oberto arrives, a love duet ensues obviously. Lovely **.

16: There are traces of ‘Loreley’ at this point and running for around two and a half minutes, then we return to Verdi-land, the music goes back to being rather old fashioned again **. Some of the modulation in the orchestra, specifically accompaning Edmea at this point, sounds like Dvorak. Some Ponchielli at the end.

21: Ulmo comes on detressed. Oberto attacks him, not realising that the man is dying, demanding that he free Edmea from their marriage so he (Oberto) can marry her. Edmea comments on how pale he looks and Ulmo admits that he has poisoned himself so Edmea will be freed from their marriage. Suddenly around 3:15 the music modulates briefly. Ulmo asks as a last request that Edmea kiss his forehead after he dies. The flutes sound errie here. Some of the music from the prelude returns, Ulmo expires, Oberto declaring him dead and Edmea mourns. Suddenly  around 7:00 there are voices from without. The Count admits what he did and asks forgiveness of his son. Oberto reveals that Ulmo has killed himself and everyone mourns. Oberto reminds Edmea of Ulmo’s request and she kisses his forehead saying that his memory will always be sacred to her. Affecting ending **.

This opera is beautiful musically, it is easy to see that it was so successful for the brief time it made its tour around the world. It is also somewhat all over the place. The entire first act and almost all of the second are well within a nostalgic Verdian tradition which was already long passed being termed “dated” in the 1880s. When we get to act three, this has mostly changed, and the music sounds much more modern, at least for the 1880s, although there are patches of Verdian influence in the central love duet. It is hard to claim that it foreshadows Puccini, because Puccini frequently copied Catalani’s style in the decades after the latter’s death. Claiming that Catalani foreshadowed Puccini would be as logically as saying that Ponchielli or Verdi foreshadowed Catalani, beyond chronology it is not that accurate. However, Catalani’s music being a mixture of at least nine different composers: Verdi, Wagner, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer, Weber, Gounod, Massenet, Bizet, and Ambroise Thomas,  the composer of Mignon and Hamlet, is probably not an overstatement, although I would also add that Catalani did an amazing job of combining these different influences. Attacks on Catalani, and his being essentially discarded in Italy while popular to some extent in Germany and Nordic countries can be attributed to the fact that all but two of his operas are set in Northern European countries, the exceptions being the Arabia of La Falce (1875) and the Sicily and Ithaca of Dejanice (1883).

catalani-edmea-2

There is never really a non-good moment in this opera, although most of it is hardly world-class. There are certain numbers that are close to mind-blowing, but they never exactly make it. It is incredibly enjoyable through and through though. I find it hard to talk about this opera for some reason, however. I know it is good because I have ears to hear with, but it is hard for me to praise it for even a medium length of time. I do not know why that is. Although some reviewers have complained about the singers, the choir, the orchestra, I can not honestly fault any of them. The Polish soprano Maria Noro Sokolinska attacks the challenging role of Edmea with perfection and never overstates what could easily be overstated. The late-Italian tenor Maurizio Frusoni is equally up to the nostalgic bel canto-esque role of Oberto and French tenor Pierre Lefebvre is good as Fritz. The basses and baritones are all excellent as well. It is no surprise that this production would be mounted in Lucca, Catalani’s birth place and that the orchestra and choir are more than willing to make a great case for this opera, why it was successful at one point, and why it should be a performed more often. Unfortunately, this production is the last time to date that this opera has been performed, which is about as nostalgically sad as Ulmo’s suicide. To be able to attempt to bring back a style from decades before, and gain one’s first international success is no small accomplishment. For an opera that had its premiere at La Scala of all places, and one that took years to fall into “the depths”, with latter-day productions into the 1920s, it should be much better known. But such is the fate of all of Catalani’s music, save La Wally and to some extent Loreley. Hopefully times will change. An incredibly enjoyable A-/B+.

Next up…a forty minute one act opera by Catalani from his student days: La Falce (The Scythe)

 

 

 

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