This is a very interesting example of a once extremely popular opera (until around 1900 it had enjoyed more performances than Lucia di Lammermoor!) but because of the difficulty of the title role it disappeared until 1975 and since then has only rarely been revived. This is surprisingly the reason for the opera’s neglect (and its presence on this site!) and not the fact that it has one of the bloodiest plots in all of opera and is more than a little racist in its stereotyping.
CAST of the Recording under review:
Gemma di Vergy – Montserrat Caballe
Conte di Vergy – Renato Bruson
Tamas – Giorgio Lamberti
Ida – Bianca-Maria Casoni
Guido – Mario Rinaudo
Conductor – Armando Gatto
Orchestra – Teatro San Carlo di Napoli
Chorus – Teatro San Carlo di Napoli
SYNOPSIS: Berry, Southern France, 1428. The Count de Vergy wants to annul his marriage to Gemma and marry Ida in order to produce an heir. Meanwhile Gemma is beloved by her Arab slave Tamas who murders the Count’s butler, is pardoned at the request of Gemma, and later murders the Count during his wedding ceremony, commits suicide and is cursed by Gemma who really wanted Ida killed.
Running Time: 153 minutes
ACT 1 (85 minutes)
Scene 1: A hall in the Castle. (61 minutes)
0: Overture. This is a rather strong piece, not altogether amazing, but it tries to be powerful and menacing constantly. There is a flirting bit in the strings but otherwise it tries to stay at force-8 or 9 for the duration. It also sounds a little younger than it is *.
8: The standard choral-bass opening for Guido setting up the situation as they wait for Rolando to return from the Pope regarding the annulment. Starts off agreeably with a waltzing tune, still maintaining some of the momentum of the overture but then the waltz starts to dominate rather effectively. Rolando arrives announcing the annulment, the chorus and Guido pity Gemma. Then Rolando starts talking about Joan of Arc because we just happen to be in that time period and the Count is fighting against the English. Look out for the finale bit *.
20,26,36,41: Tamas refuses to accept the annulment of his beloved mistress in a rather sweet accompanied cavatina as Rolando pull a dagger on him **. Gemma arrives to stop the violence and to mourn her fate: she is told by Guido of the bad news so she goes into an aria ** instead in which she expresses that she still loves the Count backed by the rather noble sounding male chorus and an angry Tamas. Guido consoles Gemma who has no choice but to enter a convent *. Gemma gets some time to bel canto everywhere **. The Count is about to return from battle and Gemma must confront her new reality.
47,50,53, 57: Tamas returns and presents Gemma with the dagger he has just used to slay Rolando, pleading with her to leave with him, no star. Chorus of heralds arrives followed by the Count, a return to the bang-power of the overture *. The Count sees the dagger (and blood) and fears that Gemma has killed herself. Apparently he cares enough about her if she were to die but as a spouse he is willing to replace her with a younger model. It is a rather tuneful aria though **. Guido informs the Count that it is Rolando’s blood not Gemma’s. Thankful Count demands that Tamas be judged for the slaying, but also ponders Gemma’s future **.
Scene 2: The Courtroom in the Castle. (24 minutes)
61,67,71,73: This is somehow the start of a massive finale to act 1. Jumpy intro from the orchestra and choir that demands Tamas die. Bizarrely upbeat considering the subject at hand, they are shushed by Guido announcing the Count who basically waltzes in. Tamas testifies in recitative with the Count interjecting as needed. Tamas admits that Rolando murdered his father years before. The Count decides it would be better to banish Tamas than to execute him* but Tamas (grateful for his liberty) then confesses that he does not want to leave and would rather murder the Count during his approaching wedding. The Count reacts to this by ordering his execution when Gemma bursts in (this is becoming a habit no?) petitioning that Tamas be spared. This is granted but her second plea, that her marriage not be obliterated, is rejected. First with Tamas and then the Count followed by Gemma and the female chorus what follows is rather innovative and new, sounding around a decade or so in the future prefiguring Verdi, Ponchielli, even Wagner to some extent ***. This is beyond force-9, it is living and breathing opera.
76,83: Gemma implores the Count not to dissolve her, supported by Tamas. Hands are tied says the Count, he has to marry Ida today. Gemma is hearing none of it, she wants revenge and curses him. Watch at the eighty minute mark *. A lot happens all at once: Ida is about to arrive, Gemma and Tamas swear to be avenged, the Count with chorus, not a bad end to the act **.
ACT 2 (68 minutes)
Scene 1: The same as Act 1 Scene 1. (16.5 minutes)
1: After a short dancing prelude the female chorus lament Gemma’s fate while the male chorus is excited over the new countess to be *. Ida arrives on the Count’s arm and makes an address.
5,7,14: A gear change as Guido arrives to tell the Count that Gemma has been spirited away from the Castle and he presents her wedding ring which frightens the Count. He regains his wits and hopes for children ** with his new wife, followed by a male chorus praising reproduction and another aria for the Count * more bouncy and charming than the first but also less sincere.
Scene 2: Another room in the castle near a garden. (18 minutes)
17,23,25,28,31,34: A restful prelude as Ida relaxes before the wedding ceremony, a women’s chorus heard in the distance. Sweet mood music *. Ida and Gemma end up having a conversation in recitative, the former not knowing the latter’s true identity as she is disguised as a servant (in black attire). Gemma has a brief musically dramatic outburst *, then back to the recitative. Finally Gemma pulls out a dagger on Ida ** and the latter calls for help. The Count comes on with his sword drawn, Gemma takes Ida hostage when the Count threatens to kill her. A trio ensues**, watch for the second part especially ** just before and after Tamas arrives disarming Gemma and freeing Ida to fall into the Count’s arms and Tamas asks Gemma to flee with him turning the number into a quartette ***. This is the beginning of a trend in the music, we are entering the finale.
Scene 3: Yet another room in the Castle (33.5 minutes)
35: Rapid fire off stage choral wedding number quickly hits force-night, very effective climax and floating out into the distance **.
37,42,44,47: Gemma tearfully enters, she knows now there is no way to stop her husband from marrying another**. Tamas arrives asking her to go with him again and admitting that he is in love with her *. A bouncy and rolling theme, is this a love duet **? Watch for the end of the number **.
49,51,53,56: The wedding is about to begin and the play-out finale starts, all 19 minutes of it starting with Gemma knowing that she has no choice but the convent, something she accepts indignantly **. The wedding bells ring out, a remarkable fanfare *. Gemma ponders her life **.
58: Suddenly a wall of sound. This does not sound like the Donizetti we know and love, even from Lucia. Guido arrives and tells Gemma that Tamas has murdered the Count at the altar during the wedding ceremony. Tamas arrives, Gemma is disgusted by what he has done and he commits suicide. The dramatic power heard since the overture meets its nadir here **.
61: Gemma sings to angelic harp accompaniment, the last five minute rondo with chorus. Crescendos and then returns to the harp and pure soprano line ***.
Gemma di Vergy is an interesting entry. I had never heard of it or at least bothered with it before and it was an intriguing find. It is somewhat formulaic but as the number of stars indicates, there is something here. There are at least three numbers that are pure operatic gold: the Act 1 finale, the trio and quartette in Act 2 Scene 2 and the Act 2 finale, in that order. The plot is a little silly, yet heartbreaking at the same time. It is easy to relate to Gemma, even when she acts terribly as in her confrontation with Ida. We feel for this woman who has been discarded for no reason other than the fact that she is barren. The Count obviously still has feelings for her and if he had survived the wedding ceremony it is hard to believe that he would think of Ida as anything more than a breeding machine. Even when he protects her it is because of her reproductive potential, not out of passionate love which is probably only felt for Gemma. Tamas is a frightful character who being an Arab has terribly racist overtones to his character which is unfortunate because if taken out of the scenario, he might be sympathetic. Instead we moderns are uncomfortable with the artificiality of his person. I would like to like him, and he is interestingly the closest thing to a male hero in the piece, but the stereotype he represents is so unattractive to modern audiences because he is a stereotype and reflects a racist view of Arabs, and do we need that in a popular opera in our era or any era for that matter? Like so many figures in Orientalist literature, he is a passionate man prone to violence at the slightest provocation as much as he is to amorous adventure. Perhaps the only way he is redeemable is as a representation of all men, or at least all men who are not cowards, who are represented by the Count of course. It is shocking that it takes Tamas until the finale scene to confess his passion for Gemma, and slightly obvious after she saves his life not once but twice in just the first act! All of the characters are bizarre by modern standards even if it is possible to relate somewhat to the heroine. In the end, Gemma is a noble lady, one who has been slighted by the man she adores and if not for a biological dilemma would live happily ever after (although how might her relationship with Tamas pan out?). Ida is rather the opposite and not all that likeable, although keeping her out of view until the second act helps to build dramatic suspense. Unfortunately, and in spite of the aforementioned three excellent numbers, Gemma di Vergy could never be one of the top of the pops in the future and would be too racially contentious to be serviceable today. It would require a complete reworking of the libretto and much of the storyline. It is rather amazing that it was so popular during the 19th century and had such a triumphal early life, today it is a forgotten has-been, and probably should stay that way. It has had its day in the sun, although I must admit in closing that some of the music sounds like it was written around a decade or so in the future and it does have a dramatic power I have never witnessed before with Donizetti. It prefigures Verdi and Wagner in so many ways and it is unfortunately that such a lovely score is attached to so terrible a plot. In spite of a few absolutely golden alpha musical patches and a consistently melodious score, Gemma di Vergy is certainly a beta. B/B-.