Gaetano Donizetti-Sancia di Castiglia (1832)

Opera in two acts (Running Time: 117 minutes)

PLOT: Sancia, Queen of Castile is widowed after a battle and thinks her son Garcia has also died in the same battle so she decides to wed a Muslim prince, Ircano, against the advise of her advisor Rodrigo, but when Garcia turns up alive and claims the throne, Ircano tells Sancia that he will only marry her if Garcia dies. She is about to have him drink poison when she has a sudden change of heart and drinks it herself, asking her son to forgive her as she dies.

The performance under review is of a live televised performance from 1984 and the opera proper starts at 2:59 and ends at 2:00:18, with act 2 starting 70 minutes into the video. There is, however, a concert performance on Youtube with Caballe from 1992 that is 95 minutes. In either case, the opera consists of eight musical numbers.

Act 1: Running Time: 66 minutes.

Scene 1: A hall in Sancia’s palace (17 minutes)

2: There is a tragic introduction of about 80 seconds, it sounds vaguely stereotypically Spanish at the very beginning before turning into a whirl wind and then quieting down only to menace again and then become brooding and then turning into a very serene melody that follows into the very formal and solemn opening chorus, rather dignified, which then turns into a dance like patter tune. Ircano introduces us to what has already transpired, namely that Sanchia has been widowed and her son is believed to be dead. Ircano has murderous intents which he reveals in a surprisingly lilting cavatina, and the chorus is rather excited. Rodrigo arrives, confronting Ircano. These two men do not like each other, but Ircano tries to deflate the escalating situation **.  In a recitative, Rodrigo tells Ircano that he will try everything in his power to stop Sancia from marrying him.

Scene 2: Sancia’s apartments (23 minutes)

17: Sancia, surrounded by her women singing a faux Castilian chorus about the dawn and flowers *. Elvira, her companion, discusses the issue of her wedding with her.

21: Sancia’s aria is rather standard bel canto soprano fare that barely warrants *.

28: Rodrigo arrives and asks Sancia if she is a queen or a slave. She must think of her son, not this Moor she plans on marrying. They go into a duet to a mildly wild tune **. Sancia claims to be following her heart, Rodrigo declares that she is following her ruin and that of Castile. When this does not work he attacks her as being impious, specifically for planning to marry a non-Christian. Where do her priorities lay? She tells him to leave her.

Scene 3: Council Chamber

40: Rodrigo mourns the decline of Castile *.

44: The Grandees arrive and Rodrigo attempts to call them to rebel against Sancia and her plan to introduce a Muslim as their king **.

47: Ircano arrives with Sancia to a bizarrely jovial little march tune, Sancia tells everyone what she wants to do and then Rodrigo tells her off and then she tells him that what she wants goes because she is queen. Ircano interjects his own interests before Sancia’s son Garcia arrives, very much alive, declaring is not Ircano’s or Sancia’s but his. Ircano is infuriated by this turn of events.

56: The 10 minute act finale beings with Sancia and Ircano very much upset with the new situation and Rodrigo and Garcia very much happy with what is going on *. Sancia and Garcia are reconciled as Sancia’s irrational actions can be attributed to thinking her son was dead.

62: Garcia decides to banish Ircano, thus setting into motion the events of the next act and some very anti-Islamic utterances from the chorus **.

ACT 2: (50 minutes)

Scene 1: Sancia’s apartments as in Act 1. (18 minutes)

After a brief fugitive introduction, Sancia is pensive in her chambers and tells Elvira that her heart is troubled and to call Ircano. Sancia is not thrilled to see her son alive and it only gets worse when he arrives and is actually rather loving towards her and she is so cold. Sancia flees as Rodrigo arrives and speaks to Garcia, the chorus of Muslim men can be heard outside singing their theme. Ircano arrives at Sancia’s apartment and tells her that unless she has Garcia killed he can never marry her. He then proceeds to seduce her into committing the murder. Does she really love him? Then why can she not do this so that they can be united? The duet starts slow and although it becomes furious it never actually carries a melody and just flies from one theme to another without settling on choosing one. It isn’t a real number, it is glorified recitative that is fully orchestrated and fully sung like a number, but it does forward the plot more than most of the numbers that have preceded it. No star.

Scene 2: Hall as in Act 1. (9 minutes)

19: Rodrigo finds Garcia who wants to go to Toledo. At first the aria is rather boring but when the chorus comes in it starts to warm up a little*, the chorus makes it more than the contralto solo unfortunately, but it is an okay piece by the end. Then Elvira gets her moment in the spot light, to tell us in recitative that Sancia is starting to go crazy. She just figured this out?

Scene 3: The Throne Room (22 minutes)

36: The finale starts with a 3 and a half minute prelude during which we realize just how short this opera is, which is possibly its only true merit. Sancha is one crazy lady now, preoccupied with frustration over how her son is still alive and jeopardizing her relationship with Ircano, all in extremely typical bel canto gestures including orchestral crescendo. She is ready to poison the cup Garcia will drink; that is how she will do it. She then goes into a stock aria regarding the poison with coloratura similar to her aria and duet with Rodrigo in Act 1. This is mildly agreeable, but I’m still shocked that mental disease has set in so quickly, it isn’t as if she has already murdered Garcia. A * for how bizarre all of this is. Ircano arrives just before Sancha is going to destroy the poison and stops her and he starts throwing her around the room like a rag doll albeit one who can sing mildly entertaining bel canto.

41: Sancha poisons the cup and the people arrive with Garcia and Rodrigo for the coronation, taking it from Garcia instantly, she drinks the poisoned cup and confesses everything in a very melodramatic cavatina which actually has some slight music merit. Sancha is finally acting like a human being (now that she is dying ironically), something she has failed to do for the entirety of the opera before this moment.  The poison takes an exceptionally long time to take effect. Ircano mentally tortures the dying Sancha to a short lived tune that is actually better than anything else in the opera * (although within context it can merit no more than one star), this is also extremely cruel, the poor woman can’t even sing at this point and he is ordered out of the palace by Garcia. Now the poor thing waddles around like Daffy Duck meets What’s Opera Doc? for one last four minute cavatina con coro to end this poor thing once and for all. Garcia cuddles mommy as she dies, but it is one of the most anti-climactic deaths in opera.

Sancia di Castiglia has to be among the poorest operas I have ever seen, and I have heard some really terrible operas in my day. I waited a long time to watch it, and it wasn’t really worth my time. There is little of merit here, but the best music (if there is any) easily belongs to the tenor Rodrigo and the bass Ircano, specifically in the first act as it appears as if Donizetti was on auto-pilot while composing the second, which has nothing to merit its existence. The worst of the eight numbers is without any doubt the duet in Act 2 Scene 1 between Sancia and Ircano. It has absolutely no solid melody at all and just floats around moving the plot along as if it were fully orchestrat. The three women are basically wasted on shockingly stock level bel canto garbage (and this from someone who likes bel canto), and Elvira is even more of a waste of a soprano (they aren’t cheap) than is Sancia. Garcia is fairly okay although it is a mostly thankless trouser-role. The plot is utterly stupid, even by operatic standards, and the mental decline of the protagonist happens far too quickly to be believable. So is her relationship with Ircano, who is insanely abusive. There is also the problem of racism in the opera as with Gemma di Vergy, as Ircano, like Tamas, is a stereotyped character of the worst kind. Even without the stupidity of the plot, the music is third-rate Donizetti, something which I can not say of Gemma. This is the sort of opera that deserves to be performed one time every twenty odd years or so so people can see it and forget about it. It rates a C- or even a D+ at best.

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