Giuseppe Verdi-Alzira (1845)

Opera in a prologue and two acts. Based on a play by Voltaire, this opera was called “proprio brutta” or “downright ugly”. However, I don’t think the composer assessed his work that fairly (frankly I find Giovanna d’Arco or I masnadieri to be the “worst” of Verdi’s operas). It is not perfect by any means, but it isn’t “ugly” either. It’s Verdi, it can’t be that bad no matter what it is, but have a listen for yourself! The recording under review is the live performance with Virginia Zeani and Gianfranco Cecchele from 1967

Running Time: 93 minutes (probably Verdi’s shortest opera). There is an even shorter recording (87.5 minutes) with Ileana Cotrubas and Francisco Araiza for anyone who wants to say they can get through a Verdi opera in less than an hour and a half. Drop the times by a minute or two for this latter recording to match the review.

PLOT: Zamoro is a Peruvian native leader who terrorizes the Spanish overlords because, frankly, they once tortured him to the point that everyone thought he was dead, including his beloved Alzira who along with her father Altaliba have been captured by the Spanish governor Gusmano. Later Alzira becomes part of a peace treaty between the Spanish and the Inca…. (Zeani and Cecchele: 93 minutes) (Cotrubas and Araiza: 87.5 minutes)


PROLOGUE & ACT 1 (57.30 minutes)

0: The Overture *, full scale, the first part is a woodwind lover’s dream with flutes flying around until suddenly brass and then some fierce music (supposed to represent Native Peruvians?). Most of the time we are going back and forth between some light string and woodwind music, a march tune, and something resembling variations of this menacing (Peruvian?) theme until we get to the final crescendo which consists of a series of bangs. I’m not sure what Verdi was thinking when he wrote this ending, but it is serviceable enough.

7: Drum-roll, trumpets and strings freaking out, Inca tribesmen have captured the Spanish governor Alvaro and are about to kill him by drowning him in the river to a chorus * that at first sounds sinister and then turns into a rather delightful oom-pah-pah melody. The end reprises a bit of sinister before ending rather standard. Suddenly a boat comes ashore and they are all surprised as to who is on it: ‘Zamoro! We thought you were dead!’ He orders that Alvaro be released to him, something about not wanting bloodshed on the day he finally returns home. Alvaro is ordered to return home and tell the Spaniards that the Inca are not savage and he owes his life to one.

12: ¬†Zamoro’s short cavatina **, in which he tells us how he was captured and tortured by Gusmano. He thinks about Alzira and how vile the Spanish are, that Alzira and her father are prisoners of the Spanish and then Zamoro decides that he will rescue them and one day soon (with the chorus) the Inca will have vengeance on the Spanish.

Act 1:

Scene 1: A square in Lima.

0: The march tune, and male chorus discussing when they will attack the Inca *. Then Alvaro hands over power as governor to his son, Gusmano (!). The latter declares that his first act is to make peace with the Inca. Gusmano asks Ataliba for his approval of a marriage between himself and Alzira. Warning! says Ataliba: she is not over Zamoro yet.

4, 7: In a nice gentle cavatina *, Gusmano admits to completely understanding why Alzira is not yet ready to wed, but he does pressure Ataliba to speed up the mourning process in the cabaletta * and to a different and more excited tune. An agreeable scene overall.

Scene 2: Ataliba’s apartments in the Governor’s Palace.

10: A nice, soft string prelude * leads to Alzira’s maid Zuma telling us that her mistress sleeps and a female chorus to the same (but more developed) tune. Alzira wakes up calling for Zamoro and then randomly searching for him.

13, 18: Alzira’s dream * in which she fled from Gusmano in a small boat and almost drowned. She wants to die so she can be reunited with Zamoro, but the music of the cavatina is mostly ornery recitative or strangely happy sounding at odds with what she is saying. What there is of a melody is not so horrid though and she does give a few coloratura flourishes. The chorus, telling her to forget him, is more on key. The cabaletta is more flighty but the star at the top of the entry will have to make do.

24: Alzira does not want to marry Gusmano under any circumstances, dead Zamoro or no, but Ataliba tries to pressure her (fail, she wants to die instead). Zuma arrives to announce that someone wants to see her, it is Zamoro (his ghost? she thinks, no it is him!) There is a short, cute, little duet to a rather happy tune *.

29: Gusmano and Ataliba arrive/return. Zamoro is alive! Gusmano orders to have him executed once and for all in order to end the block he poses to his marriage to Alzira who stops them and then Zamoro has a short exchange* in which he challenges Gusmano to mortal combat.

30: Alvaro arrives after Alzira cries for help. ‘It’s that guy who saved me!’ says Alvaro, ‘you must spare him’. Negative says Gusmano. Father kneels before son and pleads, son refuses and this is mostly ornery until suddenly Alzira shuts down everything with a magical moment ***, a really wonderful melody turning into a good ensemble which the father-son duo yell at each other, Alzira mourns her love again, Zamoro tells her to hate Gusmano forever, Chorus decided on who should live and/or die.

33: Suddenly the Inca are heard from far off with an orchestral accompaniment that isn’t half-way away from that of the Catholic Protestant-slayers in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, demanding Zamoro and threatening to storm the governor’s palace unless he is released alive to them **. Gusmano releases Zamoro and the two vow that they will meet on the battlefield. It is all out war.

Act 2: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the Governor’s Palace, Lima.

0: A rather nice, boom-boom male drinking chorus **, it has a rather catchy melody although when it slows down it becomes a little ornery. Ovando (Spaniard) brings in a death warrant for Zamoro, who was captured in the battle between acts. Gusmano is about to sign when Alzira runs in pleading to die to save Zamoro. ‘But you can save him ‘says Gusmano. ‘With my blood?’ asks she rather willingly. ‘No, with your hand.’ says Gusmano.

6: A rather touching duet between Alzira and Gusmano in which he really wants to marry her and she really wants to be dead (this is becoming a rather harsh pattern) but the music is rather good **. Gusmano tells Ovando the good news and then Gusmano and Alzira duet again, he about how much he loves her and she how much she wants to be dead for breaking her vow to be faithful to Zamoro.

Scene 2: A Cavern.

14: After a rather startling opening to the scene from the orchestra **, Otumbo tells the Inca that he bribed Zamoro’s guards and freed him.

17: Zamoro arrives in a Spanish uniform and then he tells his Incan troops how he stared down death but then cried because love melts even a warrior’s heart **.

20: Otumbo tells Zamoro to forget the faithless Alzira but Zamoro is having none of it until he sees the wedding torches Gusmano ordered in the previous scene. Now Zamoro wants to kill that faithless witch Alzira, but the chorus attempts to stop him because to return to Lima would mean his death. Rousing and loud but pretty standard *.

Scene 3: Great hall in the Governor’s Palace.

23: A strange march tune leads to a female bridal chorus about how America should dry her tears *.

25: Gusmano is really excited about getting married to Alzira, and she wants to die *, so same old, same old I would say. Gusmano is about to clasp Alzira’s hand when Zamoro rushes in and stabs Gusmano rather undramatically in the chest.

29: Gusmano, now dying, calls Zamoro insane and curses the vengeful nature of the Incan gods but that his own will only forgive him if he releases the lovers and forgives them, telling them to live out their days in their love for each other. Zamoro and Alzira, and everyone for that matter, are amazed by this act of clemency to a very lovely melody **. Alvaro comforts his dying son in his finale moments, Gusmano dies and all tragically mourn. It just comes off.

What is good about this opera? Well, there is Zamoro’s aria in the prologue, the first scene of act 2 in its entirety, the overture, and both of the act finales, the first being a extended two-parter with two grand melodies and the last having a lovely but tragic climax. What is wrong is mostly the libretto and how Verdi’s music frequently (especially in the first act) does not correspond with what the characters are saying, Alzira’s accounting of her dream is the prime example of this. Voltaire’s play is by far more scandalous, anti-clerical, and the criticism of racism is barebones in the opera and reduced to an illogically cruel love-triangle in which the soprano basically goes around wanting to die the entire time and the baritone finally does (thanks to the tenor). The relationship between Alvaro and Gusmano does not settle well and this contributes to the anti-climactic nature of the finale, nor is Alzira’s relationship with Ataliba all that great. This is weird considering that Verd usually does well with the paternal-child relationship. The story also seems to be in need of a good editor. Alzira talks about death a lot, even for an operatic soprano, and it doesn’t make her all that sympathetic. However, I still recognize that I have heard worse Verdi (if I review Giovanna d’Arco it will be brutal) than this and Alzira doesn’t deserve its place at the bottom of the barrel, yet as much as I’d like to love Alzira it is at best a B- if not a C+.

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