Opera in Two Acts. Running Time: 3 hours 22 minutes. This is a long opera, especially for there only being a single intermission. The video is nearly a half hour longer than the performance itself (the overture starts 8:40 in, and the second act is preceded by a 19 minute intermission interview and commercials). Even so, the first act is 104 minutes long and the second act slightly shorter at 97 minutes. I am not sure why this is so, the plot would not indicate such a long work, nor the number of “numbers” the opera consists of (16). I’m also not sure if I like it or not.
PLOT: Near Paris, sometime between the French Revolution and the end of the Napoleonic Wars so circa 1803. Fabrizio and Lucia want their son Giannetto to marry their servant Ninetta (the two young people are in love with each other). Ninetta’s father, Fernando is under a sentence of death and so will Ninetta when she is accused and tried for stealing a pair of silver utensils and selling them to a peddler named Isacco. To complicate matters Ninetta is constantly being attacked by the town mayor who wants her for himself and her friend Pippo (a mezzo-soprano) has a pet magpie….
Scene 1: The Porch of Fabrizio’s home.
0: The overture is nearly nine and a half minutes long and includes a very familiar tune ** which will pop up a lot later. Also watch out for the ending.
22: There is a viva chorus with Pippo introducing his pet magpie (it cries “Pippo” all the time and this is important). This goes directly into Lucia and then she and Fabrizio with choral accompaniment (they have weddings plans for their son and Ninetta in spite of Lucia’s misgivings over a mislaid silver fork. It is hard to think much of this as it is just character development and not all that musically interesting (except the magpie starts calling “Ninetta” and sounds even more creepy than before). Finally Ninetta arrives with a nice little aria * which sounds like it wants to be “Una Voce poco fa” but never gets there. Fabrizio and Lucia then get ready to met with their son who is returning later that day, he seems more for the wedding than she is.
30: It is hard to believe that we are already a half-hour into this opera and yet we are as Isacco the peddler arrives with his wears. It is an extremely short number and it fades out and melts into the recitative with Pippo but it is worth looking out for *.
32: Excited marching music introduces Giannetto’s return and he gives us a high tenor aria **. The choral work is a bit more dramatic here. Giannetto then gives us about two minutes of tenor coloratura fireworks which logistically salvage an otherwise rather melodically dry number. Pippo then sings the most musically fragmented drinking song in all opera. It goes into an orchestral interlude three times in as many minutes and isn’t all that interesting. Ninetta’s father arrives in a recitative during which Ninetta has been briefly left completely alone on stage to count silverware after the party. Daddy reveals that he has been condemned to death by his commanding officer in an accompagnato. Daughter is to sell a silver fork-spoon pair to raise funds (this will turn out to be a desasterous move on everyone’s part.
48: The duet is all over the place with no definitive tune. When father and daughter sing together it just floats around nicely * until it turns to a nice galop. It is hard to not feel for the pair though even if the music is rather lite.
56: Now, nearly an hour into the opera, we meet the Mayor (Podesta in Italian) in an agreeable bass aria ** that sounds a bit like he’s a distant Italian cousin of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in that he cuts a rather seductive figure while we immediately know he is the baddie of the piece. The Mayor begins his seduction attempt immediately (even in the presence of the man he doesn’t know is her father!).
66: The Mayor has Ninetta read a description of a man to be arrested and executed. At first in parlando, she changes aspects of the description of her father so the Mayor doesn’t get tipped off. The music here is very dramatic and almost spooky **. But then as the Mayor laughs at Fernando and orders him out it starts to turn to ornery but revives with Fernando and then the Mayor and finally with Ninetta.
73: The Mayor presses his suit again, thinking Fernando booted out. Although at this moment he does seem to genuinely have affection for Ninetta she completely rejects his advances. Fernando has snook back into the courtyard and is hiding. Ninetta has a briefly nice melody *.
75: Fernando confronts the Mayor and almost reveals to him who he is in order to save Ninetta from a fate worse than death. She then strikes the Mayor and in the aftermath we get some good Mozart-like somber mood music **.
78: Suddenly BANG! We are off in a galop again although to a not so exciting tune that almost sounds like the Lone Ranger. Ninetta has a nice bit in the vocal line **. The Mayor get chased out off the property by Fernando rather dramatically, the Magpie somehow gets released and steals a silver spoon, and the curtain falls on Scene 1?
SCENE 2: The same, a while later.
94: The scene starts with Isacco in recitative plying his wares again. Ninetta sells the fork-spoon pair from her father to him and Pippo shows up (the Magpie goes off briefly again). Giannetto, his parents, and the Mayor. Lucia looks over the silverware and finds that yet another piece is missing, calls Ninetta out and only Giannetto defends her. The Mayor says that the punishment for stealing such an expensive item is death. Ninetta seems to suspect the Magpie. The Mayor dictates something to a whirling string accompaniment. Some coins fall from Ninetta’s handkerchief. The level of agitation rises in the music slowly. Isacco is brought back and testifies that he has already resold the spoon but that it had the initials F.V. on it (which are those of both Giannetto’s and Ninetta’s respective fathers). At this point, Giannetto leads the others ** and eventually has some really nice lilting high notes again and then everyone goes into a bit of apotheosis music.
102: The Mayor orders Ninetta’s arrest and the music takes on a totally dramatic persona that is not quite terror but isn’t a walk in the part either ***.
Scene 1: The prison.
3: Antonio, the local gaoler is an elderly tenor who likes Ninetta. Although at first he says that Ninetta is unable to see Giannetto he changes his mind quickly and after Giannetto admits to finding it difficult to believe in her innocence they embark on a rather bright and cheery duet that straightens things out **. The final rondo is almost irresistible as Antonio has to get Ninetta back into the cell and has difficulty separating the lovers.
13: The Mayor is a sexual preditor, and promises Ninetta her freedom if she submit to his advances in a rather frightfully charming aria **. Towards the end, a theme from the overture returns with a male choral backing as the two confront each other. Ninetta would rather die than submit to the Mayor. The number is certainly good, but the nearly three minute ovation for Samuel Ramey is a little too much.
25: Ninetta and Pippo have a nearly ten minute duet which finally gives Pippo some good contralto music after a long while of non-descriptive and even rather dull music. Ninetta has a nice high scale going on though. In its own way it is worth **.
32: Another theme from the overture can be heard here as well *.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1, evening.
35: At first alone, Lucia gets a kind lecture from Fernando about the silverware and she realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Fernando’s aria is nice * and you can tell from it that he loves his daughter very much.
45: Lucia gets her three and a half minute aria. It is okay but somewhat non-descriptive *.
Scene 3: The Courtroom.
49: There is a entr’acte *, Ninetta is about to be condemned by the court and Giannetto is terrified and being comforted by his father.
54: There is suddenly a powerful outburst of emotive and highly dramatic music * from the chorus and orchestra. Ninetta is brought in for sentencing: beheading!
58: Fabrizio thinks (logically) that all of this is madness, but the Mayor demands that Ninetta be punished. The two lovers (particularly Giannetto) are providing us with a lot of high coloratura vocal ornamentation **.
60: Fernando arrives and tries to save Ninetta but ends up getting arrested himself. At this point there is so much emotion and sympathy for the four suffering characters that raises all of this to *** level.
64: There is theme going on led by Giannetto that sounds like something in act 1 of Mose in Egitto ***. It is mostly unaccompanied.
68: Then we have another finale, this one a bit whimsical given the severity of the moment ***.
Scene 4: The Gallows ironically just outside the church and Fabrizio’s house.
72: Pippo gets a get idea: follow that dreadful little Magpie up the bell tower (after it calls after him again), and he does so with the help of Antonio, who still wants to save Ninetta before it is too late. Everyone comes on for the execution to a march that isn’t halfway away from Act 3 of Wagner’s Rienzi. Giannetto is totally despondent and being supported by his father **.
78: Ninetta prays for her father **. She is then led away by the monk to her execution (off-stage). Pippo and Antonio discover who has been stealing the silverware just in time to ring the church bells. But is it early enough to stop the execution? Giannetto hears the news and runs off to stop the execution. Lucia is afraid that she has already been killed. The Mayor has a good low bit before everyone returns to a good Mozart-ish bit again.
90: Ninetta is happy to be alive (obviously). But what of her father? He has been pardoned and returns just in time.
93: Finally the finale rondo as in The Barber but to a lesser tune with Ninetta, Fernando, Pippo and Giannetto together with the tenor on melody. The Mayor isn’t happy but everyone else sure is. A bouncy farewell *.
This production was very well sung with so many great singers. Rossini specialist William Matteuzzi’s Giannetto is vocally gorgeous. Katia Ricciarelli wonderful as Ninetta. Samuel Ramey almost steals the show with his portrayal of the Mayor, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fernando gives a warmth to an unusually Verdian Rossini father role and Bernadette Manca di Nissa as Pippo eventually succeeds. Not that di Nissa is bad, just her music is not that flattering (at least in act 1). Unfortunately the opera has some glaring drawbacks. It is longer than some Wagner operas and is only in TWO acts, and one interval in four hours is a very good reason to not perform any opera. The first hour (before the arrival of the Mayor) could be massively cut and the opera in its entirety is paced very, very slowly. There are some wonderful things about this opera though. The overture is one of Rossini’s finest, the characterizations of Ninetta and Fernando as a father-daughter pair is very poignant and Giannetto, although he is somewhat high tenor window dressing and in spite of his military record rather passive, gets most of the vocal gymnastics. Pippo’s drinking song is a bit of a bore (and dramatically unimportant), yet most of the numbers could not be dropped without marring the dramatic cohesion of the work. The score is first-rate Rossini, albeit sometimes a little less inspired than The Barber or William Tell perhaps on par with Cenerentola or L’Italiana. Certainly this opera has a claim for being in the top half dozen Rossini operas, even if it would certainly place no better than fifth or sixth. Alas though it rates no better than a B+.