Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes.
This is one of my favourite Verdi operas, not that it is really a great opera by any means. It is not remotely as bad as its reputation would have one assume, however. Yes, Verdi did abandon it before it premiered in Trieste, but there is still some enjoyable and melodic music here, even if it really isn’t great music. I’ll say right now that the plot, however, it incredibly stupid. This recording, however, is rather nice with Jose Carreras as the Greek pirate Corrado, Montserrat Caballe as Gulnara and Jessye Norman as Medora. The image is Charles Wynne Nichols painting of “The Parting of Corrado and Medora”.
PLOT: A Greek Aegean island and the city of Corone in modern Turkey, early 1800s. Corrado is the leader of the Greek corsairs and plans an attack on the Turkish city of Corone. He leaves behind his girlfriend Medora and saves the slave girl (but royal favourite) Gulnara, only to be captured and imprisoned by his enemy. It all ends in tragedy, would you have guessed otherwise?
ACT 1 25 minutes
0: The prelude * starts with a good storm (which will come back later) and then goes soft on us with a quiet bit in the strings and then a clarinet on a theme (which will eventually pop in again with Medora, again later). Bam! We pop into romantic territory with the violin flying around and then the prelude fades away and then…Bum!
Scene 1: Corrado’s pirate island.
5: Standard a cappella male chorus of Corsairs (this seems so common in Verdi?) and then bang! Corrado appears and back to the a cappella. Corrado goes on with some moody recitative until he goes into a lilting little ditty that sounds a bit old fashioned but romantic *. He receives a dispatch from second in command Giovanni about the Turkish Pasha Seid.
9: Corrado leads his men in a bellicose recuiting hymn that is too menacing (although not too xenophobic) to be Gilbert and Sullivan. An energetic exercise as the captain rouses the troops together before the attack *.
13: Immediately Verdi draws us into a romantic world, that of the crazy Medora, Corrado’s lover/mistress/fortuneteller? Anyway, she can play the harp and does so in a soft aria *. Norman sings it well (she is a marvellous singer), but I personally find it rather dull.
20, 22: Medora asks Corrado why he is flying away from her love?!? She becomes more and more agitated (the strings along with her) until the cannon shot is heard from Corrado’s ship and he has to depart. Corrado does have a nice bit of emoting here * though and eventually Medora joins him in a bit and then towards the end she has her own start up melody that he takes up *. It is low voltage all, but enjoyable just the same. It is possible that the entire number is actually meant to be a musical act of love making, which might explain how in alternation the two lovers take up melodies from each other. With that the act suddenly ends.
Scene 1: The Harem of Pasha Seid, Corone.
3, 6: Verdi’s attempt at exotica is almost a joke but the female chorus following it is fine. Gulnara is introduced in sexy recitative, she is a lady who knows how to get what she wants (freedom and true love not enslavement albeit luxury as a Sultan’s favourite) and we know it from the start *. A tenor eunuch (?) arrives telling Gulnara the Pasha is inviting her to a victory banquet. What else is new? thinks Gulnara as she hopes for a better life and the other girls say she is what they would hope to be *. It is fetching and a little catchy if flighty.
Scene 2: The banquet.
10: Excited male chorus (standard Verdi) brings us to Seid’s prayer for victory from Allah with male choral back up *.
13: Corrado (disguised as a Dervish fleeing the Corsairs) is ushered in by a slave after getting the okay from Seid. This duet is the best number so far, ** if just for Corrado’s vocal line which is so dapper.
17: The next 11 minutes are action packed and the music is continuous. The Sultan’s fleet has been burned down by the Corsairs the fire is now threatening his palace. Corrado sees that the harem has gone up in flames and rescues the women to an orchestral whirlwind. Gulnara pleads for mercy from Corrado not realizing that apparently Corrado and his corsairs and very respectful of females. This heroic act gets Corrado captured by Seid who threatens to have him immediately executed. Eventually Gulnara is able to get Seid to soften up and just imprison Corrado. There are some honey sweet tunes here, a bit mellow as well. The finale galop pulls it up to ** but much of it is admittedly a menacing *.
Scene 1: Seid’s chambers.
1: Again, a menacing prelude, this time leading into Seid’s aria. Notice the strings here, but also Seid’s fantasy about how he has a 100 virgins but only wants Gulnara. The second part is a very lively galop and ends strongly *.
8: Gulnara comes on and threats and anger fly about as he accuses her of having fallen for Corrado and she readily admits it. Very angry and energetic with Gulnara having the last word after a jumping tune from her and bombast from Seid *.
Scene 2: Corrado’s cell.
12: Sad music, we are in prison with Corrado, this has much more pathos than the previous scene. This goes on for a bit until Corrado starts on about how he is probably doomed. Again pathos, and now with Corrado’s vocal line rather melodic as well, although it is mostly heavily orchestrated recitative. There is believable agony here **.
17, 23: Gulnara bribes the guards to let her into Corrado’s cell to an interesting accompaniment *. She offers him a dragger with which to slay Seid but Corrado refuses as a matter of honour. He would rather do it in mortal combat, he also recognizes that she is in love with him but then tells her that he loves Medora. There are traces of the end of their duet that will finish the scene that is rather good **.
25: Gulnara tries to urge him on but decides after he refuses again and again to finish off Seid herself and she does to the menacing stormy music of opera’s prelude but this time with Corrado freaking out *.
29: Gulnara comes back and admits to killing Seid, thus Corrado is free to escape and he decides to take the guilty but melodious Gulnara with her in a lovely duet ** that almost whimsically suggests that he has forgotten Medora finally.
Scene 3: The Island
30: But no, Medora is not forgotten, although she has poisoned herself thinking she will never see Corrado again. Medora is really, really depressed, although not that bad musically * and the choruses (female then male) add some nice effect before the racing excitement of Corrado’s return with Gulnara.
33: The homecoming, a big loud welcome. Corrado then states explaining what happened and how he and Gulnara (who also explains) escaped to a rather nice melody **. There is a nice exchange all around but the two escapees realize quickly that Medora is dying.
38: The last four minutes start off with Medora on the second (the quiet) theme from the prelude, Corrado and Gulnara start emoting to different melodies and then things return to Medora, then her with Corrado and then them with Gulnara and chorus as the music swells up slowly (Gulnara mostly dominates this) until Medora goes into her dead throws with Corrado’s terrified cries, she dies. Corrado threatens suicides, jumps off a cliff, and leaves Gulnara with the corsairs and their women alone to cry out in horror and try to stop him as the curtain falls *.
Okay, so this isn’t a bad opera by any means, in fact I am actually a big fan of this opera and I really, really enjoy listening to it and have since the first time I heard it around a decade ago. I would even make the claim that it is probably better than at least six or seven other operas by Verdi, but even I have to admit that almost all of the music here, although very melodic and almost invariably entertaining is alas very, very thin. The plot doesn’t help the case for the opera either as the adaptation of Byron’s poem left Verdi with a rather episodic narrative, and that is what the opera is, an episodic narrative. However, it does fly by quickly, I don’t think any of the seven scenes in the opera lasts 20 minutes. Yet, why are the first two acts split up into the two acts? I have never understood why this isn’t a two act opera: you don’t meet Gulnara (who is the actually leading lady) until the second act, would it not be better to introduce her in scene 3 of act 1? The three act divide is also grossly imbalanced in regards to the third act which is almost the length of the first two acts combined. Medora is rather boring as a character (although I must restate that I do like Jessye Norman’s execution of the rather thankless role in this recording) and she doesn’t really do much of anything except doom Corrado to his inevitable love-dead suicide at the end after she has already topped herself. Corrado is a romantic figure, but in the Byronic/gothic sense rather than actually sexy (in spite of the corsair costume which you would think would help, but no). Verdi tries too hard in building up his relationship with Medora (the act one duet is a musical depiction of sexual intercourse albeit the passion is low) while somewhat downplaying the real sexual chemistry between him and Gulnara. Seid is a rather standard Verdi baritone and you almost feel sorry that Gulnara kills him because he doesn’t seem THAT terrible. I guess this mitigates the feeling of lose you might get for Gulnara when Corrado kills himself over Medora, leaving her alone with the corsairs (although now she is free at least). The best aspects of the opera are Verdi’s orchestration and his vocal music for Gulnara and especially Corrado which although never for a moment great is always fetching, melodious, and entertaining from start to finish. The best highlights would be Corrado’s incognito duet with Seid, the Act 2 finale, and the prison scene duets between Corrado and Gulnara. Although Il corsaro is by no means a great opera, it is one entertaining night at the theatre (or listening at home!). B, maybe B-.