Alberto Franchetti: Cristoforo Colombo (1892)

Opera in three acts and an epilogue. Franchetti was the son of an extremely wealth Italian Jewish noble family. In fact he was known as the latter-day Italian Meyerbeer because of this. Cristoforo Colombo, written for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery, is generally considered to be his musical masterpiece although a later opera, ironically titled “Germania” has historically been Franchetti’s most performed work. Cristoforo Colombo is stylistically a combination of Wagner and Meyerbeer with traces of the then new Verismo genre. Like Meyerbeer’s grand operas it is very anti-clerical (with clergy opposing the voyage in act 1 and aggressively trying to convert the Native South Americans in the 3rd and 4th acts of the original score). The original four act and epilogue version has been condensed to 3 acts and epilogue as the South American adventures were deemed too long, an even shorter version eliminates the American episode entirely.

The story is obviously about Columbus’ discovery of the Americas and the Catholic clergy at first opposing this and then trying to profit off of it. Don Fernando Guevara is Columbus’ friend (tenor) and Don Roldano Ximenes is his enemy (bass). Columbus is a baritone and Queen Isabela (soprano) makes an appearance in the first act. The second act is set at sea, the third in the American rainforest and involves adventures between Columbus, Ximenes, and Guevara with Anacoana, queen of the Amazon (!) and her daughter Iguamota, the former woman having seduced Ximenes and planning to massacre the Spaniards. This episode apparently ended with the Americans immolating themselves. The epilogue is set back in Spain at the tomb of Isabela where Columbus mourns her before he too dies.

The original four act and epilogue version no longer exists because the opera was considered too long at its premiere. Franchetti deleted 100 pages of the score for the second production of the opera at La Scala in December of 1892, basically shortening the third and fourth acts and replacing the immolation sequence with a lament for the Americans, although this version was still in four and not three acts. The opera was since shortened further to three acts and epilogue (as reviewed here) and at one point the entire American episode was deleted and replaced with a new act in which the Americans are presented at the Spanish court and Columbus is arrested.  The original uncut libretto does survive, in the original Italian, and is available on the Internet Archive.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.


ACT 1: A vast courtyard in the Convent of St. Stephen’s in Salamanca. (46 minutes)

2: Sea-fairing floating strings, trumpets, drums, brass an then we are off in a scene between Ximenes and four (4) knights (tenors/basses) in which they await the decision of the Council. Ximenes is sure that Isabella will protect Colombus (and does not like this). Then the cortege of Cardinal Talavera arrives for the Council amid immense fanfare * that dies away to the sound of a church bell.

5: Then there is a male trio for three Roman pilgrims (one each tenor, baritone, bass) * who give a prophecy of sorts about lands to the west beyond the ocean full of flowers. Not a bad little (but long) number.

17: The chorus takes up this hope, Ximenes does not and he eventually laughs at the pilgrims and goes into a brooding and ornery villainous aria * ending on an impressive low D. The chorus returns, the verdict is in and Colombus has been rejected, Ximenes is delighted. The people repeat their thing from the cortege sequence as the Cardinal makes his exit.

28: Amid shouts from the crowd Colombus finally appears. They all laugh at him. Guevara, who will become Colombus’ second-in-command but is at the moment captain of the guard, tells them all to shut up as the Queen is at her prayers. Colombus thanks Guevara and takes him on. Colombus, alone, reflects on everything that has happened, and broods over his mission or lack there of of one *.

31: Queen Isabella saves everything as she comes on ***. First at prayer and then in her interaction with Colombus which concludes the act the music finally takes a turn for the better and it is so refreshing.

37: After Colombus expresses his fears to some comparatively low temp to her Isabella responds in the most lovely way, a vision: **.

41: Isabella takes wing again *** as she asks God to respond to her and later Colombus joins her,

45: A female chorus is heard towards the end reenforces Isabella’s melody as the act ends **.

ACT 2: The Santa Maria at sea. (40 minutes)

0: A explorers prelude, the main theme being that of Ximenes from act 1 **. Watch for the  seemingly constant crescendos, climaxes, and deflations that occur in the orchestra amid the sailor Matheos fearing that they are all going to hell and the songs of the Pilgrim trio (who for some reason have decided to come with Colombus on the Pinta).

6: Matheos’ fears are heightened by the fact that soon the ship’s compass breaks and the sailors freak out **. Where are they going? It gets to the point that Ximenes is banging on Colombus’ cabin door telling him the crew is restless. This entire time the chorus of sailor is going on like they are singing a requiem.

13: Colombus’ song about the North Star is somewhat tuneful but the orchestration can be ornery **. The chorus that later comes out of this is also rather sparkling. Meanwhile a ships mast is discovered in the water and brought on board (where did it come from?) Ximenes makes a big deal out of it and the sailors are brought low again.

20: More of the serious sounding music from the prelude as Guevara shows up. The orchestra provides some rather refreshing and lilting turns here that are worth hearing **.

24: Colombus questions his mission again. After although orchestral interlude with distant shouts of “ahoy” and traces of the Rhine-theme from Wagner’s Ring Colombus comes back determined ***.

32: After yet another orchestral interlude some Dominican monks lead the sailors in a Salve Regina ** in the midst of which Ximenes and the other high-born members of Colombus’ crew plot a coup. The coup itself is rather non-descript until a fire is seen and then goes out.

36: Franchetti uses the tenor voice to effect with the call that land has been found! The sailors scream “terra, terra, terra” for a long while and then go into a rather sparkling bit as they pray to the Virgin Mary and there is just pandemonium from the orchestra ***.

ACT 3: On the shores of a sacred lake in Mexico. (42 minutes)

0: Spaniards, searching for gold, beat up and kill an old silent Native as his daughter Yanika tries to stop them ** but it is no use and she speaks to the Old Man.

4: A rather beautiful chorus of Mexicans as they bemoan their fate, alternating women and men and back to the women *** as their Queen, Anacoana, arrives by boat. Yanika asks the Queen to avenge her father’s death but the Old Man accuses the Queen of sleeping with the enemy.

8: A chorus of Mexicans who want blood and don’t trust the Queen but she reveals that she is doing all of this to be dirt on the Spanish and already knows that Ximenes (who is her lover) is plotting against Colombus (again, already?) **. She has her slaves dance.

15: The second half of Anacoana’s aria, after the Old Man begs her forgiveness and as she reveals that she has made her daughter Iguamota queen is the best **.

19: There is another slave dance that occurs in the background as Ximenes arrives greeting Anacoana along with the other Spanish nobles **. Colombus arrives and banishes the nobles. Guevara then gets a little bit as he says they are under his arrest.

22: The seduction of Guevara, as he looks upon the dancers and Anacoana and Ximenes decide to bring on Iguamota **.

25: Guevara’s declaration of love to Iguamota *** culminates in a glorious ensemble.

29: Guevara remembers what he has to do, namely leave for Spain with the trio of nobles who are bothering Colombus but Iguamota tries to keep him *. This is all high romanticism, bordering on parody, and it is somewhat hard to get because the characters are really not that well known, especially Iguamota who we have just met like minutes ago. It is not long before Guevara sounds the call to arms and Iguamota declares her Kundry-style failure in the seduction department to her mother. Bobadilla, the Spanish envoy, arrives telling Colombus he is being replaced and is under arrest. Ximenes accuses Colombus in front of everyone and Anacoana realizes that she has been tricked, Ximenes is the bad guy! (Wow! Irony.) Ximenes immediately kills her and Iguamota screams. Ximenes is so fast he is able to accuse Colombus of killing the queen.

40: Columbus’ surrender aria, rises well **.

41: The act ends with a native Mexican chorus as they bemoan their fate in an off-stage temple **.

EPILOGUE: Among the tombs of the rulers of Castile. (31 minutes)

0: Prelude *.

7: Guevara and Columbus come on, the former determined to plead the latter’s case before the Queen. Guevara’s sunrise aria is the highlight of this but it is all rather good **.

11: Colombus’ response followed by Guevara’s rather lilting song of hope that he will song again ***. The younger man leaves the older alone.

16: After a long bit of monks a young girl sings a sad little song and tells Columbus that the Queen has been dead for three days *.

18: Guevara returns and Columbus declares that he will die now. But first, a fantasy about the sea, then about what happened in act one with the procession and the Council, the Cardinal, etc. Guevara knows for sure now that Columbus is raving but he tries one last attempt at instilling hope in the old man but Columbus has no idea who he is now. The whole thing is probably **.

30: The last ten minutes are a watershed of the opera mostly in the context of a very long aria for Columbus (Guevara interrupts only once). Toward the end Columbus is no longer raving and is totally in his mind. He dies, Guevara silently mourns him to a little symphony accompaniment as the curtain falls **.


Guevara is the star part, don’t let anyone fool you. 🙂 Although one can tell that Franchetti is obviously trying to write one of the greatest operas ever, this isn’t one of the greatest operas ever. First the music is highly derivative and even goes into parodies of Wagner (the Rhine music in act 2) and Meyerbeer (all of the choral sequences). Sometimes this comes off well, sometimes stunningly, but the whole score just lacks originality. Second, the libretto and thus the plot, is extremely episodic and any one of the four scenes in the opera could be taken out without harming the dramatic flow because each one is so insulated from the rest, the sole exception would be the allusions to act one in the epilogue. Otherwise any three (or even two) of the four scenes could be played without the other one or two and there would be no dramatic difference in effect. The third act sticks out because it takes place in apparently Mexico and we are introduced to a series of characters all of a sudden who otherwise do not matter in any way to the rest of the opera. I don’t think rediscovering the four act version, which splits the American action into two acts, would help though. Third, going back to the music, Franchetti seems to have not been much inspired here. He does find something in Isabella (who is sorely missing after act 1) and Guevara (who although he appears in every scene only “grows up” as a character in act 3 and although we want to cheer for him, there isn’t enough of him) but for his title character there is much to be desired. Ximenes is a standard operatic villain, albeit a particularly horrid one. The other characters, including the worthy of mention Anacoana (what a name!) are not on enough for them to matter in the long term. The chorus does get some great musical moments that stick in the head though, especially the choruses of the native Mexicans where Franchetti really tries his best to provide a Meyerbeerean-sense of solidarity with the oppressed Mexicans which is what truly saves act three from falling into the realm of Hollywood movie stereotypes. In spite of some stunning music, one can tell that this opera is trying to be THE spectacular culmination of 19th century opera and it just isn’t. It is a gravely flawed and highly episodic masterpiece, but it is worthy of a listen or two and I am sure that some people will really enjoy it. Definitely a B.

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