Opera in Five Parts. 3 Acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
This opera brought to you by the Wexford Opera Festival, which has apparently tried everything since 2013 to get Foroni on the map including the very recent first production of his first opera Margherita there in around 150 years. I can’t say “back on the map” because for over 100 years all that was heard of this opera was the overture until a production in Vadstena, Sweden in 2007. The recording here though was made in 2010 by the Goteborgsoperan in Goteborg, Sweden and released through the Swedish label Sterling. For some reason most of the opera was doubled on the video so it is almost four hours but the opera itself is only 2 hours and 10 minutes long. The video follows the review.
PLOT: Stockholm, Sweden, circa 1654. A failed assassination attempt/palace coup is sparked by the failure of Queen Christina to realize who her female cousin Maria is in love with, leading to her abducting the throne in favour of her male cousin Carlo.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The Overture ***, is possibly one of the most brilliantly orchestrated by an Italian composer EVER because it is so adroitly Teutonic. From the first regal and dramatic bars we know we are in safe hands. A mildly brooding theme that sounds so Scandinavian pops in a bit and will return in various guises over the course of the opera. More regal brass and then the Scandinavian bit returns in greater force. Then another more furious theme which I think is a sped up variant of the very first theme in the opera and then this jovial theme and then more Scandinavia comes back only to be overtaken by an even more excited jovial which will form a climax in the first act finale as well. More brooding and then furious returns and then jovial for one more outing and then CLIMAX as regal explodes all over the place and then end.
Scene 1: An open square near the palace, the sea visible.
10: After a strong orchestral intro we have the opening chorus *** as strong as anything written by Verdi up to that time and with a better melody than most of the early Verdi choruses. The clarinet, or is it an oboe?, is a little ornery though. In any case, you will think you are listening to a really well orchestrated pre-Luisa Miller Verdi opera here, and yes, the orchestration is just so hypnotically lush as the court praises Swedish naval power and the beauty of the Baltic sea. Oxenstjerna, the Queen’s advisor, addresses her in recitative. Having just secured a peace treaty at the end of the Thirty-Years War, they exchange adulations.
18: There is much ado about peace and Swedish patriotism as we find out about how the Queen’s favorite Gabriele is in love not with her but her cousin Maria, who is herself being pursued by Erik, Oxenstjerna’s son, although she is in love with Gabriele. Meanwhile the conspiratorial father-son duo Arnold and Johan sneer in contempt at the Queen. Overall a strong **.
22: Christina announces the engagement of Maria to Erik most joyously and then goes into a Donizetti cabaletta con coro ** with some odd coloratura flourishing spirals as Maria declares the engagement a death sentence, Gabriele is horrified, Erik and Oxenstjerna are overjoyed and Arnold and Johan anticipate an alliance with Gabriele. The scene ends.
Scene 2: A garden.
28: The scene change is set up by a nicely gentle mood piece and then we are into Gabriele’s brooding aria *. The orchestration here is much lighter and it almost comes off as recitative as Gabriele goes on about how he wants to die and be consumed by whatever causes him to love Maria be it a good or evil force.
34: Maria arrives and then we are off into love duet time first with Gabriele heating things up from his aria **. He pleads with her to fly away with him, she speaks of honour and threatens suicide. He calms her, vowing that one day they will be husband and wife. It does go from one theme to another though in spite of the mild patches it does reach a climax when it needs to.
Scene 3: A brightly illumined hall.
43: Scandinavia returns along with a dancing gypsy-like tune as we tee-up from the wedding chorus *, an oddly brooding piece at first. An ornery soprano soloist can be heard in the distance. Another male chorus comes on.
51: Maria tells Christina that she can not go through with the wedding and all hell breaks loose. It takes a while to build but the choral crescendo is good ** if fragmented.
54: We get closer and closer to the finale as Maria admits that she is in love with Gabriele and although Christina calls off the wedding to Erik, she isn’t going to hand Maria over to Gabriele and references that she plans on banishing him. There is a climax on jovial after some cymbal work and then the play out ends **.
Scene 1: A moonlit night on an uninhabited island on the salt lake outside Stockholm.
2: A dreamy prelude leads to a lilting aria *** from a fisherman (its actually the same tenor singing Gabriele doubling roles). Anyways, the number is so enchanting and scenic.
7: After some parlando from Carlo, a lovely baritone aria **. Carlo loves Christina and has intercepted news about the conspiracy against her on the part of Arnold and Johan so had come to investigate. Watch out for the horn after this.
12: The meeting of the conspirators is surprisingly melodic and only builds up to become sinister **. Gabriele comes on the midst of the conspirators which shocks Carlo and then we are on furious theme for a while and then another sweet bit. Carlo is determined to stop the conspiracy, even though their goal is to put him on the throne. More furious to the close of the scene.
Scene 2: Christina’s apartment in the palace.
28: After another mood setting prelude, Christina is unhappy and contemplates what she would be without her crown in recitative. She can not love a man because of it and yet she is nothing without it. Oxenstjerna arrives and she wonders about some more until we get a brooding and yet melodic recitative from him which ends up with a bit of a dancing melody which is followed in turn by Christina but nothing seems settled about this number until then Oxenstjerna orders her to listen to him and we get something great **. He and Erik hold nothing against her for the failed wedding but she is slowly going a bit potty and wants to abdicate.
34, 39: Suddenly, the chorus outside alerts that the palace is on fire. Maria and Carlo come on in different directions with Carlo declaring that Gabriele is among the conspirators which the two women refuse to believe until Erik arrives with all of the conspirators in chains, Gabriele among them. It all happens in about two and a half minutes, and then silence as Christina has a briefly unaccompanied address to the men who would wish her ill **. Christina declares that the Council will be called and pronounce judgement on the conspirators by the morning in an effective close to the act **. Rousing chorus as Maria implores for mercy in vain for Gabriele, Christina and the court bend on blood, but in the most gentile way.
0: Prelude *, this time brooding with might power paralleled to an ornery woodwind. Some very gentle strings round out the selection.
2: Christina implores History to remember her kindly. She has added much territory and wealth to her kingdom but will give up all for the birthplace of the arts, for the “paradise of Italy”. Most of it is in recitative, albeit with most of the stops out both vocally (a bit of bel canto) and orchestrally *.
10: Carlo arrives and Christina makes the first mention to him that she plans on stepping down in his favour. But she forgets one thing: Carlo is in love with her, and he reminds her in the most lovely way **. He wants to rule with her, as Queen and Consort, not he alone. She wants him to not be guided by love but by honour and to bring about universal love. The council bell chimes and Christina is frightened realizing that her finale order before leaving the throne might be to execute so many conspirators. She decides to pardon them, which, although robs the finale scene of any sense of surprise, is a very respect-life sort of thing to do. Good duetting as he pleads with her not to reject his love and she orders him to follow her to the Council.
Scene 2: The Council Chamber.
19: Doom music leads to the Chorus of Councillors who deliver the (not surprising) death sentence. The conspirators’ crime is just so heinous, but the chorus is rather good if it takes a bit to warm up **.
22: Gabriele declares that his own will leads him to his death, not the law **, the strings here shimmer and the tune is good. Christina stays the death sentence to a false ending.
29: Mother Sweden is laying down her sceptre, but not before pardoning the conspirators because remorse in this life is a greater purifier than the shedding of blood. She declares Carlo Gustavo as king and that Gabriele will marry Maria. She, Christina, will go to Italy to be surrounded by the land of art. The finale chorus is a triumphal farewell ***, it brought a tear to my eye at least.
This is a lovely opera. Albeit not much of it is great, but it is consistently very good and in pages it is excellent. There are a few low temperature moments as the stars indicate and much of the recitative makes you want for it to go a little faster, but the good moments here are well worth the not so amazing ones. I don’t think any of the music here can be considered bad although the weakest are Gabriele’s first act aria, the wedding chorus, and the prelude to the third act. The Oxenstjerna-Christina duet takes a long while to fully flower (after 12 minutes of recitative), but when it does it makes up for the delay. Thus, the weakest moments are when we obviously feel that we are in a sea of recitative. These can be found balanced with the four great moments in the opera: the overture, the opening chorus, the haunting fisherman’s song in act 2 and the grand finale. The rest is consistently very good and after the first act the opera has great plotting. But there are some problems. Christina is a bit of an idiot in the first act regarding the whole marrying off Maria to the wrong guy thing and she seems like a different person from the Christina in acts 2 and 3 who is a thoughtful, wise, and even magnanimous ruler. The homages she gives to Italy are obviously the work of Foroni and his Italian opera company, but they do suggest that the subject for the composer’s debut opera for Stockholm was shrewdly chosen. Christina is also a mostly secondary character in the first act, taking a backseat to the conflict of the love story between Gabriele and Maria and mostly reacting to the other characters either passively or furiously. Everything then flips and in the last two acts Christina is the focus and the love story, although a motivation for Gabriele’s treason, really doesn’t factor in again until Christina orders that the lovers wed before she gives up the throne and even then it is just a last minute reference. However, there is greatness here, and this is made more shocking by the fact that this is a neglected opera by an essentially forgotten composer. Why did this opera suffer so? Possibly, similarly with Catalani’s operas, the nordic subject matter doomed what is obviously an Italian opera. That said, it is an Italian opera with something more: the orchestration is strikingly Northern European, not the banjo-like accompaniment of a Donizetti, Rossini or even early Verdi opera. It is even richer than Bellini in this regard. There are also moments were you would swear you are listening to really good Donizetti especially, less so early Verdi or Bellini. Another attractive element of the opera is its references to history, including even by name in one aria by Christina. There is a strong sense of the historical in this opera, and even though the plot (based on really events in the reign of Christina) might come off as patterned on operas about Queen Elizabeth I (planned executions, councils issuing death sentences, conspiracies, wedding fiascos, pageantry, a strong female monarch and a man who lives for and loves only her), there is a stronger desire here to connect what is going on on stage with the historical experience of reality. The articles included in the booklet that accompany the recording include more info that I don’t need to get into here. Let us just call Christina what she is. A, maybe A-, but any less would be a travesty.