Opera in three acts. Running time 2 hours 35 minutes.
This was Mercadante’s finale opera to be performed, although it was not his last written opera. That distinction goes to 1857’s Pelagio. The opera was written in 1850, and failed mostly because it was so old fashioned by the time it finally was performed. Each act has its own video. The featured image is the cover of the Opera Rara release (the first ever studio recording) of the opera from 2009.
PLOT: Ancient Rome. Virginia is the daughter of the soldier Virginio who suffers the unwanted advances of Appio Claudio who has decreed a ban on the marriage of plebeians and patricians. Virginia, a plebeian, is in love with Icilio, a patrician who is soon killed by Appio who then decides to claim that Virginia is not Virginio’s daughter but a slave so he can have her. She commits suicide before this can happen.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:
Scene 1: A Magnificent Hall.
4: The first act starts with a funeral march (nothing bodes well for this opera). The first sung music (a chorus) is one of the most amazingly addictive tunes you will ever encounter in opera ***. (Da-da-daah! Da-da-daah! Da-da-DEE-da-da-da-do-da-da-daah!). This is followed by the funeral march, this time a part of the drama and then a reprisal of the exciting opening chorus which I just want to repeat over and over again even though everything that surrounds it is only so so.
13, 18.30: So we have to give up repeating the fragments of that amazing bang-bang chorus that should have been enough to keep the rest of this thing alive for three centuries now that we know that the first dozen minutes of this opera consists of a rather dull funeral scene and the most awesome chorus, we settle down to hear from the villain of the piece, the slimy tenor Appio Claudio, but the cavatina is rather charming as he talks about this mysterious plebeian girl with whom he has become insane with love **. After so crafty plotting with his friend Marco in which he discovers the girl is named Virginia, he vows that Rome will fall to him if need be for him to possess her *. This is very bouncy but also a little stock gesturing.
Scene 2: A room in house of Virginio.
22, 27, 33, 39: From the intro music we expect a bolero, what we get is a not bad female chorus that sounds more than a little like the one that begins the second act of Verdi’s Il Corsaro but much better. A nice, quiet, lyrical piece **. Virginia annoyingly interrupts this with her thoughts about death and then (much better) love ** to the accompaniment of a harp and the chorus. The ladies give us another bit of their chorus as a sort of climax but no, they go on and so does Virginia to a bouncy little bit of coloratura about her boyfriend Icilio ** and the opera shows its age but it is fine. The ladies leave Virginia with her nurse Tullia as it is night fall. After some recitative Appio arrives and starts to torment Virginia with his lyrical but unwanted propositions for sex **. He wants to break his own law about how social classes can’t mix socially. He pleads with her not to doubt his love, and she isn’t buying any of it for a second and then Icilio himself arrives to fend off the attack. This is very slow for some reason.
47: The trio part one ***: starts off just Icilio and Appio on the same gig (this poses an issues as the two tenors here much have distinctive voices to avoid confusion, at least on recording that is). There is a false finale at 51 minutes, don’t worry there is more.
53: The trio part two ** is more furious but the sentiments are the same: Appio vows revenge even if it comes from the gods, Icilio fending him off, Virginia vowing purity but also wanting this all to be over.
Scene 1: Another room in Virginio’s house.
7: A nice but short prelude begins the act. Then Virginio arrives home and prays to the gods. Virginia comes on overjoyed to see her father again and he goes on about the field of battle and how he will protect her. This is mostly recitative at first but the second half is more bouncy but never more than *.
15: Icilio arrives suddenly and there is a nice little duet between him and Virginia as they plan to wed in spite of the law. It takes a few minutes but after the female chorus comes on it gets better **.
Scene 2: Before the temple of Imene.
17, 24: Good prelude music again, dancing flute solo everywhere *. The finale is in three parts. 1.) Choruses abound: Male chorus in distance follows along to similar melody. Marco and then female chorus come on then back to the men but the melody introduced by the flute reappears. Watch out for the last chorus (unison male-female) it is a toe-tapper *. Then not recitative but a plot forwarding break as Marco declares that Virginia is in fact his slave girl and not Virginio’s daughter, making it possible for Appio to buy her off his friend and she is unprotected under Roman law as the daughter of a citizen. All of this sounds really, really old for 1866, but would be fine in about, say 1836, like a Donizetti opera with really good orchestration. It’s all good, but there is nothing specific to point out.
28: Virginio leads off the ensemble. 2.) First fiery anger from all, then a lyrical but slow bit as everyone reflects **.
38: Finally 3) *** The call for a trial to prove that Virginia is really a slave and not Virginio’s daughter. Heavily dramatic of course. It goes on for about three minutes of fury before Icilio starts off the end of the ends and an explosion it is as almost every stop you can think of is pulled and even a hint of the opening chorus in act 1.
Scene 1: Apartment of Appio.
4, 8: The act starts with 90 some seconds of surprisingly calm music that turns Beethoven-ish before dying to Appio and Marco in recitative, followed by Appio and Icilio with the former giving the latter orders to go to the front (yes, that front) and then their duet **. Unlike the Donizetti-ish music of the previous acts, the dated bits here are Verdian. Watch out for the bit of Romanesque bravado from Icilio and then Appio *** and then later both as they decide to kill each other. Probably the most throughly effective scene in the opera.
Scene 2: Same as act 1, scene 2.
12: Scene opens to a female chorus and then some Wagnerian sounding chords as Virginio calls for his daughter.
16, 22: The father-daughter duet ** starts with sad harp, strings, and oboe or is it clarinet and, although very, very gentle and sometimes quiet with the exception of Virginia going coloratura Valkyrie on everything it is a very good number. Valerio, until now a very minor character who has previously only appeared in the previous act finale arrives with the horrifying news that Appio has murdered Icilio. Although the announcement is made to an appropriate accompaniment *, the arioso bit that ends what is actually still the duet between V and V is surprisingly jovial with only a trace of terror.
Scene 3: The Forum.
25: There is a long orchestral and choral intermezzo as everyone gathers in the Forum for the judgement **.
31: Appio makes his slimy case to the Roman People in recitative, Virginio calls him out as the liar that he is but he is allowed for some reason to go on with the whole “Virginia is a slave” argument. Silence and then Virginio rages. A nice ensemble rounds this part **. Things start to run out of steam as the events lead up to the order that Virginia be taken from her father.
45: Then harp to the rescue! Virginia clings to her father and delivers a good arioso leading to another ensemble **. Comforting from Virginio, Appio triumphant, Virginia wanting mercy and for the truth to triumph (which it won’t). In the last two minutes Appio gloats, Virginia stabs herself to death, Virginio is in utter shock and then after she dies he accuses Appio and everyone wants his blood.
This is a surprisingly good opera musically. The plot is a bit slow moving and slightly bizarre and the opera in total is perhaps too long by about twenty minutes but for a neglected opera with a very poor performance record (no performances at all between 1901 and 1976 and then not again until 2009 with this recording although there have been two productions since the first at Wexford, of course) there is something here worthy of attention. There are four truly great numbers here and two of them stick in the head like a Disney song such as “Under the Sea” or “Tale as Old as Time”. The rest is mostly a series of very good opera music that mimics great Donizetti in the first two acts and then good Verdi in the third. There are some low temperature points like Virginio’s homecoming aria and the last scene is about five minutes too long. The plot however is unrelentingly cruel and singular, everything and everyone except for Icilio is/are driven by the fanatical lust of Appio Claudio for Virginia, and very little else and at long last Appio kills Icilio possibly because he is the only one really trying to stand against him and succeeding at it. A note here regarding the opera is that the two tenor roles much be performed by singers with distinctive voices that are never the less both obviously tenors. The climax of the work is the second act finale. One very interesting thing about the score is how musical numbers are interrupted by plot development or even just interjections from other characters, there is some attempt at seamlessness here and at least four of the scenes are made up of a single continuous musical number. I am not surprised that the opera failed to appeal to audiences. Although the score is good and at times great it shows how dated it was for 1866, or even for 1850 when it was written. In fact, Virginia almost returns to the stilted world of opera seria in places, albeit more through-composed. Except for the third act duet between Icilio and Appio, all of the numbers glaringly show their age as not being from the year of premiere. The story is so vicious to the poor heroine that her suicide comes off as the cruel end of a rather vindictive and bloodthirsty Roman narrative. But she had little choice and so it much be chalked up to the fates. And yet, each act has at least one grand moment so that Virginia must be an A-.