Opera in four acts. Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This is considered to be Marchetti’s masterpiece. I’ve heard his Romeo e Giulietta and was little impressed after the first 15 minutes (although I’ve heard all of it), it has one great melody that is repeated about five times from the overture and a great opening chorus and an aria for Romeo and then falls flat rapidly, never to return. Ruy Blas on the other hand is not that at all. It is a remarkably romantic work, and much more rapidly races to its tragic conclusion. Based on the play of the same name by Victor Hugo, it was very popular for around a decade, not surprising given that its only new competition consisted of Verdi’s Aida and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and then mostly disappeared. This recording is from a live performance from 1998 with the Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou as Queen Maria. It is available to listen for free for members of Amazon Prime Music.
ACT 1: A great hall in the royal palace at Madrid, 1698. (26 minutes)
0: The prelude * starts of with a contrast of regal and common themes followed by a strongly Spanish-sounding theme going on a solo trombone (is this supposed to be a leitmotif for love perhaps?), then taken up by the strings. Crescendo! Then that theme again (this time in the high strings, then low) as the brief movement comes to a close.
6: Don Sallustio wants revenge on the Queen because of her having unmasked his romantic indiscretions (he seduced her lady-in-waiting). His duet with Don Guritano has a very good orchestral accompaniment which is somewhat distracting ** (a descending flourish, you can’t miss it) because Guritano has news from the Queen (either marry the lady or go into exile). It is repeated in Sallustio’s following aria in which he plots to find out who the Queen’s secret admirer is and compromise her. He has figured out that his servant Ruy Blas, leaves flowers on the Queen’s walk way for her every day. Sallustio has his in.
17: Ruy Blas arrives and is tricked into following his master’s plot. The tenor arpeggios are a bit overboard (albeit charming in their own way); it isn’t a bad number *. In the second half of the duet things dramatically fall into place. Ruy Blas is to be conferred noble status and passed off as Sallustio’s supposedly dead cousin Don Cesar. Two letters will be written: one do a Donna Prassede, the other in which Blas swears to obey all of Sallustio’s commands. The end has a nice bit for the tenor.
23: The last three minutes are the first of several “grand scene” which pop in from time to time. This one has an okay chorus and a strong orchestral accompaniment, very solemn and regal again *, Sallustio tells Blas to love the Queen and to be loved by her as the curtain dramatically falls. It works a little too well.
Act 2: The Queen’s Garden. (31 minutes)
3: A very tired but flighty female chorus which the Queen wants to but can not join because etiquette is followed by her fantasy about her native…Germany! What? It has a melody that is a cousin to the main one in act one as well as a touch of that Spanish theme from the prelude * and is a rather bright piece.
6: The peasant girl Casilda (who will become important by the end of the opera) gives a brief story-time session to the court ladies about an ugly duchess *. It ends on some okay coloratura.
15: The Queen emotes to more of the Spanish themed recitative, this time in a more floating package. The aria is as delicate as wing at flight and is the strongest number so far **.
20: A message arrives from the King. The letter, read by the Duchess, the Queen’s attendant, is impersonal. Ruy Blas arrives and a series of arpeggios and his vocal line create an hynoptic experience bordering on mild Wagnerianism **. A good ensemble rounds out the bit. Marchetti creates a beguiling atmosphere here and you can tell that Sallustio’s vile plan is going to work.
25: Don Guritano, himself in love with the Queen and as another of her attendants, sees through Blas and challenges him to a duel. There is an okay and energetic but brief duet between the two men *.
28: Casilda overhears this and alerts the Queen. To a flighty string tune * the Queen orders Guritano to a post far from Madrid, eliminating him as a rival and saving Ruy Blas, for the moment that is.
ACT 3 (31 minutes)
Scene 1: The Council Hall of the Royal Palace, Madrid.
5: Ruy Blas has been raised to the status of Count and Dons Pedro and Fernando come on worried that he may be soon appointed Prime Minister, also that he quick rise must be the result of the influence of a powerful benefactor. Blas come on and soon tells everyone that Spain is in serious trouble and its need for good governance *.
14: The Queen arrives by way of a secret passage and startles Ruy Blas, but she has only words of encourage and congratulations as she has overheard in secret what he has just said. Yet another melodic expression that is a cousin to that descending one in act 1 appears and it is all pretty light weight until he admits that he loves her and then, although it is lovely and melodic, the music is little more than that. Delicate though until the Spanish theme returns (or is it “love”?) **.
16: The Queen leaves as Don Sallustio appears and gives Ruy Bias the instructions for the rest of his plan. He is to fire all of the servants at the house Sallustio has given him except for the two mute, then he is to order a carriage and wait. Blas is worried about this and pleads with him to ask pardon of the Queen but to no avail. This is basically recitative and little of it stands out in terms of the music, but it is very important in terms of the storyline. A star for the trouble *.
Scene 2: The throne room of the Royal Palace.
29: The Queen is about to bestow the Order of the Golden Fleece upon Ruy Blas, who has requested at Don Sallustio attend the ceremony as they are supposed to be cousins after all. There is a repeat of the act 1 royal chorus *. Casilda is suspicious of Sallustio and tells the Queen In the last ninety seconds the act finally takes wing only to die just as quickly. This really isn’t up to the level it should be.
ACT 4: A small room in Don Sallustio’s private apartments. (26 minutes)
0: This is probably the strongest of the acts, ironically. A broodingly menacing prelude goes directly into an aria for Ruy Bias **. This is absolutely beautiful as he contemplates total desolation and the fact that he has deceived a woman who he is truly in love with. There are traces of the descending theme from act 1 again. He also starts to cry, although much of this section has been trimmed here. This is unfortunate because this is the best number in the opera. There is also supposed to be a recitative between Bias and the returned Don Guritano in which the latter forces the former into a duel, this better explains what happens later.
7: Instead of this, Casilda gets a very brief arioso before Sallustio arrives and orders his page to kidnap her. Their interaction has an oddly delightful accompaniment from the orchestra *. Sallustio has some sinister bit after she is taken away.
15: Ruy Blas arrives, he has mortally wounded Don Guritano and the Queen arrives. Bias tries in vain to get her to leave but Sallustio pops up from behind a curtain, the jig is up! Sallustio, liltingly ironically **, gives the Queen the choice of the cloister or a divorce from the King and being free then to shack up with Ruy Blas in wealth and romance. Blas sees through this and gives away his real identity. The Queen begs for pardon, not for herself but for Sallustio, but Blas stabs him in the breast and kicks him out of the room. At first the Queen is horrified by all of this and Blas poisons himself, which terrifies her because he does this because she is too slow at forgiving him for just slaying Sallustio in front of her.
23: Blas says farewell in the most lilting way **. He dies, the Queen cries out for him to respond and faints.
So, this is not a grand opera. In fact I am surprised by how, not so much pallid or boring the opera is but how not great it is. The plot would suggest that the music would be the peak of melodic awesomeness, and instead we get a score which has about a half dozen good, and it must be restated that they are just good, melodies that are repeated multiple times, along with a lot of music that although never actually boring or dull, is not all that interesting either. There are some truly good moments, like the Queen’s act 2 aria and her duet with Ruy Blas in act 3 and his aria at the start of act 4. The orchestration during the act 2 introductory interview of Blas and the Queen is bewitching if lite. The finale, although so rushed and bloody, does have its moments. It is mostly when Marchetti attempts at being grand that the opera falls very, very flat. That march tune isn’t fooling anyone. This production is cut so unfortunately I do not know if a performance of the complete score would improve the opera. It would tie up some loose ends in the plot, and flesh out several of the male characters who are basically walk ons, like all of those dons! There are three operas which this reminds me of: Gounod’s Faust, Massenet’s Werther, and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. And just as Sir Denis Forman rated those, Ruy Blas is a solid B.