Amilcare Ponchielli: I Lituani (1874)

Opera in Prologue and Three Acts. Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes. This was the first and to date only Ponchielli opera for which I have purchased a physical copy. My recording of La Gioconda is in digital format from Amazon. In many ways I find that this work is superior to its much more famous younger sister although it has nothing on the level of the Dance of the Hours. It has a very spotty performance history, being rather popular for about 30 years and then dropping out of sight for 75 years until it appeared once more at La Scala in 1979. The recording here is of that performance.

PLOT: Lithuania and Marienburg, Germany, 14th century. Walter is the husband of Aldona, the sister of Arnoldo, a Lithuanian prince, and he has not seen her in ten years (as of act 1) during which time he has tricked the Teutonic Order into believing him to be a German knight. He has done this in order to sabotage a climatic battle between the Order and the Lithuanians because of the betrayal of Vitoldo, a Lithuanian who becomes a judge for the Order.


0: The Overture ** is full scale and six minutes long. It starts off with a theme which will return in the prologue when Walter contemplates his mission and that in order to do so he much leave his beloved Aldona. Then there is agitation of the military sort (it will return during the act 3 battle  followed by an ardent tune that is related to the first (and symbolizes Lithuania) and then agitation again which then low temps only to return in full force. Then the ardent tune pops up again. The finale gallop is pure Ponchielli which anyone who knows the Dance of the Hours will recognize. A strong beginning.

PROLOGUE: The battlements of a Lithuanian castle, devastation in the distance.

11: Serious music as we are in a serious situation, but not too serious and there is a reprehensible flute popping up all the time. Albano, the only other important character that I haven’t mentioned yet, is a bard and he bemoans the fate of his beloved Lithuania (what else?) as they are losing a great battle in a “sea of fire”. Are they fighting North Korea or something? I tease, any hoo Aldona comes on freaking out over the possibility that either her brother or her husband or both could be dead. She orders the people to gather for evening prayer, and it is a surprisingly good one musically if words wise they never actually get beyond the petition stage **. It starts off softy but with a bit of fear, it remains gentle . Aldona goes on for a while and then the chorus starts to brood before CRESCENDO! A lovely sweet but powerful finish.

15: Arnoldo and Walter return from battle, although there is no time for rejoicing. There is at first some very standard recitative which will remind one of Early Verdi and then the orchestra gets a bit richer *. Vitoldo has betrayed the Lithuanian cause for the Order.

18: An ensemble, started by Arnoldo and then taken up by Albano and Aldona and then the chorus. It peaks on Walter’s gorgeous tenor line ** giving us the first repeat of the very first tune from the overture as he contemplates with utter misery that he must abandon Aldona, so beautiful that she is and so young, in order to defeat the Germans. It will act as a leitmotif for the rest of the opera. The orchestra faintly repeats it on a clarinet.

21: As Walter and Albano discuss the plan to defeat the Germans, with Walter emoting a good deal we finally get a tune out of Albano ** which is very noble and lush.

32: Aldona returns and Walter kneels before her and begs for mercy. She declares that he loves her no more and that although she knows he is leaving her her greatest joy in life will forever be that for one day he loved her. This is very ardent and warm. He tries desperately to convince her that he still loves her (which we know is true). She begs that if this is true, why does he not take her with him? He will kill a lot of people before he can return to her is his answer. He curses Rome (in a very uncharacteristic move for an Italian opera) for making themselves drunk on the blood shed by their German allies. A really great tune comes in on Aldona’s vocal line and then taken up by Walter ** which will dominate until the end of the scene. Arnoldo returns and Walter vows to Aldona that he will return to her either in a free Lithuania or in heaven. She faints, he goes, a beautiful and powerful conclusion to a rather long prologue (30 minutes!).

ACT 1: Before the Cathedral of Marienburg, ten years later. (35 minutes)

1: After a good deal of orchestral menace in the rather brief prelude the opening chorus is a jolly affair *. They discuss the exploits of their leader Corrado Wallenrod in Spain against the Moors but Vitoldo thinks he is a drunk who engages in orgies all day. It is all surprisingly low key.

8: Ten Lithuanian prisoners are brought in who will be executed at the next dawn. There is then a prayer sung from the Cathedral. This is strangely effective all of a piece ** but especially when the Lithuanians (Arnoldo is among them) emphasize that the Germans will witness the deaths of true heroes.

10: There is suddenly a very, very strongly great theme coming from the orchestra as Corrado arrives (it’s really Walter). The chorus which immediately follows is gorgeously melodic ***. You will not believe that this is part of the same opera. Corrado (as we will call him for the rest of the opera) addresses the crowd and pardons the Lithuanians and sets them free and there is a reprisal of the chorus in lower temperature as the populous accepts this turn of events.

19: Arnoldo thinks that he is dreaming. So close to death, he has been saved and by who? Is the leader of the Order, could it be? Corrado is Walter! His aria is rather nice **.

25, 29: Aldona shows up dressed as a pilgrim. It takes Arnoldo and her a while to recognize each other but when they do there is a lovely orchestral mini-climax *. It takes a while but eventually Aldona builds up to a good high note with sometime related to the prayer scene in the prologue as she goes on about how she was in a cloister, never took vows though, and one day a voice told her to go to Marienberg *.

30: A chorus of Germans order that way be made as the jongleurs arrive to an appropriately jingly chorus ** as they make their way to Corrado’s castle for his celebration bash. A good catchy tune.

32: Albano shows up. The trio of Lithuanians decide that since everyone else is going off to the party at the castle why can’t they go too? More of the jongleurs chorus as the three head off **.

ACT 2: The hall of Corrado’s castle, Marienberg, party in progress. (19 minutes)

3: Noble party music begins the act. The temperature drops briefly before Corrado gives a toast. He some what blasphemously gives a quasi-prayer to God which turns into a ravishing drink song *.

4: Suddenly, there is a dance of Andalusian slaves which boarders on being an extremely brief parody of the Dance of the Hours with a choral accompaniment. It crescendos in almost stereotypical Ponchielli style **. Albano almost blows Corrado’s cover when he offers to sing a traditional Lithuanian folk song. Arnoldo and Aldona have hoods on which Vitoldo finds suspicious.

8: Albano’s song ** is not so much folksy as it is a cry for national liberation and Corrado has difficult keeping the guests from harming the old man. Arnoldo has a go with a song that starts with the line “Lithuania is dead”. By the end, Corrado has recognized Aldona and Vitoldo is suspicious of Corrado now as well.

12: Aldona thinks she is in heaven when she realizes that Corrado recognizes her, not only that he wants her, terribly. Vitoldo recognizes Aldona fondly as the daughter of the Lithuanian king Everyone has a “thinks” ensemble, this one rather awesome for a non-rep opera ***.

18: Corrado has Aldona and Arnoldo placed under arrest, but their warden is Albano so how is this imprisonment exactly? Anyway Vitoldo and the Knights are suspicious of Corrado now (especially since they are to be going into battle against the Lithuanians the following day) and the act ends with a hardy ensemble with traces of themes from the overture **.

ACT 3 (44 minutes)

Scene 1: The ruins of a cloister, a battle raging in not far off.

0: Prelude is a good musical picture of the battle **, women, children and soldiers pray at a cross. Much of this is a music whirl, but very scenic.

9: Things die down and Aldona comes on among the ruins. Her aria is rather gloomy until a little towards the end *.

13: The reunion duet between Walter and Aldona. It starts off slow but builds up to a nice gentle melody starting with a long bit by Walter and the two fantasize about their future **.

16: Suddenly, bells toll, the battle is lost and the Germans flee in terror. Walter orders Aldona to pray for him in hiding and that Arnoldo will head the troops by nightfall.

18: The start of the post battle panic * does not come off as well as it probably should (or maybe it does). The scene is long and drawn out. Bizarrely some of the jongleurs show up and one of their number (a soprano) gives a tearful account of the disaster. It might work better on stage though. Chromatic descending lines and low temperature terror can only go so far.

22: But Aldona saves the day with another of her great melodies. The people swear to God that they will be avenged on Walter, the judges of the Order (among them Vitold) order for his execution and she realizes that in order to give liberty to Lithuania, Walter has had to kill a lot of people through deceitful and treacherous means. By the end she wants Walter to kill her, but this second half of the scene is as great and noble (and the horror of the battle so vivid) as the first half was dull ***. A tour de force and the climax of the opera.

Scene 2: A room in the castle, night.

33: Very quickly the scene starts with Walter telling Albano that he already knows that the German court has sentenced him to death. His first thought is of Aldona and Albano tries to get him to flee the revenge of the Teutons but Walter says no, he will commit suicide by drinking poison. Walter’s song as he is about to drink the poison cup is actually rather wonderful and given how jolly Laura’s “suicide” is in Gioconda this really isn’t that much of a surprise ***. Albano rages at him for leaving nothing for him and the young man asks the old man to take care of Aldona. Amid all of this there are threatening outside gestures from the Teutonic chorus who burst in to slay him but Arnoldo arrives with the Lithuanian forces and they force the Germans out. Aldona arrives and Walter rushes into her arms. Only Albano knows at this point that Walter is dying and the news is devastating.

38: The death scene *** borders at first as being a sad version of the Grail Narration from Lohengrin. 

41: The Apotheosis **, is a slightly obnoxious bit of patriotic kitsch with the Willies showing up with flowers and laurels for the dead Walter. There is one last return of a heroic take on our main theme and then crescendo, bang, end. Effective and satisfying.


Musically, this is an excellent opera, probably worthy of being among the top 100 greatest operas ever, albeit in the nineties. I would even make the case that it is probably Ponchielli’s best opera, even considering the admittedly mixed-bag masterpiece that is La Gioconda. Plot-wise and libretto-wise, however, it is dreadful and the story and libretto (by Boito) of Gioconda has lightyears on this thing. There is almost no plot development at all in the first and second acts other than Vitoldo becoming suspicious of Corrado/Walter. The rest amounts to the other four Lithuanian characters finding each other again very, very, slowly amid grand pageantry after we already know who they all are from the Prologue, which is much more dramatically effective. Also, one really has to suspend reality in regards to how they all suddenly end up in Marianberg at the same time. There is also the matter of the “voice” Aldona heard and the fact that three of the only five named characters have very similar names only one of which, Aldona, is actually Lithuanian. The prologue and the two scenes of the third act are three very strong situations and the other two acts, if dramatically not that complicated until the songs at the party, do have some great music. There is so much neglected operatic gold here (especially considering its spotty performance history of disappearing after a disastrous opening night in Milan in 1903 until 1979 in Turin), and for once with Ponchielli almost all of the best flatters the voice, that I can not help but recognize this opera for the flawed masterwork that it is. Each of the first two acts have a platinum number each and the third, although slow at first, builds up at around the half way point and goes from being steam powered to nuclear, surpassing everything before in the opera. With better orchestration, Ponchielli really would have had a world class scene on his hands with the end of act 3 scene 1 because the pathos and terror are all there. The finale whiff of Willies and flowers and its message of redemption through patriotism might be a bit too much, but I Lituani is certainly an A-/B+

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