Antonio Cagnoni: Re Lear (2009)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

Do not let the very late premiere date, or the sound of the score itself, trick you. This opera was written in the 1890s and shows the direct influence of Verdi, Donizetti, and to a much lesser extent, Wagner. It is just that it appears that although the score was published in 1900 (after the composer had died) no one bothered to perform the opera until it was given at the Festival de Valle d’Itria in July, 2009 and was recorded.

PLOT: Britain, Ancient/Early Medieval Times. Essentially Shakespeare’s King Lear, but condensed severely.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The throne room of King Lear’s castle. (26 minutes)

0: There is some orchestral floating before we are in an exchange between Edgar and the Duke of Gloucester (his father) to the same tune *. They fear that the king, in his dotage, will do something stupid whence dividing his kingdom among his three daughter, only one of which is trustworthy (Cordelia of course). Then there is a three minute orchestral piece as the court shows up marked “allegro marziale” although it doesn’t feel much of either allegro or martial. It is okay filler music but there isn’t any tune worth mentioning.

17: The court salutes Lear alright and then he addresses them. Then he tells his daughters that he will divide his kingdom among them based on how well they verbally praise him. Goneril goes first. Regan, although a soprano, is not that that interesting. Lear then explodes with delight and Cordelia knows that although her sisters are finks, she won’t debase herself even if she loves her father better than any of them. She refuses her father to the shock of all but delivers a rather lovely rejection piece in which she thanks her father for giving her life but it isn’t the fawning he was looking for *. Lear is enraged and disowns her, Edgar comes to her defence but is silenced.

20: Lear starts off the six minute finale ensemble *. Edgar admits that he is in love with Cordelia, who is so distraught over her father’s betrayal who is in turn angry at what he thinkings of as Cordelia’s betrayal while the sisters and chorus think she is getting what she deserves. The ending is sort of a romantic cop out.

ACT 2: (37 minutes)

Scene 1: The countryside

3: In an extremely low temperature Verdean recitative, Edgar discusses the betrayal by Regan and Goneril of their father (there is a revolt going on)  with the Duke of Kent, and Lear has already gone off to Regan to try to sway her mind. Cordelia comes on, because she is apparently Edgar’s ward or something now and she says she would go back to daddy in a heartbeat if only he wanted her back *.

10: Edgar tries to console her, and finally breaks down and admits his love for her to her (we already know this but it is nice *) and promises to get her back into her father’s good graces. They duet to some very not passionate music (woodwinds and strings) ending on an extremely mild crescendo.

Scene 2: Regan’s castle.

16: Regan’s court has a mildly jumpy little choral number *, it all sounds vaguely Scottish in a stereotypical sort of way. Along with her husband (Cornwall) and Edmund they all make fun of Lear. They hear that Goneril is arriving and everyone goes out to greet her.

21: The ladies perform a dance that is mildly agreeable *.

24: The Fool (a soprano) ends up enraging Regan and her court and they are about to turn him out when Lear shows up. His song is mild but okay *.

28: Lear upbraids everyone with a brief but noble interjection *. The courtiers and Regan complain that it was the Fools fault and that he insulted the ladies, but Lear is stedfast that the Fool is his oldest true friend.

30: Lear is starting to feel the first signs of mental illness **. This finally starts to border into a parody of early Verdi which at this point is rather welcome. It is actually a little hard to believe, but also strangely refreshing, that the score of this opera is about fifty years behind the times. He curses his two wicked daughters and leaves followed by the Fool and his few supporters.

34: There is then a three minute choral-dance sequence that is actually rather good as the courtiers get drunk and plan to party all night long **.

ACT 3 (39 minutes)

Scene 1: A forest.

0: Willow-a-wisps haunt the prelude, then there is something noble (a trumpet), then some andante strings **. Edgar comes on with Kent trying to search out Lear. There is some strong orchestral accompaniment here that is rather a good change. Kent departs leaving Edgar alone (willow-a-wisps pop up throughout the scene)

5: Edgar fantasizes about Cordelia **.

8: Yet more willow-a-wisps. Some woodsmen show up and Edgar plays dumb with them so they think he is an idiot *.

10: Lear shows up. Edgar addresses him as the King but everyone thinks he is crazy so the Fool asks for a hat since Lear is a king without a crown. Edgar keeps up the idiot act rather melodically **. Mildly scary music goes on for a while as the woodsmen freak out sotto voce style.

16: Gloucester shows up having been blinded by Regan and Edgar embraces him *. Lear comes back with the Fool and thinks the other two men are ghosts. The music is pretty here but it all seems to lack cohesion.

Scene 2: A garden near Cordelia’s home, a well.

21: A chorus of village maidens, like any other but worth a star for the chromatic bit and it is pretty *.

27: After Cordelia goes into a musically aimless recitative, Kent shows up to tell her that her father has turned up. She greets him *. The Fool is rather nasty to her and seems to really be a Victor-Victoria sort (a woman pretending to be a misogynist man pretending to be a woman).

32: Lear thanks Cordelia for the water (he does not recognize her). Watch out for the chromatic descending scale here but the whole number is the best in the opera ***. There is much tenderness and warmth here between father and daughter as his memory starts to return but he is still stuck on memories of butterflies and flowers. It starts to sound a lot like Verdi, there even seem to be quotations from La Forza del Destino. In the last minute there is a chorus of soldiers who plan on retaking the kingdom for Lear and Cordelia from the wicked sister duo. A fine finish to the act.

ACT 4 (27 minutes)

Scene 1: A hall in Gloucester castle. A battle outside.

3: A fanfare starts the act. Regan watches and her husband Cornwall comes on to tell her that all is lost for them. She is enraged, her sister Goneril has been taken captive. Then she goes into a death-star aria that sounds a lot like middle-period Verdi *.

6: Edgar shows up and is about to slay Regan to the most lite accompaniment that sounds so out of place here but would sound good in a Meyerbeer opera in a recitative scene.  Regan begs for mercy and tells him that if he kills her Cordelia will be slain by his bastard (as in illegitimate) brother Edmund. This is the opera at its Wagnerian brooding worst. No real melody and the music hardly matches the dramatic intensity of the scene, it is far too subtle, like La Gioconda off the path. Regan then has some bizarrely noble music and Edgar has some low notes and the chorus can be heard doing their pseudo-Verdi thing, high notes, and the scene is over. No star, I’m mad.

Scene 2: The rebel camp, that is Regan’s peeps.

15: A bizarrely placed dance sequence is followed by a bouncy little chorus with a rather noble muted trumpet. After some recitative between Kent and Gloucester in which they discuss how Cordelia is now in the hands of Edmund and Gloucester feels that something is wrong we get more of the disturbing dance music and more chorus. Horror finally comes in with the Fool * who, like me, does not understand why the last four minutes have consisted of a rather awful dance number. The Fool screams, along with the chorus and the orchestra, when it is discovered that Edmund has murdered Cordelia. This should be the dramatic climax of the work but it is rather pathetic.

20: Cordelia’s body is brought in on a brier like she’s Elizabeth in Tannhauser but to weaker music although I will admit that Cagnoni is at least trying for once here *.

23: Lear comes on raving in horror, the chorus thinks he is mad but the other soloists like Kent, Gloucester, and the Fool know better. He saves the opera from oblivion with a solid gold melody as he torturously confronts his daughter’s corpse ** with paternal dread and sorrow. Edgar comes on and is about to kill himself upon seeing Cordelia, his father stops him. An overtly Italianate chorus prays for Cordelia and the now dead Lear. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

There is so much to say, and maybe some of it I should not say. There are so many things that are wrong and strange and frankly weird about this opera. The most Wagnerian thing about it is the final chord which does mimic later Wagner operas, and some chromaticism in the last two acts. Otherwise this score, written in the 1890s remember, is shockingly Verdean, as in it sounds like it was written around 50 years before it actually was. It is bizarrely conservative. The first two acts appear to have been written mostly on auto-pilot (albeit with three highlights, although two are at the very end of act 2), as does the fourth (which is saved by Lear’s emotionally genuine response to the death of Cordelia, but the third act does seem to have some, SOME, inspired music, especially the Lear-Cordelia duet. The rest is actually rather dreadful, both the libretto which lacks dramatic cohesion and is episodic, and the music which is generally pleasant when it should be far more dramatic. It is not a surprise to me that no one bothered to premiere this thing for over a century. Cagnoni’s orchestration, and often times his music generally, is far too lite for the story. Another problem is that his lovers (Edgar and Cordelia) are only vaguely in love and his villains (Regan, Goneril and Edmund) come off more obnoxious than vile (except for Edmund’s murder of Cordelia which however, frankly, is the only truly dramatic thing that happens in the entire opera). There are several places in the score where the music does not remotely match what is going on on stage and there is a consistent lack of dramatic pathos in the music. There are some signs in act 3 that Cagnoni had some notion of what he was doing, but this is far too thin a work to merit anything better than a C+ (the plus is for the Lear-Cordelia duet), and it is probably worse. But, check it out for yourself, you might like a bizarre 1890s rehash of 1850s Verdi, albeit of comparatively low inspiration.

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