Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes.
I just found this opera on accident looking for a completely different composer, but I thought, who has heard of it? I’ve had to listen to this opera three times in order to not just provide a timer synopsis with forty one-star ratings. This is the second version here and it is a little tighter than my first posting, where I found myself timer highlighting most of the character entrances and choruses that are instances of commenting on the action within a number and not separately good plot point numbers themselves. Apparently, this opera was a huge success in Barcelona in 1838 and 1839 (the year the composer died of TB aged just 22). It is extremely derivative of Bellini and to a lesser extent Donizetti. It is filled with magic and is derived from the same material used for Verdi’s I Lombardi. It appears that this opera was not performed after the composer died (except for a revival in 1863) and then when it was produced at Liceu which is the origin of this recording from 2005. During its initial run it was performed 24 times. The title translates to “The Fortuneteller”.
PLOT: Normandy, circa 1200. There are five characters and they all are represented by five different vocal types which makes it easier to figure out who is saying what when. Oscar (tenor) is a crusader knight who had an affair with the witch Azilia (mezzo-soprano) who quits her and vows never to tell a woman he loves her before marriage in exchange for having a wound miraculously healed at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the penalty being death from the instantaneous reopening of said wound. Returning to Normandy he falls in love and is about to wed Ismalia (soprano), the daughter of the wealthy knight Ulrico (bass). Ismalia is loved by the bard Blondello (baritone). Apart from the fact that Azilia changed her name to Argea, this is basically all you need to know of the backstory to being from this point. There is also another female character, a witch.
I must acknowledge that an English translation of this Polish webpage helped me to understand what was going on in this opera:
LOOK OUT FOR: (As there is almost no way to synopsize this opera due to lack of materials, I will try my best to give plot descriptions here without timer highlighting every character entrance).
ACT 1: (82 minutes)
0: The overture * is long (nine minutes) and bizarre, starting off with some intermittent banging before pushing around several themes in fragments of various lengths, some mild nature music like in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell others bordering on witchy music until about four and a half minutes in we get something that vaguely reminds me of the overture to I Capuleti e i Montecchi. This is both preceded and followed by some Norma sounding stuff, in fact a lot of the music is extremely derivative of Bellini. It immediately flows into the opening chorus.
Scene 1: Ulrico’s castle.
14: After a standard all male chorus framing interjections from Argea and accompanied by what sounds almost like an organ-grinder, Argea’s aria takes on witch-like rhythms as she plots her revenge on Oscar *. It is catchy, but also literally a single melody repeated over and over again for over two minutes before some crashes and something more free flowing as an other witch (soprano) and an all female chorus of witches comes on followed by a near repeat of the all male chorus again followed by witchy menacing to a waltzing tune.
Scene 2: A room in Ulrico’s castle.
23: After an extremely brief (but nice) entr’acte as the scene changes Ulrico comes on with his thoughts about the wedding. The male chorus announces Blondello, a minstral who is in love with Ismalia and goes on about her even though she is in love with Oscar. The two men agree that if something happens to Oscar Blondello is the spare groom for Ismalia to a rather hauntingly pretty flute and oboe background *. The male chorus joins in and there is a good climax.
Scene 3: A gallery in the castle.
35, 40: Ismalia preps with some help from her ladies and has a sweet if agitated aria con coro with some nice coloratura *. There has been a storm the previous day and Oscar has never made his feelings for her totally clear, only that he wants to marry her. Agitation from all sides before the second part of Ismalia’s aria which ends with a coloratura flourish *.
47, 50: Ulrico comes on and Ismalia quickly leaves before Oscar arrives and gives us some rather nice stuff as he converses with Ulrico **. They are interrupted by a mixed-chorus announcing that the king is arriving for the wedding *. Oscar and Ulrico continue on to the end of the scene.
Scene 4: The castle gardens.
52.30: Wedding music ** leading to more choral music (male villagers). At first jovial party music then more solemn as things get closer to zero hour. There is a nice solo flute bit towards the end. This and the previous scene between Oscar and Ulrico are the strongest musically in the opera.
60: Ismalia comes on followed two minutes later by Argea who goes about explaining the whole having been Oscar’s mistress thing. Witchy orchestral scampering highlight moments of near orchestral silence *. Ismalia is shocked by the whole situation.
66: Oscar comes on and Ismalia confronts him with Argea’s story. Three minutes into this we finally get a brief melodic outburst from Oscar * followed two minutes later by a high note amid a lot of sad sounding music.
69: Ismalia goes on a bit and duets with Oscar *.
71: The wedding is about to begin and Oscar tries to get Ismalia to go in with him to the ceremony, pleading with her to trust him, and he fatally tells her that he loves her and the wound reopens and he starts to bleed to death amid a drum roll *. Ismalia’s screams over the fatally bleeding Oscar and the chorus along with Ulrico and Blondello come on.
74: Oscar vows to return to Ismalia * (although how since he is basically dead at this point is uncertain). Interrupted by a dim remark from the chorus.
76: Oscar is still dying but has a cavatina left in him *.
80: The chorus pops on with a rather oddly jolly bit as Ismalia emotes and Oscar makes one last, and oddly strong, attempt *.
81: The chorus follows with one last bit of high dramatics as Oscar is pronounced dead and Ismalia screams and faints amid good heavy drama and the curtain falls **.
ACT 2 (59 minutes)
Scene 1: The Garden, near Oscar’s tomb.
0: There is no intro, just three or four bars from the orchestra before the chorus goes into a song of mourning (first women then men alternating in turns all bringing flowers for Oscar’s tomb) *. It turns into five minutes of rather standard but well orchestrated bel canto chorus worthy of Bellini. It reminds me of the opening chorus to the second act of La Sonnambula.
5: Ismalia comes on to a rather sweet and low orchestral accompaniment that actually sounds more Spanish than Italian *. She goes on about Argea (foreshadowing) and then three minutes in Oscar (whose ghost soon appears to her). He tells her that he loves her and she wants to flee, but for some reason her faithfulness to him has saved him from an eternity in purgatory and he is able to be seen by her as a result apparently.
9: Argea shows up telling her not to run away and making for a trio *. Ismalia’s response to her has some coloratura flourish. Oscar goes on about wanting to be with Ismalia forever. Argea tells the lovers that they should go to the Gissor abbey and have their union blessed (knowing full well that the old abbey is used by witches for their ceremonies). The lovers agree, but how does Oscar, being dead after all, not see through her scheme? Oscar has another air but Cuyas doesn’t try in his music to depict Oscar as a supernatural being for some reason which seems odd because he died right in front of us at the end of the first act. Argea belts while Ismalia and Oscar try to keep up with her to the end of the scene.
Scene 2: Armoury in Ulrico’s castle.
20: Ulrico gets a letter from Argea (who admits her true identity to Ulrico in the letter) telling him that Ismalia is in great danger if she goes to the Abbey. A surprisingly catchy male chorus just pops in suddenly *.
23: Another good chorus from the soldiers *, this one racing about and Ulrico decides that Ismalia will marry Blondello.
31: Ismalia arrives and daddy tells her about the new wedding plans. At first she begs him for more time, trying to stall the nuptials until she can go through the wedding ceremony with the ghost of Oscar (although how this isn’t is total con is beyond me). Two minutes later Ulrico has Blondello brought in. He is thrilled over this fortunate (for him) turn of events amid hints of Norma. Two minutes after this the male chorus is agreeable to the new wedding plans but Ismalia can not help but think of Oscar. She gets Ulrico to postpone the wedding to Blondello by one day so her ceremony with Oscar can happen *.
35: Ismalia contemplates. The chorus follows her around in what is probably the most dramatically effective moment in the scene **. For a couple of seconds the music rises to a higher level than the rest of the score.
Scene 3: The ruins of the Abbey Gissor, a witches festival about to take place.
37: The witches are ready for their festivities with an odd chorus *.
40: Argea goes into her plan for revenge which seems to consist in interrupting the lovers’ vows with a violent storm *.
44: The witches disperse as Ismalia shows up and calls upon Oscar to appear in some brooding recitative which then blooms into a rather sweet little aria **.
52: Three minutes later Oscar arrives, starting the 12 minute finale although for the first two minutes, before a brief nice accompaniment for Oscar, we are entrenched in recitative. Finally, the witches swarm around disguised as ghosts and there is a rather ardent melody that comes in and seems to settle for a while before it starts to play tug-of-war with a more serious one until finally Oscar has a mildly lilting melody that sustains itself for a while * and is taken up by the witches. Then Ismalia and Oscar duet rather loverly while the witches keep up their rouse while the lovers prepare to make their vows to each other. In the last two minutes a lot happens really quickly, the witches freak, the storm happens (sort of). Ulrico, Blondello, and the soldiers arrive to find Ismalia dead. Argea, realizing that divine intervention has foiled her plan, commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff amid witchy music and Oscar is redeemed by the love of Ismalia. Like the ghost-mortal wedding, it is all a bit of a con.
As my star ratings indicate I wasn’t much impressed with this entry. I listened to it three times and tightened up my original review of a record 41 * star ratings to 27 with five at ** level for what I know to be the best music (the Oscar-Ulrico duet in act 1 scene 3, the villager chorus in scene 4 and its finale minute as well as a couple of solos for Ismalia in act 2) I cannot help but constantly be confronted with the fact that although I would like to like this opera (the life of its composer was so tragic and this is his only completed opera) I really don’t like it. This is not just because of the music (which is EXTREMELY derivative of both Bellini and Donizetti and worse than just that it is almost universally very thin, especially in moments when the music least needs to be) but also the story and the characters for which I must call out this opera. Oscar’s ten minute long death scene is twice as long as it needs to be and the events of act two with his ghost not being able to see through Argea’s plot is utterly stupid. Cuyas does not try to make the storm (when was it?) or Ismalia’s death a dramatic point in the music and focuses at the end on Argea who frankly I don’t think anyone in the theatre could possibly like or even care enough about when she commits suicide. I also wished that the music would give more to us regarding the fact that for all of the second act, Oscar is really dead and the tenor is portraying a ghost. The first act is nominally extremely long and the second feels even slower for some reason. The only thing Cuyas proved in writing this was that he could structurally write a performable opera in the Italian bel canto style with mildly attractive tunes. Which is more than I can do, and he did it at age 22! The overture is basically plagiarized Bellini, but everything said and done, this isn’t a terrible work, and in and of itself it is entertaining in its own way. I’m going to give it a C+/C but I don’t want viewers to totally ignore this work. There are some foot-tapping moments in this score and the chorus comments on the story as if it were a soloist character, rare in pre-Verdi opera. It is worth a listen and to Bellini fans it makes for an interesting curio to hear a work that is so indebted to the Swan of Catania, although I don’t think he would ever have been caught dead with such a dreary story.