Gaetano Donizetti: Dom Sebastien (1843)

Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 57 minutes.

This was the last opera Donizetti completed before going insane from syphilis. It is a grand historical opera in the Meyerbeerian style which has frequently be termed a “funeral in five acts”, so don’t expect a Disney remake any time soon. Also, the video is ten and a half minutes longer than the opera itself (curtain calls), the opera itself ends at exactly the 3 hour mark (I’m not joking) but begins about 2 minutes and 40 seconds into the video.

PLOT: Lisbon and Morocco, late 1570s. Sebastien, king of Portugal, returns Zayda to her father in Morocco after saving her life following her escape from a monastery after she converted to Christianity. She refuses a marriage proposal and the rejected chief retaliates by killing most of Sebastien’s troops in a massive battle. Believed to be dead, Sebastien returns only to discover that his uncle Antonio has set himself up as king while the Grand Inquisitor plans on selling Portugal to Spain. In order to buy his release from prison Sebastien signs over the country to Spain, but he, Zayda, and the poet Camoens are all killed in a jail break just as the Spanish ships enter Lisbon.


ACT 1: The harbour, Lisbon, a fleet about to leave.

0: The prelude * has one haunting almost religious theme followed by a more military style tune which combine to form a climax.

3: The jovial standard opening chorus (male, sailors readying for the trip to Africa) * which will pop up several times framing a recitative in which Don Antonio (Sebastien’s uncle) explains that he will be regent while Sebastien is away in Morocco to the Grand Inquisitor Juam de Sylva, who wants to sell Portugal to Spain because of how rich the former is.

9: Don Sebastien comes on and Camoens sings a song about the military and the exploits of Vasco de Gama * which has some great ideas in it but is fragmented and can not make up its mind if it wants to be happy or sad. He reveals his name to Sebastien afterwards.

13: Now a scary, almost funerary in tone, gorgeous musical explosion ** (I want more of this!) as the Inquisition comes on ready to burn Zayda at the stake for trying to escape her monastery following her conversion under duress to Catholicism (she plans on returning to Islam as soon as she returns home). Sebastien saves her, attaining the ire of the Grand Inquisitor, and promises to return her to her father in Morocco amid some choral works that are somewhat chromatic.

19: Zayda thanks Sebastien in a nice air leading to an ardent ensemble lead by Sebastien lilting tenor **. This is welcomingly lighter than the previous scene.

23: Sebastien asks Camoens for a song as the embarkation starts. He responds with a somewhat wondering, somewhat jovial but tuneful song leading to a chorus * and a second verse that is more agitated.

29: Sebastien leaves Lisbon with a lot of bad blood between him and the Grand Inquisitor (the latter cursing the former) but the people and Zayda and Camoens seem happy and there is a reprisal of Camoens’ over-simple but catchy soldiers chorus (now sung by the entire chorus although the women alternate on a much lighter bit of fare) as the act comes to a close *.

ACT 2:

Scene 1: The home of Ben-Selim near Fez.

1: Rather standard faux Middle Eastern orchestral music starts out the act followed by a standard but tuneful women’s chorus *.

4: Zayda comes on and reveals her troubles *. It is nice and mostly mild with a woodwind accompaniment fluttering about. Her father comes and a ballet is performed in honour of her return.

10: The ballet is in three parts and 21 minutes long. The first part, a Pas de Trois, starts off with a nice little tune but then moves into standard opera-ballet fare for the remaining twenty minutes ending with a crescendo con triangle.

31: Abayaldos, who is Zayda’s rejected intended, discovers that the Portuguese are coming their way and he decides to attack them for invading his territory, ending the scene *.

Scene 2: A plain, following the battle.

35: Sebastien comes on with his officer Don Henrique looking for Camoens but they end up finding Abayaldos (or does he find them?). The Arabs celebrate their victory * and Abayaldos asks which of the two men is Sebastien (seeking to execute him). Henrique claims to be the King and is immediately executed while Sebastien (who is wounded) is simply left on the field of battle to die. They take Henrique’s body so it can be returned to the Portuguese.

38: Zayda comes on and at first she thinks Sebastien is dead but he is alive ** and stammers out a little bit very slowly. This begins the great (11 minutes) duet.

41: Sebastien finally gets some real words in and it consists of a wonderfully pathetic tenor line that sustains for over a minute **.

44: Together **.

47: He somewhat miraculously recovers, or at least he makes a determined decision to return home to Portugal, Zayda reveals that she loves him **.

49: So that something else might happen in this act, Abayaldos comes back with his men and Sebastien has to play dead until they figure out he is alive and Zayda is only able to save him by promising to marry Abayaldos after declaring that Sebastien is the man who saved her life and she owes him the debt of a life for a life. Good chorusing although this is mostly recitative *.

56: Sebastien, alone, has one last lilting air (about how he is now all alone in the world) before the curtain falls **.

ACT 3:

Scene 1: The Royal Palace, Lisbon.

3: After a nice bit of prelude music De Sylva comes on and declares before the assembly that Abayaldos has defeated Sebastien (believed dead) and has signed an everlasting peace treaty with the Portuguese. Left alone, Abayaldos and Zayda have some rather disagreeable words *. Like a slave, she must now follow him. Why has he chosen to marry her in Lisbon? He knows of her love for the Christian she saved. She wants him to kill her.

Scene 2: Outside the Cathedral, Lisbon, a funeral about to take place.

11: Camoens comes on and sings a touching if quiet patriotic air *.

20: After an exchange between Camoens and a group of soldiers, one of whom says that the new monarch, Don Antonio greets all returning soldiers from Africa with welcome, Camoens emotes in low temp until Sebastien shows up disguised in a cloak **. There is a frenzy as the older man finally recognizes him and they embark on a bit of duetting as Sebastien realizes that Camoens is now his only friend and that he needs to keep mum while the latter is so excited about his king being alive.

25: The funeral march * starts off with the haunting melody from the prelude coming from the a cappella chorus as a church bell tolls. Finally there is some onstage singing with basses and a trombone and then as the rest of the chorus comes on the second theme from the prelude comes in. It is grand, but has very little warmth to it. Camoens breaks up everything and ticks off de Sylva declaring that the funeral is an outrage and dishonour to the memory of King Sebastien and to Portugal itself.

30: Sebastien reveals himself **, shocking everyone of course and Abayaldos knows that only Zayda can testify to Sebastien claiming to be who he says he is as Camoens comes to his defence and the people seem to turn in favour of Sebastien. De Sylva and Antonio have Sebastien arrested. The ceremony continues on long after the curtain falls.

ACT 4: A courtroom of the Inquisition, Lisbon.

0: Scary preluding brass * for a while followed by bass chorus of Inquisitors and De Sylva’s opening addresses to the council.

6: Sebastien is brought on for trial to a rather sweet orchestral accompaniment *.

10: After some anti-clerical remarks about how the Inquisition plans on murdering the real king, Zayda comes on and testifies that it was Dom Henrique who sacrificed himself to save Sebastien who has been buried in the royal tomb and that she herself is the saviour of the King of Portugal **.

15: De Sylva attacks Zayda as an apostate and Abayaldos threats to kill her for adultery as she admits in public to loving only Sebastien **.

18: Attacked on all sides by the whirlwind of the Inquisition both Sebastien and Zayda are condemned to death by the Inquisition in a rousing and crashing finale ***.


Scene 1: The prison tower of the Inquisition.

5: De Sylva and the Spanish envoy Don Luis discuss the soon invasion of Lisbon by the Duke d’Alba. The Spaniard leaves and Zayda is brought in. De Sylva offers her pardon and she refuses it for herself if it would come from him. She is left alone with a confession which will apparently permit for the release of both Sebastien and herself. If it remains unsigned, they will both be executed at the tenth hour. Alone, Zayda decides that to die with her beloved is the greatest thing she can do *.

7, 10: Sebastien is brought in and they duet ** but then discover that the document will sign away the kingdom of Portugal to Philip II of Spain and they decide that it would be better to die honourably by unjust executioners than to die in dishonour ***.

12: The hour of Zayda’s execution has arrived and the lovers fear that they must part to a wondering but nice melody **. He signs the document in order to save her but she declares that now she will drown herself in the Tagus.

14: Camoens can be heard from the river singing ***. Sebastien and Zayda embrace making us wish their relationship had been better developed as the male chorus can be heard off stage.

18: Camoens arrives with an escape plan, and he and the two lovers embark on an a cappella trio *** which ends up with minimal orchestral accompaniment (woodwinds).

Scene 2: A tower over the ocean overlooking Lisbon.

20: In the two and a half minutes that this scene consists of a guard of Abayaldos spots Zayda receiving a single from Camoens trying to flee into a boat and on orders from Dom Antonio kills Zayda and Sebastien who plunge to their deaths. Camoens is also mortally wounded but taken in by the guards. Dom Antonio, upon hearing that Sebastien is finally dead, declares himself king but De Sylva discovers that as his finale act, Sebastien has signed away Portugal to Philip of Spain, which disinherits his uncle who curses his nephew. De Sylva declares the glory of Philip II as Camoens, with his dying breaths, declares victory for King Sebastien **.


This opera took me three days to get through. To be honest my first impression of it was that it felt longer than it actually was and the entire score just reeks of fatalism. Then I started to discover that maybe it has more in common with just how horrid life is, how evil so often wins or at least destroys good even if good does ultimately win, sort of. Here we have that scenario in its entirety. From the first soloist music, we know of De Sylva’s plot to hand Portugal over to Spain, and even though Dom Antonio wants the crown for himself, what he ends up doing is play into the hands of the Spanish and of De Sylva. Why the Inquisitor of Portugal would want to lose his job though to a universal Spanish Grand Inquisitor is beyond me but hey, conservative limited government advocate politicians don’t seem to want their jobs either. The opera then finally gives us the first great bit with the entrance of Zayda who is then saved by Sebastien from execution. But then we don’t get enough of their relationship until act 4 in the courtroom scene and it never fully develops until act 5. The second act is somewhat unnecessary (other than to establish who Abayaldos is and how everyone other than Zayda ends up thinking Sebastien is dead) and consists of over a third of the opera’s total running time. There is a very strong relationship between Sebastien and Camoens and until act 5 it is actually better developed than the King’s relationship with Zayda. Having Zayda scored for a mezzo-soprano (the role was originated by Rosine Stoltz) accentuates Sebastien’s tenor and provides for greater opportunities vocally for the male singer (the role was originated by Gilbert Duprez). As to the opera’s fatalism: so little goes well for the good guys. Other than Sebastien getting saved by Zayda (and she earlier by him) and Camoens being able to break in to the prison to free the lovers, the bad guys are always winning. Abayaldos only agrees to spare Sebastien because Zayda agrees to marry him, Sebastien himself makes a mortal enemy of De Sylva for saving Zayda from the stake, and Camoens and the lovers all end up being shot to death or drowned in the escape attempt. Other than Sebastien signing Portugal away to Spain his uncle Antonio almost wins and in causing one villain to fail Sebastien allows the other to triumph. The fourth act is the climax of evil winning and good losing (ironically through the exposure of the “flaws” in the good characters). Although much of the music in the first three acts is not always up to par, the story (if it is fully grasped) is great psychological drama. The six main characters are quickly developed and their motives almost instantly made plain. The romantic sub-plot is underdeveloped it is totally believable, and by the end you feel about as trapped as the good guys in a world that frankly hates them which if it can be seen as a negative is because it exposes how horrid life can really be. I am surprised that this story has never been made into a film, Dom Sebastien would make for a dark Mickey Mouse movie. A B+.

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