Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes.
PLOT: Italy, the dark ages. Forty years earlier the kingdom of Altura was invaded and conquered by the Germanic prince Archibaldo. He married the Alturan princess Fiora to his son Manfredo but she continues an affair with Alturan prince Avito. The only other named character is a servant named Flaminio who sort of helps out both Archibaldo and Avito. Eventually Archibaldo, who has been blind for years, catches Fiora admitting her affair and strangles her to death. He eventually kills both her lover and his son as well.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A hall in the castle, near dawn. (28 minutes)
(Each act gets its own video)
0: The opening scene ** starts off with a brief orchestral introduction starting with something that almost sounds like someone waking up in a rather ornery mood. Buzzing strings and mildly angry brass give way to dramatic strings which go back to waking up then drop, a lovely little Verdian theme pops up (Fiora’s theme) and then oboe and low strings before we have some fumbling about, it is Archibaldo being led about by Flaminio near Fiora’s bedchamber. There is an expansion on the Verdian theme starting in Flaminio’s vocal line as he mentions the supposedly sleeping Fiora and later some flighty birdlike strings as he references that everything is quiet after mentioning the whole story about how he is Alturian and Fiora was their princess betrothed to Avito but was married off to Manfredo as part of the peace with Archibaldo.
6: Archibaldo’s monologue ** explains the conquest and his rigorous feelings about same. To him war is a jealous mistress who creates both victories and disilusionment, not a mother who teaches her sons how to be victorious. He questions Flaminio’s loyalty to him, sensing that the Alturian is in some way deceiving him but the younger man hypocritically rejects this.
10: Loverly music as Avito takes leave of Fiora *. Will he go or won’t he? Can she have peace while he is away? Are not each other’s lips the most wonderful of things? They kiss for a long time but it is dawn and he must leave to avoid detection.
16: Archibaldo comes on ** but of course can only senses the presence of Fiora with another person because he is blind. Avito escapes and Fiora claims that she was talking to herself. Accuses her of lying, she denies and there is some mild domestic abuse (although by which one of them since Archibaldo is blind and Fiora is really lying to him and so is she not engaging in some psychological torture of her own?). Archibaldo admits homicidal intent against Fiora after she claims she has been thinking of Manfredo all night. Flaminio announces to Archibaldo that Manfredo is returning from battle or something. The King orders Fiora to her bed, but the woman leaves with a victorious smile on her lips.
21: Manfredo’s homecoming with Archibaldo is rather good **. Fiora returns and embraces her husband.
25: A lovely monologue for Manfredo ***, at first addressed to Fiora then to Archibaldo about Fiora. Archibaldo ends the act begging God that he might always be blind to the truth about his daughter-in-law.
ACT 2: The castle-walls. (38 minutes)
0: The prelude starts furious then turns trumpet militaire *.
2: The Manfredo-Fiora duet is one-sided genuine love on his part. He is about to leave again and Fiora fringes despair ** but won’t reveal any details other than it being about his departure.
5: Manfredo’s request **, that Fiora wave his scarf for him from the battlements as he rides away with his men. She concedes, he departs and there is an orchestral intermezzo.
11: Avito arrives * dressed as one of the castle guards, now we have proof that Flaminio is working for Avito. She tells him they must never see each other again. Someone is heard approaching and he hides.
13: A handmaiden arrives to a lovely orchestral accompaniment ** bringing Fiora the scarf she is to wave. More orchestral interluding as Fiora takes the scarf out of its casket.
16: Avito returns and vows never to see her again but they fight over the scarf *. He pleads with her to kiss him one last time, even threatening to come up to the battlement with her so her husband can see them both.
20: She has him kiss the hem of her dress **, he goes into a frenzied ecstasy as he knows that he really wants to kiss her lips again, she gives in amid orchestral ecstasy.
27: An internal voice can be heard *, more loverly ecstasy. Archibaldo arrives with Flaminio and the old man realizes that Flaminio is lying to him and Fiora has a lover who is just now escaping.
30: The death scene *. After ordering Flaminio to follow Avito, Archibaldo explodes on Fiora who finally admits to having a lover, but his name she will not reveal, so Archibaldo grabs her by the throat and strangles her amid half-hearted operatic screams. She is killed. He reflects.
32: Manfredo returns worried that Fiora might have fallen to her death while waving the scarf. Archibaldo shows the body and reveals Fiora’s adultery to the shocked Manfredo. But they don’t know who the lover is. Archibaldo tells his son to lead the way out by his footsteps as he hoists Fiora on his shoulders and carries her out. The scene sort of falls apart at this point musically, it is all just a series of musical fragments accompanying the drama going on on stage (which is effective mind you) until the final minute in which Archibaldo Fasolt&Fafner’s his way out with Fiora’s body *.
ACT 3: Crypt in the castle-chapel (20 minutes)
0: A high dramatic prelude starts the act *. It goes on and on until suddenly–
4: We get an a cappella choral sequence *. To some extent this is welcomed after two acts of soloists but we do get some cameo parts as the orchestra joins in. First a young girl, then a youth, then an old woman who makes comments about death, then back to the a cappella and then church bells. In any case they all loved her and are oblivious to the fact that her father-in-law killed her because she was a guilty adulteress.
10: Avito comes on to an orchestral climax. The orchestra goes all sweet on us ** as he goes on about how he doesn’t want to go on without her. He presses his lips to hers, not knowing they are laced with poison.
15: The final scene *: Manfredo comes out of the shadows and tells Avito about the poison, his father did it to figure out who Fiora’s lover was. Then the chorus can be heard from outside as Manfredo decides he doesn’t want to live either, kisses Fiora and Archibaldo comes on thinking he has found the lover but his son cries out and Archibaldo realizes that they are both doomed. The orchestra collapses.
This opera makes a case for the legalization of polyandry. It isn’t a very interesting story though. The plot could be simplified as follows: three men are in love with the same woman, the oldest violently kills her and then poisons the other two men. That’s it really, just set to the faux-medieval background of a never existant northern Italian kingdom. The score is rather lush and entertaining in its own way, but I found myself becoming more and more disinterested with it after the first act. Fiora’s death scene and the revelation scene that follows between Archibaldo and Manfredo are oddly boring musically but psychologically are dramatically effective if witnessed on stage and this is perhaps the opera’s strongest element: the psychological torment experienced by its four main characters. They are all driven by unrelenting lust. Archibaldo and Avito are pathologically obsessed with Fiora to a level unparalleled even in the world of Italian opera but one can believe in Manfredo’s love for her. His understanding upon learning of her betrayal, and his willingness to end his own life are far more pitiful than the deaths of the two adulterers or Archibaldo’s fate of being blind and alone for the rest of his life surrounded by a native population that hates his guts. Fiora is playing with fire from her first appearance until she is killed and although it is obvious that she is in a bad situation that is neither of her own making or choosing, it is next to impossible to like her. The fact that she is guilty as hell and seems to enjoy tormenting Archibaldo makes her death come off more like an execution than a murder. The only thing I was really concerned about was knowing that from that point on I was stuck with three dudes bumbling about on stage and no soprano anymore just two-thirds into the opera!
The opera has a spotty performance history. It opened at La Scala to mixed reviews but was an international success, becoming a smash hit in the United States between the First and Second World Wars being performed all over the place, but after the war it disappeared for about twenty years only to be performed (in English) in 1962. It is occasionally aired out but probably only about as often as it deserves. I can see why it was so popular in the United States: it is a violent psychological thriller with adultery and crazy murder set in a fairytale medieval kingdom that clocks in at something short of two hours (recordings vary vastly from an 83 minute performance in English to 112 minutes (this last conducted by the composer himself, although it appears that he deliberately conducted it very slowly). It has all the elements of a great successful opera, sort of like La Gioconda, but it is just too darn simplistic for its own good. It is a rather good parody of traditional pre-verismo Italian opera from the early 20th century but personally I really don’t like it. That doesn’t mean that it is a bad opera. B+/A-.