Luigi Canepa: Riccardo III (1879)

Opera in four acts. Running Time 2 hours 1 minute.

This is Shakespeare’s Richard III as an opera, sort of. I happened upon it by accident months ago, listed it for review, and left it until recently before I did some googling on it and found that some people were rather interested in it, so I figured, why not add it to my review collection? It is a rarely heard opera that was once rather admired, perfect for my site! Canepa (1849-1914) was one of the young lions in post-Aida Italy vying to become the next Verdi. A native of Sassari, Sardinia, this was his third opera and biggest success. Apparently both Verdi and Ponchielli liked it and given that they wrote the only two Italian operas from the 1870s that anyone has ever heard of (with the possible exception of Gomes’ Il Guarany) that is high praise. Canepa became very ill following the first production and never wrote another opera because by the time he recovered (several years later) the popularity of this work had obviously declined markedly, although not enough for him not to avoid running for political office. It is pre-Wagnerian in compositional tone and structure, there are obvious numbers as in La Gioconda, the intended influence seems to be that of Verdi but it comes off far more like Ponchielli at times.

Unusual for this site I am forwarding an online article in Italian about this opera for those who can read it from GBOpera Magazine, it helped me out in constructing the plot summary elements of this review:

PLOT: England, 1480s. During the War of the Roses Richard III of England wants to marry his niece Elisabeth who is the lover of Richard’s political rival Rismondo (Richmond?) who fakes his own death. She ends up faking her own death via sleeping potion but the lovers are ultimately reunited and Richard dies in the end.

OPERA ON YOUTUBE: Sorry about the sound quality but this is apparently the only recording of this opera.


ACT 1: A room in the royal palace, London. (29 minutes)

0: The prelude is a six minutes long and feels like waiting for a flower to open *.  It starts off apparently with a declining scale and then some quiet woodwind work, then more skidding and a decline again, back to the woodwinds almost like in Rossini’s La Cenerentola or a prelude or overture by Verdi but not as good then this lyrical bit that feels more like a fragment but it is welcomed. Then shimmering strings and dancing woodwinds, this goes on for about a minute and then some trumpets and mildly stormy military music, then more lyrical bit which ends okay with a sweet mild crescendo and then a quick quiet crash. It may be the poor sound quality but it seems rather standard and uneventful to me, although apparently these are all themes that will return later in the opera.

6: There is a nice sotto voce chorus from happy workers going about the palace *. Riccardo (Richard III) comes on and remarks on how disappointed he is in how happy his subjects are.

9: Riccardo expresses more of this in an okay aria in which he almost gets our sympathy talking about how beautiful women avoid and run from him *. Riccardo mentions the one bit of interesting information: he is in love with the Princess Elizabeth, who is the lover of Rismondo (Richmond?) who has ties on the continent and plans to use them to overthrow Riccardo. He speaks with his trusted henchman Rutlando about some rather creepy things including how his wife will be poisoned and die of what will seem to be a rectal disease. Riccardo gives Rutlando poison to off the Queen with. There is then a long and rather musically nondescript conservation between Riccardo and Scroop (who is actually Raoul of Faulks and is secretly working for Rismondo). The music is fine but it is mostly just uneventful if tuneful recitative that just forwards the plot.

24: Suddenly a rather good choral sequence starts **. Three minutes in there is a nice crescendo with Riccardo and Rutlando as the latter tells the former that the Queen is no more and no one else buys that Riccardo didn’t have her murdered in some way but they all start praying for her soul effectively. The act ends well.

ACT 2: (40 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the apartments of the Queen-Mother at Westminster.

0: Elisabeth reads a letter from her beloved Rismondo **.

9: The Queen-Mother (also named Elisabeth) arrives and speaks with her daughter to a furious violin tune. Their duet takes on a rather lovely harp accompaniment **. Elisabeth the younger knows that Riccardo wants to marry her but she expresses to her mother that death would be preferable to marrying her uncle (can you blame her really?). Elisabeth the older hates her brother for having her two young sons assassinated.

16: Trumpets sound, the women wonder who is about to arrive and the Queen-Mother orders her daughter out of the room. It turns out to be Riccardo who addresses his sister (he wants to marry the younger Elisabeth who is his own niece). Brother and sister discuss their intrigue in a grand duet *** which gets better as the scene concludes.

Scene 2: A romantic garden.

24: There is a rather lovely orchestral intermezzo ** that leads to the arrival of Rismondo.

28: Rismondo’s romanza ** is rather lovely as he awaits Elisabeth.

31: Elisabeth arrives and the lovers are in a clinch of course **.

36: The lovers have a musical climax *** which frames the arrival of Scroop who warns them that Riccardo is coming. Rismondo hides with Scroop in the bushes. Riccardo shows up with the Queen-Mother and questions Elisabeth. In order to keep from having Rismondo discovered, Scroop pops out of the bushes with Rismondo’s sword covered in blood. Elisabeth recognizes the sword as Rismondo’s, thinking Scroop has two-timed them both, although he claims to have killed Raoul Faulks (in other words himself) and Elisabeth faints in the arms of her mother. The act ends on a LONG chord, slightly annoying.

ACT 3: (35.5 minutes)

Scene 1: An underground tavern in London.

0: After the serious nature of the previous act we have a welcomed diversion in a series of jovial drinking choruses of various tempi (first a toast then a barcarolle) from some sailors **.

8: Scroop arrives and gives the sailors a lecturette about how tyrannical the King is **.

12: Scroop rouses a tiny revolt against the establishment **.

(There is apparently a cut in the recording here that consists of a recitative and duettino between Scroop and a disguised Rismondo in which the latter explains one EXTREMELY important plot point namely that Elisabeth will take a sleeping potion, to be administered by Scroop, that will cause her to fake being dead. Seriously, they went with this?!? My brain is screaming!)

Scene 2: A luxurious room in Riccardo’s palace.

15: An intermezzo **, sad mostly quiet music acting as an interlude and setting up the tone of the following scene. In its own way rather touching really.

18.30: What follows is a rather odd thing, another patch of jovial music, this time for some dancing guests entertaining Riccardo *. It is rather good, but not amazing. There is then a dialogue between Riccardo and Rutlando in which Riccardo finds out that Rismondo really isn’t dead at all, and that Scroop is a spy working for him. Riccardo decides to use Scroop to get more information out of him about Rismondo before having him killed instead of assassinating him immediately.

24: Scroop’s party piece ** about a girl who is separated from her mother (named Lidia) by a magician and brought back to life by a spell. This indicates to Elisabeth that her goblet contains a drug that will cause her to go into a death-like sleep.

27: Elisabeth’s aria of delirium * before she drinks it/faux-snuffs it starts off minimally with a theme that is apparently from the overture in the woodwinds. It is fine, even includes a Verdi like mild crescendo followed by some coloratura, but feels SO long and slow.

(NOTE: The finale of the act is cut and consists of Elisabeth’s “dying” and then Scroop being exposed as a spy and his failed attempt to kill Richard, suicide mission really.)

ACT 4: The Atrium of a Franciscan convent in Leicester. (17.5 minutes)

(CUTS AGAIN!: There should be a symphonic prelude here depicting the battle in which Richard is defeated by Rismondo. There should also be a chorus of maidens rejoicing about nature and the spring.)

0: The Queen-Mother’s aria ***, fills us in on what has happened. This is rather lovely, like a lot of her music, little as it might be.

9: Rismondo arrives and is terrified that Elisabeth might be dead. No says the Queen-Mother averting a Romeo and Juliet scenario. She orders him out as the sight of him upon awakening (momentary) might actually off Elisabeth (death by joy apparently?). Elisabeth awakens, mother fills her in without killing her, and the lovers are reunited **.

11: A chorus of soldiers ends up including the maidens and the three soloists ***, but then everything stops dead in its tracks as Scroop arrives followed by the dying Riccardo and pandemonium breaks loose. A king to the last he cries “My kingdom for a horse” and collapses dead on the floor. This barely comes off.


This was actually a bit of a surprise. I initially listened to the first 35 minutes of this opera and then set it aside because I didn’t like what I heard. Now, there are four major numbers cut from this recording (the worst omission being the symphonic battle), so it is impossible to take my review as a complete survey of the entire opera, but there is undeniably some excellent music here, particularly in the second and fourth acts. Musically, the first act is mostly uneventful and does nothing other than establish three of the male characters,  but the second act largely makes up for this. The third act consists of a lot of semi-comic relief, in fact all of act three (except for the finales to each scene which were both cut here and the long patch of plot-forwarding recitative between Riccardo and Rutlando) consists of nothing but choral numbers and party arias only two of such even vaguely contribute to the plot. The fourth act has three grand passages ranging from aria to duet/trio to choral number. The finale comes off, just. The story is frankly one of the strangest in musical theatre and could be condensed so: Richard is a really weird physically handicapped person (no sympathy please, this is opera!) who likes to murder people and wants to marry his own niece, who is incidentally the lover of his political rival, so of course everyone hates him and plots against him to bring about his downfall. That is it really except for a rather well characterized mother-daughter relationship for the two Elisabeths. The plot, such as it is because there isn’t much of one, is rather formulaic, predictable, and sometimes even inane. The romantic subplot feels so forced, and although it works well for act two, the introduction of the sleeping-death potion in act 3 is just too much as it is probably the most overused theatrical device of all time and it is effectively of little consequence. I’m actually happy for the loss of the explanation scene in act 3 because it would make Rismondo’s reaction to Elisabeth possibly being dead rather stupid since the potion was HIS idea. There is no reason for Scroop to blow his own cover just after Elisabeth “dies” and try to kill Richard and the maiden’s chorus might not be that interesting (I don’t know, we never get to hear it!), but I feel that the orchestral battle is a grave omission. Overall, with its sub-par opening act and bizarre, gamma-grade almost non-existent storyline, this would be a C but there are patches of A+ music and other assorted good B+ bits here that are well worth looking out for. Draw your own conclusions.

One response to “Luigi Canepa: Riccardo III (1879)”

  1. Maria Lakomska Avatar
    Maria Lakomska

    Hi Phil,

    Thank you for your thorough description of this opera! I would like to clarify a few points, if you don’t mind.

    The Queen-Mother is Elizabeth Woodville, widow of King Edward IV, Richard III’s older brother who died in 1483, two years before Richard himself was killed in battle. She is thus his sister-in-law, not his actual sister. The sons she accuses him of having killed are the famous “princes in the tower” who disappeared without a trace in 1483. The eldest, Edward V, became king at age 10 when his father died but a few months later, before he was crowned, Richard usurped his throne and imprisoned both Edward and his younger brother, Richard.

    Elizabeth, Richard’s love interest, is Elizabeth of York, the future mother of Henry VIII. When Henry VII – who until he won the throne was known as the Earl of Richmond – won the battle of Bosworth against Richard III, one of the reasons that the 30 year long war of the roses (or the cousins’ war as it was called back then) could finally end was that Henry, the Lancaster heir (Lancaster’s emblem was the red rose) married Elizabeth, the York heir (York’s emblem was the white rose).

    They were betrothed by proxy in the cathedral in Rennes in late 1483 and shortly afterwards Henry and and army tried in vain to land in England. He stayed on the continent until 1485 which probably explains why in the opera he is said to have contacts on the continent.

    Anyway, I hope this makes matters a bit more clear. Thank you again for the description of the opera, it is most helpful!


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