Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
This opera is based on a Victor Hugo play Marie Tudor. Although the Queen was historical the events of both the play and the opera are entirely fictitious. It is basically the same story as that of Pacini’s opera Maria, regina d’Inghilterra, although one vital plot change (the wicked tenor in Pacini’s opera is a Scot, not the Italian of the play and Gomes’ opera), may well be the reason why this opera was a catastrophic failure upon itself premiere. Genre-wise this appears to be an opera ballo in the vein of La Gioconda.
PLOT: London, 1550s. The Court hates the excesses of the Queen and her Italian lover, Fabiano Fabiani. Meanwhile he has seduced a poor orphan named Giovanna whose guardian Gilberto, along with the Spanish ambassador Don Gil, plans to use this relationship in order to get rid of Fabiani, thus freeing Mary to wed Philip of Spain.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A square in London overlooking the Themes river. (38 minutes)
0: The overture * is eight minutes long but not terrible. Two or three menacing themes are bookended by soft, quiet passages of string music.
15: The opera proper starts with bassoons and then some nice almost holy-sounding horn and low woodwind works bringing us to the opening chorus which is rather dull. Don Gil comes on and everyone agrees with him that Fabiani has to go. Giovanna shows up waiting for her lover Lionel. Her aria does have some orchestral oomph *, but it isn’t that amazing either.
23: Giovanna’s guardian Gilberto confronts her because he wants her himself. There are some well orchestrated responses from Giovanna but much of what Gilberto is saying is ornery as he confesses his love for her and she rejects him with a lot of regret. Gilberto is given some time alone to emote *, before he encounters Don Gil who is interested in Giovanna and her mysterious Lionel.
27, 36: Don Gil stays long enough to hear Fabiano’s serenade for Giovanna ** at the very least injects some much needed sex appeal into the opera. This leads immediately to something verging on a love duet but there is too much angst between the pair. Giovanna and the orchestra explode briefly on her declaration of love. His response is ardent and the number climaxes well ** as Fabiano starts to make love to her right there in the street but she is alarmed, he narrowly escapes Gilberto who is by now in league with Don Gil.
ACT 2: The royal park, Windsor Castle. (37 minutes)
0: The opening chorus of this act is more bouncy and co-ed for a change * as the court is about to embark on a hunt. Two Lords (Clinton and Montague) mention how the Queen is more interested in what her Italian lover is saying than anything else. Fabiano makes a toast before the Queen arrives, surprisingly without too much ceremony although to much musical scampering. Fabiano uses his sex appeal (immense) to charm Mary to an almost nauseating degree going on about her unfair “Bloody Mary” title among the commoners and she retorts that he has just had the Duke of Suffolk executed. A page announces a choral madrigal of almost immense boredom. The closest thing to this must be the ballet in act 3 of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, but even that is more interesting, as here Gomes does not even attempt to write anything that sounds like a Tudor era madrigal. The Queen announces the start of the hunt and the courtiers go off, but she orders Fabiano to stay behind.
13, 20: Fabiano and Mary have some pre-marital if agreeable sexy time together. The duet * (9 minutes) itself consists of a series of unrelated musical ideas parading about (some of it actually good) but there is just something about a tenor and soprano romping about in the on-stage bedroom like nature intended which is simply not worth missing. Fabiano is very much against Mary’s possible marriage with the King of Spain (for obvious reasons). The Page arrives again at the most awkward moment to announce that the Spanish ambassador Don Gil requests an interview with the Queen. The two go on duetting rather better than before to the end, perhaps the best music so far in the opera **.
27: The Queen gives audience to Don Gil who explains this odd situation involving Gilberto and Giovanna who are brought in. Giovanna presents her sad story to the Queen about how she has been seduced and abandoned by Fabiano. The climax of the quartet than ensues is worth looking out for at least *. Don Gil promises Gilberto that he will be able to stab Fabiano at the banquet to take place the following evening.
29: By this point Mary wants revenge, but not for herself as a woman but as Queen **. This is the culmination of the first two acts of the opera.
ACT 3: (45 minutes)
Scene 1: The Queen’s bedchamber.
4: A great deal happens in the first three minutes of this scene. Mary is picking out jewelry to wear for the party that evening in front of Don Gil, Clinton, and Montague when Fabiano shows up desiring to speak with her and declaring his love for her but she upbraids him and leaves. The three men chastise him and also depart leaving our Italian tenor to embark on a surprisingly strong aria ** even if it lacks a great tune.
12: Don Gil confronts Fabiano with the song he serenaded Giovanna with in act one * leading to a grand confrontation and Fabiano storming out. At the end Gilbeto and Don Gil discuss their plan to dispose of the Italian.
Scene 2: The Grand Hall.
16: This is where the opera starts to desperately rip off La Gioconda but although the bacchanal * is worth mentioning it is hardly the Dance of the Hours. What follows is a rather awkward image of courtiers in 16th century costume dancing to blatantly late-19th century music. Meanwhile Montague and Clinton chide Fabiano (they claim that Mary is going to make him a prince during the ball.
23: The Hymn for the Queen *, is stately but not all that catchy. This is followed by an encounter between Mary and Fabiano leading to an odd burlesque number of mild amusement if physically good.
32: Mary calls the guests to go in to dinner. The arrival of the Spanish envoy who presents Don Gil with a ring to give to Mary, while himself contemplating that if he gets rid of Fabiano Philip of Spain promises him the Principality of Ceuta as reward. The offer of marriage is rather liltingly presented by Don Gil *. Suddenly she asks him where Gilberto and Giovanna are. Gilberto is brought in and Mary fakes an assassination attempt on herself, promising him that he will be avenged. This causes everyone to return and Fabiano goes to the Queen’s side. Gilberto is technically under arrest, Giovanna is brought on and the court learns that Fabiano has been two-timing the Queen with an orphaned girl (true) and armed Gilberto with the knife Mary was “attacked” with (a lie but does anyone care at this point as the knife has Fabiano’s family crest on it?)
40: The finale ** is obviously meant to match that of act 3 of La Gioconda with the tenor being revealed and placed under arrest because of the mezzo-soprano. Mary orders that Fabiano be taken by the executioner (an elderly man looking for young blood), Gilberto is ordered to the tower and Don Gil escorts Giovanna out as the court praises Mary. It is grand but not all that inspired.
ACT 4: The Tower of London. (30 minutes)
6: Mary comes on and alone contemplates what she must do next. She wants to forgive Fabiano because she is still in love with him, but he has also been proven to have betrayed her love and seduced the innocent Giovanna. It starts off slow but after a good climax the aria itself flowers very well ** even if, like so much of the opera, there is no great melody here.
15: The plot thickens: Mary has officially pardoned Gilberto in order to pacify the people (and because he is technically innocent) but Fabiano is to be executed, however, she has also made a deal with Don Gil that if Gilberto is the one who is executed she will give Don Gil a duchy (Suffolk, whose execution was mentioned in act 2) along with a lot of money for doing her this favour and sparing her lover. Don Gil has a decision to make, does he please his sovereign the King of Spain and gain a principality or obey a Queen and gain a dukedom and lots of money. Surprisingly this is not really much of a choice for him but while it lasts this plot point and Gil’s aria is worth mentioning *.
21: The finale *** starts with a chorus of monks and then Mary comes on in fear of the results. Giovanna arrives to thank the Queen for sparing Gilberto but gets mistreated by Mary because frankly she finds her existence immensely annoying. She reveals to Giovanna that she plans on having Gilberto executed and Fabiano spared. The procession of monks takes the victim (the prisoner has a bag over his head) to be executed. Giovanna begs to have Gilberto spared because his execution would break her heart. Mary relents and decides to stop the execution, but it is too late, whoever was to executed has been executed. Mary assumes it was Gilberto, Giovanna goes mad and Mary orders that the other prisoner be brought to her immediately but Giovanna declares that Don Gil hated Fabiano and Mary curses her life. Gilberto returns alive, it is Fabiano who has been executed. Mary passes out during what borders on an orchestrally induced apotheosis of good triumphing over evil. Curtain.
I will admit that before hearing this opera in its entirety I suspected that I was going to hate it, and I was surprised. Until the finale act the best music in the opera belongs to the lead tenor. In fact the tenor sexiness cache of Fabiano Fabiani keeps most of the opera afloat. The first act starts very weak, it is only with the arrival of Fabiani that things finally get interesting musically although already most of the plot has been revealed. The second act is stopped dead by one of the most boring ballet sequences in opera (and it isn’t even the last ballet in the opera!). The rather sexy Fabiano-Mary duet and her later aria at the end of the act save the situation, as does Fabiano’s aria at the beginning of act three. The burlesque is a little awkward and the act finale is just barely able to salvage things. The fourth act is actually rather good although by this point the frequency of abuse Giovanna has endured at the hands of the other characters (including Mary herself) makes the survival of Gilberto and the foiling of Mary’s scheme to save her cheating lover refreshing rather than dramatically tragic. Why does Mary become such a jerk and so determined to save a man who has betrayed her love, and in doing so has plotted with a man whose goals are totally antithetical to her own, namely Don Gil? The whiff of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda permeates this opera, it doesn’t help that Arrigo Boito himself completed the libretto. There are multiple structural and dramatic parallels such as the predominance of arias and choral sequences punctuated with duets, it also has the exact same act/scene numbering including an act 3 scene 2 that is a total rip off. But before I cast aside this opera as just an Anglo-Gioconda I must say that there is quite a lot here that makes for a good opera. In spite of two long but early patches of musical ennui and a rip off party sequence, this is a surprising beta. B.