Gaetano Donizetti: Marino Faliero (1835)

Opera in three acts. Running Time 2 hours 25 minutes.

This opera was commissioned by Rossini for the Theatre Italien in Paris and premiered just months after Bellini’s I Puritani (also commissioned by Rossini at the same time). Unlike the latter which has been a staple for over a century and a half, this opera has essentially disappeared in plain sight as it is performed infrequently but often enough for it not to be considered totally neglected.

PLOT: Venice, 1355. After being insulted by Steno, a member of the Council of Forty, the captain of the Venetian arsenal enlists the Doge Marino Faliero in a conspiracy against the Council of Ten which refused to inflict strict punishment on one of its own. The subplot focuses on a half-baked affair between the Doge’s young wife Elena and his nephew Fernando which is prematurely terminated when Fernando is murdered in a duel with Steno defending Elena’s honour.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t19nRFUCmg

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (73 minutes)

0: The Overture is a rather standard item * (which however has a very advanced orchestration mostly likely due to its French premiere) with one good tune which sounds a lot like a trot during a fox hunt.

Scene 1: The Venetian Arsenal.

9: The act opens on a sotto voce chorus of arsenal workers which would sound utterly sinister if not for the cheery scampering of the violins *, the rest of it is cheery but close to ornery before it climaxes and is stopped dead (to a chromatic chord) by the arrival of Israele, the chef of the Venetian arsenal who greets his workers as if they were his sons. He is insulted by Steno, a member of the Council of Forty.

19: The stretta ** to the introduction includes several moments of chromaticism (or is the orchestra off pitch?).

Scene 2: A room in the Doge’s palace.

27: Fernando, Faliero’s nephew and the lover of his wife Elena, comes on. His cavatina is nice with patches of tenor coloratura *. Technically it is better than it sounds because the melody is nothing to speak of.

31: Elena arrives and Fernando admits to her that he feels so guilty and will leave Venice so she will avoid dishonour because of their adulterous love *. I keep having the bad feeling that this number is simply designed to impress for its own sake. It consists of stock bel canto gesturing and although somewhat pretty, it is hollow. However, both this duet and the previous aria are very taxing on the tenor, involving multiple high Ds.

45: After an interview in recitative between Faliero and Fernando there is a duet between Israele and Faliero. Both had wanted Steno to be more severely punished for their own individual reasons (both Israele and Faliero’s wife have been insulted by him) but the Council of Ten forbade any further punishment. This is rather better than most of the previous music, although one would think that sinister plotting and conspiracy would take place under more dramatic auspices than this cheery tune **. You will miss it when it goes away because the middle part of the duet is boring and rather oddly quiet, the finish is okay.

Scene 3: Before a grand ball room, but not the ball room itself.

58: The chorus by masked ball guests comes on for a dim outing involving bells *.

61: Look out for the strings *, there is one repeated good dance tune here.

64: Elena comes on frantically going on about the masked ball that is about to take place. When Fernando comes on we finally get into something with teeth ** which thankfully lasts until the end of the act.

ACT 2: The Piazza of Sts. John and Paul, night. (29 minutes)

4: The act opens with a chorus with all the charm of a funeral durge. More sophisticated than tuneful. A tenor gondolier and his duet with a viola sweetens things up a little **.

8: Fernando comes on and has yet another aria, although this one has more dramatic power than the previous one **. Apparently Steno makes a habit of insulting people, and he insulted Elena earlier so Fernando has challenged him to a duel.

16: After an ornery chorus, Faliero and Israele arrive on the scene via gondola. Faliero has a good arioso passage * (the entire finale to the act is actually an aria for him if this is to be believed). They hear swords cross and Fernando cries out.

25: Fernando is brought in dying. He dies. (No more tenor role, why both with the rest of this freak show?). Faliero is at first saddened by the murder of his nephew but he quickly brings his fellow conspirators to yet another jolly conspiratorial number * with only a hint at the end of the dangerous nature of their behaviour. It is rousing, but also feel derivative.

ACT 3 (43 minutes)

Scene 1: The Doge’s apartments.

1: Now with the tenor dead, we have to wrap things up for everyone else. Elena’s confidant Irene, to this point background scenery, gets her own little cheerful cantone con coro *. It is a sweet and mild piece, but it doesn’t last long. Faliero tells his wife that Fernando is dead. The Council member Leoni arrives to summon Faliero to the Council of Ten but he declares himself king of Venice which is basically an admittance of treason.

8: Elena feels guilty because she has yet to admit to her husband her affair with the dead Fernando. This is a nice number and it gets a lift when Irene and the ladies come back to round out the scene **.

Scene 2: A room in the Council of Ten.

18: Faliero is condemned by the Council along with Israele. Their chorus is stately * (what else could it be?).

22, 27: Israele greets his impending demise rather well * as he says goodbye to his “sons” working for him at the arsenal. Towards the end it does get a little touching ** and then into a mild militant tune for the finish before they happily embrace execution.

38: The last ten minutes of the opera consists of two numbers, a prayer for Faliero which appears to have been cut and then a duet with Elena in which she admits to her adultery with Fernando. Her husband is about to curse her but knowing that he is about to be executed he figures, what is the use? Throughout the number the strings whirl about frantically. The horns summon the best part of the duet, Faliero’s prayer **. The Council of Ten calls Faliero to the block, husband and wife part. In the last two minutes, Elena awaits the signal that the execution is complete in sheer terror and apart from some frightened interjections, mostly in silence. It barely comes off although the internal voices give a send off.

COMMENTS:

I originally intended on writing this review ten months ago but I stopped because what little of this opera I heard frankly did not impress me, although originally I was interested in it. Upon finishing this review I have misgivings about posting it. As much as I hate to say it, I really did not like this opera, at all. By the end I actually regretted reviewing it, something I can’t even say of the likes of Puccini’s Edgar. 

I do understand the emphasis that has been placed when talking about this opera on the standard bel canto practice of giving the soprano a massive final aria and that this opera simply does not do this. Although I comprehend that this is a reason why the opera failed to impress in Paris in the longterm, there are worse things about this opera than its lack of adherence to standard forms. The plot is limp, slow, and frankly not all that interesting and this hurts the historian in me because this is about a real octogenarian doge of Venice and the events leading up to his execution in 1355 as a result of his involvement in a conspiracy against those in power who attacked him because of his wife’s adultery. This is depressing. The pacing of the story is also very poor and it is next to impossible to fully grasp the seriousness of the conspiracy or of the adulterous affair as the people we sympathize with (Marino and Israele) have been slandered by jerk Venetian bureaucrats and the title character has also been cruel cuckholded, and by his own nephew to top it off! This would be excusable, operas do not need to have amazing storylines, but the music seems to be more interested in being impressive (not entertaining, impressive) than in actually being good music with rich orchestral textures (the horns in particular are rather skillfully utilized to full effect), vocal fireworks (particularly the tenor parts), and even the Venetian setting seeming timed to produce a theatrical effect (think La Gioconda) with little substance or heart backing it up. This is especially true of the opera’s unfocused romantic subplot, which comes off at times as an after thought or an excuse to cast a tenor. Other parts of the score limp around quietly or even bizarrely happily in serious situations and there are long passages in which the singers are basically reduced to largely unaccompanied recitative. The first act is over half the opera’s running time, and it also has the biggest longueurs, by the end of which I knew I was in trouble because I already knew I didn’t care for this opera. The role of Fernando is thanklessly difficult, taxing, and really not all that important for grasping the main situation of the opera because most of it is filler, even if pretty filler. The most unforgivable thing is that while listening to this opera, I kept on thinking about how it reminded me of better operas that I could be listening to instead, Maria Stuarda comes to mind.

Although not a disaster, (from a strictly technical standpoint this is actually a good opera with strong French-influenced orchestration and taxing tenor and to a lesser extent soprano vocals), this isn’t a particularly memorable outing either. B-.

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