Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Servilia (1902)

Opera in five acts. Running Time: 2 hours 38 minutes.

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Do not expect an overtly positive review, I get the impression that Rimsky wrote this just because he wanted a complete trilogy of operas based on the Lev Mei plays as there is little to mention here. Oddly enough, the Servilia of the title and many of the other characters are actually based on real people. There was a real Servilia who was the daughter of one Soranus, a senator who was imprisoned by Nero. She herself was executed by Nero after she sought the services of a sorceress to find out what had happened to her father (he had committed suicide). This opera has never caught on, at all. If you want the digest on the opera there are only two good points: an aria for the title character around mid-way through the opera (act three) and the finale in act five. There are four or five other good tunes, but little of it ever consummates although Rimsky’s attempts of Roman music should get an honourable mention. It has in fact been produced only around ten times in all 116 years since its premiere, and its third production was in 1944!

SETTING: Ancient Rome, circa 67 C.E.. There isn’t so much a plot as a series of five situations, tied together by a basic premise: Soranus (bass) and Thrasea (tenor) are senators on their way down, meanwhile Soranus plans to marry his own daughter Servilia (soprano) to Thrasea even though she is actually in love with his adopted son Valerius (tenor), who at some point in the plot goes missing and is presumed dead (this is vague because he appears in acts one, three, and five). Meanwhile, a former Teutonic slave of Soranus, Egnatius (baritone) is in love with Servilia himself and frames Soranus and Thrasea for treason and tricks Servilia into committing the capital offence of seeking out a fortuneteller named Locusta (mezzo-soprano) who is in his employ as part of his plot to seduce Servilia, who narrowly escapes thanks to a Christian slave, Nevolea (soprano). In the end, Soranus and Thrasea are exiled, Servilia dies of shock after Valerius shows up alive and the opera ends with an explosive confession of Christian faith from Egnatius. Incidentally, there are 25 soloist roles, 7 female and 18 male, although most of them are extremely minor and appear only once or twice.

Link to English Translation of the Libretto:

Somehow the opera has been completely recorded and someone named Martin Pitchon uploaded it to YouTube:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdYuHPAz0YE&t=179s.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The Roman forum, morning. (27.5 minutes)

12, 16, 23, 26: The opening scene (12 minutes long) consists of a series of vignettes, none of them particularly noteworthy, but scenic: A child polenta seller sings a dim sales pitch, joined in competition by an adult soprano florist. An opening theme on the double basses (later taken up by most of the strings) is repeated continuously for the first five minutes or so. Then there is some mild oboe/clarinet/bassoon work, all mildly agreeable but none of it all that eventful really but it is serviceable enough. An elderly Christian man shows up. Some citizens talk amongst themselves about Valerio Rustico, the tribune, and how Hispo, one of their number is going to denounce the lot of them for a reason that isn’t given. We then get some mild fanfare, the sort of thing we would expect from an opera set in Ancient Rome as a messenger arrives telling everyone that Nero is opening a new temple to Minerva. The chorus does its thing effectively enough, if at times it is ornery as there are also reports of Christians arriving in the city, specifically in the catacombs. There aren’t any real events until a rather nice orchestral passage as Servilia enters silently and is admired by some men, immediately followed by a female chorus, a religious procession for Minerva * (a positive shift in the quality of the music occurs and lasts for about three and a half minutes) which is then protested by the elderly Christian man who is laughter at and attacked by the crowd of worshipers for toppling a statue of Minerva, which shatters *. Servilia herself comes on trying to stop the lynching. Valerio (the tenor) ends up stopping the lynching of the old Christian and Servilia falls in love with him. Valerio’s accompaniment *, although very Verdian, is also extremely bizarre with string instruments bopping and woodwinds chirping at odd intervals. The chorus of furious citizens is ornery. There is a solo violin that gets all romantic (it is a leitmotif representing the love of Servilia for Valerio as they gaze at each other as she departs). The old Christian returns with another hymn like number * as he is taken away to be eaten by lions and the curtain falls.

ACT 2: The Baths of Agrippa, a marble dining hall set. (27 minutes)

0, 12: A fugitive prelude * is followed by a serviceable but musically uninteresting recitative about Messalina of all people. It is just senatorial intrigue (something about Valerio’s name being struck from the lists and a group conspiracy against Rome) until the dinner begins. The music is all serviceable and okay in itself but there is nothing eventful  (as usual). The reading of the lists by Egnazio has one solidly good tune * which gets repeated over and over from the orchestra.

15: Something of a bright spot is a hymn to Bacchus that is taken up by all of the guests *.

17: Montanus, a senator, sings a rather agreeable song * about Jupiter and Semele to than accompaniment by the on-stage musicians. Then there is some low temperature dancing.

22.5: Slaves enter yelling fire! * The library is apparently on fire, they all run out and Egnatius (now alone) reveals a secret door, and Nero’s captain Tigellinus. Egnatius reveals that his motive is love for Servilia. Curtain.

ACT 3: A hall in Soranus’ house. (42 minutes)

0, 6, 12, 16: A bit of a party tune  leading to a rather jovial women’s chorus * as Servilia and her ladies try to spin something on their spinning wheels. Her father comes in and tells her that he plans on marrying her off to his friend Trasea (who happens to be the adoptive father of Valerio). Servilia becomes very sad and reveals her feelings to her father * about love and also Christianity. Trasea arrives to a fanfare (Servilia goes a bit daffy here *) and tells Soranus * that he knows that Valerio loves Servilia and will step aside so the two young lovers can be united in marriage.

21: Servilia gets a very lovely aria ** (the best music so far, and basically the dead centre of the opera, and there is a noticeably positive change in the quality of the music for about five minutes) about flowers ending with a rather deep reflection on why, if God gave women feelings, do men make it impossible for them to express them freely? There are traces of the love themes from acts one and two here.

31, 34, 40: Valerio arrives (and the musical spell is apparently broken) and can no longer hold back his love for Servilia, although their duet is hardly passionate and mostly consists of a series of stilted patches of recitative and arioso although Valerio does get one good passage with the orchestra * and there is an attempt at a melody in Servilia’s vocal line but it comes off as bumbling * (it also sounds too much like a parody of Italian opera). The fathers and Servilia’s governess Antonia give their blessings and the orchestra bumbles about like a bad bel canto opera although it does climax effectively enough *, but a centurion bursts in and arrests the older men in the name of Caesar for treason. This is slightly more effective than the previous acts but still.

ACT 4: The house of Locusta, a sorceress. (32 minutes)

0, 7, 16, 21, 23, 31: If you can believe it, the opera falls into that worn out trap as well! Yes we are in the home of a sorceress, who incidentally has a Christian slave to boot if the situation could not become more cliched. Were it not that the historical Servilia consulted with a fortuneteller in the same context as here I would mark this down poorly but it is historical so I have to let it pass. However, dramatically, it seems to come out of nowhere and if one does not know the historical background, it appears random. The prelude is a mild piece * which becomes more sinister as we meet Locusta. She makes a deal with Egnatius so that he will come up as Servilia’s “fate” when she comes to have her fortune told (then he hides behind a black curtain (there is a rehash of the Egnatius love theme from act two). Servilia arrives and requests rather sweetly for Locusta to help her, and the orchestra and chorus does a rather good job of the apparitions ** (at least it is spooky enough off and on for ten minutes). Egnazio comes out from behind the curtain * and claims to be Servilia’s romantic fate. She rejects him instantly and he goes about his life story in the most ornery way. He ends up giving her a butchered love song * that cries to break through but never does in spite of a second outing *. He leaves her alone to resign herself to submission but really most of this consists of her screaming in misery at the probability of her sexual violation. Nevoleia, Locusta’s Christian slave-girl saves Servilia from a fate worse than death by helping her flee through the catacombs and we are very much in the 1st century but the two women get one nice little holy tune before escaping * (probably the third or fourth best in the opera unfortunately).

ACT 5: The Temple of Venus (29 minutes)

0, 12, 16, 19, 28: We know we are at judgement with this prelude *. The pre-trial is rather ornery with a Praetor reading off a long list of complaints against Stoicism. The trial goes and Servilia arrives finally. The fathers are sentenced to banishment, Servilia is to be handed over to Egnazio but Valerio arrives (after having thought to have been dead) and vetos the sentence to the most bizarre accompaniment *. Servilia is overjoyed but also dying from shock and exhaustion. She takes the opportunity to spout out Christian propaganda in her final moments * flutes fluttering about, very holy chords. Suddenly, with less than ten minutes left, the opera turns nuclear ** and as she dies the orchestra goes into a mini-liebestod. Valerio tries to commit suicide but is stopped by Thrasea and both he and the repentant Egnatius take comfort from the desolation in Christianity, and in the last explosive minute the opera finally makes it with a musical supernova ***.

COMMENTS:

This opera is incredibly pallid (both critics in 1902 and Rimsky himself actually used the word to describe this score), what is worse the plot is really boring, confusing, and slow (the first two acts could be cut without damaging the scenario as all they do is provide explanation for what happens in the third act). Incidentally, Servilia herself barely has a half a dozen bars to sing prior to act three, although she makes two appearances in act one. Although little of the music is bad or ornery, very little of it is all that interesting either. The score is serviceable almost all the time, and there are even some attempts at scenic music (the fanfares, the songs at the banquet in act 2) but there is so little that is actually interesting. Most of the music would be more than appropriate for a film about Ancient Rome, however. The five act grand opera structure comes off rather episodic with this standard and rather dull tale of Christian vs. Pagan Rome where most of the conflict isn’t even between Christians and Pagans but amongst the Pagans themselves. There are three great passages, Servilia’s flower aria in act 3, the act 4 fortunetelling scene, and the opera’s two part finale consisting of the death of Servilia and the final explosive Credo (which in its grandeur exposes how boring 90% of the rest of the score has been), but otherwise the score’s most interesting feature is how retro it is for 1902, it feels half a century older at times. Overall I am not disappointed in taking the three hours to listen to this opera, once, but I would never do it again. Definitely a gamma if there ever was one and this and Pan Voyevoda are probably the closest Rimsky got to writing a so bad it is good opera. I will commend the composer for writing outside of his usual element, after all, Ancient Rome is hardly the reign of Ivan the Terrible or a Russian fairy tale.

 

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