Vincenzo Bellini: Bianca e Fernando (1827)

Opera in 2 acts. Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.

This is the revision of a previous opera Bianca e Gernando (see that!), the name being changed because the heir to the throne at the time was named Fernandino and forms of his name were not permitted in opera by lawApparently Bellini took the opportunity to revise so that all but two of the numbers are totally different (the central brother-sister duet in act 2 and the soprano romanza). The original version is also around a quarter of an hour shorter.

PLOT: Agrigento, Sicily, 14th or 15th century. Filippo has usurped the duke Carlo from power had at him secretly imprisoned. His son Fernando has been banished (going into exile as a child) and his daughter Bianca, already the widow of the Duke of Messina, marries Filippo unaware of what his role was in the disappearances of her father and younger brother. Now an adult, Fernando returns incognito (under the name Adolfo) planning on avenging his father.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnU0W1Ua18c

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: An atrium of the ducal palace. (58 minutes)

3, 5: The very brief prelude is surprisingly dramatic and leads immediately into Fernando’s opening aria starting off with a nice mini-cavatina * leading to an energetic chorus *.

11: Then, the big one hits, although at first just a lite lyrical tenor piece (the first patches of coloratura are actually to an ornery orchestral accompaniment) but when it finally does it is like the sun breaking out through the storm clouds **. This is possibly the highest tenor aria ever, with high Es, Fs, even a G!

18, 23: Filippo, the usurper of Fernando’s father Carlo’s throne, greets the (ultimately false) news of the death of Fernando with a joyous cavatina **. The cabaletta is fine but very traditional * although the accompaniment towards the end is good.

28, 31: Filippo hires Fernando (disguised as Adolfo, a soldier of fortune) ultimately planning on having him kill Carlo for him. A very tuneful trio ensues with henchman/woman Viscardo (mezzo-soprano) and some high tenor from Fernando **. In the second half there is a furious bit and then Fernando goes back to his high tenor workings **. It climaxes very well.

34, 37: A “viva” chorus which almost feels like it escaped a Mozart opera * announces the arrival of Bianca who greets those assembled with a lovely cavatina **.

46: Watch out for the regal use of the French horns ** (they pop in a lot over the course of the finale to act 1) announce Filippo who greets Bianca and there is a march militaire *. Fernando recognizes his sister but she does not recognize him and he suspects that she is complicit with Filippo.

54: The concertante finale ** is stormy and dramatic, a little Beethoven-ish actually.

ACT 2

Scene 1: Filippo’s apartments. (77 minutes)

0, 5, 8: An ardently lovely orchestral flourish * starts the act which otherwise goes on for five minutes of low temperature recitative before Filippo’s second aria * in which he gives Fernando his marching orders to kill the old man in the dungeon (Carlo). As the chorus comes on the orchestra builds up to a climax **.

Scene 2: Bianca’s chambers.

10: A flute solo/strings/low woodwinds intermezzo * brings on Bianca and her minder Eloisa.

14: Bianca’s Romanza ***, if you think you recognize it slightly that is because the tune was later adapted into the score of Norma. 

24, 32: Fernando arrives and confronts his sister. A duet ensues which is very bright **. He eventually realizes she is not in on Filippo’s plot and tells her the truth about their father (he is alive in the castle dungeon, we need to rescue him). It becomes even more lovely ***.

38: Fernando’s men arrive to a solemn orchestral interlude * and chorus which would later be outfitted into the score of Norma. 

45: Fernando’s aria ** as he rouses the men up for rescuing dad includes some good coloratura, the cabaletta is a bit more rousing than the cavatina though.

Scene 3: Carlo’s prison cell.

53: After a good prelude while the scene changes, we are introduced us to the last main character in our opera, the father of the protagonists, the rightful Duke Carlo in a sedate romanza *** full of genuine empathy and pity. Fernando and Bianca arrive searching for the right cell.

58: The reveal: Bianca cries out “Padre!” *** and father and siblings exchange information.

61: Filippo finds out that Bianca knows the truth now and tries to blackmail her by attempting to murder her three year old son. A brief ensemble breaks out here ** that is rather good but the plot only turns when Clemente disarms Filippo and has him arrested.

64: A brief trio for father and children **.

67: Another trio, same principles **, more coloratura.

70: Bianca’s final aria ** in which she thanks her brother for saving everyone and gives out of a votive of thanksgiving. Very pretty and very standard bel canto, but charming in its own mild way.

COMMENTS:

This opera has probably one of the most simplistic non-romantic storylines imaginable: Girl is about to unwittingly marry the man who dethroned her father, her brother shows up and at first thinks she is complicit but that gets straightened out and they along with the brother’s loyal henchmen rescue dad and bring the usurper to justice. That really is how simple the story is, it is padded out to over two hours with a lot of very tuneful arias and an almost unnecessary duet for the title siblings (the fact that they are brother and sister and not lovers is admittedly a little refreshing). However good the music is, and some of it is really rather magnificent, I can not help but feel that the plot is really that of a one act opera that has been stretched rather thin into two acts. There are also a lot of secondary characters including one, Clemente, Fernando’s old servant, who disarms Filippo and literally saves the day and all the good guys. This opera is much more interesting for its music than its story, which doesn’t amount to very much at all other than a rework of a Fidelio-type plot.  Standard Beta.

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