Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes.
This opera is interesting for three reasons. It’s subject matter, it’s composer, and it’s late era of composition. The story is (as you may already know) that of the murder-suicide of the Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria and only son of Emperor Franz Josef, and his mistress Maria Vetsera at the prince’s hunting lodge Mayerling in January 1889. At least history has generally concluded it was a murder-suicide, although it is possible the couple may have been assassinated by any of a variety of groups loyal to one of Rudolf’s liberal causes (Hungarian liberation is emphasized in this opera). The composer was a woman, Barbara Giuranna, who lived from 1899 (or 1902, sources differ) until 1998, which makes her the only composer I have reviewed so far who not only was alive when I was born, she even outlived my mother! I feel rather awful that this is only the second opera by a woman that I have reviewed on this blog, and the first from the 20th century, in either case something we don’t see very much unfortunately. This is not because women didn’t write operas, they have since the 1630s, nor that their operas were bad (heaven knows how many bad operas were written by men), but such operas are rarely performed because… misogyny I suppose. The last point before we begin is how late the opera is. This is one of the few post-World War 2 operas that I can actually admit to liking without feeling a little stupid (because modern opera, in general, sound like cats being murdered). This is actually really good! Although sometimes the orchestra can remind us that we are in the mid-20th century, the vocal lines (particularly Rudolf’s tenor) are strictly within the realm of Italian romantic opera.
I used a few sources this time from the personal web site of Greek tenor Zachos Terzakis who on 13 March 1993 sang Rudolf in Rome at the opera’s first public performance. Apparently the opera was recorded in 1957 (publishing date appears to have been 1960), and may have been radio broadcasted, but the first staging of the work was in 1993. A special thank you to Mr. Terzakis for making this material available.
THE REVIEW RECORDING: Mirto Picchi as Rudolf, Bruna Rizzoli as Maria, conducted by Fernandino Previtali.
PERFORMANCE PROGRAM from 1993 premiere: (Clips of the performance are available on YouTube link)
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (28 minutes)
Scene 1: The Kriou Cafe in Vienna, the night of 1st November, 1888.
0: After a bit of stormy orchestral music the soloists scuffle about until some obviously Austrian band music starts up *. Three minutes in they break into a dance which is supposed to be an Hungarian Csardas but I’m not quite getting it. Most of the dialogue has to do with how the Emperor is oppressing everyone, particularly the Hungarian. The Crown Prince’s cousin, John Salvator, gives a toast.
6: A rather lovely arioso passage ** from Crown Prince Rudolf about Hungarian independence followed by more waltzing as the scene ends.
Scene 2: The same, four nights later.
7: In between the two scenes there is a transpiring intermezzo ** which if you like modern classical music, is rather good and long.
13, 15: Rudolf’s encounter with his cousin John * in which they discuss politics, namely Rudolf standing up to his father regarding the Hungarians. It gets more romantic ** as Rudolf tells John about the mysterious girl he has fallen in love with whom his cousin Maria Larisch is bringing with her that night. He calls her his “white chimera”.
19, 22: The first Rudolf-Maria duet **. Although not the hot-blooded duets of the 19th century or even Puccini, there are some lovely things here including a long arioso for Maria (her declaration of love for Rudolf) with some “Hungarian” elements in both the vocal line and the orchestra. Rudolf is inspired by Maria’s avowal.
ACT 2 (36 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the Imperial Palace, 26 January, 1889.
3: The act opens with another good but short orchestral introduction and then a long conversation between Prime Minister Count Taaffe and the Papal Nuncio Galimberti. The pope has refused Rudolf’s petition for an annulment of his marriage to Archduchess Stephanie, thus he can not marry Maria. He greets the news poorly * (as would be expected).
7: In a rather strong passage Rudolf reflects **.
10: The remainder of the scene consists of a duet between Rudolf and his mother, the Empress Elizabeth **. He goes off to an interview with his father.
Scene 2: The ballroom of the German embassy, the following day.
15, 22: The scene opens with a waltz **. This is followed by a patch of recitative in which Maria Vetsera and Maria Larisch come on and the former is introduced. It ends with a waltz chorus **
21: The guests beg for a song from Maria and her society debut with a song by Schubert “Death and the Maiden”. The two Maria’s provide a rather intriguing duet ***.
25: The song itself * is performed in parlando and doesn’t get very far before Maria breaks down from a sudden sense of doom.
27: The arrival of the Archduke and Archduchess **. The two rival women just stare at each other for a moment and then the royals pass on into the ballroom.
29: The two Marias discuss the fact that the Emperor is planning on having Rudolf arrested for their argument over Vetsera the previous day. She is terrified *. The police arrive, but the footman says that Rudolf has already left the embassy.
32: This revelation causes Maria Vetsera to break down ** after a long orchestral feature which ends with the Austrian National Anthem.
ACT 3: The Hunting Lodge at Mayerling, 29th January, 1889. (28 minutes)
1: A dark and deep prelude, hunting horns, all bringing on a rather thrilling male hunting chorus **. All are excited that Rudolf might be Emperor in 24 hours and before that a hunt at dawn. Rudolf comes on in a panic awaiting news of the revolt that is occurring in Budapest. Although this is probably the most modern sounding of all the acts, it has a strangely 19th century feel to it, almost like the final act of a film than an opera.
7: John Salvator brings news, the rebellion has been crushed *. Rudolf panics again and then goes into some detail about a plot to overthrow his father that night. John begs him to simply run away with Maria Vetsera, who is waiting for him in a carriage at the edge of the forest.
13: Rudolf is left alone to think again **. He will never be emperor now, he plans on taking his own life to escape his father’s wrath. Something about this is retro, sort of like the old tenor mad scenes in the 19th century and yet not (the xylophone gets in the way).
18: Maria arrives *** and tells him that if he is going to die, so is she.
24: Some happens with the recording, a slow down of the vinyl it seems. The lovers die, drums. The men come on for the hunt. John discovers the double suicide. The chorus is a bit ornery, but appropriately so. John cries for help. The men ask him what has happened, where is their Emperor. John tells them that he sleeps with the woman he loves (they are dead) **. Fade out.
I like this opera, and not just because it gave me an opportunity to review a rather modern opera that I actually ended up liking. The only things I can really fault it for are a lack of character development beyond the two lovers (Rudolf is very well developed), and there are too many walk on roles (especially the Empress Elizabeth, the same mezzo doubling roles with Maria Larisch in this recording). John Salvator might be the exception to this but the other characters really don’t get enough stage time to grab ones attention. The libretto is rather equally balanced between Rudolf and Maria, although they are only on stage together three times and only speak to each other twice and the second time they are discussing suicide. The duets that Rudolf has with women (his mother the Empress and with Maria) are dominated by long arioso passages for the female singer, and yet when he is in any other situation, the vocal melody is dominated by him. An effective and unjustly neglected romantic Italian would be classic. It beats the tar out of Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re with an excellent primo tenore role and far more interesting female roles (as well as choruses). Alpha.
ONE LAST NOTE:
Barbara Giuranna with tenor Zachos Terzakis and soprano Monica Di Siena following the 1993 performance in Rome, the artistic director was Gian Carlo Menotti (taken from Terzakis’ official site).