Opera in four acts. Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes.
Although it premiered a decade before Virginia this was Mercadante’s last completed opera. It relates the story of a king of Asturia in 8th century northwestern Spain, Pelagius, his daughter Bianca, and her husband Abdel-Aor, her father’s mortal enemy.
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ACTS 1 & 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgNcbHGp32k
ACT 1: (36 minutes)
Scene 1: A dense forest near the Moorish Palace of the Prince of Islamic Gijon Abdel-Aor.
0: The prelude * starts off a little odd but has one good tune, it is all of two and a half minutes and is followed by a rather dramatic recitative for Pelagio as he addresses his soldiers. He meets up with Commander Mendo who like everything else things Pelagio died in battle.
5: The “opening chorus” of soldiers sounds like Verdi on an off-day *. Pelagio asks for news of his daughter Bianca, but is met with silence before singing is heard in the distance. Bianca is being escorted to the palace of Abdel-Aor, her father’s mortal enemy, to marry him!
8: Bianca’s cavatina * is a mild piece, not bad in any way, but not particularly memorable either. Both female chorus off-stage and male chorus on-stage thicken the mixture. Still it sounds like low temperature Verdi.
12: The soldiers and Pelagio finish off the scene with some tuneful flute work *.
Scene 2: The interior of the Palace.
17: Bianca’s arioso *, goes on for several minutes but isn’t actually a number for some reason. She fears that her dead father’s phantom will curse her for marrying their enemy even if she does genuinely love Abdel-Aor.
25: The Bianca/Abdel-Aor duet ** as he leads her to the altar. Do Muslims get married at altars though? It is very nice, and is followed by a choral sequence (first men, then women, then men again).
33: The stretta of the duet is probably the best part ** and is very catchy.
ACT 2: A room in the Abdel-Aor’s apartments. (26 minutes)
0: A lovingly warm little prelude ** leads to Bianca’s interview with a stranger–her father Pelagio in disguise.
3: The father-daughter duet ** is very forlorn, there is no happy reunion here at all. After two minutes Bianca bursts into some odd fioritura. Frustration is the best word for this number.
7: Bianca goes into a mildly accompanied (horns and strings) arioso * in which she explains her actions to her father and asks his forgiveness. His acceptance of the situation is far less conclusive.
11: Abdel-Aor’s singing ** is heard in the distance.
13: The proximity enrages Pelagio and he rejects his daughter, leading to tormented stretta * in which Bianca’s vocal line goes mad, but tunefully so.
17: Abdel-Aor comes on to a prelude which is based on the love duet theme and then Captain of the Guard Asan tells him that Pelagio broke into the palace and is plotting with Bianca to destroy him. Abdel-Aor does not believe this at first, but it leads to a rather fetching aria ** in which he declares how beautiful and true she is.
21: The soldiers come on and tell him that Pelagio has been found in the palace. This piques Abdel-Aor’s suspicion of his wife, leading to a cabaletta con coro **.
ACTS 3 & 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrnc1Q6VOGA
ACT 3: (33.5 minutes)
Scene 1: A plain surrounded by cliffs and woods.
0: The act starts with a prelude ** which is rather nice if a little fragmentary. It is followed by a delicate male chorus for Mendo and his men.
3: Things get rather furious ** Pelagio arrives and asks them to defend their people.
8: Pelagio’s cavatina * in which he declares that he no longer had tears for his daughter but now must weep.
11: An inhabitant of Gijon comes on and tells them that Abdel-Aor has published a law demanding the Christians give up their religion and embrace Islam. This is almost a theatrical trope and leads to a patriotic but rather low temperature scene finale *.
Scene 2: Same as Act 2.
15: Abdel-Aor has yet another aria, just about as good ** as he rages. A very lyrical aria as our tenor contemplates betrayal by his beloved wife.
20: Pelagio is brought before Abdel-Aor and a very bel canto duet ** develops turning into a trio ** rather quickly with the arrival of Bianca who saves Pelagio from being immediately killed by her husband by admitted he is her father.
28: In the stretta ** the people revolt against the new religious law and Pelagio is imprisoned (to be killed when the revolt is crushed). Bianca goes into something mildly heavenly as she agonizes over the conflicting interests of both her father and her husband. Overall, this tableau is the most consistently good.
ACT 4: A locked room in the palace leading to the prison. (21 minutes)
0: An agitated prelude ** leading to a tripartite singular number that the entire act consists of.
3: The number consists of a rather striking prayer *** for Bianca, which is sort of copy-cat Verdi but really very lovely as she continues her struggle between loyalty to her father and to her husband (mutually exclusive as they are).
9: This is followed by a duet with Abdel-Aor in which he mortally stabs her *. Much of it consists of manic rage which is expressed in near random bursts from the orchestra. You really feel sorry for Bianca here, probably as no where else.
13: The murder attack itself is actually rather well constructed and the music for once is dramatically dark enough **. His hatred of her at the juncture is so extreme that she pleads with him to kill her.
16: The last stage is the immediately connected finaletto in which Pelagio discovers her (still alive, not dead as Abdel-Aor so viciously promised her although he is presumably after jumping from a balcony) learning all. She dies in his arms after a lovely harp accompanied cavatina *** in which she begs for him to forgive her and Pelagio, along with his men, swear eternal revenge as the curtain falls.
Overall, I’m not in love with this opera. That doesn’t mean however that it isn’t a good opera. The plot is not so much bad as vicious, and a little formulaic. The first scenes of acts one and three are very similar, taking place in a forest inhabited for some reason by Spanish rebels, and are a little boring. Abdel-Aor’s music in the first three acts really raise the temperature but the final act is entirely Bianca’s and she ends up more magnificent than him. Instead of a love triangle we have a father-daughter relationship in conflict with an otherwise happy marriage. The ban on Christianity is a stereotype which was already old when this opera came out and seems more like filler to get the show on to the finale curtain by creating a public conflict. The score at its best is late early rip-off Verdi, but rather good rip-off. Bianca, and her agonizing problem of balancing her father and her husband, does garner sympathy from the audience but only because both her father and her husband are so dreadful as men and her husband ends up murdering her in such a brutal way that it is hard not to shed a tear. The other characters (there are eight in total) are not very well developed with Asan being rather stereotypically the Muslim baddy even more so than his master. Like a Verdi opera, each act improves on the previous one until the final act (very brief though it is) when the opera fully flowers. B+, possibly A-.
And now to see what The Opera Scribe says: