Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
Ponchielli had written a dramatization much earlier than Petrella. This review is of the Bongiovanni label recording. I have chosen this one because of the studio sound quality as there are two other recordings (live performances) available on YouTube which are 15 and 30 minutes longer than this one respectively and the singers on those recordings seem better overall.
LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The overture is a nice professional piece **, starting off with oboes and clarinets on a good theme and appears to share one feature (fugitive high strings representing Don Rodrigo) with the overture to Donizetti’s Poliuto. It concludes well with that trademark Ponchielli ending.
ACT 1 (40 minutes)
Scene 1: A courtyard in Lucia’s home.
9: More woodwind and string work for a while until we get the opening pre-nuptial chorus *, mostly a cappella but tuneful in its mild way. It sounds a lot like the idiot voices in La Gioconda.
13: Renzo comes on and after a long recitative he has a cavatina which seems like a meek first draft of Cielo e mar. It is mild but nice *. He explains that Don Rodrigo has forbidden his marriage to Lucia.
17, 23: Lucia arrives and the introduction number, which is still occurring because Ponchielli has through-composed this sequence ends in a duet * for the betrothed which has some good vocal work but not much of a tune and a fast stretta which has a Verdian climax ** as they all get mad over the postponement of the wedding and Renzo swears revenge on Don Rodrigo.
Scene 2: A hall in Don Rodrigo’s palace.
30: The fugitive string theme reappears, creating a good (not great, but good) effect as we are introduced to the wicked Don Rodrigo whose motivations for seducing Lucia are out of genuine sexual attraction which although perhaps morally sordid is more believable than the whole situation being about a bet with his cousin (who incidentally does not appear in this opera!) Rodrigo’s short cavatina is okay * but the execution of it in this recording seems sub-par so the low rating is for the performer rather than the music proper which is slightly better.
33, 38: The remainder of the act consists of a long duet between Rodrigo and Fra Cristoforo, the highlights being a section for Cristoforo in which he asks Rodrigo to soften his heart for the bridal couple * but Rodrigo takes on a somewhat flighty theme. Overall the scene should have a lot more life to it but apart from some Verdian gesturing it only in the last two minutes when Cristoforo curses Rodrigo for his wickedness does the number really warm up * at all and even then it is sub-par.
ACT 2 (27 minutes)
Scene 1: A courtyard in the palace of Don Rodrigo.
1: Two themes which we know from the last scene belong to Don Rodrigo begin the act which appropriately leads to an aria for him in which he contemplates abducting Lucia, it has the weirdest orchestral accompaniment *. The remainder of the scene consists of about four minutes conspiratorial recitative with Griso and the chorus in which they go over details for Lucia’s kidnapping. It has interesting violin and flute parts but is otherwise not all that interesting.
Scene 2: The same as Act 1 Scene 1.
13: The next scene starts off with some plot forwarding recitative for Renzo and a peasant named Tonio in which he tries to speed up on an elopement with Lucia to get around Don Rodrigo followed by a duettino for Renzo and Lucia * which takes what seems like forever to warm up but sort of does very briefly before going back to be sedate in the orchestra although the vocal line (at least Renzo’s vocal line as he has the melody against Lucia’s descant) is good.
17: A good aria for Fra Cristoforo ** kicks the opera into a higher gear finally.
22, 26: The attempted wedding gets foiled by the arrival of Don Rodrigo and his men but they get scared off by the church bells. In the last five minutes we finally get a good act finale **, although it is more of a sextette with chorus. The last three minutes consists of some plot forwarding: Fra Cristoforo tells Renzo and Lucia that they need to split up for the time being, Renzo to Milan and Lucia to a convent in Monza. Renzo starts off the brief (less than one minute) closing sequence with a nice little tune *.
ACT 3 (26.5 minutes)
The garden of the convent of the Lady of Monza.
0, 7, 11: A good aria for the Lady of Monza *, not all that catchy but good. Her real name is Gertrude and she knows of a plot by yet another wicked nobleman, Innominato, to kidnap Lucia. She is unable to stop his men but is able to warn Lucia ahead of time that the kidnapping will occur. A nice chorus of nuns ** forms the background for this as the kidnappers show up below. The capture occurs to some Mickey-mousing from the orchestra and then Gertrude finishes off the scene with a catchy but out of place cabaletta **.
Scene 2: A Gothic hall in the castle of Innominato.
13: Captured, Lucia gets her chance for a mad scene, or rather her chance to make a vow to the Madonna *** to become a nun and causes the musical climax of the opera.
20, 23: Agnese arrives (some how) and things look really bad until a happy chorus from outside shows up ** Fra Cristoforo and a Cardinal have convinced Innominato to release Lucia and the act ends with a concertate based on the ending theme from the overture **
ACT 4 (36.5 minutes)
Scene 1: An illuminated hall in Don Rodrigo’s palace.
0: Ponchielli surprises us with an enchanting prelude and drinking chorus **.
4: Don Rodrigo gives a rather dapper drinking song, or rather the orchestral accompaniment is rather dapper **.
7, 11: Things turn for the worse dramatically as Rodrigo realizes that he is coming down with plague. Ponchielli maintains the tension well but the chorus gets really eery as well * as they exit. Rodrigo has Griso call for his physician and the scene ends with a frightened recitative for Rodrigo ** as he knows he will soon die.
Scene 2: Interior of the Lazzaretto in Milan.
13: Ponchielli throws in a brief intermezzo * here, a combination of high drama and solemnity as the scenery changes.
15: The chorus freaks out ** very effective as the Milanese go through a death toll list.
19: Fra Cristoforo comes on and tries to lead the people in prayer *, complete with harp. It is nice and mild.
22, 26, 30, 33: Renzo arrives looking for Lucia and embarks on a tuneful arioso **. The chorus is heard off-stage and Lucia comes on and they are reunited * to a violin melody as she reveals her vow to him. Fra Cristoforo, determined not to see everything go pear shaped releases Lucia from her vow in a lovely minimally accompanied trio ** in which Ponchielli has thankfully moved the soprano to the descant and the melody is taken up by the two men. The chorus returns and there is one more good outing for the trio ** (Renzo holding the melody as usual), celestial harp popping in at the end as the couple is finally free to wed and we have a good, happy, ending.
Just speaking of the recording as a performance and not of the opera generally, the tenor Marcello Bedoni singing Renzo does a very great job, in fact he sorts of saves the whole situation from being a complete disaster, but Natalia Margarit’s Lucia leaves much to be desired in the first two acts. It isn’t so much her performance, she pulls off the role dramatically, but her verbrato is notorious, although thankfully she pulls off the third act vow sequence with aplomb. Maurizio Zanchetti’s Don Rodrigo seems off pitch at times although unlike in Petrella the character is fully formed, appears multiple times, and by act four Zanchetti does a fine job of the impending death scene.
As for the opera itself: although Ponchielli wrote his opera a full decade earlier (it was his second opera) and the work is more dramatically compact than Petrella’s, the musical quality, it must be admitted, is mixed. After the good overture we get fifty solid minutes of the most boring and dramatically out of place music in all opera, but starting with Fra Cristoforo’s act 2 aria the opera takes wing and apart from some odd recitative passages the quality level remains at a very enjoyable level until basically the final curtain. I’ve given up on the third acts of any version of this story because the Innominato sub-plot (which is included to some extent in Petrella’s version although it is bogged down in comic relief) is really just filler and the role as waste of a tenor that has nothing to do with the main plot other than to give Lucia a few moments to emote (although at least here Lucia’s vow to the Madonna makes up for the dramatic meaninglessness of the act). Oddly enough it is this third act that is the most musically consistent even if it has next to nothing to do with the main plot, go figure! I also like how Renzo (the tenor lead) gets most of the melodies when he is singing with the soprano. Margarit’s voice is better suited to descants so the role seems tailor made really! Overall a beta, no more but certainly no less.