Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
My suggestion is that one listen to the 1994 Opera Rara release with Renee Fleming in the title role and not the 2010 Dynamic live performance release because the last five minutes of the score were cut from the latter production for some reason. The two recordings are otherwise relatively synchronized so it was easy for me to convert this from the Dynamic to the Opera Rare release.
LINK: (Recording with Renee Fleming)
I decided to return to Western Europe. This opera has received much praise in the last decade so I figured, why not investigate?
SETTING: Woodstock Castle, England, second half of the 12th century. Queen Leonora (Eleanor of Aquitaine) learns that her husband, Henry II, is maintaining a mistress. The obvious conclusion ensues.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (77.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The Gardens of Woodstock Castle.
0: The overture * starts off as high drama but quickly turns to some very standard Donizetti galloping march music. It is clever, but also a bit ordinary.
7, 11, 13, 18: The Introduction has a rather standard “arrival of the king” opening from the orchestra and a scurrying opening chorus *. Queen Leonora encounters the page Arturo (who is indebted to her as he was an orphaned brought into the court by her) and forces him/her to disclose that his master’s (the king) has a mistress installed in a tower on the castle grounds in a somewhat confused duet * leading to a rondo from Leonora * who promises to encourage the page’s love for this mysterious woman whose name even he does not know and more “arrival of the king” from the orchestra and chorus. I will give it one thing, we have had continuous music from the curtain rise until: Enrico’s Cavatina ** which winds up as the first great number because of its orchestral effectiveness. He has just returned from the war in Ireland and is so happy to lay down his weapons finally.
28: After a patch of recitative: The Enrico-Clifford duet ** starts off as sunny as can be but actually turns to rather fine drama. Clifford is Enrico’s former tutor and the father of the beautiful Rosmonda. Clifford knows that Enrico has betrayed Leonora and taken a mistress, but her exact identity is unknown to him. Enrico tells Clifford that he is free to see the woman, but that he should be compassionate towards her and more than likely thrilled that she may soon become Queen of England.
Scene 2: Rosmonda’s tower.
36, 39, 46: For it is Rosmonda, Clifford’s own daughter, who is Enrico’s mistress (not a surprise there). She embarks on a mild recitative * followed by a lovely, if delicate (it has the gentlest orchestral accompaniment), sortita **, full of coloratura flourishes as she struggles between both sexual desire to be possessed once more by her beloved and remorse over her actions (taking a lover who she knows only as ‘Edegardo’, so pre-marital sex=bad), but getting rudely interrupted by Arturo who guards her from without (apparently the music here was reused by Donizetti in 1839 for the French revision of Lucie de Lammermoor). Her cabaletta is (as usual) a bit more upbeat * if more standard overall (apart from the coloratura flourishes).
55, 60: Arturo tells Rosmonda that she has a visitor (whom she recognizes immediately as her father Clifford but he doesn’t recognize her at first). Much Mickey-mousing ensues as Rosmonda reveals who she is to Arturo and tries to keep herself hidden from her father (it is all over in three minutes) prompting a confrontational duet between father and daughter ***. This actually comes off very well (and a little like a prototype for the Verdi father-daughter duets), as Rosmonda admits her grave remorse (very touching) over allowing herself to be deflowered by some guy she doesn’t even know. Grasp these four minutes with both hands, they are the best in the entire act. But her father reveals the sticky-wicket: her lover is the King himself! This revelation prompts a rather stock if tuneful stretta *.
63, 68, 73: Enrico calls Rosmonda’s name, who now wants to avoid him (she even addresses him not as king but as Leonora’s husband!). This moves us into the first movement of the act finale * as Enrico begs Rosmonda to forgive him to a rather galloping tune, then becomes confrontational with Clifford (who is against Enrico’s plan to divorce Leonora and make his daughter Queen). Leonora herself arrives with the court and pretends to act surprised at the reactions of the others: Enrico wants to kill her, Clifford is distressed, Rosmonda is weeping, all prompting a good ensemble **. Clifford tries to have Rosmonda taken into Leonora’s protection but Enrico suspects she will attempt to murder her rival and forbids this declaring that Leonora will be annulled the following day. Amid the resulting hostilities the act ends in a rather standard stretta ** which sounds like a first draft of the act 2 finale of Maria Stuarda but saved from oblivion by a tune Donizetti might possibly have taken from the overture to Bellini’s I capuleti e I montecchi. Perhaps it is just a co-incidence, after all Massenet’s overture to Herodiade contains a melody that first popped up in the overture to Mercadante’s Il reggente.
ACT 2 (72.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The Great Hall, Woodstock Castle.
1, 3: After a slightly ornery bit of orchestral introduction, a standard act opening male chorus (of councillors) with a bit of agitation in the middle *, it grows into a good and unexpected climax ** in the last minute. Enrico considers Leonora a greater threat to him in England and so the council decides that if his marriage to her is so annoying to him that she should be returned to her regnant seat in Aquitaine.
7, 11, 17: The Leonora-Enrico duet *, in which she tries to use reason to get back into Enrico’s heart (and the fact that he owes his throne to her intervention). It has some good points, like the violin that follows Enrico about as well as Leonora’s pleading to a solid repeated tune. But also has moments when the orchestra totally goes out and the singers are completely exposed, or else the pit engages in Mickey-mousing. The other problem is that although Enrico’s feelings of hatred are genuine (if somewhat annoying), Leonora’s glorious attempts * at getting back with her husband which sound genuine but feel rather dreadfully hollow (she really just wants the power that comes with being his wife). It also sounds like almost everything else Donizetti wrote (a mild and happy nature tune that moves at a walking pace to go with the high dramatics on stage). The stretta * is jumpy as Enrico rejects his wife’s advances one last time and storms off.
Scene 2: A gallery in Rosmonda’s tower.
23: Arturo comes on pinning for Rosmonda to a running accompaniment which goes in and out. In his sweet little aria * (pathetic really, albeit cute) he knows that because he is only a page his love can never go anywhere (not with the King as his rival). He also regrets being a tool for the Queen, but he also has no recourse: he is too indebted to her.
30, 34: Clifford arrives (Arturo had thought it was the Queen). Having been imprisoned by Enrico but released by Leonora, Clifford arrives to tell his reluctant daughter that it is his wish that she leave England within the hour for Aquitaine and marry Arturo (both parties are shocked by this revelation). At first she is against any marriage (with Enrico, Arturo, any man), prompting another aria which has a terrible orchestral accompaniment but a good bit of soprano fireworks *. She eventually capitulates after much angst. The cabaletta is a bit more lively ** as she (ironically) declares that she is now without peace or hope.
38, 43, 48: Rosmonda encounters Enrico in a scene ending duet **. He tries to convince her that the Council will declare his marriage to Leonora null and void and she will be able to marry him and be Queen Consort. She, however, has other plans, tells him that she will never consent to marrying him as long as Leonora is alive, and that even if she out of the picture, she still wouldn’t marry him. She flees from him. Look out especially for Enrico’s rather lilting plea ** and one concluding rocking bit after the clock tower strikes the hour and Rosmonda takes off **.
Scene 3: The Gardens of Woodstock Castle.
52: Now something rather surprisingly different, a strong orchestral accompaniment to a chorus of Leonora’s followers who watch from the bushes (literally) for Rosmonda who is to meet with Arturo so they can embark for France **.
57, 64, 68: The fifteen minute finale * starts with (again) a good orchestral accompaniment but for some reason Donizetti started suffering burn out or something and provides us with standard bel canto fare which is unable to connect (most of the time) to the severity of the dramatic action. Rosmonda worries, Arturo is nowhere around. Where is Arturo? (Seriously, where is he?) Leonora arrives and accuses Rosmonda of fleeing to Enrico (she takes out a dagger at the point). Rosmonda pleads that she is about to depart with Arturo for France, never to return. She almost convinces Leonora to a joyous vocal tune * before the latter’s followers arrive and alert the Queen that the King is arriving with guards. In a mad panic, Leonora fatally stabs Rosmonda just as Enrico and Clifford arrive. Donizetti fails here, to the point of being idiotic. There is a final aria * for Leonora in which she blames Enrico for her actions (this is a little unconvincing, even though Enrico was planning on divorcing and deporting her, to psychotically attack an unwitting girl is just, schizophrenic) which provides a sub-standard conclusion to an otherwise standard work.
This opera has a very spotty performance history. After the 1835 premiere (in Florence) it disappeared until 1975 (London) apart from a single production in Livorno in 1845. I have to admit that personally I am not surprised by this as I really don’t like this opera. It is okay, but there is nothing about it that makes it unique, no amazing tune, and the plot is rather absurd (the final scene, in which Leonora psychotically knifes Rosmonda is both ahistorical and rather appalling to anyone who has seen Katherine Hepburn’s portrayal of Eleanore in The Lion in Winter. The Opera Rara release makes a better case for the opera than the Dynamic release, but I still find myself dissatisfied with a work which never really adds up to the sum of its good parts and which has a lot of things that aren’t very good. The only great moment is the middle section of the first act Rosmonda-Clifford duet, the rest is okay, but rather standard at best and bordering on ornery at worst. The plot is a gamma: it isn’t just the historical inaccuracies, it is simply that the plot is stupid and Rosmonda’s murder by Leonora simply leaves a bad taste in ones mouth. In spite of my desire to give this a gamma, the music (apart from the musical abortion that is the opera’s final scene) might lift it to a beta minus.