Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes.
(Imelda and Bonifacio by Pacifico Buzio, housed at the Museo Civico, Pavia, Lombardy, Wikimedia)
This opera was such a failure at its premiere that half the score ended up being reused by Donizetti in his next opera Anna Bolena, as well as Ugo, Conte di Parigi, and Parisina. So if it sounds familiar, that is why.
SETTING: Bologna, 16th century. A variant on the Romeo and Juliette story (yes, I know) in which the Guelph Lambertazzi family and the Ghibelline Geremei family could be reconciled through the marriage of the Geremei heir Bonifacio and the Lambertazzi daughter Imelda (a love match), but instead tragedy ensues involving a poisoned dagger apparently owned by Imelda’s brother Lamberto. Do not expect a resolution to the bloodshed after the lovers are both dead, her brother just says she got what she deserved. (See why this thing failed?)
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (62 minutes)
Scene 1: A Piazza before the Lambertazzi palace.
1, 5, 11: After the dreary but brief prelude we get a good solemn chorus ** followed by a more standard second part * which reaches an effective climax and Orlando Lambertazzi comes on with his son Lamberto and declares that there will be no peace between the Lambertazzi and the Geremei, which is greeted by no one as everyone else in the city wants peace. A good ensemble ** which goes on for about four minutes, details that the two families’ conflict is not just political but also personal: the father of the Geremei heir (Bonifacio) was implicated in the murder of the wife of Orlando Lambertazzi.
Scene 2: An apartment in the palace.
17, 21: Imelda comes on to a furious prelude **. Her aria ** is a little barebones in terms of orchestral technique but vocally rather remarkable (also notice how low the role’s tessitura is, more mezzo than soprano).
30, 37: After much fury, the Imelda-Bonifacio duet **. Yes, the hero of this piece is the baritone. And his love interest is a glorified mezzo-soprano. It has a good finish as Imelda leaves *. The scene ends with a series of recitative exchanges between the male characters.
Scene 3: An atrium in the palace.
43: The scene starts with an orchestra interlude (military parade?) and a fine chorus *.
48, 50, 54, 58: Bonifacio makes an offer (marriage to Imelda) which the Lambertazzi can refuse *, prompting a furious ensemble **. The entrance of Imelda *. The stretta * never seems to go anywhere musically and bogs down into bel canto convention, providing a serviceable rather than an effective end to the act.
ACT 2: (52 minutes)
Scene 1: Imelda’s apartments in the palace.
2, 8: Doomful orchestral introduction leads to a duet ** between Imelda and her brother Lamberto in which the latter realizes that Bonifacio’s proposal of marriage to Imelda was based on a mutual attraction between the two and not just Bonifacio’s idea of solidifying a peace between the two families. He claims to have killed Bonifacio, causing his sister to reveal her love, then tells her that he has lied and orders her to break with their family’s bitter enemy at once, swearing vengeance *.
11: After a very nice orchestral introduction *, there is a patch of recitative in which the male Lambertazzi intercept a letter from Bonifacio to Imelda, detailing plans for an elopement (not a surprise, really).
Scene 2: A forest at night near the Geremei camp.
15: A strong orchestral backing for a standard sotto voce chorus of military types **.
20, 23, 24: Bonifacio’s aria * starts off with a oboe solo and a slow section. It does speed up ** but watch especially for the chorus here, combined with the orchestral effects it is the best moment so far in the opera **.
Scene 3: Garden of the Lambertazzi palace.
30, 37, 41: Another good prelude (clarinet emphasized) **. Imelda awaits Bonifacio but encounters her brother Lamberto instead in one of the most sedate violent encounters in all opera. Bonifacio eventually arrives and after a long while a rather mild duet develops * in which she reveals that his father has just been killed in a clash between their two factions. It gets better in the final movements ** as Bonifacio takes up his sword, intending to kill Lamberto and leaves. Lamberto comes on with a blood dagger and admits to having stabbed Bonifacio with it and it is poisoned. The wound itself would probably have been fatal in itself (it is just below Bonifacio’s heart). Imelda decides to try to suck the poison out of the wound.
Scene 4: Same as act 1 scene 1.
46, 48: The Ghibelline’s are murdering Guelphs as the curtain rises, there is a porto-wagnerian brass ornament before Imelda arrives on the scene, dying from after effects of the poison **. This is the first moment in the opera of totally believable pathos as she staggers about pleading with her father for forgiveness (refused), unfortunately it is also the the last moment in the opera.
0, 4: There is one final number, an alternate ending for Imelda consisting of a standard (eight minute) aria-finale which was added to the opera after the first production. She still dies at the end, but it is an expanded death scene. At first slow *, it lightens up into an oddly happy cabaletta * with some lovely coloratura flourishes. The final minute on the video is just silent filler.
This opera is good. Certainly it doesn’t deserve the extreme case of neglect it has experienced. At the same time, it isn’t great by any definition. The plot is, well, there isn’t much of one to be honest. This, probably more than the music, is the reason for the opera’s failure. It is far too conventional, and although the pacing is good, what is any of it leading towards? As in Cilea’s Gloria, the heroine’s brother and father are hellbent on revenge so blindly that they really can’t see beyond their own noses. Donizetti’s musical pacing (already mentioned) is probably the opera’s saving grace. The acts are two almost perfectly constructed halves, so that the opera’s eight musical number never outstay their welcome. But they contain no memorable tunes, certainly nothing that sticks in my mind after listening to the opera. There are two very good moments: the end of Bonifacio’s act 2 aria (with chorus) and when Imelda staggers about at the end. Also the orchestration is rather interesting, especially the woodwind solos Donizetti throws in to some of the preludes and interludes. It is an experimental work: there is no overture, nor even a real prelude, and the act one finale is not in concertato format. Also, the opera did not originally end in the typical prima donna aria-finale. Like a lot of experimental operas, it just doesn’t quite make it. A beta, maybe plus to some people.