Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes (plus 21 minute appendix)
I must have Stockhausen Syndrome or something because I’ve decided to review as many Donizetti operas as I possibly can just to see how many of them are real duds and how many I’ll like. This is considered to be his “most taut melodrama”.
This revision is based on the OperaRara release, which is a critical edition of the original Vienna version with Armando de Gondi sung by a tenor rather than a mezzo/contralto, as it was revised for Paris.
SETTING: Paris, early 17th century. Maria (soprano) is in love with Riccardo, le Comte de Chalais (tenor) but has been forcibly married to Enrico, duc de Chevreuse (baritone), who is in trouble with Cardinal Richelieu (never appears). Both men get into a fight with Richelieu’s nephew Armando (tenor, who has a habit of insulting Maria), prompting a duel and the eventual exposure of Maria’s prior romance with Chalais, which she decides foolishly to rekindle, partially as a result of her former lover aiding in the successful pardoning of her husband.
LINK to Opera Rara WATCH LIST:
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A garden in the Palais de Louvre. (44 minutes)
0: The overture is a long (ten minute) orchestral piece with a long racing finish **. The one improvement I can claim for it is its orchestral texture, which is far better handled (and modern sounding) than originally presented. I still do not see its greater tunefulness, but in its own way, it is very a professional and modern sounding piece (for the 1840s). It consists of two unequal half: the first is a brief Sinfonia, following by an Allegro Introduction of twice the length of the first part. In total some ten minutes of music. All of it is fine, well orchestrated, and able to keep interest even if nothing specific catches the ear as it goes through its parade of tunes from later in the opera. It is followed by a mild opening hunting chorus (starts with women, then men).
14: Quando il cor da lei pigato The plot moves along with a series of monologues and dialogues that introduce the most important characters (with each of the three main characters getting a cavatina in a twenty minute period) : Riccardo receives a note (obviously from Maria), prompting the first and rather mild cavatina *, the only particularly interesting thing about it being a high note.
20: Cupa fatal mestizia Maria comes on amid orchestra angst and pleads with Riccardo to help her win pardon for hubby Enrico. She receives it in the form of yet another letter and is, if not overjoyed, and least cheered up a bit ** and goes on about it for some time (admittedly she is interrupted by courtiers a couple of times).
30: Gemea di tetro carcere The arrival of Armando, Richelieu’s nephew, slightly heats things up as he insults Maria (more strong orchestral angst here!), but it is the arrival of her husband Enrico is very grateful to Riccardo for the pardon in a nice cavatina **. A solo viola comes in, adding to the already rich orchestral effects. It is the best number so far.
39: D’un anno il giro è ormai compito All that is left is the act finale, which, for once, is a charming piece with two solid tunes **. The stretta is pretty strong stuff as the two men in Maria’s life get in trouble with Armando, who insults Maria’s honour again, challenging them both to a duel.
ACT 2: A room in the place of the Comte de Chalais. (26 minutes)
0, 4: Alma soave e cara After a strong prelude * and a recitative in which he declares (to his unhearing mother) that they will both soon sleep eternally (be dead) Riccardo’s embarks on a rather nice aria ** (probably making up for his much more low-temp item in the previous act). He has prepared a love letter for Maria to be delivered to her (by his servant Aubry) along with her portrait that he has retained, in case of his death, so that way their former affair is not discovered. Maria arrives and informs Chalais in an agitated recitative that Richelieu is back in the King’s favour and that, as he saved her husband’s life, she must save his (Chalais) because Richelieu wants him to be executed (!). Maria hides as Enrico arrives.
12: Che fai? The heart of the act is a duet for the two men *** which is full of orchestral agitation, militancy, and even a bit of chromaticism as they prepare for the duel with Armando. Chalais promises to follow Chevreuse.
19, 22: Che mai potrà commuoverti/A morire incominciai Maria and Ricarrdo’s mutual (separate) declarations of love ** have a rising glow to them as they embark on a surprisingly passionate love duet ***. This causes Chalais to break his promise, and Chevreuse is injured as a result of his duel with Armando, but musically it is worth it!
ACT 3: A room in the palace of the duc de Chevreuse. (32 minutes)
0: Another prelude ** (this time with strong French horns) is followed by an interaction between the three principles: Chevreuse promises to get Chalais across the border in a brief but militant arioso.
6: Havvi un dio in sua clemenza Maria prays for Chalais * (mostly accompanied by the oboe).
12: Bella, e di sol vestita Meanwhile a courtier has broken into Chalais’ desk and found a letter written to Maria and her portrait. Chevreuse returns, not knowing any of this, and tells Chalais to make ready to escape, a horse is at the ready. Chalais goes out, and Chevreuse discovers the truth. Chevreuse greets the reveal of his wife’s betrayal (the letter and portrait from Chalais’ effects) in a rather beautiful aria *** which forms the heart of the act. Maria has apparently attempted to flee with Chalais through an escape tunnel in the palace. Chevreuse addresses his wife in what is easily the musical and dramatic climax of the opera.
19, 21, 27: Al supplizio fui tratta!/So per prova il tuo bel core/Onta eterna? Maria’s failure will prompted Chalais to return and confront Chevreuse. At first the final trio is a confrontation between husband and wife * which becomes more and more frightening although the accompaniment remains minimal until it finally takes on a very good melody with Chevreuse **. Chimes sound (they do frequently), Chevreuse asks why Maria is so agitated, she panics (orchestral swell). Chalais eventually returns looking for Maria (who is late for their escape) to a very dapper if brief tune in the horns *** and he is challenged to a duel with Chevreuse (the tune is expanded upon in an explosive trio). The two men go off, shots are fired, Chalais dies at his own hand! Chevreuse, now knowing what his wife is, condemns her to a life of infamy and deserts her in the most strikingly non-bel canto finale of any bel canto era opera.
APPENDIX: (21 minutes, 5 selections)
The first two selections are the Paris arias inserted into acts one and two for the now mezzo-soprano Armando. I will not comment on these apart from saying that they are fine.
The third is a variation on the act two Maria-Chalais duet with a dreamlike middle *** of remarkable orchestral richness. The fourth expands upon this number, albeit a bit lower in temperature, but nevertheless rather charming in an almost Mozart-esque way. The fifth is an aria for Chalais ** which, given its subject line involving hunting I would assume is meant to replace his cavatina in the introduction to act one, which would be an improvement.
Maria di Rohan is an experimental work. The orchestration is richer and more complex than earlier Donizetti and in this sense is an innovation on the part of the composer, probably more of an evolution than even Dom Sebastien. Yet like most experimental works, it can be rather pastel and pallid when taken beyond its technical specifics. The plot is still rather simple (a love triangle with political complications involving an unseen Cardinal Richelieu). For the first half of the opera, that is. In the second half of the opera (starting around the middle of the second act), the orchestra actually starts to indicate character emotions (in particular agitation and fear) and this is worth mentioning in an Italian opera from the 1840s.
So the first act is fine to very good, slow to build, but at least now I think I understand it in spite of its very long overture and rather basic introductory nature. The second act is an improvement both musically and dramatically, and its brevity is beneficial to the action. The third act also benefits from this brevity, and is musically superior to the other two acts. Hopefully, this more streamlined review will help.
Ultimately, an A- for me, yet I am sure there are those who think it is a forgotten alpha or even alpha plus.