Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
Lithograph of Donizetti from Cesky Narodni divadlo website.
I have a love-hate relationship with Donizetti. Some of his operas I love (Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux, Lucia di Lammermoor) others I find are some of the most detestable compositions of the bel canto era (Sancia di Castiglia, Caterina Cornaro, Don Pasquale) and still others fall into a sort of no-mans land where I neither hate them nor am infatuated with them. I suppose this is the nature of having 80 operas to your credit, many of them will be duds while others will be masterpieces. This one interests me because it has a mad scene, for the tenor, who plays not the romantic lead but the father of the heroine and her sister.
SETTING: Castile, 14th Century. Maria (soprano) plans to marry Don Pedro (baritone), the prince of Castile, come hell or high water. One night, while he lodges at her home under the assume name of Mendez, he enters her bed chamber intending to abduct her. She demands the he vow to marry her to protect her honour, he consents and they are married in secret. Two years later, Maria’s father Don Ruiz (tenor) challenges Don Pedro (believing that his daughter is the prince’s mistress) and goes mad. Meanwhile, Pedro is forced into a marriage of political convenience with the Bourdon Princess Bianca (mute, got yah!) in order to avoid a civil war. The ending involves either Pedro revealing the secret marriage to the entire court and Maria dying of joy, her taking the crown from Bianca’s head and commits suicide, or just her barging in on the pre-coronation proceedings to steal the crown, reveal everything, and take power from her idiot husband.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: On the grounds of the Padilla castle. (48 minutes)
5, 9: The first three minutes or so are admittedly a bit of a disappointment: a rather furious and ornery orchestral introduction that lasts mercifully for only two minutes is followed by an off-stage female chorus, but once Ines, Maria’s sister, comes on for her cavatina con coro things start to lighten up *, the cabaletta especially is very nice **. She is in engaged to Count Luigi d’Aguilar, a mostly unimportant character who happens to be a tenor.
17, 20: Maria comes on and tells Ines that she is in love with Prince Pedro. Although much of the recitative is rather wretched, her cavatina has a beautiful harp and strings accompaniment **. It is broken up by hunting horns. Her cabaletta has a lovely woodwind bit as well *** although it sounds strikingly familiar.
25: There is a passage of great orchestral agitation as Don Pedro arrives and a fine cavatina for him as he greets Maria **. The ladies, along with Count Luigi express their reactions. A reprise of the opening chorus concludes the scene.
Scene 2: Maria’s bedchamber.
35, 38, 44: A celestial prelude brings on the scene as Maria and her servant Francisca prepare for bed time to much Mickey-mousing * followed by the arrival of Pedro to, again, a patch of orchestral intensity (he plans to abduct her). The Maria-Pedro bridal duet ** waltzes about until she tries to kill herself (because honour, also, she reveals that she knows of his real identity as the prince of Castile) and Pedro stops her with a promise of marriage. The stretta has a sunny tune **.
ACT 2: A hall in the palace of Don Pedro, decked out for a feast. Two years later. (38 minutes)
0, 2: A festive Spanish prelude and chorus * starts off the act. The chorus then mutters * amongst themselves about who should become Don Pedro’s bride (remember, no one knows about his secret marriage to Maria).
6, 8, 12: Don Ruiz, the tenor father of Maria and Inez who we haven’t even heard of (much less from) before now comes on to a lovely orchestral introduction * and embarks on a seven minute long despair aria *** in which he becomes desperate to salvage his family’s honour in light of his daughter Maria apparently having become the mistress of Don Pedro. He encounters Duke Ramiro of Albuquerque, an Errol Flynn figure who exists only to annoy me **.
16, 22: Maria and Inez come on and embark on a duet together ***. This is high drama as they discuss what is to happen as the festivities continue. The cabaletta a due ** for the two sisters is very sweet.
27, 31: Don Pedro finally arrives with the Duke discussing the plan to marry Bianca and stop a civil conflict. Don Ruiz returns and challenges Don Pedro for defiling his daughter Maria **. It is a delicate balance between Pedro’s slightly banal lines and Ruiz’s impassioned fatherly demands for justice ***. Ruiz is mocked by the entire court and is dragged away.
36: The finale *** Maria comes on to a combination of joy and angst from the orchestra. The Duke announces the immanent arrival of the Bourbon princess Bianca who is acclaimed as Pedro’s queen (or is it princess?) by the court. Maria is immediately terrified of all of this (naturally) and she flees from the scene with Inez.
ACT 3: (48 minutes)
Scene 1: An apartment in Count Luigi’s castle.
0: The prelude *, a sobering piece, is followed by brooding exchanges between Maria, Inez, and her apparent new husband Count Luigi about how the girls’ father Don Ruiz has lost his mind.
5, 11, 15, 17, 20, 23: The Mad Scene *** starts with Ruiz’s first utterances and a harp and clarinet accompaniment in the orchestra. It goes on for some eighteen minutes, starting with a hushed off-stage lament from Ruiz as the others make observations in a lovely trio. After some Mickey-mousing, Ruiz arrives on stage *** and there are some rough exchanges between he and Maria (much orchestral angst) and talk about blood and death. Maria launches into a doleful passage ** in which she tries to explain that she is not Pedro’s mistress, but his lawful wife but Ruiz is too far gone to understand ** and he takes us into an oom-pah bit followed by a lovely bit of duetting for father and daughter ***. A bizarre march tune pops up in the last two minutes prompting a weird stretta from the duo **.
Scene 2: A grand hall in Pedro’s palace.
24, 29: The twenty-four minute long finale ** starts off with a furious chorus * of courtiers preparing Bianca’s bridal train. Pedro is not pleased with any of this, prompting a cavatina ** (what else?).
33, 37, 40, 43, 45: The royal march and chorus * as Bianca arrives and is greeted by the Duke. The arrival of Maria *** brings on the mighty power of operatic prima donna wrath upon all and she grabs the crown of Castile and crowns herself FOR. SHE. IS. QUEEN! Embarking upon a ten minute long aria con coro she reveals all (#Feminism) before dad pops in from outside for some good old tenor emoting ***. Pedro finally admits his marriage to Maria **, thus aborting the Bourbon marriage. Maria emotes joyously until curtain ***.
Musically, this opera is a neglected classic. The plot, however, is poorly paced, and would have been more effective if there wasn’t a two year gap between the first and second acts and so many characters (nine), of whom only four: Maria, Ruiz, Pedro, and the Duke actually do anything, at all. Bianca is a silent character who in this production doesn’t even appear on stage, the others just react or, in the case of Ines and Luigi, are scenic filler.
Ruiz’ Mad Scene, which is certainly the crowing moment of the score, does not have the emotional build up of Lucia’s (also Ruiz doesn’t murder anyone during a psychotic binge while wearing a bridal gown, thankfully) so although it is musically beautiful, it is hard to connect with any of the characters other than Maria herself, and this is unfortunate because Ruiz especially is a sympathetic character driven by a desire to protect his family, we just don’t have a developed relationship with him by the time he is led away by his daughter, a mentally sick man, poor thing. Why does he not show up until almost an hour into the opera?
Pedro is a weakling for a baritone romantic lead, but Maria is a strong female figure, almost an amazon, who takes what she wants and demands justice from those who wrong her but also shows the tenderest love and devotion to her father who is so gravely affected by her sex life. She is a woman of honour. Ultimately, B+ or A- and a missed opportunity for an alpha opera if only the plot and casting were a bit tighter.