Opera in three acts. Running time 3 hours 4 minutes.
This review has been a long time coming. In fact, I wasn’t sure if this or Maria, regina d’Inghilterra would end up being the first of my Pacini reviews as I had the first two acts of both completed. I fell in love with this opera when I first heard it. It’s performance history would be a glaring neon sign of impending disaster, but instead it is a marvellous surprise.
SETTING: Dijon (act 1) and Switzerland (acts 2 and 3). Carlo is Count of Burgundy and is in love with Estella, the daughter of his advisor Arnoldo, but he is engaged to the English Princess Leonora. Estella crashes the arranged wedding, resulting in Leonora taking revenge on everyone while disguised as one of Carlo’s soldiers while he is warring with the Swiss of all people.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (80.5 minutes)
Scene 1: A Public square in Dijon.
0, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17, 20, 23, 27, 29: The opening scene ** seems to start off wildly but the prelude turns placid rather quickly, it is all goodnatured countryside music until a series of bangs ushers in the opening chorus. Finally at about the four minute mark the male choristers can be heard. The introduction is made up of What follows are a series of 3 cavatinas connected by choruses, the first is for Arnoldo. I particularly like the second chorus ** which announces the arrival of Carlo who has just returned from defeating the rebellious city of Liege. Carlo’s cavatina * announces news is arriving from England gets a lot better as it turns into a duet ** with Arnoldo and chorus. The chorus which precedes Estella’s cavatina has a very catchy tune ***. The cavatina itself is rather the best of the three ** and the chorus gives it a waltz impression. It changes gears and becomes even better ***. The stretta is exciting and tuneful *** with Carlo taking the lead. There is something going on in the strings * while Lord Athol arrives with a letter from England announcing Carlo’s marriage to Princess Leonora. Athol can tell that Carlo is not interested in the wedding at all. A cheery scenic chorus ends the tableau *.
Scene 2: A room in Arnoldo’s home.
33, 37, 42, 45: After Estella and her cousin Amelia discuss the possibilities of the former becoming Countess of Burgundy, Carlo arrives in a strangely heightened recitative * which comes off as something close to a duet but isn’t as he informs her that he is engaged to marry Princess Leonora of England and not her. Eventually a beautiful trio develops *** when Arnoldo arrives and swears vengeance on Carlo, who he considers his daughter’s betrayer. It turns to a more standard (but no less tuneful) stretta **. First taken up by Estella it flowers into a second full on trio and brings the scene to a close ***.
Scene 3: A reception room in the Ducal Palace.
47, 49, 54, 59, 62, 64, 67, 71, 73, 76, 77, 79: Leonora is escorted into the court *. She arrives and embarks on a ten minute long aria **, proving once and for all that she is a coloratura soprano. It changes gears to a sweet harp-accompanied melody *** (watch out especially for the coloratura towards the end). Carlo arrives and cooly receives the woman he is about to marry *. The chorus comes on to cheer on the proceedings but Estella arrives and puts a stop to everything **. The first part of the finale starts with Estella going into details about her relationship with Carlo **. It eventually becomes a trio of sorts for the triangle *** in which all three go to various range extremes (high and low) and ending with Carlo on a low C natural. The second half of the finale *** really starts with the arrival of Arnoldo. An a cappella ensemble starts *** and then all hell breaks loose as Arnoldo challenges Lord Athol to a duel (which he quickly loses, causing Leonora and Estella to scream, thinking him dead). Everyone is enraged in the stretta *** as Leonora swears vengeance, Estella is horrified about her father, and Carlo knowing that he has made a real mess of things (which end on a bang for what it is worth as the last minute goes nuclear on us for some reason ***).
ACT 2: (50.5 minutes)
Scene 1: A Swiss village, one year later.
4: Old fashioned distant chording bring on some standard (if amusing) Swiss-style chorusing and dancings *. It is cute and ends with some good workings in the tenor line as they praise their “angel” who arrived a year ago and rise up to defend themselves against the invading Burgundians with the leadership of the knight Guglielmo. It is all tuneful, don’t get me wrong, but of a lower voltage. Arnoldo arrives searching for Estella (he was not killed as suspected by Athol).
11, 14: Arnoldo’s aria * of revenge. He is siding with the Swiss against the Burgundians and his enemy Carlo on the condition that he be allowed to remain anonymous. The stretta however is rather magnificent **.
20, 27: Athol and Leonora (disguised as a Burgundian knight) arrive in the village having gotten lost and cut off from the rest of Carlo’s forces. The recitative is rather lively with multiple instances of orchestral Mickey-mousing. Left alone, Leonora ends up encountering Arnoldo (who already is apparently the Swiss customs agent). Neither recognizes the other at first in a rather magnificent duet **, and even though he recognizes her as an enemy, he lets Leonora pass into Swiss territory **.
Scene 2: A room in Estella’s home in the Swiss village.
30, 35, 39, 43, 47: A lovely entr’acte * with horn solo, before we finally see Estella again after a full half hour of score and she is still with her cousin Amelia, who announces Carlo. A storm is brewing in the distance. Carlo arrives as the storm continues and he and Estella embark on a long duet which makes up the rest of the act ***. Estella takes control ** in two sections **. The stretta is rather miraculous *** as they are interrupted by the marching of the Burgundian troops in the distance.
ACT 3: (53 minutes)
Scene 1: Near a monastery, sounds of a battle nearby.
7: A battle rages on in the distance, Leonora is captured by Guglielmo but is saved by a heavily veiled Estella as “the angel”, although both women recognize each other and accuse each other of ruining each other’s life. It is all rather ornery until the two women are left alone and embark on some nice coloratura runs before going into a sedate but lovely duet * with a singular semi-celestial lilt to it. The stretta is a bit more agitated although it ends well with a bizarre bit in the strings as the scene ends.
Scene 2: A craggy gorge, a bridge and cliffs above.
20: It is all nice quiet alpine stuff as the orchestra and then the chorus ** write up the scene for us as the Swiss push boulders to the precipice in order to throw them down upon the soon to arrive Burgundians. A slightly annoying horn brings on the imminent arrival of Carlo. Watch especially towards the end with a lilting bit from the orchestra.
28, 33, 35: Carlo’s war song * is cut short by the arrival of Estella who warns the Burgundians not to go any further (a warning of what the Swiss have prepared for them), in a recitative that is good but rather derivative of Donizetti or Bellini. Carlo goes into a rather sorrowful aria *. It gets more military-minded in the stretta * in which he finishes well.
41, 47, 51: The finale starts with the arrival of Leonora, and is (at least to me) a little bit of a let down. Leonora is searching for Carlo’s army so she can rejoin them. She embarks on a furious aria * which turns more brooding but eventually gets a bit more into her typical coloratura stuff *. The finaletto * is a bit of a con as Carlo tries to cross a bridge that is above the gorge and is challenged by Arnoldo and cut down by him, his body falling into the gorge which prompts the Swiss to start throwing the rocks upon the Burgundians below as Guglielmo forces Leonora to watch the proceedings. Estella is reunited with her father long enough to die in his arms.
This opera suffered from such a disastrous first production that Pacini retired from writing opera for five years, only to return with his one somewhat well known opera Saffo. Hearing this (and I have, about ten times), it is hard to understand how this opera could have failed, at least with the first (which I love) and second acts (which at the very least ends marvellously with the Estella-Carlo duet). The plot is rather good and the score is even better, with a ton of tunes which have lived on in my memory for not days, not weeks, not even months, but for YEARS! So much so that I could recall melodies while I re-listened just now which I hadn’t heard in over a year, the last time I heard the opera. It is true that Carlo himself is a bit of a weakling, balancing between a woman he doesn’t love but is duty board to wed for diplomatic reasons, and the woman of lower social class that he adores, but both of those women are two of the strongest women in all opera! Their male counterparts, especially Arnoldo, are just as honourable. So it is just odd that this opera never went anywhere, at all, because it is frankly amazing. There are some issues with the last act, it is a little more boring musically than the first two, and the ending is rather depressing with almost everyone getting stoned to death by the Swiss as the curtain falls. Pacini also appears to have run out of steam at this point and the music is comparatively sub-par in the final act, which is unfortunate.
A little bit of historical trivia: the real Charles the Bold was married to a Margaret of York (not Leonora), his third wife. He died during the Battle of Nancy in 1477 while fighting against Swiss mercenaries of the Duke of Lorraine (not in Switzerland). His death resulted in a power struggle between the House of Valois and the Habsburg Dynasty over Burgundy which lasted for centuries afterwards.
Opera Rara provides amazing production values here and the three leads are amazing, especially Jennifer Larmore’s Estella, although Bruce Ford is very affective in the wide-ranging title role (involving extremes at both the upper and lower ends of the tenor range) and Elizabeth Futral endows the role of Leonora with the coloratura power that is her signature strength. The chorus is handled very well, and everyone (orchestra included) really seem to have enjoyed making this recording even if the material itself isn’t known by anyone (this recording was the 11th complete performance of the opera, and the first since March of 1835). For me, and in spite of the weaker third act, this is a forgotten alpha.