Opera in three acts. Running Time 2 hours 51 minutes (Opera Rara) 2 hours 21 minutes (1983 live performance video included below).
(1544 portrait by Master John, curtesy of Wikimedia)
I’ve taken a very long time to write this. In fact, I finished the first two acts of the Opera Rara recording in April, but it isn’t available on Amazon Prime Music anymore so my review consists of the first two acts, and then the first quarter hour of the last act, of the OR recording and then the remainder of act three of a live 1983 performance. I suppose since I wasn’t going to be able to link the OR recording to here anyways no spilt milk, but the timings will be off from the video because the OR seems to be about 30 minutes longer. I have kept the first two acts and the beginning of act three the same as I left them on April 17, 2018. However, if you are pressed for time, shorter might be better, I don’t know. On the video, act 1 is 35 minutes, act 2 48 minutes, and act 3 58 minutes.
SETTING: Very similar to Gomes’ Maria Tudor, actually it is almost identical except in three acts and the anti-hero isn’t Italian but Scottish. Mary is in love with one Richard Fenimoore, who is in turn in love with Clotilde Talbot (whose rightful estates have been given to Fenimoore), who is herself in love with Ernest Malcolm.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A deserted spot on the Themes, a cottage stage right. (42 minutes)
4: The introduction consists of an operatic happy meal: low-temp but lyrical brooding from the orchestra which almost sounds at first like the opening of Siegfried but then pow! menace which soon dies away followed by a tame series of choruses (at first men only, then a co-ed festival chorus, the best of the lot *, from some party guests sailing up to the palace, then some of the men alone discuss how much they dislike Queen Mary’s favourite the Scotsman Fenimoore who promotes Maria’s worst partygirl. Gualitero comes on and joins them claiming he is looking for whoever it is that lives in the cottage. In the last minute there is some mild orchestral angst but the basso aria con coro fades away, giving the audience time to digest.
8.5: The duet Ernesto-Clotilde ***, starts with a patch of wonderfully lyrical music that really stands out. He asks her if she loves him, she says she belongs to him, it is all just so lovely for almost twelve solid minutes, although the best is ironically found in Ernesto’s vocal line and the orchestra. This is followed by a brief recitativo encounter between Ernesto and Gualtiero.
20.5: Suddenly, a crazy flute comes on and we get a rather lilting high tenor canzone ** from Riccardo who anticipates a rendezvous with Clotilde but is surprised by Ernesto and the two men come to a stand off to what develops almost into a dance tune.
28.5, 34: The tragically sweet Riccardo-Ernesto duet **. Riccardo performs all sorts of wonderful bel canto tenor tricks. The stretta *** is also worth mentioning for its dramatic power.
37: An oddly quaint duet ** between Ernesto and Gualtiero in which they decide to team up and destroy Riccardo. It is like a musical walk in the park with only a trace of menace. The chorus of conspirators joins in to finish off the act.
ACT 2: The royal hall at Westminster, a ball in progress. (59 minutes)
0: Crash, crash! Dance tune, crash, crash! Dance tune, crash, crash! Some of this is vaguely chromatic before we come upon yet another chorus of party guests *. It includes traces of the concertino finale which will end the act almost an hour from now.
3: Maria’s long cavatina ** in which she fantasizes about Riccardo, but also reveals that Gualtiero has already told her of his betrayal. The court lauds her magnificently as she goes into part two which leads to a wonderful crescendo con coro.
18: After a few minutes of awkward and rather ornery recitative following the entrance of Riccardo we get a good solid melting melody ***. This disappears and instead we get Maria’s response which is something of a dampener. Riccardo is able to light a fire under her though which is nice but it doesn’t return to the initial excitement.
25.5: The rondo ** of the duet begins to liven things up a bit although this more dramatic than romantic. Gualtiero arrives and has a brief interaction with Maria telling her that Clotilde is to be brought to her and has a secret (Clotilde is the rightful heiress to the Talbot estates which have been handed over to Riccardo, meaning that his relationship with Clotilde may be motivated by a desire to strengthen his claim to the name of Talbot by marrying the only legitimate heir).
34: The Maria-Clotilde duet **, starts off inertly but it warms up as the two women come to a mutually beneficial understanding.
47: The chorus returns with Riccardo and Maria accuses him of betraying her, he denies this at first but when Clotilde is revealed he knows all is lost for him. This first part is long and fine but not overtly amazing although there is one good crescendo tune that gets repeated frequently enough **. Maria tells Riccardo that he is a liar and eventually Ernesto is brought in as a co-conspirator and everything starts to turn ornery again.
56: The stretta finale *** is a well constructed with a menacing climax as Riccardo and Ernesto are both arrested and sent to the Tower. Although the male chorus patters away the soloists and female chorus (particular the sopranos) get to have a grand inning as the orchestra plugs away at this wild ride. After the repeat something utterly spectacular happens which thankfully keeps going until the very last note of the act.
ACT 3: (NOTE: If you thought Pacini was going to give us a nice three acts/three tableaux scenario structure think again. If the first two acts were able to combine what took four scenes in Gomes’ work into just two tableaux, here the libretto utilizes four scenes to do what would take one scene (act four) in Gomes’ opera. Also, act three is longer than either of the first two acts at 72 minutes meaning that it is only 29 minutes shorter than the first two acts combined (!) although it consists of only five numbers as does the first act.)
Scene 1: An antechamber in the palace.
6: After the exciting wham-bam of the previous act, we get a brief moment of calm followed by a happy chorus of courtiers thrilled over the impending execution, but Maria stops them all dead with an aria of pure bathos at first but with the cabaletta it eventually takes on a new life **.
Scene 2: An internal room in the prison.
14: After some funerary music and an encounter between Maria and Gualtiero there is this interesting off-stage chorus/band **.
FROM THIS POINT THE REVIEW WILL MATCH THE VIDEO REVIEW
Calling for the death of “the Scotsman” (Riccardo obviously).
18: There is a dialogue between Maria and Clotilde (the latter wanting the release of the innocent Ernesto) followed by a duet for Clotilde and Ernesto **.
Scene 3: Riccardo’s cell.
30, 35: A lovely prelude (much woodwind work) precedes Riccardo’s nice cavatina **. The cabaletta has an urgency to it *** and a climactic finish.
Scene 4: A vestibule in the Tower of London.
39: Maria mills about for a while, Clotilde comes on begging that the Queen spare Ernesto’s life. A strange and dark orchestral interlude comes up and creates a feeling of anticipation regarding the execution(s) **. This goes on for about four minutes.
43, 46: Maria’s final aria ***, which drives the last fifteen minutes of the opera, is more of a duet with Clotilde, at least at first. Maria makes a deal with her, the two men are brought with bags over their heads and she will choose which one will randomly be executed, the other will be released alive right after the single execution. Scary anticipation music returns *.
48: Bells ring out **, an execution has occurred, but whose? Gualtiero arrives and announces that Riccardo is dead, proving this by producing a very much alive Ernesto (Clotilde is happy).
52: Maria is very unhappy with this turn of events, and so she does as all Italian opera prima donnas of the 1830s and 1840s do and ends the show with a six minute long cavatina con coro *.
I really like this opera! At first I thought that the second act finale was a highlight in an otherwise rather dim affair but even before finishing act one I know I had a winner here. There are some interesting factors though that I would mention. First of all, Fenimoore is hardly on stage! There are fourteen numbers in the opera and he participates in only five of them, two of which are arias! The action is far more sped up than in Gomes’ opera: acts two and three are condensed and combined whereas act one is the same with a different structure to who is duetting when and with whom, act three in Pacini’s version gives the tenor a lovely farewell whereas Gomes’ scheming Italian disappears after act 3 until he gets his head chopped off). There are several instances, particularly in act 2, when one feels like this is Donizetti. The acts become oddly lengthy, the first act being less than three-fifths the length of the Wagnerian-sized third act. The characters are well serviced by the libretto, no one other than Maria herself is on stage for extremely long stretches and even she does not appear at all until the second act even if she is on stage for all of it! Act 3 is a little procrastinating, and feels longwinded with the events surrounding the execution, but a solid A.