Giovanni Pacini: Saffo (1840)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.

This may be my last post for a while (how often do I say that?) as I am editing and preparing to defend my Master’s thesis in History. Do not worry, Amahl and the Night Visitors is complete and scheduled to be up on December 1!


This review is of the Wexford Festival recording from 1995.

SETTING: Ancient Greece. Saffo is in love with the jealous Faone and wins the Olympic poetry contest which enrages the High Priest of Apollo, Alcandro. She tries to make friends with his daughter Climene, but only ends up vandalizing the altar of Apollo and crashing Climene’s wedding when she realizes that Faone is the groom. She eventually commits needless suicide after everything in the plot gets straightened out, including her own identity.


ACT 1: The Olympics (poetry division). (31.5 minutes)

8, 18: The opening scene starts off with a fairground tune in the three minute prelude, then brooding mickey-mousing, turns tranquil, then more fairground, then tranquil again and the chorus of male participants in the Olympic poetry contest. Ippia prepares to recite but the High Priest of Apollo, Alcandro, opposes the fact that Saffo, a woman, is to compete with him. He embarks on a cavatina * which is the weakest number in the opera. Men can be heard outside arriving at the contest. Faone arrives and eventually he embarks on a duet with Saffo *.

25: The Contest ** in which Saffo sings her civil rights bit about not chucking undesirables off of the cliffs of Leucadia which prompts Alcandro to make Faone, on a fake accusation of Saffo being unfaithful, to denounce her at her greatest moment of triumph, thus deeply hurting her.  A grand end to an otherwise rather dull act.

ACT 2: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: Climene’s chambers in the Temple of Apollo complex.

1: A pleasant feminine chorus * opens the act.

5: Climene’s ten minute long cavatina con coro ** The cabaletta has a good ending chorus from the maidens.

20, 24.5: Saffo invades on this happy domain (introduced by Lisimaco) and begs Climene that she might be the wedding singer at Climene’s upcoming wedding. She apparently needs to be in the good graces of Apollo, an the recitative that occurs here is rather tuneful and lite. At first the duet is very solemn and when the two women finally actually duet it is very sober ** with harp accompaniment. This is beautiful but the more tuneful section is the last *** which climaxes in (if I didn’t know any better) was bliss.

Scene 2: The Wedding Ceremony of Climene and Faone in the Temple of Apollo.

29, 33, 40, 45: A grand prelude introduces the Wedding Chorus ***. Alcandro conducts the wedding service which is simply glorious ***.  Saffo arrives and crashes the wedding party and embarks on a tragic arioso which leads to a great ensemble ***. Alcandro is even more enraged with Saffo than he was before as she desecrates the altar of Apollo, which brings on the stretta finale ** as everyone curses her and she is taken in for questioning by the priests.

ACT 3: (60 minutes)

Scene 1: A remote place in the priestly residence.

6: This scene can be characterized by a constant feeling of terror and impending death (prelude), the heart is a three part trio con coro for Alcandro, Saffo, and Climene ***.

15, 24, 27: After Lisimaco identifies Saffo as Alcandro’s long lost daughter, the second part of the trio ***. Alcandro’s arioso of reproachment ** leading to the trio part three ***.

34, 39: After a beautiful four minute long orchestral introduction and much recitative, Faone’s aria **. Ippia arrives to tell him that Saffo has gone to the Leucadian cliffs to fulfill her promise to jump and Faone declares his love of her *.

Scene 2: The Leucadian cliffs.

40: A long (but beautiful) choral sequence ***. Watch out especially towards the very end.

47: Saffo’s long pre-suicidal jump aria ***.

50: She takes up her harp and plays ***. Climene, obviously not wanting to lose her just found long lost sister, panics.

56: Faone finally arrives and declares his love for Saffo in an attempt to stop her from committing suicide. Her response (her last) is as simple as can be  *** before she jumps. Faone has to be restrained to not jump himself, Climene faints, curtain.


Saffo is a great opera (and Pacini’s masterpiece), and one of the reasons for this, perhaps the most important apart from its beauteous score, is its compact nature. The first three scenes are as simple as can be with the first two being gender dominating contracts (male then female), coming together in the wedding of scene three. The last two scenes are slightly more complex, confusing to me particularly is just when she mades the vow to Ippia to jump from the cliff, but the score is just filled with beautiful passages. An alpha, maybe plus if not for the rather dull opener.

2 responses to “Giovanni Pacini: Saffo (1840)”

  1. And Gounod…?


    1. Hahaha! Pacini’s opera is much better than Gounod’s. The plot actually makes sense and Saffo isn’t as isolated a character as Sapho. I looked back on my half-finished review of Gounod’s opera from a year ago. Although I ended up liking Gounod’s opera (probably a lot more than it deserves), I love Pacini’s!


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