Grand Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
This review has been revised at the suggestion of OperaScribe to be of the Marcello Viotti recording with Ramon Vargas as Fernand and Vesselina Kasarova as Leonor.
SETTING: Castile, 1340. The plot is essentially a love triangle between a monk turned soldier named Fernand, Alfonso XI the King of Castile, and the King’s mistress Leonor set against a simultaneous invasion by the Moors and a power struggle between the Crown and the Roman Church over an attempt by the King to acquire a dissolution of his first marriage so he can wed Leonor.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (38.5 minutes)
0: The overture *** opens with a tragic theme in the strings, elegant and regal before turning briefly to a bit of menace. Stop, repeat, and then a noble theme appears, disappears, return of menace. A grand finishing climax, it feels about twenty or thirty years younger than it actually is.
Scene 1: The Monastery of St. James, 1340.
9, 16: The scene, which consists almost entirely of a duet between Fernand and Balthasar, starts off with quiet sotto voce male choral nothings at the monastery and continues on this sedate if pleasant path for most of its duration. It concerns mostly of Fernand’s admission of love for an unknown woman who he wishes to leave the monastery in order to romantically pursue her **. Balthasar, who is the father of the Queen Consort of Castile as well as the Abbot of the monastery, sends him out, but predicts furiously that Fernand will soon return a wiser man after discovering the vanities of the outside world **.
Scene 2: The island of Leon (?).
19, 29, 35: Ines leads a scenic if surprisingly serious sounding choral opening *, it eventually turns into an almost operetta-ish number. It is cute, but probably also the weakest number in the score and it is obvious padding. Fernand is brought in blindfolded by boat to the island and he is told by Ines (in her only contribution to the plot) that he must hold what transpires in total secrecy. Leonor arrives and tells him that they can never meet again but she has a document for him that will allow for his social advancement. Their duet has a sedate but delicate melody in the upper strings **. Ines announces the arrival of the King and Leonor leaves. The act ends with a brief but fetching aria ** for Fernand as he reads over the document and finds that it is for an army promotion. A good rousing military finish.
ACT 2: The Gardens of Alcazar, recently taken by King Alfonso XI of Castile. (39 minutes)
3: After a brief military themed entr’acte and a good dialogue between Alfonso and his courtier Don Gaspar about how Fernand has proven himself bravely in victorious battles, we get a long but very good cavatina from King Alfonso *** in which he goes into his love for Leonor and his desire for a divorce from his wife so he can marry her.
11: The Leonor-Alfonso duet **, mostly consists of her worrying about being his mistress and not his wife and he thinking she is starting to lose interest in him.
17: Suddenly we get a ten minute attack of ballet * which starts off sounding a lot like the opening chorus of La Gioconda. As far as opera ballets go it is perfectly fine but it is also obviously filler for an otherwise extremely short act.
31, 35: The act finale starts off with Don Gaspar telling Alfonso that there is written evidence of Leonora having a lover and he confronts her with this. She makes no denial but it goes nowhere because just at that moment Balthasar arrives and tells Alfonso to forget about trying to divorce his daughter, the Pope has condemned the petition and the curse of the Almighty will be upon him **. The stretta ** is a rousing affair with traces of the act 3 finale of La Juive in it.
ACT 3: A grand hall in the royal palace. (37.5 minutes)
5: Don’t be fooled by the meek flute that pops in at the very beginning, the rest of the orchestra is furious at it for some reason in a delicate entr’acte preceding a dialogue between Alfonso and Fernand in which the King offers his hero anything one thing he wants (he asks to marry Leonor which of course surprises Alfonso), Leonor is alerted to Fernand’s request and also to how willing the King is to give her away to the knight in a lovely arioso ** which becomes a trio of sorts. They are ordered to marry within an hour.
10: Alone, Leonor expresses her need to tell Fernand the truth about herself in a noble aria ***. She is delighted to marry him, but he must know the truth so she tries to send Ines to him but Don Gaspar arrests her immediately afterwards in what amounts to a nearly meaningless plot point: at least she tried.
24: The events leading up to and including the wedding ceremony itself (the soloists embark on a sea of elevated recitative which at times limps) are marred by a weird choral number for the court which mixes ornery and joviality and some mickey-mousing, although there is one male chorus which is slightly better * during the ceremony itself which vaguely resembles Ines’ act one song. Fernand learns who Leonor is just after they are married and he doesn’t take any of it well (lots of repetition about how Leonor is “la maitresse du roi”). He rejects everything, his wife, the title and lands the King has just given him and breaking his sword in front of the King he decides to leave with Balthasar back to the monastery.
31, 35: Alfonso seems to have some semblance of remorse about off-loading Leonor onto his finest warrior and the act finale is satisfactory ** as both Leonor and Fernand vent their rage at him for the cruel trick he has inflicted on someone who really did not deserve to be treated so ***. Great, if a touch strangely proto-wagnerian and vaguely similar to the act 2 finale of Maria Stuarda.
ACT 4: The Monastery as in Act 1. (35.5 minutes)
0: A sad but lovely prelude starts the act ***, acting more as an intermezzo staring with organ. The Queen Consort has died of grief as a result of all of the misery her husband has put her through and her body has been brought to the Monastery so her father and the monks can observe vigil for her as they are so occupied when the curtain rises. This almost rises to the level of Verdi’s sequence at the Monastery of San Juste in Don Carlos.
11: Fernand’s aria as he is about to take his final monastic vows **.
22, 27, 29, 31: Leonor arrives near death just as Fernand is being tonsured, when he finally returns the long final duet can begin: 1) Fernand arrives and tells Leonor to leave **. 2) She begs him personally to forgive her, she explains having sent Ines in an attempt to warn him, followed by his reaction which leads to some actually duetting ** during which he weakens. 3) But he tries to be stoic and resist her pleas that he leave with her but he finally admits that he still loves her *** (harp accompanied and she takes over). 4) They hear the monks and they plan to leave but Leonor realizes that she is definitely dying *** (which makes the whole running away thing a bit pointless but never mind). The opera ends on a very frightful note as Fernand declares to Balthasar that although the monks will pray for Leonor’s soul today, they will pray for his tomorrow.
Musically this opera is just fine (apart from the choruses which are of mixed merit, the finales to the second and third acts along with their fourth act work redeem them but the chorus is the weak link most of the time especially in the middle of act 3 which is the only point where the opera falters for about a quarter of an hour), but I really find the second and third acts too similar to each other in structure and this exposes the simple narrative which I find is stretched just a little too thin. It isn’t that the love-triangle narrative is bad, it isn’t, but it is very thinly spread out and that the two middle acts could have been combined. However, then it wouldn’t be a four-act grand opera! This is basically a two act opera placed into a four act grand opera structure and so the plot unfolds too slowly, at least for me. It is perhaps unfair to call out the work for this because it is based on a previously existing work L’Ange de Nisida which was not performed until 2018 and produced from a composite of L’Ange with new material specifically written for the premiere cast which included Rosine Stoltz in the title role and Gilbert Duprez as Fernand.
The religious scenes that frame the work provide it with structural grounding as the three interior “outside world” scenes generally lack overall dramatic cohesion, falling apart at moments of levity such as Ines’ choral number, the ballet, and the choral sequences leading up to the wedding ceremony. One can excuse the ballet because it was a convention of French grand opera (story killer that it is), and even Ines’ proto-Offenbach-ish song, but the pre-wedding sequence and the big reveal afterwards really could have been handled better.
However if one ignores the choruses, there is nothing ornery and the soloist vocal writing is very lovely from beginning to end. Donizetti’s mastery of orchestration is also on full display here with some of his darkest and most austere music (and references to Weber’s Der Freischutz?) which is unique for the grand opera genre. The characterization of King Alfonso is also well done, very noble at first but eventually collapsing into disgrace when he betrays Fernand (who is apparently Balthasar’s son and thus his wife’s brother). Although with this plot point then (which is part of the French original but is glossed over in the Italian mis-translation) we are open to wonder why Fernand doesn’t know about Leonor being his brother-in-law’s mistress.
However, this is a case of too much, not too little. If the opera were cut by about a quarter of an hour and condensed to three or even two acts it would actually be an alpha plus opera, but as it is it is an undoubted alpha.