Gaetano Donizetti: Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (1829)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

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Warning: This is one of the most expensive releases I have ever seen, I searched but could not find a listing for this recording less than $189.99 USD and some are three times that amount! Thankfully, it is available on the YouTube.  

SETTING: Kenilworth Castle, 1560. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, has secretly married Amelia (in real life Amy Robsart) and has concealed this from Queen Elizabeth even though he is her favourite by imprisoning his wife in a basement cell. Meanwhile his equerry Warney tires to seduce Amelia (among other things), and eventually Elizabeth finds out about Amelia.

LINK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJwmYMkhZzs

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (44.5 minutes)

Scene 1: Interior in the Castle of Leicester.

4, 7, 10: The prelude is full of tragedy and has a single horn theme before a starchy chorus of male courtiers and Leicester’s servant Lambourne preparing things for the arrival of Elisabeth. The first thing of real note however is a two verse cavatina * for Leicester himself. He goes into a more furious cabaletta con coro ** after giving Lambourne instructions that Amelia is to be kept in a cell until the Queen leaves. She is to be kept under the watch of Warney (a bad idea). Fanny, Amelia’s nurse arrives and tells Leicester that her mistress’ deprivation of her husband’s affections is starting to take  its toll.

Scene 2: A subterranean chamber in the Castle.

18, 22, 28: Amelia is placed in a cell by Warney to some very dramatic and dark Mickey-mousing. Warney tries to seduce her in a rather orchestrally well done duet **, including one passage of grand climax * which seems to come out of nowhere. Eventually a fanfare is heard from outside indicating the arrival of the Queen and Warney leaves Amelia in her cell **. Alone with Lambourne she learns that her confinement is on orders from her husband, she can not believe this and despairs.

Scene 3: A Magnificent Gallery in the Castle.

32, 35, 39: An explosive welcoming chorus for Elisabeth * which if you listen closely is the same used by Donizetti for the arrival of Dr. Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore. Leicester learns about Amelia’s whereabouts from Warney. The act ends with a cavatina for Elisabeth and cheers for the Queen from those present ** (the second outing is the better of the two) and a concluding symphony.

ACT 2: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: A gallery contiguous with Amelia’s cell.

6, 9, 11: The act opens with a repeat of the welcoming chorus tune in the orchestra as Leicester and Warney go down to check in on Amelia. Husband and wife left alone, she confronts him for confining her in a basement cell and for depriving her of his love in an at first sedate but then passive aggressive duet ** which is nevertheless sustained by sympathy for Amelia who is basically being held as a prisoner in her husband’s home for no good reason other than to protect his reputation with the Queen. She also craves conjugal affection from her husband, which he has apparently been denying her for some time, and she tells him that if he doesn’t give himself to her, that he should kill her. The scene ends with a standard bel canto flourish.

Scene 2: A remote location in the castle.

16, 19, 24: A good male chorus with Lambourne with a rousing finish * leads directly into an aria for Warney ** as he begs Lambourne for help and gets multiple side comments from both him and the courtiers (again the second half is better than the first).

Scene 3: A grotto on the castle grounds with entrance to a subterranean passage.

33, 38, 39, 44: Amelia has escaped captivity via a subterranean passage leading into the grotto where Elisabeth just happens upon her *. After an exchange we enter the best section of the opera so far as the two women finish their interview in which Elisabeth misunderstands Amelia and thinks that Leicester is her betrayer ** and are then joined by Leicester and Warney. Leicester is in a cold panic as the quartet takes off ***. Amelia claims that Leicester is her seducer, Warney that Amelia is actually his wife, the Queen thinking Warney is telling the truth hands the girl over to him. The stretta is good ** as the three beg the mercy of their sovereign and she storms off annoyed at all of them, determined to investigate the situation and find the truth. The orchestra provides a rousing conclusion.

ACT 3: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 2 Scene 1.

3, 6, 8: After a dialogue between Leicester and Warney (the former still thinking the latter is working for him) in which we find that Amelia has been returned to her cell, the Queen arrives as part of her investigation into figuring out Amelia’s real identity. At first their duet is just furious * (Elisabeth mostly) until Leicester reveals that Amelia is his wife and she then explodes **. He begs her to punish him but she decides that Amelia must be punished instead * to a weirdly noble melody as he continues to beg for mercy and she continues to be furious.

Scene 2: Amelia’s cell as in act 1 scene 2.

13, 18: After a recitative between Amelia and Fanny we get a brilliantly sparkling glass harmonica and harp accompanied aria for Amelia *** as she remembers past romantic love.  This is really lovely, even a little miracle and it thankfully goes into a second verse ***. It is the best number in the entire show. Fanny briefly leaves as Warney and Lambourne arrives and Warney tries to force Amelia to drink poison. Fanny overheard Warney as he produces the drink and smashes the glass. Leicester arrives and is reunited with Amelia.

27, 30: The Queen arrives and has Warney arrested. Amelia and Leicester plead one last time for Elisabeth’s blessing and in the end she gives her royal approval in one last cabaletta con coro ** as Amelia expresses her thanks and the chorus acclaim Elisabeth as their sovereign and heroine **.

COMMENTS:

Up until the last scene I will admit that I was going to give this opera a beta, but then I heard that brilliant two-part aria for Amelia with the bells and harp and I was overcome!   The plot is a little weird what with the tenor trying to hide his wife in a prison cell while Queen Elisabeth visits only for his servant to threaten his mistress with both assault and a murder attempt and for the Queen to ultimately find out, get really angry to the point of planning on having Amelia killed, play Sherlock Holmes briefly, and then concede that clemency is the mark of a great sovereign after all. The score is very compact with each scene except the last grounded in a single number (the final scene of course consists of two distinct arias for the two sopranos in the cast) and each number has at least a section that is really very good although the musical quality does vary within numbers. Amelia’s constant yearning to get physical with her husband comes off really well, it isn’t annoying in the slightest and you find yourself thinking that if she is going to be a prisoner she is owed conjugal rights! Queen Elisabeth is, well, Good Queen Bess, what is there not to love? The boys are not so great and are polar opposites: Leicester being an annoying coward unwilling to satisfy the perfectly reasonable needs of his young affection-starved wife and Warney a potential ladykiller (both definitions). Fanny needs an honourable mention here as she does more in terms of action than any of the other characters, but gets only recitative to sing! In the end, a surprise alpha.

19 thoughts on “Gaetano Donizetti: Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (1829)

    1. Eh, I know it is about perspective, but I would say anything over $50 is probably too much for any opera recording. Even the super well researched Opera Rara or Bru Zane are really worth about $30-$40 while anything below that (Decca, EMI, Philips, DG) would be $15-30, and then stuff like Naxos or Opera d’Oro would be under $15. These prices would be in USD.

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      1. And for everything else, there’s YouTube?

        I paid 100 AUD a decade ago for the Bonynge Huguenots – and, I think, the Gedda Prophete. Worth it considering how great they are, and how often I’ve listened to them.

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      2. Yes, but that was Meyerbeer! That’s like purchasing an etrog for Sukkot, there is no price too great!

        Also, you spent $100 on the Gedda Prophete? I got it for $20, granted that was 15 years ago.

        You love Meyerbeer more than me…

        I feel shame….

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      3. There are two versions of the Gedda Prophète.

        One is published by Opera d’Oro, and the sound quality’s poor. (You can hear the conductor talking, and pages turning over.) That’s the most common version.

        The other’s by Opera Magic, and the sound quality is great.

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      4. One suggestion: Could you name the pieces you’re talking about? “„Slyšels to příteli…” is easier to find than Dalibor’s aria ***

        And – gosh, yes.

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      5. For the Czech operas or in general? I know I probably should!

        Do you like Dalibor? Or at least my review? I’m working on act three of Libuse right now. It could be up in about 90 minutes or so. Amahl should already be up, I scheduled it to arrive at midnight EST on December 1.

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      6. For opera in general!

        I only know one Smetana opera: The Bartered Bride. (Lots of fun – terrific overture, and a really tuneful duet.)

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      7. Yes, you have not really heard Smetana, the master, really until you have heard Dalibor and Libuse. Bartered Bride is far more popular and probably more Czech-sounding but the two operas that immediately followed were his masterworks. Notice I didn’t say masterpieces, Bartered Bride is his masterpiece. Then he went deaf, and wrote a series of romantic comedies which, although really very good (I LOVE Hubicka!) are far away from grand opera. But you love Offenbach so the genre might please you, and Certova Stena has Satan in it!

        And yes, I have never heard the last five minutes of Dalibor because I had a premonition the first time I heard Dalibor that if I listened to it all the way to the end, I would die. It is the only time anything like that has ever popped into my head so I stick to it. Now, the awkward thing is that Dalibor has three different endings, but I’m not risking it, not in my twenties! Maybe when I turn fifty or when I just get fed up with reviewing operas (because what other reason is there for living?). I know it is weird.

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      8. #99 is up.

        I’ll start work on #100 – listening to it is difficult! I feel like a martyr.

        (And, no, it’s not Polyeucte or Les Martyrs.)

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