Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
Image from the United Kingdom National Portrait Gallery website.
Commissioned for the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, this was the first opera which, although not through-composed, is devoid of either secco recitatives or spoken dialogue. It also has one of the highest vocal distributions, especially for a full length opera. All three of the male roles are performed by tenors, with a contralto trouser role and two sopranos. It consists mostly of reworked numbers from earlier Rossini operas, so it can be assumed that it was meant to offer a selection of his best work up to that point. Although a little pastel and taking massive historical liberties that I promise you I WILL comment on (in my alternative guise of Historian Phil), I rather enjoy it.
SETTING: London, early reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Earl of Leicester returns from defeating the Scots and is acclaimed by Elizabeth. However, the Earl has a guilty secret, he has married the daughter of the Queen of Scots and has brought her with her brother Henry back from Scotland theoretically as hostages and knows that if this is revealed to his sovereign (who is in love with him) it might cost all of their lives. Meanwhile, the Duke of Norfolk is jealous of Leicester’s relationship with the Queen and when he learns of the secret marriage, he reveals all to the Queen.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (89 minutes)
0: The overture *** is well, the overture to The Barber of Seville although it was originally composed for an 1813 opera entitled Aureliano in Palmira. You really could skip it since almost everyone knows it rather well although it was here that Rossini re-orchestrated the original and it was used in this same format for The Barber the following year. But if you are tired of hearing it (or have images of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in your head) I wouldn’t blame you.
Scene 1: The throne room of Whitehall Palace.
8: Piu lieta, piu bella The opening chorus * is amusing and lite.
12: Che smania! Che affanno! Norfolk reveals his furious jealousy of the Earl of Leicester’s relationship with the Queen in a good aria con coro that has a brilliant cabaletta ** with a raging climax. Leicester is returning from victory over the Scots (Historian Phil asks: When was this?).
16, 18, 22: Esulta, Elisa/Quant’e grato/Questo cor ben The court and Elisabeth arrive * and she starts her address okay * but then it changes gears into–Una voce poco fa? Yes, it is an early version of the aria that will later be Rosina’s in The Barber **.
27: Vieni o prode A grand processional chorus * as Leicester arrives with Scottish noble hostages who pay homage to Elisabeth (again, Historian Phil asks: When did this happen?). It has a clever tune in the woodwinds and some gear changes that are effective. After monologues for Leicester and Elisabeth there is a recessional (no singing) to the same tune.
34: Incauta, che festi! Now, the opera finally comes into its own with an amazingly delicate duet *** in which Leicester realizes that his wife, Matilda, the daughter of Mary Stuart (Historian Phil asks again: What?). She worries that the Queen is in love with her husband and he is worried that since she is the daughter of Mary Stuart her life is endangered. In order to try to avoid this, he will not speak with either Matilda or her brother while they are at Whitehall.
44: Sento, un’ interna voce Matilda’s cavatina *** starts with some passionate strings only to be overpowered by the woodwinds (which eventually end up in mini-duets with Matilda). She confides to her brother Enrico her worries about the outcome of her marriage and her possible fate. Eventually she takes a more strident tune and finishes well.
Scene 2: Royal Apartments.
59, 62, 66: Perche mai, destin crudele/Misere! A quale stato/Quell’alma perfida Leicester, the idiot, tells Norfolk about the secret marriage. Norfolk in turn tells the Queen in a rather excited duet ** which turns much more lyrical ** before turning a bit more military * as they break their interview. Norfolk leaves and Elizabeth orders Guglielmo to bring the Scottish hostages to her and to “invite” Leicester to come to her chambers.
70: Che penso A heightened recitative * for Elizabeth, starts with a theme in the strings that comes back, more a threatening gesture than a tune. Leicester and Matilda almost give each other away when they come in.
75, 80, 85: Se mi serbasti il soglio/ Qual colpo inaspettato/ Quegl’indegni sien serbati The act finale ** starts with Elizabeth telling Leicester that she wants to give him a reward worth of his hero status. He responds to some coloratura and he, Matilda and Enrico panic to a rather cute mini-trio. Elizabeth declares that she wants to make him her consort. A beautiful horn passage brings in a gorgeous quartet ***, after which Leicester declines the marriage proposal. This naturally enrages Elizabeth because it is proof that Leicester is married and in the stretta *** the couple admit their relationship, Leicester is caught begging both his wife and the Queen for mercy, and both are arrested on order of Elizabeth for treason and sent to the Tower to the end of the overture of The Barber.
ACT 2: (75 minutes)
Scene 1: Rooms in the palace.
2, 5, 7, 11, 17: Vuole ragion/Pensa che sol per poco/Non bastan quelle lagrime/Quanto crudel tu sei After a brief racing bit in the strings Norfolk comes on with his heart trembling and is told by Guglielmo that the Queen is enraged by him and orders him banished. There is a beautiful orchestral piece * as Elizabeth comes on asking Guglielmo where Matilda is, he goes to fetch her. The orchestra continues. Matilda is brought in and Elizabeth tells her that the only way she, her husband, and her brother will not be executed is if Matilda allows for her marriage to be dissolved *. The rest of the scene consists of a trio *** in which Elizabeth forces Matilda to sign a documenting in order to legally end her marriage to Enrico, he is brought in, sees the document, and tears it up, and the two get rearrest and sent back to the Tower. At first it is definitely a duet as Leicester has yet to arrive but there is some good soprano duetting here ** but eventually he does come on to a cocky theme which ends up being taken up by Elizabeth and it becomes a trio *** (the stretta of which ended up in La Cenerentola, if you have a sharp ear *). This recording includes two recitative passages for Elizabeth that
Scene 2: Outside the Tower of London.
25, 34, 38: Qui soffermiamo il piè/Deh troncate i ceppi suoi/Vendicar sapro Rossini’s evocative orchestral passages as the scene changes and we come upon a chorus of people and soldiers **. More orchestral interluding. Norfolk arrives and decides that he will have vengeance on the Queen for exiling him by stirring up the populace to break into the Tower and free Leicester in a lovely cavatina ** with at first little of the menace he plans **.
Scene 3: Leicester’s cell.
42, 43, 46, 49: Della cieca fortuna/Sposa amata/Fallace fu il content Yet another good orchestral passage * leading into a big aria for the imprisoned Leicester. Three parts: 1) Recitative in which he reflects upon his sorrow state * 2) An arioso accompanied by a pair of flutes where he thinks of Matilda **. 3) A prayer *** which turns into a fiery rebuke of Elizabeth which ends up having a rocking theme and builds to a big finish.
56: Deh scusa i trasporti Norfolk, the snake enters Leicester’s cell and convinces him that he has unsuccessfully begged Elizabeth to pardon him in a rare tenor-tenor duet ** and was not the one who betrayed him. He tells him about the revolt which will release him but Leicester refuses to act dishonourably. Norfolk then hides.
65, 69, 72, 73: Fellon, la Pena avrai/Bell’ame generose/ Leicester! Leicester!/Fuggi amor. After another orchestral interlude, Elizabeth enters the cell. Matilda and Enrico also come in, in secret, and hide themselves. She offers to let him go, she really doesn’t want to execute him for marrying Matilda, but he refuses dishonour. She then implicates Norfolk, who then jumps from his hiding place in an attempt to assassinate the Queen but he is disarmed by Matilda and Enrico and arrested by Guglielmo. Elizabeth condemns Norfolk to death *, and pardons the three out of gratitude for saving her life **. The insurrectionists storm the Tower * but all lay down their arms before the Queen who then renounces romantic love *** rather splendidly.
The plot does take massive liberties with history, and in the second act especially becomes rather thin, but the musical quality guarantees that this is at least an alpha minus.