Azione Sacra in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
Okay, so with the 99.999999% of the human population being wiped out in the global flood, this isn’t a comedy, but it does have a (sort of) happy ending which basically everyone knows. This opera, or rather azione sacra, was designed to be performed during Roman Catholic Lent, when secular works were verboten. This one was a flop, in fact after being staged at Paris in 1837 it disappeared until 1985, although that might not make much sense when listening to it today.
SETTING: Near and in the Babylonian (?) city of Senaar. Basically, this is the biblical story of Noah’s Ark complicated by a romantic entanglement involving a follower of Noah named Sela, the head wife and mother of the son of Cadmo, satrape of Senaar whose mistress (and supposed BFF of Sela) Ada accuses Sela of being the mistress of Japheth in order to get Cadmo to divorce Sela and marry her, leading to the arrest of several Noah-family members and an attempt on burning the Ark. In the end Sela is executed by Cadmo when she refuses to deny the G-d of Noah just before the flood rains start. Confused yet? If you think that is weird, one of the characters is Artoo, high priest of Atlantis.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (71 minutes)
0: The overture *** is rather magnificent and full-scale (I LOVE the bells and cymbals!) but also very high on drama, as is appropriate.
Scene 1: A vast plain, a portion of the ark visible.
8: Oh Dio di pietà And now we go back 50,000 years (or whatever you wish) as Noah and family are taking a break from their ark building duties to render prayers to the Almighty ***.
17, 21: Mentre il core abbandonava/Perchè nell’alma Noah asks Sela why she weeps when she finds peace when she is with them. She responds in a cavatina ** and cabaletta ** with some nice coloratura work. Noah tells her to leave her husband and take refuge in the Ark and survive the coming deluge.
24: Il tuo sposo; il nostro re The prayers of Noah and family are interrupted by the imminent arrival of Artoo who comes with followers to find out for Cadmo when the Ark is to be completed so they can come and destroy it. Sela uses her authority as wife of Cadmo to stop them from destroy the ark at that moment in a grand ensemble ***. Again Noah pleads with Sela to take refuge in the Ark.
Scene 2: Near the palace of Cadmo.
34: Sela? Ah tu non la vedesti After a brief interlude involving woodwind nature sounds we come upon Ada who reveals her plan to overthrow Sela and become head wife of Cadmo to Artoo and his chorus of Brahmins (don’t ask, this is what the libretto calls them). Their chorus is good * as they tell her that Sela has obvious sided with Noah against Cadmo’s orders. Cadmo himself arrives and Ada tells him that Sela is having an affair with Jepheth, the son of Noah.
39, 45: Perfida!/Pace a tal consorte Cadmo blows up and Ada is pleased with herself in a lovely duet ** which eventually turns into an aria ** for Cadmo. Sela herself arrives and is forbidden by Cadmo to see Noah and his family again and that the following day, if they have not left, he will have them killed. Ada tells Sela to go to Noah with this news (remember, Sela believes that Ada is her friend, although why Ada would give her the advise of contradicting Cadmo immediately after he told her never to see Noah again and still sees her as her friend I don’t know).
Scene 3: Same as Scene 1.
48, 54, 63 :Quel che del ciel su i cardini Cadmo has sent men to spy ** on Sela to a rocking melody as she speaks with Noah ** telling him about the death sentence that will be inflicted upon his family by Cadmo. Again he tells her to bring her son and escape with them in the Ark, but she tells him that she will not leave her husband. Japheth arrives and tells Sela and the family that Cadmo is coming to arrest them all. Shem ends up taking the melody (later taken up by Sela) in a beautiful ensemble ***.
69: Ada!… Ah, sol tu puoi salvarmi The arrival of Cadmo brings in the final moments of the act as Cadmo has Noah and his family arrested and orders that Noah will sacrifice to a sun-deity the following day. It all seems rather sunny until we finally get some fear from the men and then a brief but grand stretta led by Sela ***.
ACT 2: (44 minutes)
Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 2.
2: Ah non tacermi in core After a brief prelude, Ada reflects on how wicked she is in a cheery little aria *. Cadmo comes on and Ada persuades him to speak to Sela.
11: Non profferir parola! In their duet ** Cadmo expects Sela to beg for mercy, but she doesn’t. Instead she asks only that she might see her son once more before she dies. Furious, Cadmo repudiates Sela and declares that he will take Ada as his wife. Sela realizes Ada’s duplicity.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scenes 1 and 3.
25: Gli empi ‘l circondano Mystical preluding (harps) leads to a prayer by the three sons and their wives *** while Noah sleeps. He wakes up and tells them to have courage. Sela arrives and tells them that Ada has been duplicitous. Cadmo arrives and orders that the Ark is to be burnt with Noah and his family inside it.
34: Did tremendous, onnipossente Cadmo sings a high C and Noah goes into a grand prayer *** as he announces the coming flood an his family enter the Ark. Sela goes with them.
ACT 3: (14 minutes)
Scene 1: A great festival hall.
1: Stirpe angelica, ti bea After a high fanfare prelude, a furious bridal chorus with a little foreboding **.
4: Senza colpa mi scacciasti Sela returns! *** She has decided to sacrifice herself in order to not have to live without her son and husband. Cadmo is willing to take her back into his house if she will repudiate the G-d of Adam and Noah. She contemplates this in order to stay with her son, but eventually refuses and is executed. The rains start, destroying the hall.
Scene 2: The plain, flooded.
13: The last minute of the opera consists of an instrumental finaletto *** depicting the flood and the survival of the Ark over the flood waters.
This opera makes me wonder why Cecil B. DeMille never made a film version of Noah’s Ark. Instead Michael Curtis directed a 1928 silent film in which a handmaiden of Noah is to be ritually sacrificed to some pagan deity just before the rains start. This is more interesting, but is very similar to the romantic plots and backstories devised for DeMille biblical epics. Although it has more characters than I Lombardi (11 vs. 9) and only slightly fewer scene changes (7 vs. 9), it does not use them sprawlingly and it is very obvious who the main characters are in the first act, and this does not change, although I must ask, why is there no Mrs. Noah? Technically, although there are 7 tableaux, the work requires only four sets.
Sela is a great heroine and she, not Noah, is the main character. It is easy to love her and to feel for her as the man she loves dumps her for the wicked scheming Ada. She even gets the last soloist lines in the score, the rest is choral or entirely instrumental.
I really can’t figure out why this work never caught on unless it was because it is obviously a religious piece that couldn’t be easily staged. Both the plot and the score are great. Maybe its the fact that the first act, of three, is well over half the of the entire length and the third act is basically an epilogue? From me an alpha.