Dark Comic Opera in two acts (both long but the first is extremely long). 3 hours 28 minutes.
Rossini’s ultra-feminist opera, which has been revived recently due to the pressure of Women’s and Gender Studies departments around the world led to, at its 1821 premiere, rioting in the streets of Rome and brawls between supporters of Rossini and his critics. What contribution the length of the opera made in this (the first act alone is literally two and a quarter hours long!) Surprisingly, the score consists of only fifteen numbers. Incidentally, Pacini composed the secco recitatives as well as three of the numbers: the Act II introduction, and trio, and the act II duet for Matilde and Edoardo. For a production in Naples later that year, Rossini composed new material to replace the Pacini numbers. There are three distinctive versions of the opera, this review seems to be of the Naples version.
Although this 2012 production from the Pesaro Festival uses minimalist sets and doesn’t bother with most of the scene changes, I will provide the six scenes with set descriptions as if they were used.
SETTING: The castle of the Tyrant Corradino (tenor), somewhere in medieval Spain. Everyone fears the fearsome woman-hating Corradino, all except the world’s ultimate sex pot Matilde di Shabran (soprano) and a scheming Countess d’Arco (mezzo-soprano) who is her rival because she was promised to Corradino in a peace treaty. When Corradino declined to marry her because of his “no women” policy, he did promise to not marry anyone else and now that Matilde is being billeted in his castle, the Countess wants to evict her. After many trials, including Corradino sexually pursuing Matilde during an armed siege on the castle and ordering Matilde’s death over a fake love letter written on order of the Countess by Eduoardo, the son of Corradino’s rival Raimondo Lopez in an attempt to get rid of her competition, the Tyrant changes his ways and marries Matilde.
LOOK OUT FOR
ACT 1: (133 minutes, yes it is that long!)
0: The overture *** is actually an advance on that of Eduardo e Cristina which you can find elsewhere on this blog. It is a really interesting symphonic piece and makes more of an impression here than in the earlier opera.
Scene 1: Outside the castle gatehouse.
12, 15, 21: Zitti zitti, nessun qui v’è’ The introduction ** starts with okay sotto voce chorusing as the male peasants try their darnedest to bring in their agricultural tribute without waking Corradino up. It warms up when their leader, Egoldo, gives us some explanation for their behaviour. Ginardo, the tower keeper, tells the tale about why everyone is scared of Corradino and reads out the warning signs with inscriptions they can’t read that anyone who isn’t supposed to be around the castle and makes noise will have their head split in two with an axe. Also Corradino especially hates females (because they are more noisy?). It leads to a furious choral finish. In the recitative that follows we are introduced to the silent jailer Udolfo, who is told not to harm any of the prisoners but rather to bring one, Prince Edoardo the son of their master’s great enemy Raimondo Lopez, to Corradino. I hate to say this, but the Introduction is the worst and most boring number of the entire act, it really needs to step up its game!
24: Intanto Erminia fra le ombrose piante The poet and apparently Neapolitan folk singer Isidoro sings his sad song ***, but it quickly turns rather noisy. The orchestration here is rather bewitching, there isn’t a great tune even though it is obviously parodying Figaro’s Largo al factotum, but it is incredibly charming.
35, 41, 46: Alma rea! Perché t’involi? Isidoro is arrested by Ginardo for waking up Corradino, who then makes one of the most extravagantly dramatic entrances in bel canto opera ***. At first a brilliant furious trio it turns into a more calming quartet ** with the arrival of Corradino’s physician Alipranto who stops him from murdering Isidoro in a fury. It returns to fury as Corradino has Ginardo tie up Isidoro so he can be sent to the dungeon as Alipranto pleads hopelessly for mercy ***. In recitative Alipranto reveals to Corradino that a general that he greatly respected, Shabran, has died in battle and as his dying wish left his daughter Matilde to Corradino’s charge. He is willing to put her up in fine apartments in the castle, but demands that she never try to see him unless he summons her.
55: Piange il mio ciglio Prince Edoardo is brought in and we get a taste of Corradino’s sado-masochistic tendencies. In a brilliant contralto aria *** Edoardo remains stead fast in his honour for his father. In a bizarre act of clemency Corradino releases Edoardo from his chains even though he refuses to recognize any but his father Raimondo as rightful ruler on the condition that he not run away. Meanwhile Corradino decides that he will find Matilde a husband and provide her with a massive dowry (why is he so nice suddenly? does he have a thing about respect for fathers?).
Scene 2: A gallery in the castle.
64: Di capricci, di smorfiette We finally meet Matilde and learn that she and Alipronto are cooking up a scheme to tame Corradino ***. Matilde is very sure of herself and is certain that eventually the Tyrant will fall to her Alipronto is not so sure, but does reassure her that whenever he has a cold or a headache Corradino runs to him like a child (again is this guy’s violent demeanour a front?).
77, 81, 86, 93, 97: Questa è la Dea? In an at first furious but later incredibly melodic quintet *** (all the items here are three-star, I just thought it was silly to have so many!), the two women meet, shout the most disgusting insults at each other and try to tear each other’s eyes out. Corradino storms in a fury. Although the Countess grovles in order to plead her case with him, Matilde is remarkable cool and stedfast. He finds himself unable to punish her even though his Alipronto and Ginardo are amazed he hasn’t killed her yet, or at least tried to. Suddenly, there is a beautifully peaceful passage for Corradino (didn’t know he had it in him, eh?). Eventually it crescendos with a beautiful descant for Matilde. The beginnings of Corradino’s…heart transplant? occur to some brilliant jolts from the orchestra. When he gets angry with her for not apologizing to the Countess, she uses her sex appeal to tempt him and he runs away charging her to Alipronto because it is all he can do to keep himself from making love to her right then and there. I think Florez also had a brief wet dream because Matilde now controls his mind with her incredible sexiness in an exciting delayed climax of exxxtreme counterpoint. The Countess acknowledges that she is no match for Matilde’s just extraordinary bod and so storms off to figure out some other way of ruining her. In a long but rather hilarious recitative Corradino learns from Alipronto that he is lovesick, for which there is no cure. Isidoro is brought it and Corradino wants to figure out if he has put a spell on him which causes him to want Matilde. He really only ends up abusing the poet. Matilde returns contrite (probably more for show than in truthfulness).
110, 115, 122: Ah! Capisco; non parlate The twenty-three minute long act finale is in multiple sections and includes a scene change. First, Matilde is confronted by Corradino *** as Isidoro and Ginardo watch from behind a curtain to watch as Corradino falls apart. Corradino declares his love for Matilde and she plays with his…sword…. Although the army of Lopez is coming to take the castle and rescue Edoardo, Corradino is completely distracted by his desire to physically possess Matilde. Eventually Alipronto gets Corradino out to defend the castle from Lopez.
Scene 3: Same as Scene 1.
123, 126, 127, 129: Edoardo sits around waiting for his father’s forces to rescue him. *** Everyone comes out of the castle for the defence, even Matilde and Countess. Corradino, who is apparently now thinking with his head instead of his other head (sort of) tells Edoardo rather cruelly that his father’s forces will be crushed, prompting Matilde to comfort the boy which makes Corradino jealous and the Countess takes note of this before an a cappella ensemble develops *** followed by a furious curtain closing war call as Isidoro leads the guards out to defend the fortress ***.
ACT 2: (74 minutes)
Scene 1: The countryside near the castle.
2: Di Corradino il nome per ogni suol rimbomba After a recitative from Isidoro in which he writes of his exploits while in service to Corradino, peasants and soldiers are amused with his overblown praising of Corradino ** which he claims are poetic license in a comic number. It is amusing, but really a bit of a comedown from the previous act.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scene 2.
10: Sazia tu fossi alfine/Padre…figlio… Technically, this isn’t where the scene changes but after a recitative from Raimondo Lopez, we get the weakest item in the score, a cavatina ** from Edoardo who seems incredibly suicidal (possibly due to the very long horn solo?, also cutting your wrists in that manner won’t kill you, but it will leave a nasty scar), suddenly it turns into a duet for the Lopez father-son, but no back to the cavatina for Edoardo. In the original version we would have an aria for Raimondo and then a trio for the Lopez’ and Corradino, so this is the Naples version. Corradino comes on and attacks Raimondo but Edoardo disarms him “In the name of Matilde”. The Countess then reveals that Eduardo has apparently bribed the guards and escaped (how? obviously some time has elapsed). Isidoro arrives “wounded” and talks about how he was victorious leading the army. Rodrigo, another servant, arrives with a letter from Eduardo which turns out to be a fake love letter in which he declares his love for Matilde and thanks her for helping him escape.
29, 40: È palese il tradimento The sextette *** a furious start as the villainous Countess rejoices as Corradino condemns the obviously innocent Matilde to be execute by being thrown by his henchmen from a high mountain into a chasm. It has an extreme ascending climax *** as she is dragged away for death.
42: Mandare a morte quella meschina? A chorus of veiled peasant women beg Corradino to spare Matilde **. Isidoro comes on and describes how Matilde has apparently died. Only the Countess is happy, everyone else is very upset. Eduardo arrives and reveals that it was the Countess who bribed the guards that released Eduardo.
48, 56: Da cento smanie e cento The two men who loved her mourn Matilde in an engaging duet ** which, when they sing in unison, has a great pathos. Watch out for the ending (similarity to a portion of the overture of Donizetti Roberto Devereux).
Scene 3: Outside Raimondo’s castle, with the high mountain.
61: Corradino has come to commit suicide at the mountain to atone for killing the innocent Matilde. She appears and takes a long time to forgive him (can’t say I blame her). It was Raimondo’s idea to save her. The orchestra starts up again with an accompanied recitative * (what I had to put a one-star somewhere!). Matilde is only upset that the Countess can not see her now!
62: Ami alfine? E chi non ama? Matilde’s song in praise of love ***. It leads to an ensemble with a passage for Isidoro. Matilde declares that women are made to conqueror and rule. Curtain.
In spite of being considered a critical fiasco (although mostly a popular success, in spite of the street brawls on opening night) Matilde di Shabran was very popular in the 1820s and 30s being performed in London in 1823 and New York in 1834. It disappeared however, and apart from a single production in Florence in 1892 it wasn’t revived until 1974. Since the turn of the century it has been revived mostly as a star vehicle for Juan Diego Florez. Although he sings the role of Corradino incredibly well, it is a mistake to look at this opera as just a vehicle for a star tenor or soprano. For some reason it is ridiculously good. The first act is insanely long, even longer than most entire operas, but it is filled with numbers that aren’t just great but insanely amazing and it hardly feels its mammoth length. The second act is surprisingly weaker than the first in spite of its (comparative) brevity, although this is comparing something amazing to something that is at least very good. Both acts start off with introductory numbers that are inferior to what follows. However that is in comparison to well over an hour of absolutely amazing music, so we aren’t starting at ground level but rather already in alpha-land. Yet another interesting aspect of the plot is that although it is very female dominated and sort of feminist (the heroine is at least interpreted that way) the only real villain of the piece is actually another woman, the countess. Corradino’s actions, and his transformation, might be seen as hormonal if not for the fact that he already engages in two charitable acts even before meeting Matilde (accepting her into his home after the death of her father, and releasing Edoardo from his chains). He might have a deadly temper, but deep down he is actually a good person, otherwise Matilde would probably have had no chance, sex pot status or no. An A+.