Saverio Mercadante: Orazi e Curiazi (1846)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 51 minutes (plus six minute appendix).

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SETTING: Rome, seventh century B.C.E. The basic plot is simple: in order to end a war between Rome and the city of Alba three men from each city will be selected by lot to fight to the death. Whichever city’s champions are still alive in the end will be the winner. Complicating matters is that Camilla (who is actually the central character), the sister of the three Romans chosen (the Orazi), is engaged to the eldest brother among the three Alban men chosen (the Curiazi). The finale is unbelievable.

LINK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaksGlO3RGw&t=108s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (68 minutes)

Scene 1: The temple of Janus.

0: The prelude *** is remarkable and seems to be the fountainhead of all Verdi (backstage band, trumpet voluntary, a string trill (repeated) which I recognize from the Irene-Rienzi duet in Wagner’s Rienzi).  This last one is probably just co-incidental although it isn’t the first time a melody from Mercadante pops into another opera. The prelude to Massenet’s Herodiade includes one melody which originates in the overture to Mercadante’s Il reggente. 

4: La spada formidabile The first number is a chorus of priestesses offering sacrifices for the victory of Rome over the city of Alba ** which is good but just not quite up to the level of the remarkable opening chorus of Virginia. They do seem similar though.

8: Qual prece o voto formar potremo? Orazi Camilla’s opening aria ** commands special attention with its sharp harp accompaniment. The vocal line has the maturity of mid to late period Verdi, itself around five years in the future. The chorus returns, two parts: first female then senators (male chorus) as they go through the details of how three warriors will be chosen by lot from each city to fight to the death and Camilla embarks on a challenging cabaletta. Camilla is unable to pray for although she is a Roman she is engaged to Curiazi, son of a Alban leader.

21: Talora solingo e tacito The Camilla-Curiazi duet *** has a strong recitative opening but when it finally turns into a duet it is very lovely. It rapidly turns into an ensemble when Old Orazi, Camilla’s father, arrives. Apparently he thinks the fighting will result in peace and gives his blessing on Camilla’s wedding to Curiazi.

Scene 2: A room in the house of Orazi.

34: Di fratello, di figlio, di sposo After a powerful prelude and recitative, Orazi the Younger’s prayer that he be chosen to fight for Rome **. The chorus of senators comes on to a march tune and tell Orazi that he and his two brothers have been selected as the champions of Rome. A furiously triumphant finish.

Scene 3: The temple of Venus.

45: Del terzo cielo benigna diva The scene opens with a wedding march and a grand chorus praising Venus **.

51, 63: Ora non è più questa/Addio! After an oddly jovial accompanied recitative as the ceremony starts and fury as Orazi arrives and stops the wedding, Camilla reads that the Curiazi brothers have been selected as the Roman champions and the chorus goes chromatic briefly. Camilla is the first to react after this revelation *** as both she and Curiazi realize that no matter what the result, their marriage will be nothing but a dream. In the stunning stretta *** Camilla curses the Romans, is told by her brother that she isn’t very patriotic (foreshadowing), and starts (just starts) down her slow decline into madness.

ACT 2: (55 minutes)

Scene 1: The doors of the house of Orazi.

1: Addio, sacri penati! The sons Orazi pray to the household deities for victory to the most pagan of holy music **.

3: Se d’ogni affetto umano Curiazi arrives and in a beautiful duet *** pleads with Orazi (who is enraged by his audacity on setting foot in a Roman home as an “enemy of Rome”) to forget the fight and remember when they fought side by side and even when he saved his life. Especially lovely is when Curiazi remarks that Orazi is weeping and he declares that Romans do in fact have hearts. A crowd of Romans call them to the city gates for the combat.

Scene 2: Outside the Gates of Rome.

14, 19, 26: Pria di pugnar si sciolgano/Giuriamo!/Non di trombe, non di brandi The scene opens with the two armies taking positions ***. Solemn quiet music then wells up as if from the bowels of the earth. The six combatants make oaths to fight bravely for their respective cities *** which turns into a chorale. The High Priest arrives and (in order to delay the inevitable?) calls that all follow him to consult a certain oracle at the Aventine cavern. The recessional ensemble that follows is the weakest item so far in the opera *.

Scene 3: The shrine at the entrance of the Aventine cavern.

30, 34, 37: Ecco, Ecco/La mia prece, il pianto accogli That magnificent trill from the first act prelude makes its first new appearance ** in the gorgeous interlude in which the harp and clarinet duet before we enter Camilla’s long aria *** as she prays to Apollo to stop the combat from taking place ***.

42, 50: O voce di fato/Arde già l’atroce guerra! The people arrive for the consultation of the oracle ** (watch the flutes). Gongs! Cymbals crash! Silence….noble brass, the bass voice of the oracle is heard ***: they are to battle! Camilla passes out in terror as the men  go back to the field of battle, the women eventually revive her. Now rather out of her mind, she curses Apollo and war *** in a combination of sedate and magnificent-ness.

ACT 3: (49 minutes)

Scene 1: Outside the walls of Rome, dawn.

0: The prelude ** starts with a whirlwind, then quiet, then military band off-stage. After about three minutes of this we come upon Curiazi who dreads the coming combat (It still hasn’t happened yet? Why have they delayed for so long? Wasn’t the oracle’s fierce command enough?).

6: Ah! Come a lei mostrarmi/Che fan Curiazi Curiazi contemplates how either way he will be separated from Camilla forever * either by becoming the killer of her brothers or by dying himself. He is interrupted rather quickly by Camilla herself, and then by a fanfare from afar.

11: Non l’odi? Vil mi chiama The cabaletta *** for Curiazi’s aria is much better than the rather brief and dull cavatina.

Scene 2: Before the house of Orazio.

15, 18: More beautiful entr’acte music ** (watch the flutes and violins) as we come upon Old Orazio. He has refused to watch the combat (watch the horns and strings which accompany the chorus **). They tell him that two of their champions have been killed by the Curiazi and Orazio has fled.

19: Oh! Se morendo, s’ei prolungato Old Orazio mourns that he has a son who has fled from battle *. Suddenly the people return and reveal that in fact Orazio tricked everyone: his “flight” was a tactic to catch the Curiazio off-guard and he has slain all three meaning Rome is victorious.

24: Piango…ma queste lagrime Old Orazio weeps tears of joy! ***  They fly to the Capena Gate to salut Orazio as victor.

Scene 3: The Capena Gate, Rome.

28, 33: Salve, guerrier magnanimo/Dammi, se a queste lagrime The victory chorus is stately but would be a little wooden if not for the intervention of the flutes and trumpets **. It is a little underwhelming, at least to me. Orazio declares that Rome, not he, is the victor. Camilla arrives totally out of her freaking mind and chastises her brother saying that he needs to strike one more blow to make his victory complete. She throws herself upon the body of Curiazi and declares that her brother has condemned her to a life of mourning **. Orazi starts to get very angry with her: she is a Roman, but she certainly isn’t acting like one! He tells her that if he will have no respect for him, her own brother, then he must for Rome.

39: Ah! Su di lei tremendo foco But NO! Camilla curses the city as the cause of all of her misery to an oddly flighty tune which turns utterly amazing ***. The chorus is more furious after she calls upon the gods to send fire and wrath upon the city so as to light Curiazi’s pyre. The people are terrified by her words and Orazi draws his sword with intent to kill her but is restrained by the priests. She tears the laurel wreath from his brow and tramples it. He draws again, she tries to flee, but he grabs her by her hair and stabs her in the heart with his sword.

42: Sento…l’estremo…anelito!… The final scene pushes the drama into extraordinary *** as apparently dying restores Camilla’s senses and she forgives her brother before dying. The people pray for her soul and Orazi reflects on what Rome has cost him.

APPENDIX:

The recording ends with a six minute long recitative and aria ** for Camilla which appears to be a replacement for her anti-war aria in act 2 scene 3. The aria itself is very upbeat and concludes with a rousing finish.

COMMENTS:

“I know I can’t say that this is Mercadante’s greatest opera, because I’ve only ever heard three other operas by him, but this opera is amazing! I far prefer this to Pelagio and even Virginia.” 

I wrote that after only having heard the first half hour of the opera! It really isn’t as experimental as Mercadante’s scores from the previous eight years and ends with a rather traditional (if amazing) soprano aria, but the score is almost constantly magnificent and although it has three or four weaker moments, they are fleeting moments. The orchestration is magnificent and the vocal work is neither overtly showy nor simple. Overall there is an immense sense of grandeur about this opera that I find it hard to believe it has been out of commission for so long. The plot does take its sweet time with the constant delays to the combat (the Oracle is musically extremely effective, but also obviously showy filler as it contributes nothing but a delay to the plot) and I am not sure if Camilla is a brilliant character we should totally empathize with in that her nation and family have thrown her romantic prospects in the mud, or if by the end I’m as irritated with her as her brother is. At least she is consistent. The story is very simple, even with the filler. I also like how the title isn’t an indication of the two families like “Capulets and Montagues”, but rather of the two men in Camilla’s life: her brother Orazi and her lover Curiazi. I had rather wished that one melody from the overture got more of an airing than the single reference in the second act, but I think I can easily call this as an A+.

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