Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.
The first (and only) disaster in an otherwise brilliantly successful career, Zaira is the black mark in the oeuvre of Bellini. Much of its music was recycled to great success the following year in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, so was the failure of Parma as bad as its performance history (one production, Florence 1836, between 1830 and 1975) would indicate? Let us investigate.
SETTING: Jerusalem, 14th or 15th century. The Christian Zaira is to marry the Muslim Sultan Orosmane and convert to Islam, but she discovers that she is the daughter of the French Prince Lusignano and decides to embrace Christianity in order to make her father happy, leading to her murder and the suicide of the Sultan.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (81 minutes)
Scene 1: A magnificent gallery in the palace.
0: Gemma, splendor di Solima The ninty-second prelude *** has one incredibly awesome tune that will stay in my head forever. It is followed by a chorus of jovial courtiers celebrating the engagement of the Sultan Orosmane to the Christian orphan Zaira which maintains this theme for a most of its duration which is a very good thing.
7: Per chi mai per chi pugnasti Corasmino, vizir to the Sultan, plots to make sure Zaira never becomes Sultana (because as a Muslim he considers her Christianity to be polytheism) in a choral number that happens to have a tenor solo built into it **. Some very good vocal work here.
15: Amo ed amata, io sono An aria for Zaira ** in which she declares that as a Christian or as a Muslim, her only law is love. Her friend Fatima tells her to not reject her religion (the only symbol of it remaining being a golden crucifix she wears on her neck, this is a plot point, that is why I am emphasizing it).
26: Prezzo non v’ha che basti Orosmane arrives and there is a rather dramatic recitative before a sortita ** in which Zaira meets with a French former-prisoner named Nerestano (a mezzo-soprano) who turns out to be her brother (but this is revealed only in the next scene) and who has come to request the release of ten other French prisoners. Orosmane agrees to release not just these ten but all of the prisoners (numbering around one hundred) excluding Prince Lusignano who has been condemned to death. Zaira pleads in vain for the release of this prisoner, if only from the sentence of death. She asks to go with Nerestano to see the prisoners and is granted permission.
Scene 2: An underground prison cell where the French prisoners are kept.
36: Chi ci toglie ai ceppi nostri? After a very well done orchestral interlude, the tuneful chorus of French prisoners ***: a dramatic scene with Nerestano interjecting in various places. Lusignano is introduced to a dramatic recitative and goes into his backstory (all but two sons slaughtered during a campaign in Syria).
46: Oh me felice! The recognition of father and children is interrupted by Lusignano engaging in some Islamophobia upon the confession of Zaira that she has converted to Islam. Nevertheless the scene is musically lovely **. Zaira is called back to the Sultan and she and Nerestano engage in a mini-duet which was very obviously used for the first act finale of Capuleti as they promise their father not to reveal their true relationship.
Scene 3: The Harem.
66: Ahi! con qual fronte riedere After a lot of recitative dialogue (first Orosmane and Corasmino, then Zaira and Nerestano), we moves into a brother-sister duet **. Meanwhile Corasmino has persuaded the Sultan to come upon the pair and misinterprets their relationship as a romantic rather than a fraternal one and Orosmane orders the arrest of Nerestano when Zaira asks to postpone the wedding.
77: Io sapro da qual deriva The act finale stretta gets the job done *.
ACT 2: (71 minutes)
Scene 1: Chambers belonging to Zaira.
4: Donna a cui dare After two recitatives (Zaira in dialogues with Fatima and Orosmane) we have the closest thing to a love duet in the entire opera **. She begs him to postpone the wedding again (for just one day), this time promising to tell him why after they are married. He consents rather graciously upon seeing her tears which confirm her love for him.
Scene 2: Near the cells.
14: Più non è… A tippy-toe chorus * as the French prisoners perform funerary rites for the recently deceased Prince Lusignano. Nerestano says that his last wish was to embrace Zaira once more.
21: O Zaira! In quel momento A rondo for Nerestano ***, his hopes to abduct Zaira with the departing French are thwarted by news that she can not attend the funeral because of her wedding preparations. The French decide to stay in prison (they were to leave the following day after the funeral) but instead they shall stay and watch the faithless Zaira.
Scene 3: The harem.
33: E pur ora Corasmino gives Orosmane a letter from Nerestano to Zaira requesting to meet with her that night in the gardens or otherwise he will kill himself (this is an incredibly stupid thing to say because it only confirms the suspicion Orosmane already has of Nerestano being in love with Zaira. The best elements of the duet *** that follows are the tenor work for Corasmino and the orchestral work which are both grand drama.
42: Che non tentai per vincere Zaira reads the letter (delivered by Fatima), and goes a bit daft **.
47: Poni il fedele tuo martire Now something very effective *** as Zaira hears the funerary chorus outside and passes out in shock.
50: Ah! crudeli chiamarmi Zaira feels guilty about betraying her birth heritage and wants to die ***.
Scene 4: The harem gardens.
53: The scene opens with an interlude ** expressing impending doom (as well it should), featuring a rather good clarinet solo. We come upon Orosmane first who expresses his doom almost in speaking tones. It Mickey-mouses a little as Corasmino gives his report and the two men sit in wait of Zaira behind bushes.
59: Tu gemi? Orosmane expresses more grief before Zaira and Fatima come on **.
62: Reggi i miei passi The events leading up to the assassination ***: The two women come on waiting. Nerestano arrives and confronts Zaira. She tells him she is ready to flee with him and they are about to go under cover of night when Orosmane comes out of hiding and stabs Zaira to death on the spot. An incredibly subdued scene, which is unfortunately followed by the rather underwhelming killing itself. It does warm up as Nerestano explains everything post-mortem (he was her brother, not her lover). Orosmane in complete shock and remorse at the revelation.
68: Un grido d’orrore The stretta * waltzes the opera into a conclusion as Orosmane commits suicide in front of everyone. There is a long-ish orchestral ending where the clarinet from the interlude comes back and then some battery chords to finish things off. Curtain.
Okay, so the reason I would find this opera problematic is different from why the audience in Parma (circa 1829) took issue with it. They were devotees of Rossini and did not like the modern music developed by Bellini for the occasion of opening their new opera house. I would take issue with it for the blatant xenophobia of its libretto, which is not just racist, but also dramatically illogical and wooden at times. The script was based on a tragic play for Voltaire (hardly a Christian), so it must be that Felice Romani, the librettist, is to blame. Musically the opera is wonderful, in fact it is only with difficulty that I would score the opera so low since literally no one else likes this thing, but the dramatic situation itself is not to the level of the score Bellini produced for it (although the stretta finales are both awkwardly weak giving a poor final impression to an otherwise rather musically excellent work). The narrative has all the passion (or the lack there of) of a Baroque-era opera seria, the only difference being that instead of boring aria after dull aria we get magnificent aria con coro, duets, and trios. It is uninteresting and impossible to relate to any of the characters. Zaira is preoccupied with the disappointment of her father in deserting her cultural heritage, and it causes the end of her marriage plans and ultimately both her death and that of her would be husband. Other than said would be husband becoming jealous of her brother at the instigation of his vizier, nothing else actually happens. The character motivations are irrational (especially Corasmino and the letter in which Nerestano threatens to take his own life, Orosmane and his multiple instances of clemency earlier in the opera do not add up to the man who kills his lover in a jealous rage and then commits suicide at the very end of the opera), and that does not help things. There are some similarities to Othello although unlike in Shakespeare where there is a build up of suspicious circumstantial evidence and crafty character motivations as well, here there is mostly just mistaken identity and hyperbole (the letter), the sort of things that could be explained in thirty seconds) although at the end Zaira appears to be very willing to leave Orosmane, giving him a logical (at least for opera) motivation to kill her. And yet, and yet, the story itself is incredibly apt for modern times in its Christian-Muslim conflict, it is just a great shame the characters are not more alive than say in Giulio Cesare. But over all, I would say a B+, certainly not the failure its poor performance record would indicate.