Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours.
Sorry guys, this post has nothing to do with St. Patrick or Ireland, although it does have something to do with Catholicism.
The Conquest of America by the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov is one of my favourite works of philosophical history. Here is an opera based not on the first part of that book (which has been the subject of around a dozen operas about Montezuma, all of which have notoriously failed like they have some sort of curse laid on them) but the second part, the Spanish invasion of Peru led by Fransisco Pizarro in 1532-33. What both the book and this opera do is sympathize with the conquered Inca rather than degrade them the way most western historical narratives have. And so, your operatic SJW presents an essay on colonialism and race relations in opera.
I was going to do a revision of Fernand Cortez but this history of the last Sapa Inca (the Incan Emperor in 1532-33) during the Spanish conquest just seemed too good (and rare) to pass up. The composer, Carlo Enrico Pasta (1817-1898), was a Milanese Italian (and supposedly cousin of Giuditta Pasta) who settled in Peru in 1855 (sort of a reversal of Carlos Antonio Gomes) and wrote a long list of now mostly forgotten zarzuelas and operettas. Even Atahualpa is technically lost, the orchestral score was destroyed sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, although an almost totally complete piano-vocal score exists and is available for free at Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP). The libretto is by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the librettist of Aida and unfortunately the opera has been negatively compared to the Verdi masterwork (when it is thought of at all). The influences appear to be Meyerbeer (mildly) and early period Verdi (particularly, not too surprisingly, Alzira). The premiere was in Genoa, followed by successful performances in Milan and Lima before the opera disappeared and the orchestral score suffered some sort of untimely fate, thus sentencing the opera to oblivion. The recording on review here is of the Peruvian radio broadcast in 2013 which has since been released on CD by Universal and is based on an orchestral reconstruction of the only surviving piano-vocal score by composer Matteo Angeloni. The opera is divided into twenty musical numbers and each act gets progressively shorter.
SETTING: Peru, 1533. This operas has a LOT of historical figure name dropping, and unlike a lot of European operas, don’t expect this to be a typical tale of Europeans good-Indigenous bad. The basic gist of the plot is that Francisco Pizzarro (baritone) and his brother Fernando (also baritone) leading Spanish troops against the Inca and lieutenant Hernando de Soto (tenor) is in love with the Incan princess Cora (soprano) who decides to convert to Christianity (for romantic and not creedal reasons) by the evil monk Valverde (bass) who then uses her conversion to declare that the Incan emperor Atahualpa (baritone) has himself converted to Christianity in any attempt to weaken the position of the emperor with the indigenous population and hand over the empire to the Spanish after Atahualpa is abducted by the Spanish during a raid on the Incan town of Cajamarca. In the end Cora commits suicide in a massive human sacrifice sequence to atone for betraying her people in favour of the alien ideology of Catholicism as the Incas sing what will become the Peruvian National Anthem.
NOTE: My Italian is not the best (I am hardly fluent in the language) but I do know enough to have been able to execute my usual review summary format for this opera. However, there are a few plot points I probably either never figured out and/or confused me (for instance: did Cora actually convert to Christianity or just decide that she would in order to marry De Soto at some future date?). There aren’t that many sources: apart from articles (mostly in Spanish or Italian) about the 2013 CD release, my only other sources were the piano-vocal score (which is in Italian) and the reference to the opera in the Encyclopaedia Britannica within the article on Carlo Enrico Pasta. As far as I know, there is no synopsis of any length of this opera in English apart from my own which follows below.
(I am doing some remodelling, the video is at the end of the post below).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (42.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The Spanish Camp.
0: The prelude ** starts off with a morbid andante with an incredible sad theme but eventually bursts into a jovial Latin American dance (it gets a second star for this tune alone). Nice scenic music.
4: Al sole, alle piogge The all-boys opening chorus of Spanish soldiers starts off rather mundane but picks up speed when they finally go into unison *.
7: Pizzarro and Valverde eventually arrive in a fury and a duettino con coro develops *.
10: S‘affrettin gli eventi A very furious Brindisi ** led by Pizzarro with the chorus.
13, 18: Tutto, tutto io ti dirt in brevi accenti/Forte a pugnare De Soto arrives and asks for peace to be made with the Inca (there is a cute fanfare that breaks up this scene as the chorus leave with Pizzarro so De Soto is alone with Valverde). De Soto embarks on a lovely little romanza * in F major about peace and love with the natives which is as sweet and mild as milk. In the second half Valverde schemes under his breath as De Soto sings away, Pizzarro returns and the trio has one really holy melody that seriously improves the situation ** as the two laymen prepare to go on a diplomatic mission to the Incan Emperor just before the scene ends.
Scene 2: A room in the Imperial palace.
20: O Sole anima The Incas sing a hymn to the Sun **, but after just a few minutes of holy chorusing they break into some jovial dancing and another choral number. Although never to stunning level (although it comes close), it is really very good.
25: Le tazze in giro Atahualpa comes on with assorted Incan religious leaders and leads in a sacred drinking song **.
29: Dal labbro tuo fatidico Cora arrives to choral backing and pronounces a prophecy * in Eb-major although it is the most jolly of things that unless you are looking at the annotation in the vocal score you would have no idea, either that or her positive prediction is so off the mark that she should be fired for violating the Trades Description Act.
35: E dietro lui in minaccioso Atahualpa responds before De Soto and Pizzaro arrive to some amusing Palm Court Trio recitative *. The chorus warns the Emperor not to believe the Spaniards, but Cora eggs him on. De Soto sees Cora and as per 19th century soprano-tenor opera law falls instantly in love with her.
38: Notasti o amico A quintet con coro ensues which is really very lovely ** as Pizzaro persuades Atahualpa to meet with him at the town of Cajamarca.
41: Di Cajamarca entro le mura The chorus wants blood, but instead the Spaniards leave thanks to Cora with De Soto vowing to return to thank her **.
ACT 2: (32.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The private chambers of Cora in the palace.
0: Perche non ti adorni A Spanish-sounding entr’acte and female chorus opens the act rather effectively ** with Cora making occasional interjections. She dismisses the girls and her maid.
7: Lontan dal mia patria The love duet ** in F-minor starts off well with the arrival of De Soto, gets slightly ornery because of some handing over of the orchestration to the brass, but then goes back on the rails. Eventually they are interrupted by an Incan fanfare from outside and De Soto is forced to make his exit.
Scene 2: The town square at Cajamarca.
15: Se tu a pieta de non After Pizzarro and Fernando plot out the abduction and Valverde plans his rouse, De Soto arrives and is horrified when he is filled in on what is about to happen. At first a cavatina for Pizzarro, the number turns into a rather magnificent trio for the Spaniards ***. Valverde even pulls a knife on De Soto but Pizzarro stops him. Six thrilling minutes.
21: Te lodiamo! The March of the Incas **, tuneful, even a little early-19th century, followed by a chorus of the same interest although the women inject a bit of interest, as does a return of the Incan dance tune. This is probably the most Meyerbeerian number so far.
28, 31: No! Non e Dio/All’armi! Pizzarro blows everything by declaring the entire Incan Empire under the power of King Charles V of Spain and Valverde and Atahualpa have a confrontation about whose god is more powerful. The act finale ** grows in intensity with a quintet con coro and then with the closing moments after Valverde confuses everyone declaring that Atahualpa has converted to Christianity and the Emperor is taken prisoner by the Spaniards ***.
The Ransom Room of Atahualpa as it still stands in Cajamarca, Peru. Photo curtesy of Wikipedia.
Scene 1: A room in the building now known as the Ransom Room (see photo above) in which Atahualpa is held prisoner. (20 minutes)
2: D’ogni mortal più misero Atahualpa, alone, is certain that death is near **.
6: Mio Re! Cora arrives in an attemptive prison breakout * but he is certain about death to the most cheery of tunes (very awkward). Morbidity does eventually set in.
11: Prince! Il consiglio Valverde arrives to torture Atahualpa into actually converting to Catholicism. De Soto is for some reason in on this and the revelation that Cora has converted to marry him gives Atahualpa even more reason to reject the Spaniards and their weird religion **.
Scene 2: A desolate place.
14: Sulla patria oppressa The Incas get their Va pensiero **, although it is unfortunately more like the Lombards on crusade than the Hebrews on the Euphrates in Babylon.
16: No! Dell’eterno Sole The act finale ***, Cora comes on and admits her betrayal of her people out of her blind love for the Spaniard De Soto. She plans to commit suicide.
ACT 4 (25 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the palace.
0: Pizzarro! Ebben? The act opens with a furious entr’acte followed by a recitative between Pizzarro and Fernando *.
2: O fratel se al suolo Pizzarro expresses his feelings on the hostage situation in a good aria directed toward his brother ** which gets interrupted satisfactorily by the Incas in the basement.
5: A morte! In lui si spenga A raging ensemble *** as De Soto vents his anti-violence anger at Pizzarro for ruining not just his romantic prospects but also for destroying any hope of positive relations with the Inca.
8: Vieni! Su cor mi serra Atahualpa is brought in ***. Valverde interrogates as De Soto curses him. Atahualpa appears to have a vision of Cora and De Soto gets a very nice high A.
Scene 2: A vast piazza.
12: Con nobil gara The 12-minute finale **: Cora is alone, De Soto finds her and begs her to fly with him (of course) but she is having little of it (of course) and orders him to stay away from her. There are several rapid changes in tone, finally settling on a Marche funebre. De Soto is still on even though Cora is definitely going through with her atoning sacrifice, lots of unison singing, very little harmonization.
19: Vi arresta te! The playout **: starts off with the dreadful Valverde trying to stop his protege from offing herself because Christianity and its god is evil and not loving.
21: Sarem liberil! Cora stabs herself to the horror of De Soto; the Incas burst into the Peruvian National Anthem *** and attack the Spanish.
According to an article about this opera from GBOpera Magazine, neither the Spaniards as individuals nor the Incas are villainous. Although Pizzarro is influenced by the real evil in the piece, Valverde, it is Catholicism and the Inquisition that are the enemy in this opera, and that was the intention of the Italian librettist and composer. The invading Spaniards and the Incas are cast as two halves of the future gene pool of the Peruvian nation, and the abortive love of de Soto and Cora is a prototype for later racial mixing that would bring about modern day Peruvians.
Musically the opera is pretty good, although I will concede that we really don’t know what the opera actually sounded like since the original orchestration is most likely destroyed. I can’t call it a lost masterpiece (it really isn’t) but it does have some excellent moments in the second and fourth acts and the total impression of the score is of a professional rendering of multiple Italian (early Verdi), French, German (Meyerbeer), and Peruvian influences. Things are a little slow to start, but the dramatic situation is tense enough to sustain interest. The characters are all stock: standard tenor/soprano interracial duo ending in tragedy in De Soto and Cora, bass psychotically religious villain in Valverde, indecisive baritone would be hero in Pizzarro (this is probably the weakest characterization in the main cast and it is a little annoying that Ghislanzoni didn’t do more to flesh out the Spanish conquistador, especially when De Soto has been transformed into an Indigenous rights ally), sympathetic baritone Indigenous hero in Atahualpa. The portrayal of the Incas is strikingly progressive for the late-19th century: these are hardly savages, noble or otherwise, rather they are a subjugated people in many ways just as advanced as the Spaniards and philosophically less barbaric than the Inquisition which is about to be thrust upon them. Far from being victims, however, the Inca are seen as the ultimate equals of the Spanish in the building of the later Peruvian nation and in this regard, the love that the Italian-born composer had for his adopted country comes out in full force.
Overall a B+ or an A- although I am rather certain almost everyone would object to me giving something this obscure anything in the alpha range.
LINK TO PIANO-VOCAL SCORE ON IMSLP: