Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
I have decided to gradually review the Meyerbeer Italian operas, of which there are six although I only know of four complete recordings. Il Crociato in Egitto has been taking me way too long (I started it in October, 2017 and still have only gotten around thirty minutes into act two, it is also already over 2000 words long, so it isn’t like I haven’t been working on it it is just such a mammoth!) so I decided on the much shorter but dramatically powerful Emma di Resburgo, which was the first of the Italian operas to seriously demonstrate the dark Teutonic orchestral effects and vocal lyricism of the mature Meyerbeer operas. In other words, this is the first opera in which Meyerbeer successfully, or at least consciously, combined what he had learned of Italian vocal artistry with his German orchestral background, thus making this score in many ways a prototype for his future compositions.
This opera was first performed at the height of the Italian craze for Scottish settings, La donna del Lago by Rossini having premiered only three months earlier. Meyerbeer had already written two successful Italian-language operas modelled on the style of Rossini (Romilda e Costanza, and the more opera seria-ish Semiramide riconosciuta), but it was the success of this, the third opera Meyerbeer wrote in Italy, which finally sparked the friendship the two composers had until Meyerbeer died in 1864. It received 74 performances in its first production in Venice alone and went on to become very popular in Germany and Austria (where it was performed in a German translation). Incidentally, this was also the first opera by Meyerbeer to be published. Following his death, the opera disappeared until 2010 when a concert performance in Vienna became the origin for the current recording.
SETTING: Scotland, 1070. There is a lot of backstory to this one: Edemondo (contralto) is the rightful hire to the Earldom of Lanark, but when he is accused of murdering his own father he and his wife Emma (soprano) disappear without a trace. Meanwhile, Norcesto (tenor) the son of the man who inherited Lanark following the disappearances, is now Earl although Olfredo (bass), lord of Tura (and apparent winner of the Best Feudal Lord award), claims he and his father were/are illegitimate rulers. There are only two other soloist roles, a knight named Donaldo (tenor), and Etelia (soprano), the daughter of Olfredo neither of which really does all that much. Eventually the real Earl and his wife have their cover blown when Norcesto asks far too many questions about their son, who happens to be kept by Olfredo in his castle.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (75 minutes)
0: The overture ** starts off with a Rossini-esque bang-bang opener and then, something rather different: horns, brass, woodwinds, and a delightfully bright tune scampers about in the strings which becomes more sinister as time goes on but it maintains an almost dance-like quality. Striking is also the usage of timpani and cymbals. The orchestration is rather free, the transitions from one section to another are seamless to an extent unknown in Rossini. The crescendo does not quite have the buildup of a Rossini overture and the initial comedown is a little bit of a let down but it returns to the scampering tune and all is well. The second go is just delightful.
Scene 1: Countryside before the castle of Tura.
11: Ecco il giorno sospirato The opening scene starts with what seems like the Pastoral Symphony but it isn’t quite, just very peaceful nature music. After a monologue from Olfredo, the lord of the castle, the male chorus of shepherds ** comes on about how peaceful their lives are before they are interrupted by Norcesto, the Earl of Lanark.
14: In campo, fra nemici A grand tenor aria con coro from Norcesto *** which seems somewhere between Rossini and Lohengrin. A Herald comes on announcing that it is forbidden to grant sanctuary to Edemondo, who has forfeited the title of Earl of Lanark when he apparently murdered his own father. Olfredo appears to not buy this premise and warns Norcesto that he knows the circumstances by which his became Earl of Lanark: Edemondo was found holding a dagger over the body of his father, but he claimed to not have killed him. No one believed him, prompting him to disappear (as did his wife Emma) and the father of Norcesto became earl (something he is very touchy about). The orchestration here is a thousand miles beyond Rossini with furious brass and timpani akin more to the 9th Symphony.
24: Sulla rupe triste Emma herself arrives (disguised as a minstrel) to a harp accompanied aria of immense dramatic depth ***. Her reason for the costume is that her son Elvino is housed by Olfredo in his castle.
37: Ciel pietoso This is followed by a patch of good orchestral music (horns and flutes duetting) which turns into a bit of a mini-symphony. A mysterious contralto shepherd arrives on the scene and embarks on a sober cavatina * of minimalist beauty followed by an only slightly more pulsating cabaletta. I can not help but feel that much of the music for Fides in Le Prophete is here in embryonic form.
44: Ah! tu vivi! The shepherd is recognized by Olfredo and Emma as Edemondo himself and he is joyously reunited with his wife in a lovely trio ** (the first part is slow, even a little sluggish, but it eventually picks up and the scene ends furiously).
Scene 2: Great Hall of castle Tura decorated for a feast.
55: Il piacer aleggi intorno After Olfredo reunites Edemondo with his son Elvino, Etelia comes on with a warning that the villagers are coming to pay homage to Olfredo in a soprano led choral number which has strong Teutonic undertones **.
60:Quai sembianze! The first act finale is in four movements: First *, Norcesto shows up (again uninvited) and comments on how similarly the little boy Elvino resembles Edemondo (who he apparently knew at some point in the past so as to be able to make this comparison?). Everyone quietly panics and Norcesto has the boy arrested.
64: Emma son io! Second **, Emma reveals her true identity and gets herself arrested as well. Do notice the usage of the viola here and in the first movement.
65: Di gioia, di pace Third, a quartet in which the principles embark on a lovely movement of reflection **. Oddly gentle considering on what is happening on stage. Donaldo and the chorus chuck in their penny worth as well.
69: Vieni alla reggia Fourth, in the stretta ***, Olfredo has the most difficult time trying to keep Edemondo from revealing himself as the chorus and orchestra bang out a mighty storm amid some good high soprano work from Emma. A rousing end to the act.
ACT 2: (63 minutes)
Scene 1: Glasgow, a gallery in the palace of Lanark.
0: Ci svela! Although the act actually starts with Donaldo telling Norcesto that Edemondo has not been found and he is then given orders to treat Emma with dignity followed by the arrival of Olfredo and Etelia asking that Emma be brought in and then her reproaching Norcesto for separating her from her son and then him tell her that they will be reunited when she reveals where her husband is (were you able to catch all of that?), we jump all of this for the arrival of the knights and villagers who demand that Edemondo be brought in and tried for patricide. This chorus is extremely rousing *** and orchestrally darkly Teutonic.
5: Deh! mirate quel sembiante It is followed by a quiet and Italianate aria * for Edemondo who turns himself in for trial (almost protesting his innocence). This last bit infuriates the people who demand his immediate execution to yet more furious Teutonic-sounding chorusing!
10: La sorte barbara Edemondo goes on for part two * and again the combined choral-orchestral effects far overshadow the contralto. Only Olfredo and Etelia are left alone to discuss what they can do to save Edemondo.
Scene 2: Hall of Justice in the palace.
18: Si decida, giustizia rigore Meyerbeer gives us yet another great choral sequence in the judgement ***. The main tune from the overture returns at this point as they pronounce that the sentence is death, and the execution is to be carried out on the grave of the old earl!
22: Ebben! Io trema! Emma comes on to a strong recitativo accompagnato * horrified by what must be the most wildly anticipated sentence in human history and as Norcesto hesitates on signing the execution warrant she accusesÂ himof having committed the murder!
28: Ah che il core He flatly denies this as they embark on an at first furious and later lyrical (almost romantic) duet **.
31: Giura: non osi? The finale (and best) part of the duet *** allows the scene to conclude on a rousing finish.
Scene 3: Same as scene 1.
36: Odo una voce al core After a dialogue with her father which hints that something is nagging at Norcesto, Etelia is given her one opportunity at an aria and it has all of the charm of a similar number from a Mozart opera for a similarly minor character **. It is a cute piece even if it isn’t great. Don’t miss it because it goes in all of two minutes.
Scene 4: Cemetery where the rulers of Lanark are buried.
40, 45: Ecco di morte lora/Il di cadra Meyerbeer pulls out some more orchestral big gun effects here for Emma in her second big solo scene *** this time pairing off her vocals with a succession of solo instruments (cor-anglais, flute, clarinet, and the ever present horn). She feels certain that she will not long survive her husband as she contemplates the grave of her father-in-law. The aria itself *** starts off with an interlude that could have been a quotation from the Pastoral. Interestingly, there is none of the ornamentation one will see in later Meyerbeer soprano roles. Although the orchestra is showcased in many of the same ways as it later would be, there is no attempt at overt vocal display here. It is much too subtle, but just as dramatically effective.
49: Del fellon che ti tradi Yet another great dramatic male chorus *** as Edemondo is brought on for the execution and a funeral march is played.
52: Ah, si morassi ormai The finale *** has a lot going on: Norcesto is finally persuaded by Olfredo and Etelia to reveal the truth: it was his father who murdered the old earl and as proof he has the signed deathbed confession of his father! Edemondo is restored to his position and family and Emma embarks on a grand Rossini-style final soprano aria (with coloratura this time) as everyone rejoices that justice reigns.
Although the plot is a bit far-fetched and simplistic, the score of Emma di Resburgo is, for the most part, rather remarkable with its dark and dramatically powerful Teutonic orchestration, rousing choral sequences, and grand soprano and tenor vocals for Emma and Norcesto. Certainly Meyerbeer was worthy of being considered the only rival in Italy at the time to Rossini for if anything with this score the German Jew surpassed the Italian here! There is an exception to all the greatness: Edemondo is a rather boring contralto role, and pitting the subdued alto music to rousing choral and orchestral work only amplified this low point for me. However, even in the lesser quality of this music, the Meyerbeer of Les Huguenots, Le Prophete, and Vasco de Gama is already there and in the best soloist music which is provided for the soprano and tenor leads it is most satisfactorily put on display. There is much which sounds like Beethoven or even Mozart here, but the mature Meyerbeer of the Paris operas can be made out from under all the similarities to other German composers. The character of Olfredo, or rather they way everyone just adores him for being a just and peaceful feudal lord in an idyllic rural setting, can come off as a bit conceited, but only a little. A forgotten alpha.
Margherita d’Anjou will be released on May 1.