Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
I know I promised that Margherita d‘Anjou would be next, and it will be up on May 1st, but I ended up doing this for some reason (apart from the fact that I had planned on doing this one year ago). Thankfully a good French recording was finally available, or rather a French-language recording of the complete opera, the pronunciation is terrible. This is number four for the month so I bid everyone adieu until May.
If perhaps Guillaume Tell is the biggest opera Rossini ever wrote (certainly it is the longest) this is the most extravagant, even a little ridiculous. Although a revision of Maometto II, the chance to wow Parisian audiences led Rossini to create perhaps the most grandiose work prior to the French advent of Meyerbeer. Capitalizing to some extent on the Greek Revolution of 1821, this, along with its parent work, is essentially the originator to multiple cliches of suicide in opera, who does it (usually women), and how (apparently by dramatically stabbing oneself, perferably surrounded by a chorus). This, I think it goes without saying, has little baring with the realities of self-murder. To some extent I have already reviewed this opera since I posted its original Italian version last year. It is a little shorter and has a few elements that are completely new (the overture, second act ballet, some of the choruses, and the third act finale). Because of the extravagant nature of this specific entry (and the fear I might give far too many three-star ratings) I am going to be extremely conservative here and only provide a single star rating per musical number. There are sixteen musical numbers plus the overture and the ballet, thus each will be treated as a single unified movement, so this review will have only eighteen entries over an almost three hour span. Wish me luck!
Also, since the original colour set designs are apparently in public domain I am including them before each act.
SETTING: Corinth, 1459. Basically the same as Maometto II but with the names, setting, and some of the voice casting changed to suit French tastes. Also the structure is condensed, with the first act literally being an edited version of the first act of Maometto II while being only around half the length of the original first act. The last two acts are based on act two of Maometto with the action split in half and the third act ends with completely different music. Gone are the Venetian settlers in Greece, this is just Greeks vs. Turks. Pamyra (soprano) is the daughter of Cleomene (tenor) the governor of Corinth. She is engaged to Neocles (tenor) but is kidnapped by her secret lover who is revealed to be Mahomet II (bass) in events that lead to her stabbing herself to death right in front of him as the city of Corinth falls to the Turks amid a torrent of flames.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A vestibule in the senate palace, Corinth. (57 minutes)
0: The overture *** is spectacular, even a little too amazing. It is based on a series of themes that get repeated but there is one tune that just pops back in all the time which is just irresistible and it forms the crescendos (possibly the best Rossini wrote). It also has no direct musical connection to the opera at all, being added specifically for Paris.
9: Ta noble voix, Seigneur The opera starts off with the same introduction as that of Maometto II and basically the same opening male chorus of Corinthian senators ***. Cleomene makes his opening statements setting up the plot for everyone before Neocles shows up wanting to fight the Turks but Cleomene is against it even though old Hieros seconds the plan to attack. This entire sequence lasts some eleven minutes and the ensemble elements (there are three major incidents) are just brilliant (if basically just rehashing the exact same music from Maometto II). Even the recitative here might surprise you!
23: Disgrâce horrible! A magnificent trio ***, basically a shortened (nine minutes, again with three climactic incidents at the beginning, middle, and end) version of the original twenty-five minute Terzettone starting off first with the three (Pamyra, Cleomene, and Neocles discussing their domestic situation (and Pamyra references a secret lover that she has hidden from her father and fiancé) followed by the arrival of the Corinthians running away from the invading Turkish forces and the two men go off to defend the city). I would assume that since it is so much shortened that it contains the best elements from the original number in a compact form.
33: La flamme rapide The Turks march in and celebrate their victory over the Greeks **.
36: La gloire et la fortune Mahomet gets his victory aria * which is okay, but it is sort of a low point in the score in comparison to what has come before.
46: Arrêtez! écoutez! Omar, the second of Mahomet, asks what is to be done with the Greeks (are they to be killed?) Mahomet, however, is magnanimous and releases Cleomene (who begs Mahomet to kill him). The act finale *** begins when Pamyra arrives and realizes that her secret lover is in fact her mortal enemy. The main characters react to the revelation (Cleomene is enraged with his daughter, Pamyra does not know where to turn, Mahomet just wants Pamyra to go with him). In the magnificent stretta Pamyra is taken by Mahomet much to fury of her father and the Greeks in general, the Turks themselves are not overtly thrilled about the actions of their leader either.
ACT 2: The tent of Mahomet II. (63 minutes)
(This act is supposed to start with a divertissement for Ismene (the maid of Pamyra who apparently has been taken with her mistress by the Turks) and the chorus of harem girls who occupy this act. Here it is moved to the central part of the act along with the ballet.)
5: Du séjour de la lumière Pamyra, alone with Turkish harem girls, sings a dramatic patriotic song ** (and there is a hint in the chorus of harem girls of a bit of fury from the overture).
14: Que-vois je! The centrepiece of the act is the confrontational duet * between Pamyra and Mahomet. It starts off energetic for both parties but then bogs down into sadness as Pamyra thinks about her father. The problem with it isn’t that it doesn’t maintain dramatic tension (it does) but there is no great tune here and there really should be. Instead it just meanders about well enough until Omar arrives (to yet another meandering tune from the orchestra). For some reason the harem girls get in on the act and the number ends with an energetic if somewhat lumbering finish. Mahomet announces that he is to marry Pamyra.
26, 34: L’hymene lui donne Ismene entertains with her catchy (if very brief) wedding song **. This is followed by a lengthy ballet, the first movement of which is rather dull, but the second movement strongly resembles the overture to Il viaggio a Rheims ** because that overture is an artificial construction of the 20th century based on this movement from the ballet of Le Siege de Corinthe. The third movement is more ordinary ballet music, except that hints of the third act finale are present here.
46: Divin prophète Suddenly a harp breaks out of nowhere and we are in a celestial choral hymn to the Prophet of Islam ***.
51: Il est mon frère Neocles arrives unexpectedly (we have not seen him in close to seventy-five minutes actually) and in order to save his life because Mahomet wants to execute him, Pamyra declares that he is her brother. The second act finale *** begins then with another trio ensemble (with some excellent tenor vocal work). The middle part is softer as Mahomet mellows but when he realizes that the Greeks are defiantly nationalistic he takes umbrage and as they embark on a Hellenic hymn the Turks are not really sure what to do. In the explosive stretta Pamyra is released back to the Corinthians.
ACT 3: The Corinthian graveyard, the tomb of the mother of Pamyra visible. (44 minutes)
7: O toi que je révère The menacing and forboding nature of the prelude does not immediately give away that Neocles will dominate the first half of the act. After an interaction with a Greek soldier named Adraste, he is left alone (as he was at the start of the act) and over hears a gorgeous prayer from the Greek women *** which also provides our tenor with a great opportunity at vocal display.
9: Grand Dieu, faut-il qu’un peuple Neocles embarks on a magnificent aria ***, at first furious, actually mostly furious, with some beautifully gentle passages as the words are a combination of prayer and anger at Pamyra.
19: Céleste providence! Cleomene arrives and after the two men discuss their rage the object of their ire arrives as Pamyra falls before her father begging his forgiveness. It is only when she references that the tomb of her own mother is in this cemetery that her father is even remotely willing to forgive her transgression. Their trio *** is yet another gorgeous passage in an already excellent score.
26: Marchons! Old Hieros comes on and after a dispatch for Cleomene he leads the Greeks into a militaristic nationalistic frenzy ** with a recounting of a series of Ancient Greek military victories. A rousing finish.
37: Juste ciel The last eight minutes or so of the opera top everything before it in terms of spectacle. Instead of a massive forty-minute aria con coro for the soprano, all hell breaks loose for the Greeks (and the Turks in the end). Pamyra comes on with her Greek maidens like Cassandra during the fall of Troy. Two things to look out for: First, a beautiful if subtle prayer *** (at first to a lone harp accompaniment, then the strings come in) from Pamyra (later joined by the maidens).
40: Mais quels accents Second, suddenly the menacing chorus of Turkish soldiers arrives and Pamyra threats to kill herself when Mahomet comes near her, and then she stabs herself *** leaving him with his men as the Greek women mass copy-cat in front of them (incidentally Pamyra isn’t even dead yet, she is just dying) as the city of Corinth burns and the curtain falls. Rossini pulls out all the stops here and goes ballistic on us like it is the Second Coming (the chorus and orchestra bang out the tune in unison as the soloists battle out for supremacy above everything, including the sacking of the city) for two and a half minutes.
The one fatal flaw in Le Siège is that there isn’t enough dramatic build-up for the central character of Pamyra as there is for Anna in Maometto Secondo. Instead of her character being firmly established by the first thirty minutes or so of act one (along with her psychological complexity and references to her suicidal tendencies), she is barely in most of the act at all (just the nine minute trio and the finale, all of about twenty minutes in an act that lasts nearly an hour). Pamyra has to been fleshed out in act two but instead of hers being a psychological portrayal of a woman in sexual torment confronted with cultural clash, it is the drive of Hellenic nationalism that propels the disgrace and the eventual, somewhat inevitable, suicide. Otherwise the two operas are almost interchangeable except in one respect: whereas Maometto II is an intimate work centred on the lives of four people, Le Siège de Corinthe is a blatant spectacle praising a mythic form of Orientalist Greek nationalism (although the Greeks are actually the Westerners here), as well as popularizing the operatic cliché that women dramatically stab themselves to death as a rational solution to their romantic problems. There are moments of intimacy (after all we are dealing with basically the same music) but there is just so much overwhelming grandeur here that simply does not exist in the comparatively claustrophobic Italian original. The best music (apart from the overture, and otherwise until we get to the spectacular finale) consists of passages lifted directly from Maometto II just translated into French. And yet, just as Maometto II is perhaps my favourite Rossini tragic opera, I can not help but at least love Corinthe and admire its bizarre over-the-top-ness. An alpha.