Giacomo Meyerbeer: Margherita d’Anjou (1820)

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 53 minutes (with 12 minute appendix).

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Anyone assuming that Meyerbeer only started to take on stage spectacle in 1830s Paris only needs to hear Margherita! Based on the life of the 15th century Queen of England during the War of the Roses, it was the first of the Meyerbeer operas to explore historical characters and events and mix them with fictional characters and situations (Emma di Resburgo being entirely fictional and based on a novel originally set in Provence but switched to Scotland in the Italian Scottish opera craze of 1819). Unlike Emma (which did achieve success in Italy, Germany, and Austria), Margherita had something more of an afterlife following its La Scala premiere including translation into both French and German, a Paris premiere in 1826 in a revised version, and a production in New Orleans in 1854. The score is also unusual for an opera semiseria for its requirement of a buffo bass as the French physician Gamautte and casting need for a trio of strong basses. There are nine soloists (also unusually) including four basses, two tenors, a mezzo-soprano, and two sopranos. There are ten musical numbers.

SETTING: Scotland, 1462. Queen-Mother Margaret (soprano), widow of King Henry VI of England, has raised a French army to retake England for her son, but defeat on the battlefield by the Duke of Gloucester (bass) has driven her forces to Scotland where her lover, the Duke of Lavarenne (tenor) has shacked up with her. He is followed, however, by his wife Isaura (mezzo-soprano) who has disguised herself as a boy named Eugenio and is employed by the French physician Gamautte (buffo bass). General Belmonte (bass) has been exiled by the Queen and he has sided with Gloucester. Margaret disguises herself as the wife of the physician, but is discovered and captured along with her son by Gloucester but eventually Lavarenne and Gamautte success in liberating her and Gloucester is defeated when Belmonte defects once more to Margaret.

 

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (94 minutes)

0: The overture *** is my favourite from the Italian operas, full scale, and if a little shorter than that of Emma di Resburgo, the elements ultimately consummate better than with the earlier more orchestrally dark opera. There is one dominating tune, and it is a joy, very dapper. The finish is basically an irresistible trot with the flute bopping about delightfully. There are some brief moments of menace, but this is almost the overture to a comic opera.

Scene 1: A military encampment near a river cutting through a vast plain.

7: Quattro / Cinque The opera starts off with a choral card game ** between Bellapunta, a tenor English officer in service to the Queen who shows up frequently as comic relief, and Orner, another officer of the Queen. The chorus embarks on some delightful celebrating (dancing, drinking, singing) before the arrival (undercover) of General Carlo Belmonte who has been banished by the Queen and is now employed by the rival Duke of Gloucester who has sent him to spy on Margherita.

12: Miei fedeli, queste prove The Queen arrives and gives words of encouragement to her soldiers ***. As her high soprano floats about with bel canto loveliness, Belmonte bickers to himself below. It is followed by a brief but rousing choral finish.

25: Tu non sai com’io l’adoro After the arrival of Isaura (the mezzo-soprano wife of the Duke of Lavarenne disguised as a boy named Eugenio because he has deserted her in his adulterous love for Queen Margherita) has a sobering buffo duet with Dr. Gamautte, who is apparently her employer and wants her husband to return to her and go back to France ***.

35: Fra gli applausi, e lieti viva Lavarenne himself finally arrives following a military victory and is lauded by the soldiers **.

39: È riposta in questi accenti After saluting the Queen, Lavarenne goes into his military aria ***. Bellapunta informs Margaret that two Frenchmen want to join their forces and although he does not immediately recognize her, the voice of Isaura haunts Lavarenne (who has not seen his wife in five years). Margaret finds Isaura (in her male guise) highly attractive and accepts them into her troops.

Scene 2: The tent of the Duke of Lavarenne.

54: Sì mesto e penoso Lavarenne decides to write one last love letter to Margaret and have Eugenio (really his wife Isaura) to deliver it. A duet develops ** in which the boy accepts the mission only when Lavarenne promises that in the upcoming battle (in which they might both die) that he (Eugenio) be allowed to fight at his (Lavarenne) side. The Queen arrives, something about a troop arriving and ordering them all to swear allegiance to her son as rightful King of England, and the chorus of soldiers returns for a reprise of their bit from the previous scene. Belmonte arrives with terms for Margaret if she wishes to regain the throne. They all go off to battle.

Scene 3: A forest clearing before a huge oak tree.

68: Fra quest’ombre e queste rupi  After a bit from Gertrude, (apparently the Scottish wench of Belmonte) who is recruiting Scots for Gloucester, Lavarenne, Isaura, and Gamautte come on fearing that Margaret has been captured by Gloucester during the battle since the French troops have again been defeated by the English. In its early stages the act finale takes the form of a trio ***.

76: Zitto, zitto! Scottish mercenary troops arrive in the wood and subdue the trio ***. Eventually Margaret comes on. Belmonte finally arrives with some menacing bass vocals as he tells Scots to lay off the Frenchy trio as he quickly sees through the disguise of the Queen-Mother. To the surprise of all when she recognizes him he swears his loyalty to her and the Scots turn to the French cause against the English and Gloucester. Bellapunta arrives with the French troops and Belmonte proposes that Margaret disguise herself as a Scotswoman (specifically as the wife of Dr. Gamautte). A lot of this occurs of okay but really just serviceable plot forwarding accompagnato (except for a brief tune in the flute which shows up eighty-eight minutes in).

90: Ma più d´appresso The stretta *** is a furious affair as the combined French-Scottish force plans their counter-attack against the English, ending on a spectacular high-D for Margherita.

ACT 2: (68 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 1, although closer to the forest now.

0,3: Voliamo amici!/Che bell′alba! A sort of Scottish-sounding peasants chorus ** (notice the effect with the lower woodwinds and strings). Belmonte has trapped Margaret, as he reports everything to Gloucester (who is furious that she and her son have evaded capture for so long). Gloucester orders that the forest be set fire to in order to drive Margaret and her son out.

Scene 2: A Scottish village.

7, 11, 17: Gioia svani!/ Incerto palpito After an orchestral intermezzo with a violin solo (which might have been a prototype for Verdi in I Lombardi only it is better **) Margherita comes on and sings with this violin ***. The Scots show up and tell her that terrible news that Gloucester is burning down the forest and invading their village. She begs them to protect her and her son from the English. The cabaletta is much the same soprano fireworks con violin **. When Isaura is ordered by Lavarenne to deliver a letter to Margherita, she finally reveals her true identity to the Queen (in recitative).

Scene 3: The tent of Lavarenne as in Act 1 Scene 2.

25: Tu, che le vie segrete Lavarenne (the cad) wonders if he will ever be able to get over his fatal attraction to both the Queen and his wife **.

Scene 4: The interior of a cottage.

35: Pensa e guarda A somewhat musically confusing comic trio * for Gloucester, Belmonte, and Gamautte. It seems to be all over the place, but there are hints here of the Anabaptist trio in Le Prophete if you look hard enough.

40: Ecco, Alterzza Margherita comes in playing housewife to Gamautte ** and prepares to cook something or another. Eventually Gloucester catches on and arrests her and her son.

44: Oh rabbia! Oh furore! Lavarenne arrives to tell the Queen that they have been victorious in the new battle *** and orders Gloucester to let Margherita and the boy go, but Gloucester is having none of it and threatens to kill the boy but the Scots burst into the cottage, hold him up, and captured him. The scene ends with a brief allegro.

Scene 5: The village square.

55: Mio pianta rasciuga After Bellapunta tells the villagers of the French-Scottish victory over the English, Isaura and Gamautte pop in with him trying to reassure her that Lavarenne will return to her, but she really isn’t so sure and expresses her fear in a beautiful mezzo/contralto aria ***.

62: Ah! Sposo adorabile Realizing all the things she has done and all the risks she has taken just to be with him, Lavarenne realizes that he must return to his wife and does so with the blessing of the Queen amid general rejoicing **.

APPENDIX:

The appendix consists of a single twelve minute number for Margherita and chorus divided into three tracts which should be inserted at the start of act 2 scene 2. This is the aria Dolce albergo in pace *** and includes the lovely violin solo concerto. Notice that the chorus has traces of the finale of Maometto II in it. Overall a great prima donna aria.

COMMENTS:

Although the orchestral texture is not as dark as in Emma di Resburgo, the overall vocal and orchestral effect is more advanced (if closer to Italian concepts than to German ones) here in Margherita d’Anjou. Also, the story isn’t as simplistic as that of its immediate predecessor (even if its villain barely has stage time and the romantic complication provided by Lavarenne is a little priggish and why Margherita tolerates him is beyond me, he really should just go back to his wife in Normandy, oh wait she isn’t there, she is in Scotland with him disguised as a boy!), nor are any of the musical numbers dull, apart from possibly the plot setting in the middle of the first act finale and the second act, although very good throughout, is not up to the level of the magnificent first act. Giving the final aria to the mezzo is also rather original, usually she would have to be the title character to get such treatment! Meyerbeer also makes a better try at Scottish-sounding music here (the second act opener) even though both this and Emma are set in the same country. As in the previous opera, one can tell that Meyerbeer is rapidly progressing towards the towering epic grand operas of Paris here which will be written ten, twenty, thirty, forty years later. Also, notice the use of recurring themes from the overture both here and in Emma di Resburgo. This is a couple of years before Der Freischutz, why does no one notice that Meyerbeer is already using aspects of his overtures in the main body of his operas, including the construction of entire act finale sections? Even with its unlikely cast of characters, including a would-be adulterous hero whose motivations make little sense, it is ultimately an alpha.

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