I had originally intended this to be my 100th post, obviously I got way ahead of my self! I actually started this back in October 2017, it just took a very long time to get through it!
Opera in two acts, Running Time: 3 hours 51 minutes (in performance). I’ve been thinking about reviewing this opera for a long time, but the Opera Rara recording of this opera is longer than even the longest recording of Rienzi (4 hours 43 minutes to be exact), albeit this is because of the massive appendix of extra numbers. I’ve actually had to listen to this opera like it was two separate operas, because the first is two and a quarter hours long and the second is well over an hour and a half! Technically, this should be a rather straightforward work: there are only fifteen numbers in the score, and nothing would indicate such a mammoth running time.
The plot is also not that difficult to follow albeit somewhat ridiculous. There are seven soloist parts, three for female voices, three for male, and one for castrato (the very last of its kind, thank G-d for the annihilation of this vile abomination in music, and generally performed today by either a mezzo-soprano or a male soprano). This is Armando, the titular crusader and a Knight of Rhodes, the secret husband (and baby daddy) of Palmide, daughter of Aladino, Sultan of Damietta (an Egyptian city on the Mediterranean), who he has also secretly converted to Christianity. Armando, having survived an attack which killed all of his companions five years earlier, now works as an advisor to the Sultan in the guise of a Muslim named Elmireno. (Don’t worry about this, there isn’t a living Elmireno who comes up later on and exposes Armando as a fraud.) Things are complicated (beyond all the deception) when Armando’s fiancee Felicia arrives in Egypt disguised as a knight among with the Grand Master of Rhodes, Adriano. Aladino discovers everything and imprisons the Christians and threatens to execute his own grandson but Palmide is able to persuade him otherwise. The Grand Vizier, Osmino, tries to use the situation to take power by freeing and arming the prisoners to overthrow the Sultan, but instead they kill him and save Aladino, who in gratitude pardons everyone. The only questions I have are why does all of this take almost five hours?!? And with only two acts, is that not rather hard on the kidneys?
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (135 minutes).
(It appears as if the appendix items for Act 1 were inserted into the original recording by Opera Rara, thus making it about seven minutes longer and I have made timer adjustments as I am working with a source although it is of the same recording, this does not appear to be the case of the second act). Because of the long period in which this review was produced the two acts will be imbalanced in terms of star-ratings. Act 1 has 22, including a lot of one-star items, whereas Act 2 is more conservative with 11 items but a tendency for higher ratings.)
Scene 1: A palazzo in the Sultan’s palace.
0: The twenty-minute opening scene ** starts with three minutes of delicately beautiful string andante punctuated by moments of distant trumpet voluntary. There is then a minute of agitation involving immediate brass and woodwinds before we come upon the first chorus which is of great power. Notice that in comparison to the usual Italian operas of the period there is a heavy emphasis on the brass and timpani (the end of the number especially sounds almost like a hunting scene), indicating German orchestral techniques by Meyerbeer which saturate the overall texture of the score.
10: I doni d’Elmireno A sweet little aria for the romantically inclined Palmide *. Not a separate number but in fact bundled in with the opening, important because already at this early period Meyerbeer is blurring the distinction between numbers and even between arioso and recitative.
13, 17: Il contento ch’io provo nel seno A duet for father and daughter as Aladino comes on * with the basso emoting some coloratura akin to the sort found in a Rossini comic opera, Palmide’s tune (the basis of the number) is basically the same as that of her aria. This followed by more trumpet voluntary and more dark orchestral colour. The shortest section is a yet another bit for father and daughter anticipating victory involving some rather good coloratura for Palmide ** as her father patters away with the chorus. Look out for the crescendo at the end, it is a knock out! A patch of recitative between Aladino, Osmino, and briefly Palmide follows.
Scene 2: A remote part of the Sultan’s garden.
23: Urridi vezzose A charming chorus of slaves *, note the strong mixture of horn and clarinet concluding rather sparkling with bells on and a wild flute dancing about **.
29: O figlio dell’amore Armando/Elmireno’s song to his son **. It takes a bit to build up but it is nice.
37, 40: Deh! per pietà, t’arresta Immediately Palmide comes on and without any break in the score husband and wife engage in a duet. Three parts: the first is very slow and the orchestra seems to be trying to work around it. Second, a sinister or rather worrisome element creeps into the lower strings but quickly disappears ** although the vocal lines that follow have elements of agony and flirting which are both worth looking out for, especially as Armando tells Palmide to leave him. Third, a sweet passage **, much of it with only the quietest contribution from the orchestra. This is the most Italianate part of the number. Palmide’s servant Alma interjects in recitative.
Scene 3: The port of Damietta.
45: Vedi il legno A magnificent male chorus with contributions from Palmide as the Sultan’s magnificent ship docks into port surrounded by ships from a variety of nations ***. The high rating is partially for the anticipated stage effects but the chorus itself is subtle enough to merit it. We get some cymbals towards the end of the number.
50, 55: Pace io reco Felicia gets a long aria con coro * in which she addresses the people of Egypt (all the while dressed as a Knight of Rhodes!). At first a rather standard and mild item, but fetching in its own quirky way. The chorus is lively and Osmino gets in on the act at the end of the scene in a recitative with Felicia. The second half of the aria is a bit better than the first, and includes more support from the chorus of Egyptians **.
Scene 4: Adriano’s ship.
60, 66, 76: Và: già varcasti, indegno A fugitive orchestral line opens this more intimate scene between Adriano and Armando. The first part is a rather free flowing arioso for Adriano ** with some lovely work for the flute. The duet itself is seventeen minutes long from the arrival of Armando and starts in recitativo as the Grand Master upbraids the knight for secretly marrying the Sultan’s daughter while being engaged to Felicia. More of this continues the scene *, watch particularly for the strings and a number of vocal and flute flourishes. There are good bits here to watch out for, but it is also very fragmentary and much of it is lyrical downtime. Notice the brass here * just before the four minute stretta for the duet, mutual amity has been achieved between Grand Master and knight and things get bouncy before Adriano orders a vow out of Armando.
Scene 5: The Garden as in Scene 2.
87, 96: Giovinetto cavalier Felicia reveals her true identity to Palmide and recognizes Armando as her fiance. A very long trio ensues ** starting off with a harp, horn, clarinet, and cello, it limps about a lot but there is still some good here. The last three minutes or so are especially lovely *** with the three female voices in harmony with each other. The orchestral conclusion is worth looking out for.
Scene 6: A magnificent room in the Sultan’s palace.
105: Gran profeta, là del cielo After a recitative between Aladino and Osmino we get an arioso for one of the female singers (I’m not sure which as this is the first of the additions) and then the most stately of choral numbers ***, initially from the Imams (tenors) praising the Prophet to woodwinds. The knights (basses) are accompanied by renaissance sounding brass.
111, 119, 123, 128: Elmireno! Palmide starts us off in a twenty-four minute long finale with a mild but oddly bright tune **. Aladino comes on to a stately march and addresses his soldiers. Adriano responses in turn as do the two women to so more flute dancing. Watch in this scene for all the moments in which different sections of the orchestra accompany the individual soloists in different tuneful ways. Armando reveals everything, his true identity (there is no Elmireno) the secret marriage, the child, that is except that he has converted Palmide to Christianity which he knows will get him killed. Aladino freaks out on everyone but Adriano calms things with yet another lovely arioso *. Aladino is still furious, Armando ticks him off even more. Palmide’s oddly sunny response to all that is going on turns into a happy if meandering ensemble **. An excited flourish come up ** but as everyone is arrested there is a sotto voce male chorus of frustrated near ornery followed by a gong.
131: Me di Rodi A military march strikes up *** as the Knights decide to attack for the arrest of their leaders. The last eighty seconds reach a climax of extreme value.
ACT 2: (96 minutes)
Scene 1: The same as act 1 scene 6.
4: Ah! ch’io l’adoro ancor After a recitative between Osmino and Alma (who are just about the only people in the opera who have not been jailed by Aladino), in which they discuss possible fates for Palmide’s son, Felicia is brought in to await interrogation and emotes in a rather Mozartean aria with a strong horn accompaniment **. The chorus of Emirs gives her the ninth degree for a long time.
Scene 2: The Garden, again.
14, 23: Tutto qui parla ognor The next scene starts immediately with an aria *, this time for Palmide, who is terrified with grief. The three still not incarcerated characters show up and Palmide pleads with her father not to execute his own three year old grandson. Palmide’s petition to her father to spare her son ** is at first furious and powerful but grows more sweet with coloratura and flute flourishes. The chorus of Emirs comes on and they add a bit of bounciness to the number and provide it with a good finish.
Scene 3: On the shores of the Nile River.
30: Nel silenzio, fra l’orror Yet another scenic chorus for the Emirs **, this one resembling the glide of a boat on the river water.
39: Oh nume clemente Two ensemble sections, the first a prayer for Palmide and the three Italians *** (notice the strong jolts from the timpani).
46: Che miro! oh cielo! Aladino arrives with Osmino and a sextet ensues ** (notice the flying string music fluttering about). It gets a bit more furious towards the end with good soprano coloratura flourishes. We learn in a recitative that Osmino plans an uprising against Aldaino now that everyone is out of the way, so he can steal power.
Scene 4: A dungeon.
62, 73: Suona funerea/Or de’ martiri la palma After an interlude, we come upon Adriano in prison. After a VERY long passage of accompanied recitative (more than seven minutes) Meyerbeer hits the jack-pot with a beautiful harp accompanied tenor cavatina con coro *** that makes all the waiting worthwhile. Aladino arrives and menaces him prompting a cabaletta of defiance before returning to the harp accompaniment and a rousing finish from the timpani and cymbals **.
Scene 5: The Grand Piazza of Damiata.
81: Il dì rinascerà Armando arrives having escaped prison and embarks on an brief but gentle aria *.
84: Udite or alto arcano The finale * is slightly disappointing although at first this is not apparent: starting off with a chorus ** in which the Saracens led by Osmino and the Templars led by Armando and Adriano battle. Things start to bog down after this as Aladino orders the banishment of Osmino and thanks Armando for defeating his enemies and restoring him to power.
89: Quale eccesso di piacer! The long stretta finale (yet another gentle aria con coro for Armando *) in which everything gets straightened out: Aladino acknowledges the marriage of Armando to Palmide and their son and everyone celebrates providing a slightly underwhelming end to the proceedings.
My biggest complaint with this opera is that the story is really not all that interesting and worse yet it moves at a glacial pace. The music is gorgeous and highly sophisticated: Meyerbeer’s already solid mastery of German orchestral technique makes this probably the most instrumentally rich Italian opera prior to the 1850s. This is especially apparent from the heavy usage of brass, timpani, and cymbals which is richer in colour and texture than anything Rossini was writing at the time (although close to the technique used by Meyerbeer in his Emma di Resburgo). The woodwinds, strings, and harp are all utilized to a more sophisticated level than in any but Rossini’s most advanced works. Unlike his fellow countrymen, Meyerbeer does not compromise on the vocals nor does he use orchestral effects to mask any weaknesses in what he provides the singers. In fact the finale, which is the second weakest number in the opera, only sparingly uses these orchestra effects. The only other number I really can make any objection to is the Adriano-Armando duet in act 1 scene 4 which seems to go on, and on. Thirteen out of fifteen is not a bad record! The story, however, consists of so many overused theatrical tropes that, especially in act one, it becomes a little boring. Deceptions abound and really make the Christian characters seem like horrid people that one really finds difficult to like, a woman disguised as a soldier trying to find her long lost fiance which is okay but already a theatrical cliche, Armando spends five years in the Sultan’s service under a false identity, marries his daughter, sires a son by her, and converts her to Christianity without any permission from her father and he gets away with all of it before some of his European compatriots just happen to show up looking for him. I don’t blame the Sultan for imprisoning everyone, they have all been working around him for years! Osmino balances this by being a Muslim badie, but this is almost comical and the motivations of all of the characters are rarely made clear. Why does Osmino want to simply take power for its own sake and why other than to get themselves self-motivationally into the Sultan’s good graces and out of prison do the Christians all two-time the Vizier once he arms them? And yet, the way they are acting, even if flawed, is undeniably human. All the deception, although dishonourable, is completely believable. The fact that there are only two acts means that both are porto-wagnerian in length and this is a little scary: why did anyone permit both acts of this opera to be essentially two hours long? The first act (which is longer) could have been at least forty minutes shorter as the story (although filled with background details) proceeds very slowly. By act two I had already lost interest in the characters, although the plot does move more quickly at that juncture. A-.