Saverio Mercadante: Il bravo (1839)

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

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Okay, so, before Verdi, there was this guy named Mercadante, and he led a one-man reform movement which sort of changed opera (at least in Italy) forever. Partially orchestral enrichment, partially a move towards through-composition, this reform anticipated Verdi, and it is probable that without it, opera might not have been what it was, at least in mid-19th century Italy.

The performance proper starts around 35 minutes into the video (following the Irish National Anthem) and there are two twenty-odd minute intermissions).

SETTING: 16th century Venice. Il Bravo is actually named Carlo and he is a hired assassin. Once called Rigoletto and Sparafucile rolled into one, this is somewhat apt although Carlo is a tenor (what we do for people!). The plot is rather complicated: Il Bravo becomes an assassin when he is blackmailed by the Council of Ten (they show up a lot on this site don’t they?) in order to save his father from execution for something that is never fully stated, although it is obvious that his father is serving a life imprisonment sentence instead. Meanwhile, he is estranged from his wife, Theodora (soprano), whom he had attempted to kill years before believing her (wrongfully) to be unfaithful even though she is now a Madame (?) or at least super rich. Meanwhile their daughter Violetta (soprano) is in love with Pisani (tenor) an exiled Venetian nobleman, and another Venetian noble, Foscari (baritone), who was in love with Theodora but is now in love with Violetta, even though Carlo wants his daughter to go to a convent.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (63 minutes)

Scene 1: A piazza near a canale.

1: Steso ha già propizia notte After a very brief bit of orchestral angst from the timpani and some gentle woodwind work, we instantly go into an all-male chorus ** of murderers which starts off slowly with an oddly cheery little tune but eventually picks up into a bit more of a fiery piece.

8: Della vita nel sentiero Foscari fantasizes about Violetta in a large scale cavatina **. Violetta is later heard in a lovely harp-accompanied song as the men and Foscari comment (actually the libretto does not give the voice to any specific character, but it seems to be implied since it is she Foscari is thinking about). Foscari finishes the scene with an energetic cabaletta.

Scene 2: The interior of the home of Il Bravo.

21: All’età dell’innocenza We are introduced to Carlo in an aria which at first is very depressing * but becomes slightly touching if rather subdued.

26: Ancor giovine e proscritto Pisani arrives and threatens to kill Carlo but the latter gets the upper hand and Pisani is forced to explain himself about how he got banished from Venice and is in love with a beautiful girl (Violetta obviously). Pisani reveals that he is looking for Il Bravo, Carlo eventually reveals his identity to the younger man (which terrifies him). Their duet ** gets a lot of character development out of the way (like an accounting of the family Carlo has left behind) but tune-wise it is only serviceable, although it does maintain dramatic cohesion and gets energetic enough when required. Pisani convinces Carlo to give him his dagger and mask so he can visit Violetta, but Carlo warns him that if the Council of Ten orders a killing during the time he is disguised as him, he will have to kill whomever they ask (does the young man want that on his soul?).

Scene 3: Piazza San Marco.

37: Viva la doge! The chorus gives a big hurrah to the Doge to a big trumpet voluntary and a big Rossinian climax **. Carlo shows up in the costume of a Dalmatian noble (why? dunno, that is what the libretto says).

44, 46, 57, 61: Io studio gli astri in cielo/Sì giustizia, tremenda vendetta /Tu non sai A raging duet ** between Carlo and Foscari is interrupted by a chorus of Venetians calling for Il Bravo to be executed. This is an interesting instance of fourth-wall breaking as the two men glare at each other while the crowd has no clue one of them is the man they want to get rid of **. They are fed up with all the killings, particularly the most recent of Maffeo who was an old man living with an orphaned girl. Who be this orphaned girl one might ask? It is Violetta, of course, but she does not seek vengeance, only for someone to take her in. Foscari attempts to kidnap her but Carlo protects the girl. Suddenly, Pisani shows up, prompting the people to flee thinking he is Il Bravo and a grand ensemble ***. Foscari threatens Carlo, who protect his daughter in a rousing ensemble which finishes the act ***.

ACT 2: (43 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the house of Theodora.

3: Tu che d’un guardo penetri After a dialogue between Theodora and her servants, she is left alone to think about her long-lost daughter *. It is the Voce di Donna of Mercadante, as sweet as butterscotch, with a minimal accompaniment (oboes mostly). Pisani shows up swearing to her that he will bring her daughter to her.  Alone, she gives a rousing finish.

Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scene 2.

10: Tranquillo, beato, d’un’alma, d’un core Carlo reveals the truth to Violetta *** that he is a paid assassin and the Council of Ten made him so in order to spare his father.

14: Figlio infelice, almeno Violetta is left alone to reflect ** on what her father has told her (she is rather receptive actually). Pisani finds her.

19: Ella? M’inganno! The mad love duet ** that follows the rendezvous for the lovers, he reveals to her that he can take her to her mother. Carlo returns and confronts Pisani, refusing to allow the girl to be taken to Theodora.

Scene 3: A party in the house of Theodora.

27: Viva, viva la fata, l’Armida The act finale ***. Things get orgied up while a wild chorus ensues and as she enters, Theodora is acclaimed by all. Eventually Carlo arrives with a veiled Violetta (who is supposedly a Greek maiden) and as the girl is being harassed by the guests, Carlo reveals the disfigurement Theodora has suffered as a way of causing his daughter to be disgusted of her own mother. This doesn’t really succeed for some reason even though Theodora at first thinks. One of her customers gets very angry and insults her. Carlo ironically defends her as the finale comes crashing down on everyone and Theodora runs off to burn down the establishment. It all sounds great, but the dramatic action seems incredibly muddled and confused.

ACT 3: (40 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the house of Theodora.

3: Nell’orror trascinata The Mother-Daughter duet *** in which Theodora and Violetta agonize over their predicament. Musically gorgeous an vocally challenging, it is hard to find it dramatically compelling because the characters are not dramatically projected very well. Carlo arrives to take Violetta to a convent, she wants to stay with her mother. From some convoluted means it is discovered that Theodora is actually also named Violetta and is the wife of Carlo that he thought dead and the family is reunited (but didn’t Carlo already know that Theodora was his wife, why else would he have attacked her in the previous scene?). Anyways Pisani arrives and Carlo hides with Violetta. Pisani confronts Theodora and demands that she give him Violetta. Pisani almost reveals that Carlo (who bursts in) is the real Bravo because Theodora is afraid of giving her daughter to the paid assassin.

17: E lo chiedi?…Cessa…cessa In a brief quartet *** everyone thinks Pisani is Il Bravo and Carlo demands that Pisani keep his promise to not break faith with him before midnight. Pisani leaves.

Scene 2: The house of Il Bravo, midnight.

22: Segreti, quai spettri tacenti A placid chorus ** acts as an intermezzo as the scenery changes which informs us that Carlo is going to be assassinated for having stood up to Foscari at the end of act one. Also there is a terrible final murder he must commit first.

27: Siete sposi! Infausti auspici! Carlo shows up with the three women planning to escape. Pisani returns with the mask and dagger for Carlo and he reveals his identity as Il Bravo. Pisani swears to take the two women to safety while he will carry out one last murder for the Council of Ten to save his father. Carlo and Theodora give their blessing to Pisani and Violetta to marry in a beautiful quartet ***. The women and Pisani go, but Carlo opens the order and realizes that because she burned down her house, he must kill Theodora! She returns and sees the order. She begs him to kill her to save his father. He refuses so she stabs herself. Henchmen arrive from the Council to declare that Carlo is free: his father has died.

COMMENTS:

There is something about Il Bravo that is incredibly weird in an Eyes Wide Shut sort of way. Although the plot is actually rather simple, it seems extremely complicated and vague with a lot of description of events that occurred off-stage.

Musically, the opera is fantastic (definitely an alpha), but the plot comes off as muddled and confused, and very loose, at least to me. Little seems to be binding it all together except the lovely score which anticipates Verdi. Apart from those of the Bravo himself (whose motive is obviously filial piety, which is acceptable), none of the characters motivations make rational sense or come so late in the work as to seem shoehorned. There is no rational reason for Theodora to exist other than for her to kill herself, and the opera could get along well without her.

The greatest problem with the opera is that the conflicts for the characters don’t make any rational sense and none of them apart from Carlo are presented long enough to make a lasting impression. Characters just appear and disappear almost randomly and with the same sets of characters showing up and then showing up again less than ten minutes later. We start off with a Venetian nobleman pining away for some girl we don’t meet for another forty minutes, then we pan away to her father who is a hired killer (this is actually the most interesting story, especially because he is also the most reasonable character in the entire opera!). Then we get this love story about the girl and her banished boyfriend who trades masks with her own father which is okay but feels shoehorned. Meanwhile, where is mom? Apparently she is super rich but gets dissed by her boyfriend at a grand ball after Carlo attacks her, burns down her own house, and is sentenced to death for it. The first act is essentially a separate plot from the other two acts, and all three seem incredibly thin. The second randomly introduces us to Theodora and establishes the minimal love story, and the third act is ridiculously intimate. Overall the plot is just too cliched and only the ending (which is itself a cliche) makes a lasting dramatic impression.

The problem is not the score, the libretto just seems muddled and episodic. Can someone help me here? It is an opera better heard than seen, but do hear it! An alpha for the score, a low beta or even gamma plus for the plot. Maybe a B+ then?

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