Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
This was unintentionally suggested by Nick (he wanted me to review Artaserse by Vinci and I was like: Nyet!). Thank you for bringing this to my attention!
A reminder to readers: Please feel free to send me requests. It might take me a while if you send multiples at once, but I really like knowing which non-standard rep operas interest my readership. This project is about reviewing as many operas (especially rare ones) as possible, providing a record of their existence on the web. If Sir Denis Forman didn’t review it, I want to!
Peter von Winter (1754-1825) is sort of the missing link between Mozart and Weber (whereas Meyerbeer is the missing link between Mozart and Wagner). Although he studied briefly under Salieri (and thus gained a knowledge of bel canto technique) he was mostly self-taught. A German (born in Mannheim), this was one of around a dozen operas that he wrote in Italian. The scenario is NOT the same as Maometto II but is rather based on an anti-religious tragic drama by Voltaire (written in 1736, first performed five years later) in which the Prophet Mohammad SAWS, is the villain. A veiled attack on the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church disguised as an anti-Islamic study in religious fanaticism and self-serving manipulation, Napoleon in exile on Saint Helena grumbled that Voltaire committed a grave injustice by writing the play since the plot is so fantastically violent (Voltaire drives the religious fanaticism really, really hard in the original play) as to be ridiculous. So we know the story itself is stupid, but how is the music? Well, thankfully a 2002 live concert performance was produced the Bad Wildbad Festival, which given its title as the Pesaro of the North is an annual Rossini festival held every July, was recorded and released under the Naxos-owned label Marco Polo. It is available on Amazon Music.
SETTING: Mecca, 629. The basic premise is that Maometto (dramatic tenor) kidnapped Seide (mezzo-soprano) and Palmira (soprano) fifteen years earlier before he was exiled from Mecca and now he wants Seide to murder Zopiro (bass) the sheriff of Mecca so he can take the city for Islam. He is aided by an evil lieutenant named Omar (baritone, based on an actual Omar who was the second of Mohammad) who eggs Seide on to poison the sheriff. There is also a senator named Fanor (tenor) although I am not totally sure what his purpose is other than to tell other people things. The plot is complicated by Palmira, or rather the fact that she is in love with both Seide and Maometto at the same time, which is problematic because Seide is actually her brother(!) and Maometto is a bloodthirsty psychopath. No solution is found for her in spite of the fact that her father and brother are poisoned (Seide on orders from Maometto as punishment for his patricide), and thus find a solution through death (because this is opera, the solution for everything is death!) but the opera ends in despair.
PLAYLIST: (Video included at bottom of review).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (85 minutes)
0: The overture ** is sort of a cross between Mozart (La clemenza di Tito) and a Rossini tragic opera from the same period.
Scene 1: A pagan temple.
9, 18: Possente Dei d′Arabia The opening chorus (a prayer to the ancient pagan gods of Mecca and preceded by a gorgeously pianissimo string movement) and cavatina con coro for Zopiro ** has similarities to the act 1 finale of Tito (sotto voce chorus, subdued, not sedate, orchestration). Zopiro comes on trying to give the Meccans (?) something of a pep talk and not to assume that Maometto will be victorious over their city. After a recitative, in which Fanor tells him that Palmira has been brought to his home, there is a furiously orchestrated finish with the chorus **.
Scene 2: Atrium in the home of Zopiro.
20: Quel bel ciglio Palmira is comforted by a gentle chorus ** of Meccan ladies before embarking on a gentle cavatina herself * (the chorus really improves this).
31: Cede, e la sua vendetta Zopiro and Omar confront each other in a duet *.
37: Per verderti, amato bene Palmira encounters Seide and they reaffirm their love for each other in a gentle but tuneful duet * (the unison parts are the best). Omar comes on to urge Seide to go through his mission (namely poisoning Zopiro) ending the scene with an oddly gentle trio.
Scene 3: The eastern gate of the city.
46: La città che a te The scene starts off immediately with a rigorous victory/welcome chorus **.
49: Non catene, orrore e mali Maometto promises peace to the city in a gentle aria **.
52: Ah! Qual minacci e sdegno Now the best number in the act ***, a mild whirlwind quartet as Maometto scolds Seide for not having killed Zopiro yet, Palmira begs mercy, and Omar tells Maometto that his enemy is as good as dead. This is done to the most delicately lovely accompaniment that it is hard to not laugh a little at how prettily they speak of murder.
Scene 4: Same as Scene 2.
58: In te punir domani Zopiro is brought before Maometto, who promises the old man that tomorrow he shall die in yet another pretty duet **. A solo violin comes in in the middle to add some texture.
Scene 5: The City Council Chambers.
63: Come salvar la patria The twenty-one minute long act finale can be divided into three main parts. The first consists of an encounter between the city Concillors, Fanor, and Maometto ** (the best sections are when the chorus accompanies the two tenors, which is frequently, although the conversation between the two men, a conversion pitch for Islam and a promise that it will spread from Egypt to India, is rather boring).
72: Lascia che un bacio imprima Palmira and Seide show up and there is a gentle quartet * (which starts off with the two higher voices before trading off to the tenor). Thankfully the chorus pops back in to save things.
78: Fermate! Zopiro returns with the order from Maometto that he is to be executed the following day **, the Prophet claiming the moral high ground because the whole being the Prophet thing. The stretta ** is very obviously based on Rossini and Mozart (Mose in Egitto and Don Giovanni come to mind).
ACT 2: (52 minutes)
Scene 1: An internal room in the palace of Zopiro.
0: Prima, che giunto sia Maometto and his men rejoice over the impending execution of his enemy *.
5: Giovane avventurato! Maometto tells Seide to poison Zopiro *. Notice the oboe solo meandering about.
10: Caro Seide! Seide poisons Zopiro but then the old man reveals that he is his father! The chorus of Muslims soldiers comes on. Seide contemplates what he has done to contralto bel canto flourishes *.
Scene 2: A subterranean temple.
17: A somewhat furious intermezzo ** leads to Seide and Palmira realizing that they are both the child of Zopiro (who is now dying) and thus they are siblings.
20: Dei che piangendo imploro A trio *** as the three family members confront/comfort each other in a long display of grief over what has happened.
28: I figli miei The death scene is sedate * (a solo violin scraps above everything). The chorus and Omar come in and thicken the mixture.
Scene 3: As in Scene 3 of Act 1.
38: Aggiungi colpe a colpe Maometto has decided to sentence Seide to death for patricide (even though he himself ordered him to kill his father knowing they were father and son). Palmira begs for mercy ** on her brother but Maometto reveals that he has plotted for years that he would have the son kill the father, then execute the son for it and then marry her, thus extinguishing the paternal line for Zopiro. Omar announces that Seide has been found, having been poisoned in his cell. When he arrives he defies Islam and calls upon the pagan gods before dying in the arms of his sister.
50: Ognun tremi Palmira, who expresses a desire to kill herself, is forced to confess Islam in a brief final arioso con coro * for Maometto. A sedate ending.
If you like Mozart′s La clemenza di Tito and can overlook the plot, you will like at least the first act of this opera as it is essentially in the exact same musical style as the late Mozart opera seria, only with more male voices (which to me at least is a bit welcomed because the two female voices do not seem to have inspired von Winter at all). The music is overwhelmingly gentle, perhaps even awkwardly so as so frequently they are talking about murdering Zopiro, the only thing that actually happens in the opera other than a series of entrances, an execution, and a suicide. Even if you find the story itself rather barbaric (and frankly that would be putting it kindly), you can’t deny that the score is just so pretty. Although the first act is LONG, it does not feel long. By the second act, however, the situation has become so depressing (and the music far more sedate) that the situation does start to become unbearable. The reason to neglect this opera is because of its storyline (which at this point would only be acceptable at either a white supremacist rally or a 9/11 Memorial), not its score. So blame Voltaire for the dreck, not von Winter! The score is more of a mixed low alpha/high beta, but the plot is nothing but a gamma because frankly I am not sure that it has one, it is more a predictable situation which served as a veiled philosophical argument for Voltaire (and to some extent it makes sense). A beta (maybe plus?) then, but one that is surprisingly worth looking in to.
In any case, I liked it.