Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes.
The fifth of Rossini’s nine innovative scores for the San Carlo in Naples, Ricciardo e Zoraide (although perhaps the most darkly Teutonic and with very effective music, particularly for the tenors) has been critically considered to be the subjectively least interesting of the nine. Lord Byron claimed that by writing this opera Rossini and his librettist Francesco Berio di Salsa had “crucified Othello”, although the plot is derived from a mock-epic written by one Niccolo Forteguerri, an Italian priest and poet in the early 18th century entitled Il Ricciardetto. There are nine characters, only five of which actually contribute much to the plot with the other four being basically confidants of four of the other five characters. The role of the queen, Zomira, is however the invention of Berio di Salsa. Overall I think the impression this opera leaves is “How not to write an opera” and this 1990 Rossini Festival at Pesaro production leaves the impression that this is how not to do blackface. Meanwhile, this is very much a tenors opera (all of the best music belongs to the tenors). The two main male roles, Ricciardo and Agorante, represent two distinctive types of tenor: Ricciardo is a tenore contraltino (an Italian ancestor of the leggiero) with a range from high-Eb to low-D whereas Agorante ranges from about high-A to a low-A below low-C. The roles were written specifically for Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari representatively, then the star tenors of the San Carlo.
SETTING: The city of Dongola, capital of Nubia, during the Crusades. King Agorante (dramatic tenor) of Nubia has defeated neighbouring monarch Ircano (bass) in retaliation for not giving his daughter Zoraide (soprano) to him in marriage even though he is already married to Zomira (contralto) who captures Ricciardo (high tenor), the crusader who also happens to be Zoraide’s lover, and plots to have our title characters executed in order to retain her position as queen. Eventually there is a duel between the disguised Ricciardo and a mysterious knight (I won’t give it away as this is the only surprise in the whole plot).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (87 minutes)
0: The exceptionally long overture ** starts off with a very dark Teutonic opening dominated by the strings which is followed by a march which sort of dominates the next six minutes or so. It technically has no ending as the opening chorus occurs without any crescendo or break in the music.
Scena 1: Before the gates of the city, desert.
10: Cinto di nuovi allori A brief standard but energetic opening chorus of male Nubians * as their king, Agorante, arrives (and yes, that is Bruce Ford in black…body?, what exactly is it called when your entire body is decked out in blackface because that can’t be the right term for this). More march music.
12: Minacci pur, disprezzo Agorante expresses in love for Zoraide and plans out his divorce from Zomira and his upcoming marriage to Zoraide in a good aria con coro ending with some very difficult tenor high notes ***.
Scena 2: An outdoor section of the royal palace.
21: Quai grida! Zoraide is “entertained” by a chorus of Nubian women as she complains to her confident Fatima *. It isn’t the greatest, but it probably has its own fan club.
28: Invan tu fingi, ingrata Zomira bullies and is generally unpleasant to Zoraide in a rather good if a little derivative duet **. It does slow up in an andante but speeds up again as Zomira attacks Zoraide. Effective, if a bit fragmentary.
40: Cruda sorte! Agorante arrives and Zomira realizes that he plans to remove her and marry Zoraide (who is about as disinterested in the prospect of becoming Agorante’s queen as Zomira wishes to remain his wife). The chorus interrupts them in the distance (this is low temperature) but the stretta is much more furious *. Gramophone says it is great, I’m not personally convinced.
Scena 3: Outside the walls of the city, near the Nile.
50: Che recate? A nice standard men’s chorus * as we change scenery (?). A boat arrives carrying the crusaders Ricciardo and his friend Ernesto, who also happens to be the Christian ambassador to the Nubians (this makes no sense as Nubia was Christian at the time, being Coptic, but whatever, they weren’t Catholics so I guess by Italian opera standards that will do!). They have come to ask for the release of a handful of crusaders who have been taken prisoner by Agorante.
57: S’ella m’è ognor fedele Ricciardo gives us an exceptionally difficult tenor cavatina ***.
70: Se al valor compenso promesso So Zomira plots against Zoraide with her confidante Elmira, the prisoners are brought on and Ernesto arrives with a disguised Ricciardo (who is pretending to be black because veils can do that apparently). A standard triumphal chorus ensues as Agorante comes on to hold court, the most interesting feature, however, is the beguiling usage of bells here *.
76, 82: Cessi omai quel tuo rigore The act finale * starts off with Agorante, and then Ricciardo, and then Ernesto. Three tenors at once, all singing totally different things, then Zoraide gets in on it for some vocal distinction as the enunciate the word “amore” in a canon. Ernesto demands the return of Zoraide to her father, Agorante refuses. Zomira arrives cursing her husband who calls his guards as he plans on beating the Crusading force of Ernesto to the punch. We then get a first-draft version of an ensemble in Mose in Egitto which does raise the level a little **. The stage band returns and the stretta is subdued as the act ends.
ACT 2 (79 minutes)
Scena 1: A sand garden in the palace.
3: Donala a questo core After Ricciardo (still in disguise) convinces Agorante that he is black and also the husband of a woman Ircano (Zoraide’s father) has stolen, we have one of the oddest (and few) tenor-tenor love duets in history ***. Although not exactly homoerotic, it is about as delicate because Agorante really likes Ricciardo (in this disguise) and the two of them sing some of the most difficult tenor music (Ricciardo has multiple high Cs, and Agorante goes down to a low B).
16: Ricciardo! Che veggo? Agorante leaves and Zoraide comes on and slowly realizes that the veiled man is her lover. Their reconciliation duet is sweet **. As they kiss, Zomira’s maid Elmira spies on them and flees the scene. The second half of the duet has a certain agitation to it.
29: Contro cento e cento prodi Agorante returns and interrogates Ricciardo briefly before a mysterious stranger arrives. Ricciardo, still in disguise, offers to fight the stranger in single combat and then intrigues Agorante. This is a good number ** involving several movements of a cappella quartet-ing before the chorus gets involved for a rousing finish as Zoraide is taken away.
40: Più non sente quest’alma dolente Zomira plots and schemes to trick the the titular lovers into destroying themselves as part of her plan to return to consort status. A good contralto aria * with a simple accompaniment (mostly strings).
Scena 2: An interior section of the palace where Zoraide is being held prisoner.
47: Il tuo pianto, i tuoi sospiri A proto-wagnerian opening from the brass section moves to an exterior female chorus and Zoraide has time to reflect *. Zomira arrives to carry out her plot. She has already sent a message to Ricciardo that Zoraide will be liberated and to meet her, now she temps Zoraide into leaving her cell and she is promptly captured by the Nubian forces. Ricciardo is taken away for torture, Zoraide to await their mutual dispatch by the Nubians.
56: Qual giorno, ahimè, d’orror The finale ** starts with a long orchestral interlude where nothing happens on stage but when the singing finally starts up again (alternating male and female choruses of Nubians) it gets quite a bit better. Although the soloists occasionally remark, much of the scene is conducted through the reaction of the chorus.
64: Salvami il padre almeno Apparently, the stranger from earlier is now being held prisoner as well, although when Zoraide tries to comfort him he rejects and it is revealed that he is her father Ircano (surprise!). Agorante returns and Zoraide begs her father to save her from the king in a fiery arioso full of coloratura soprano fireworks **. The melody is taken up by Agorante, a mini ensemble ensues, but it returns to being a soprano aria (in spite of more remarks from Agorante). Really the finest hour for our heroine, such as she is.
73: Sorpresi, traditi The Crusader forces arrive ** and easily defeat the Nubians but when Agorante is attacked he is resolutely spared by Ricciardo (to a rather spectacular high E-flat).
76: Or più dolci intorno al core The stretta ** is started off by couplets from Ernesto, then Ricciardo, and finally Zoraide with choral interjections.
The plot of this opera is boring, even frustratingly uninteresting, and extremely slow. Some reviewers have even written that they had wished some of the music from this opera would have been salvaged in a later, better, project. Some of the music is good, admittedly, but apart from some very challenging tenor vocal work, I’m really not convinced by this opera. As I said in the intro, this is very much a tenors opera and provides for a rather exciting contrast within the fach, the problem is that although this is awesome (don’t get me wrong, the tenore contraltino is to me the most beautiful male vocal type, and is second only to the true contralto, by which I mean the female type) it really has nothing else going for it apart from its continuously dark Teutonic orchestration (a feature of it being one of Rossini’s Neapolitan works). The performance itself is great (with William Matteuzzi, June Anderson, and Bruce Ford heading the cast could it be otherwise?), even if the material everyone other than the tenors are working with really leaves a lot to be desired. So what we have is a gamma plot and libretto, a rather one-dimensional prima donna (it is obvious that the two tenor leads are the primary characters musically and dramatically), but alpha for the music featured in one of the most Beethoven-esque scores in the oeuvre of Rossini. So maybe overall a B+?