Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes.
This opera is a case of weird vocal casting. The lead is a baritone, which is fine, but the villainess (his wife) is a soprano, and the good girl (their daughter) is a mezzo-soprano. Their son (who was supposed to be dead) is a tenor and the Emperor Justinian is a bass.
Written immediately after Lucia di Lammermoor, the opera was initially successful but even in 1836 Donizetti knew something was wrong with it (a combination of the confused plot and a general lack of musical invention in comparison to Lucia, which might have otherwise masked the plot holes).
This review is of the 1970 Bergamo production with Lyla Gender as Antonina and Renato Bruson in the title role.
SETTING: Byzantium and the Haemus mountains in modern Bulgaria, sixth century. The plot is hard to grasp logically even by operatic standards. Belisario (baritone) is hated by his wife Antonina (soprano) because of an apparent death bed confession by one of his servants that he killed their son on orders from Belisario. She then convinces the Emperor Justinian that her husband has committed treason. Belisario is imprisoned and blinded, then led off by his daughter Irene (soprano, but now disguised conveniently as a boy) to the Haemus mountains where they encounter the army of Alans poised on sacking Byzantium led by Alamiro (tenor) who turns out to be the long lost son of Belisario and Antonina.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A hall in the Imperial Palace. (58 minutes)
0: The overture * is very entertaining with a single, rather jovial theme (it returns a lot) which seems odd considering the dark subject matter of the opera itself.
6: Serto di eterni lauri The background opening chorus * (with organ) as prayers are said for the return of Belisario to Byzantium.
9: Corri amica. Daughter Irene embarks on a pleasing cavatina ** rejoicing that her father is about to return.
15: Sin la tomba è a me negata Antonina dreads the return of her husband and embarks on a slow but steady cavatina *. She hates Belisario because apparently his servant, Proclus, confessed on his death bed that his master ordered him to expose their infant son on the ocean shore, causing his death. She plots with Eutropio (the tenor captain of the guard) to destroy her husband because…well this is never fully explained. It is possible that Antonina is carrying on an adulterous affair with Eutropio but this is never fleshed out. It also confuses her motivations (is it to avenge her son, or to get rid of her husband and marry her new lover?).
24: O nume degli eserciti An interesting exercise in contrasts *: the jovial tones of the chorus (the tune from the overture) up against the sober benedictions of the Emperor Justinian, followed by a long recite for the returning Belisario in which he asks for the release of his own prisoners. The Emperor grants this and leaves.
30: Quando di sangue tinto Now something a little different: a duet for Belisario and the prisoner Alamiro (they have no clue that they are father and son). This is rather better than the earlier music, easily the best number in the opera so far **. Alamiro, full of admiration for Belisario, begs to be with him always.
39, 46, 55: Che mai sarà!, Pera l’empio che offese natura The act finale starts off with a meandering male chorus * (as usual for Donizetti). There is one good tune welling up from the strings ** as Belisario addresses the Emperor but before Antonina makes her fatal announcement that the general has committed treason against Justinian. Although Donizetti does maintain the dramatic tension for nine minutes with a sober sextette, there isn’t any movement to speak of until the (the unfortunately rather unoriginal, it sounds too much like Rossini, and the coda is too close to Maometto II) stretta ** as Belisario is led away to prison and Irene expresses her disgust toward her mother.
ACT 2: Before the prison. (31 minutes)
0: Comando fu di Cesare The populace, led by Alamiro, is furious at the Emperor *.
5: A sì tremendo annunzio Alamiro swears to destroy Byzantium when it is revealed that Belisario has been blinded **. Irene then arrives in boys clothes ready to take her father out of the city. Alamiro embarks on a cabaletta.
13: Se vederla a me non lice The seventeen-minute long lovely father-daughter duet for the blind Belisario as he is led away by Irene **.
ACT 3: (38 minutes)
Scene 1: In the Haemus mountains.
0: The act begins with an entr’acte *. Irene leads Belisario to shelter in a cave as the Alans arrives poised on taking Constantinople led by Alamiro (now that is a scene!). Belisario orders him to stop.
12: Se il figlio stringere The beautiful reunion trio con coro as Alamiro gives up power to one Ottavio at first seems like it will go nowhere but suddenly we get this silvery tune from Irene which is taken up by Alamiro ***. Easily the best number in the entire score. Belisario identifies Alamiro as his son via an amulet. The Alans head off towards Byzantium lively enough.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1.
22: Da quel dì, che l’innocente Antonina (remember her?) reveals to Justinian that she had been lied to by Proclus and in fact it was he that attempted to commit infanticide against her son, not on orders from Belisario. Her sober aria of remorse *, however, is too late, as the Alans are coming to take the city.
33: Egli è spento, e del perdono The apotheosis of Belisario (by Antonina) **: Irene arrives and tells her mother than her father has been victorious against the Alan invasion, but has been mortally wounded by one of their arrows (which given that he is already blind is not so much of a surprise). Antonina begs her husband to forgive her, when it is revealed that Alamiro is their son, but he dies in her arms, so she embarks on a remorseful final soprano aria for five minutes. She is torn to pieces by the crowd.
Belisario is a good opera, the problem with it is that it isn’t a great opera. The plot, which hinges on a horrible lie and lacks much form after the first act, does nothing to hide the general lack of invention in the score given that Donizetti was just coming off of having written Lucia di Lammermoor. Also, what is up with Eutropio and Antonina in the first act? Are they committing adultery? Why are they allies? This is never explained. Due to the vocal limitations of the mezzo-soprano originally assigned the role of Irene (which is pivotal to the plot, as after the first act she turns into Antigone) the primary soprano role (that of Antonina) is comparatively minor and stilted, appearing in only three numbers (an aria and the finale of act one, along with the finale to act three which is basically a soprano concert number) around a quarter of the entire opera. She is also unlikeable, even if Lyla Gencer is singing her, so her disembowlment at the end of the opera is hardly effective dramatic, since you really don’t care about her at all. The best music goes to Irene and Alamiro. Overall a beta, no more, but certainly no less.