Opera semi-seria in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 42 minutes.
Opera likes to use mental illness as a theatrical element a lot. From mad scenes to mass-immolation, the genre has got it all. But rarely does opera present the probable mental illness of a real life historical figure as it does here, even though it does it in the most subtle way.
Donizetti’s most bi-polar opera: this is not one for the repertoire. The strange vocal casting prohibits any lasting success for this work. The villain is a tenor, the hero (who gets the final 24 minute long cavatina no less!) is a baritone, and the two female characters share the same name and are only decernably different from each other because one is a soprano and the other a mezzo-soprano. The plot mostly concerns convoluted court intrigue revolving around how the two females have the same name and the jealous man who is infatuated with one of them getting them mixed up and framing an innocent man whose only crime is being a famous poem suffering from bi-polarity. The first act is over half the length of the opera, while the third is only 24 minutes long. The performance history is also poor. Although it was performed in Madrid in 1835, there is no evidence that the opera was produced between 1836 and when it was recorded by Opera Rara in 1974, and it was not given a live performance again until 1985 in Savona, Italy.
SETTING: Ferrara, 1580s. Geraldini (tenor) secretary of the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este (bass), wants to destroy Torquato Tasso (baritone) out of jealousy and gains the confidence of the poet to the point that he gives him access to some poems expressing his love for Eleonora (soprano), the sister of the duke who is engaged against her will to the Duke of Mantua. In a rage, Tasso attacks Geraldini upon discovering that the latter has handed the poems over to the court gossip Don Gherardo (bass) but is stopped by the Duke. Later, when Tasso begs Eleonora to run away with him, and she refuses, he attacks her in the presence of the Duke, who orders his immediate incarceration as a mad man. He is released seven years later, just after Eleonora has died. There is a second Eleonora (mezzo-soprano) who thinks the poems are addressed to her, but this adds little to the overall narrative.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (85 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the Ducal palace.
6: Fra tutti questi punti The ten minute long overture was not even written by Donizetti, and consists of a potpourri of melodies from the score written by conductor Massimo de Bernart for a 1985 touring production. It starts off well with a happy little march tune before turning much more solemn and then some agreeable romantic mood music before the march returns and the curtain rises. The version presented here is that of the original score by Donizetti (which is already over two and a half hours long, so why anyone thought this needed a ten minute overture must have been whacked out on something), and so the opera begins with a very brief orchestral introduction going immediately into a standard male opening chorus, after which we come upon a comic patter aria for Gherardo * the concluding gallop of which (involving a confrontation with Ambrogio six and a half minutes in) is perhaps the best part. The secretary of the Duke, Roberto Geraldini, shows up to tell us that he plans to destroy Tasso in an oddly placid aria.
Scene 2: The apartments of Torquato Tasso.
28: In un’estasi, che uguale The duet Geraldini-Tasso *, in which the villain gains the confidence of the poet in order to set him up for destruction. Geraldini learns that Tasso loves a woman named Eleonora! Which Eleonora? He conspires with Gherardo in recitative.
Scene 3: The apartments of Eleonora.
44: Io l’udia ne’ suoi bei carmi The temperature rises a bit with the arrival of Eleonora and her extended grand scena ***.
56: E lenta morte A gentle duet for the two Eleonoras **.
65: Colei Sofronia The Eleonora-Tasso duet ** starts off elegantly if sterile enough with a central ascending line from both.
76: Lui Scordar! The act finale starts off with the arrival of Geraldini, leading to the other Leonora showing up and Gherardo who embarks on some more comic patter but the real drama doesn’t start in the music until Eleonora embarks on a sobering passage **, which itself is stopped briefly by Gherardo before taken up by Tasso.
81: Fra due dame Geraldini attacks Tasso just before the Duke arrives and rebukes everyone *.
84: Gia un baleno di vendetta The stretta finale *** when things finally take off albeit briefly. Full drama as the curtain falls.
ACT 2: A park on the Ducal estate. (46 minutes)
1: Ma lo scrigno di Torquato Standard Donizetti male chorus act opener *.
6: Don Gherardo! An amusing choral opener to yet another patter aria from Gherardo *. The choral interjections are the better part.
16: Quando alla notte bruna The Eleonora-Geraldini duet ** has more passion to it and a tick-tock beat to it which propels the music for several minutes.
29: Notte che stendi attorno A gentle orchestral interlude depicts the coming evening as Tasso enters and recites a poem **. Eleonora arrives for their interview, but she rejects his pleas that they run away together. The Duke arrives as planned by Geraldini and sees Tasso, ordering his arrest as insane.
43: Ah per quel pianto! The second stretta finale *** as Eleonora pleads with her brother not to have Tasso imprisoned. She fails, and collapses as he is taken away.
ACT 3: The cell of Torquato Tasso, seven years later. (24 minutes)
6: Perché dell’aure in sen After a quiet prelude and sober recitative from Tasso (the entire act is an extended final aria con coro for baritone), a flute comes in (Lucia are you here?) and Torquato embarks on his aria ***.
16: Eleonora! The male chorus arrives to tell him that he is being liberated today, and crowned poet laureate, but also that Eleonora has died. Tasso embarks on a second aria contemplating his beloved **.
As stated in my intro, there are good things about this opera, but also bad things. Let us talk about the good first. The orchestration is solid, with most of the numbers getting instrumental introductions which set mood very well. There is the grand fifteen-minute entrance aria for the soprano Eleonora, the two act finales, and the extended mad scene for baritone which ends the opera. So there is much to see here. The biggest problem with the opera is that the first forty minutes of the score are deathly boring, and that the comedic bits are too similar to Rossini (I keep thinking of Don Magnifico in Cenerentola when I see Don Gherardo) and seem forced at times. The dramatic story is more interesting, but slim, and the motivation of Geraldini to destroy Tasso simply out of jealousy of his abilities (and not a romantic complication involving one of the women) is weak even by operatic standards. Strangely enough, an alpha minus.