Franco Leoni: L′oracolo (1905)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes.

OperaScribe suggested this opera for comparison to Turandot. I will also be doing Iris by Mascagni soon for a comparison with Madama Butterfly. Leoni was a Milanese-born contemporary of Puccini so the comparisons are apt. Never as successful globally, he lived significantly longer, dying at age 84 in 1949 at Hampstead, England, where he had made his career at Covent Garden and the West End. It was popular with the Met baritone Antonio Scotti, who frequently performed it in New York City until he retired in 1933, after which it disappeared until Richard Bonynge revived it for a 1975-76 studio recording with his wife Joan Sutherland as the beautiful Ah-Yoë with Tito Gobbi as the villainous opium-den owner Chim-Fen. Since the end of World War II, it has been produced around a dozen times.

SETTING: A mixed residential and commercial street in Chinatown, San Francisco, near a Chinese temple, Chinese New Year Day sometime between western years 1895 and 1905. A lot of plot and a lot of characters go into this short work, made more difficult to comprehend because they all have fake Chinese names. I will try to keep the Italian spellings but it is hard: Cim-Fen (baritone) wants to marry Ua-Qui (contralto), not because he loves her but because she is the nurse of Hu-Ci (mute) the little son of Hu-Tsin (bass) a wealthy merchant, because he wants to use his house to further his criminal capitalistic ambitions (namely drug smuggling). He also wants a certain girl named Ah-Joë. Complicating matters is that Ah-Joë (soprano) the niece of Hu-Tsin is in love with Uin-San-Lui  (tenor) the son of Uin-Sci (baritone) who reads a horoscope for Hu-Tsin about his son Hu-Ci, hence the title of the opera, the oracle. There is one other character, a police officer (bass) who makes rounds at the beginning and end of the opera. Confused yet? Anyway, the meat of the plot consists of a kidnapping and two murders, although you might be surprised when you learn just who gets murdered.

 

LOOK OUT FOR:

4: The opera literally opens with three bangs and a cock-crow and we hear a crowd of Chinese men on the streets five hours into the New Year Festival followed by an unaccompanied baritone solo (this is a paraphrase by me of an actual review of the opera from 1905). The first major musical event that isn’t a jolt or a brief passage from the orchestra is a section of joint harp-bell-strings music which is very atmospheric *.

9: Sopra tutti onorato An incredibly delicate duet for Cim-Fen and Uin-Sci ** as the latter is on his way to the temple.

11: Ah-Joë! A beautiful love duet *** for Uin-San-Lui and Ah-Joë, the chorus of worshipers can be heard singing a hymn from the temple finishing everything off very well. A spectacular number!

18: Tartarughe! A very good street scene ** as four vendors compete for the attention of the crowd to purchase their fruit. This frames a sequence in which Hu-Tsin visits Uin-Sci for a horoscope of his son. More street scene follows until the arrival of the police officer who breaks up the revelry momentarily.

24: Ecco il piccolo Dio d’amore! Uin-Sci gives his prediction *** from the holy book to Hu-Tsin after a brief encounter with Ah-Joë which is the most Chinese-y thing that has occurred in the opera so far. A dreamy sequence with a tenor-bass chorus and the two lovers in the background providing a triple-focused atmosphere. The oracle is frightful: a tragic shadow (tragica ombra) follows the boy. More Chinese celebrating is followed by Cim-Fen finding his chance and kidnapping Hu-Ci when Ua-Qui has her back turned. She confronts him because she immediately realizes what he has done but he throws her to the ground. Hu-Tsin promises the hand of his niece to whomever can find his son. So both Cim-Fen and Uin-San-Lui claim they can find the boy.

37: Ah-Joe, uno sgomento improvviso In a quiet but lush aria **, Uin-San-Lui promises Ah-Joë that he will find her little cousin and will thus win her hand.

45: Ferito… L’hanno ferito… This is followed by the first murder, namely of Uin-San-Lui by Cim-Fen in order to avoid being implicated for the kidnapping. His cries alert Ah-Joë and she discovers his lifeless body and goes mad **. The body is carried out to a magnificent orchestral interlude. The two grieving fathers do a rather poor job of confronting the elephant in the room, namely that Ah-Joë is moaning in the background.

54: Cim-Fen! The play-out: Uin-Sci puts all of the puzzle pieces together and ushers Hu-Tsin out so he can confront the villain alone **. Cim-Fen comes on singing a lalala ditty but is drawn to Uin-Sci and sits with him on a wooden bench. Ah-Joë is still heard in the background crying out the name of her dead beloved. Eventually Uin-Sci hears Ah-Joë one more time and blows up on Cim-Fen and strangles him. The rest of the operas consists of a closing monologue for Uin-Sci after the murder as he figures out how to prop up Cim-Fen so the police think he is talking with him on the bench. Then, when no one else is looking, the body falls to the ground. The orchestra is very gentle for a while, the cock crows again, then bang! Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This is sort of like a Chinese Cavalleria Rusticana, only the culture is obviously alien to the Italian Leoni, yet he does a very good job of it, in many ways better than Mascagni did with his Sicilians. The structure is similar with a slow opening and a religious sequence within the first quarter of the score. The cast is balanced more towards the men, although Ah-Joë gets some excellently haunting post-murder cries. The cock-crow is a good thematic frame for the entire opera. Since I am comparing it to Turandot I would say that the Chinese characters are more sympathetic, they love and hate for rational reasons. Cim-Fen is a textbook psychopath who starts off being a drug dealer, then a kidnapper, then a murderer, and finally a dead man. It is a good depiction of a downward spiral. That he is killed by Uin-Sci is justified since he murdered the son of the latter, but it does come off as a wee bit strange that Uin-Sci would kill him, he seems so gentle and learned throughout the opera, but that might be the point. At least he isn’t under a stupidly uttered vow like the Emperor in Turandot. Hu-Tsin can be annoying, but he is also the parent of a missing child so that is comprehensible. Ah-Joë is just amazing in my book, and not just becuause she is a plum role for Joan Sutherland. Her position as essentially the property of her uncle is amplified when he promises her to any man who returns his son to him. Yet she has agency of a kind, she is in love with San-Lui of her own accord, and it is she who discovers his body. Apart from her, Uin-San-Lui gets much of the best soloist music, including a poignant death scene. The chorus gets some excellent material including a series of magnificently explosive numbers in succession (the hymn, the street scene, the background work during the oracle sequence when they compete with the both Uin-Sci and the lovers), and the orchestra has a striking refinement. A mini-alpha.

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