Giuseppe Poniatowski: Pierre de Medicis (1860)

Grand Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 2 hours 46 minutes (ballet cut).

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Opera Scribe has already reviewed this opera, and this is essentially a response. The opera consists of an overture and seventeen musical numbers. The composer was the nephew of the last king of Poland and was himself at one time an operatic tenor soloist.

SETTING: Pisa, 1492. Laura Salviati (soprano), niece of Fra Antonio (bass) is in love with Julien di Medici (baritone) but his brother Pierre (tenor) duke of Florence is also in love with her. With the help of Paolo Monti (tenor), duke of Pisa, Julien and Laura attempt to escape Pierre after he threatens Julien with death, but nothing goes well.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (59 minutes)

2: The long overture starts off dismally (a theme that will return to represent the convent in act four), in fact I had to re-listen to the first three minutes around half a dozen times before I finally thought I understood it. Almost three minutes in there is a very attractive, barcarolle tune from a flute * which is repeated several times in various iterations (and returns in act three). Otherwise, the overture consists of various themes from later in the opera, including a march (repeated twice), and is rather standard. I found this disappointingly underwhelming.

Scene 1: Palazzio Vecchio de Medici.

11, 13, 21: Ah! Quel honneurPour vous, j’abandonne Florence/Non rien, non rien  The act proper starts off with Three Blind Mice or rather something that sounds very similar to it, as we are introduced to the male chorus (eventually this is very strongly pronounced when the ladies come out of hiding *), but it is with the entrance of Pierre that we finally get something grand with his cavatina **. Like much of the rest of the opera, it is hard to not just believe that this is an Italian cavatina which happens to be sung in French. Pierre speaks with Fra Antonio and eventually there is an a cappella ensemble with all five soloists and chorus *** (this includes the miraculous theme which showed up in Wagner, Mercadante, and Flotow* already) heading towards the twenty-four minute mark, hence the three stars). The entire introduction number takes twenty minutes.

30: Que dites-vous? The remainder of the scene consists of a duet for Pierre and Fra Antonio **. It has a steady, if a little starchy, tune but is perhaps more memorable for two factors: its orchestration (especially the woodwinds) and the high E-flat required of the tenor. The finish is electric.

Scene 2: The bedchamber of Laura.

42: Doux reve de ma vie An okay but somewhat starchy (vocally, not orchestrally, the instrumentation is lush) feminine chorus is a prelude to the prima donna gran scena for Laura ***. The cavatina is grand, the cabaletta energetic, what else could you ask for?

51: A tes pies je tombe The act ends with a furious love duet for Laura and Julien **. The first movement would have one think that it is a violent confrontation, but it is far from it. The lovers are overheard by Fra Antonio as Julien begs Laura to elope with him and she refuses. The last three minutes are a very Donizetti-esque and bright stretta finale.

ACT 2: The Palace Gardens. (24 minutes)

0: Accouron cest jour de fete A very good divertissement starting off with a strong chorus **.

5: Amis, la fete sera belle The gambling chorus **, the only number in the score that is obviously French and not Italian. This is followed by a series of dialogues between Pierre and at first Fra Antonio (who has revealed the encounter from the previous act) and second Julien, who is given the choice of dying as an admiral fighting Muslims or decapitation the following day (seriously?). Laura is obviously horrified, and changes her mind about eloping.

15: Le sang et la naissance The act finale ** starts with a grandly subdued ensemble for six minutes and then a furious final three minutes (very much a nod to Les Huguenots)

ACT 3: (41 minutes)

Scene 1: The home of a fisherman on the Arno.

0: The entr’acte * is a sweet if simple piece, followed by a rather good recitative from Duke Paolo and Laura in which he tries to calm her down. Four minutes in the barcarolle tune finally shows up (it frames the rest of the scene).

6: Vierge Marie, o Reine sainte Laura (alone) gets a mild prayer to the Virgin Mary * (what is with the flute out bursts?). It reminds me of the similar prayer sung by the same named Laura in La Gioconda.

11, 18: En vain, vous-avez cru, Oui le ciel m′appelle The confrontation trio *** as Laura is discovered by Fra Antonio and Pierre and given the choice of becoming the duchess of Florence or a nun. Fra Antonio is accompanied by a quotation from Dom Sebastrien but it is really when Pierre proposes that the music truly flowers. Antonio pushes Laura to what sounds like hunting music (interesting?), but eventually she voluntarily chooses the cloister (to a harp accompaniment nonetheless) and a furious scene finish with the fisherman singing his barcarolle as Laura is dragged off to the convent. This is the best number in the entire opera.

Scene 2: The Campo Santo, Pisa.

26, 30, 35: Vieni Creator Spiritus, Mère adorée, Viens soit notre roi! After an organ prelude, we get a Roman Catholic choral hymn to the Holy Spirit (third person of the Christian trinity) **. Julien has come to pray at the tomb of his mother **, this is a lovely baritone prayer (frankly it is worthy of comparison to Verdi), but it doesn’t come close to matching the excitement that is about to erupt: Paolo arrives and tells Julien that Laura has been captured and tells him to rescues her and take the throne for himself from the tyrannical Pierre. The finale is like a volcano *** contrasting the vocal fireworks on stage from the men calling for revenge with the plaintive off-stage voices of the religieuses.

ACT 4: (40 minutes)

Scene 1: An inn.

0: Remplisson nos coupes! The act opens with an escapee Italian drinking chorus which is pretending terribly to be French **. A long entr’acte has been cut, probably depicting the battle.

11: Pierre, wounded, comes on and embarks in a very standard tenor cavatina. It is sweet and nice enough, but lacks any passion and comes off as rip-off Donizetti. It gets more interesting when he encounters the drunken soldiers from earlier (who have given their allegiance over to wine) and it does finish with enough fire to raise my opinion a bit for the cabaletta **. He repents what he has done to his brother and decides to rescue Laura from a life of celibacy. As OperaScribe says, there is a good contrast between the comedic effect from the drunken soldiers and the urgency with which Pierre needs to get to Laura to undue what he has done.

Scene 2: A cloister.

21, 32: The orchestral march (based on the overture) almost comes off as a sick joke as Laura is led in to a forced life of celibacy in order to satisfy the men in her life. It is followed by a placid chorus which could have been straight out of a Verdi opera. Laura finally sings * a sad dirge before her uncle has her pronounce final vows to an orchestral accompaniment that is just as coercive as his actions (hunting horns again). Overall the effect is one of either the sedate or the run up to an on-stage human sacrifice *. It is un-surprising that the audience at this point barely bothers to applaud.

37: Arretez! Arretez! Pierre fails * to stop what appears to actually be Laura having committed suicide (?) (actually, this would make for a better conclusion than what we get). Pierre dies of his wounds, Julien is left distraught. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

I have found the anti-Das Rheingold, an opera that is dreadful at its beginning and end, but amazing in the middle.

The plot is simple but slow, with the second act contributing almost nothing other than to get Laura to change her mind from act one and thus bring the narrative to its rather obvious if depressing conclusion. To some extent I get two impressions: the work is far longer than it needs to be (even with the omission of the ballets, it could be cut by half an hour without anyone noticing), and everything seems to be timed for effect. The first act is the most vague in this regard as its primary purpose is to set up the story, but the second is obviously a divertissement with little plot forwarding. The last two acts consist essentially of four soloist showcases for the three leads (with the soprano framing the baritone and tenor) which provide a somewhat dissatisfying resolution to the situation established in act one. The fate of Laura almost seems planned from act one, her uncle determined to become pope after all, and the conclusion is ultimately fatalistic and pathetic. It is also rather disturbing, and this ending is probably the reason why the opera disappeared for a century and a half only to be resurrected in Poland in 2011. Musically the work is far more interesting, especially the vocal lines which seem very easy to execute. The vocal ranges for the soprano and Pierre specifically are interesting as the soprano is low and the tenor high (the E-flat). If not for a few high Cs, Laura could be sung by a mezzo-soprano (the role includes low-Bs and is usually in the lower octave of the soprano range with a large number of low Cs and Ds). The sober religious march which opens the overture and the final scene is deliberately and intentionally off-putting (I will not claim to understand it, although Berlioz supposedly did). The opera has strengths and weaknesses, both glaringly obvious. The strengths are the fluid vocal writing, the orchestration, the brevity of the plot, and most of the score; the weaknesses are the rather boring overture and the dramatically and musically abortive final scene. The ending is far too depressing (and not in the crazy dramatic everyone dies sort of way) for me to give this an alpha, even though most of the score is worthy of such a grade. B+/A- limbo then.

*I have two Flotow reviews ready for release, although I am not sure when I will release them. Certainly no later than November 15th.

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