Saverio Mercadante: Elena da Feltre (1838)

This review is dedicated to the memory of my favorite actress, two-time Academy Award winner Olivia de Havilland, who died last Saturday at the age of 104. I learned of her death listening to the overture of this opera while working on this review.

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes.

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The opera consists of an overture and nine musical numbers (three to each act).  This is perhaps the most experimental of the reform operas of Mercadante, much of it consists of recitative, but the musical numbers, when they show up, are another story. Surprisingly, the opera only requires three sets as the third act repeats the scenery from act one.

SETTING: Feltre, a city in Northern Veneto, Italy, 1250. Guelphs and Ghibellines again! The town is Guelph but occupied by the forces of Ghibelline Ezzelino III (who never appears on-stage). Elena (soprano) is in love with Guido (baritone) but is loved by his friend Ubaldo (tenor) who plans to abduct her rather than betray his friend to Ezzelino who has betrothed Guido to Imberga (soprano) the daughter of his minister Boemondo (tenor). Meanwhile, Elena is the daughter of the fugitive Sigifredo (bass), and when the abduction is about to happen, the men take Sigifredo instead of Elena, who spends most of the rest of the opera praying for death to finally take her.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (44 minutes)

0: The overture *** consists of a cello quartet in its first half (following a bit of orchestral angst, this is a prayer which Elena will sing late in act three, it has a Beethoven-esque hew to it although which symphony now escapes me, perhaps the second or third?), then some whimsical worth dominated by the upper strings. The melody of the quartet comes close to the magnificent melody used in Orazi, but not quite. It finally gets a bit more sinister in the last three minutes and finishes off with a brilliant crescendo.

Scene 1: The home of Ubaldo.

9: Ti scuoti, Ubaldo The opera starts off with a surprisingly fluttery male chorus ** as they try to figure out why Ubaldo is so gloomy.

17: Deh qual maligno genio A duet between Ubaldo and Guido which is best for its orchestration and the tenor vocals **. Tuneful enough, oddly a bit furious and placid at the same time. It does get a bit starchy in the middle, but the beginning and end are enough to salvage it. Guido reveals the plot points indicated in the settings sections. It is followed by a recitative in which Ubaldo is torn between betraying Guido to Boemondo or abducting Elena in order to get what he wants.

Scene 2: The palace of Sigifredo.

29: Voti che amor formò A beautiful romanza for Elena *** accompanied by a bright flute solo. The romanza itself is strikingly dramatic, but very short (around three minutes). She has learned that her father has escaped to a nearby town and plans her wedding to Guido. Her servant Gualtiero reveals that a passing pilgrim is actually her father and they are reunited. He hides when Ubaldo arrives and tells Elena that he has come to abduct her.

37, 42: Un nume, un nume vindice The act finale is basically a trio con coro for Elena, Ubaldo, and Sigifredo (who emerges to defend his daughter). The initial trio has one solidly great tune ** which anticipates Verdi. The chorus of hired abductors arrives, but upon realizing the bounty on Sigifredo, take him instead after an impassioned good-bye to his daughter. The last two minutes consists of a furious stretta *** led by Elena. Ubaldo panics because his hired men have failed to do what he asked, and leaves Elena, who passes out.

ACT 2: The town hall. (39 minutes)

3:  Il mio sangue i giorni miei Boemondo tells Ubaldo that Sigifredo is being held in a secret location. Elena arrives and is given an ultimatum by Ubaldo, marry him and her father will be freed, otherwise Boemondo is already building the scaffold for his execution. He reveals his very real love for her in a gorgeous duet ** but she flatly rejects him with disgust (even though Mercadante comes close here to using the golden melody). She gives in only when it is revealed that marriage to him might save her father from death.

17: Entro il mio sangue immergere After a long clarinet interlude, Guido comes on in dispair ** under guard. Boemondo tells him that Elena has betrayed him.

25: Già Belluno al vento spiega Supporters of Boemondo arrive rejoicing at the news that the neighboring town of Belluno has fallen to the Ghibellines **.

29: Parlami al core, voce paterna The act finale *** starts off with a quintet of high drama after Boemondo tells Elena that she must choose a protector, and, under pressure, names  Ubaldo to the rage of Guido who then proposes marriage to Imberga. Elena bemoans her fate in the show-biz stretta.

ACT 3: (45 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 2.

1: Preghiera After a prelude with traces of the golden melody we come upon Elena praying to her dead mother for death ***. Not so much an aria as a dramatic scene for soloist, and technically not even a musical number but rather a dramatic recitative.

8: Se più non m’ami The only number in the opera that truly is labored is the confrontational duet * between Elena and Guido as he tries to get out of her that she has not consented to Ubaldo by her own free will. She is about to reveal the truth when a bell sounds and she lies to him, causing him to storm out.

Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scene 1.

21: Al chiaror di lugubri tenebre Ubaldo realizes that Boemondo has double-crossed Elena: Sigifredo has been executed. He decides to return to the Guelph cause and save Elena ***.

Scene 3: Same as Scene 1.

33: O tu che in modi innumeri Another prelude, this time featuring flute and oboe. Elena is alone, asks Gualtiero to see if he can find news of her father. Finally, the wedding chorus is hear off-stage **.

36: Per quest’orrendo strazio The theme from the beginning of the overture over the cellos turns into a beautiful prayer for Elena *** as she hopes that Guido will have a good life, even with Imberga.

41: No, non è spento il padre Gualtiero comes back with Ubaldo who tells her the truth about her father. Elena at first can not believe it, and prays once more for death; this time it comes ***.

COMMENTS:

Musically, this opera is amazing. The plot however leaves a lot to be desired as it is depressingly morbid. Imberga is a bit of vocal overcasting, such a tiny role really should not be handed over to an expensive soprano. That aside, Mercadante has two glaring problems: one, overlong recitatives requiring singers who can act to carry them, and this rarely happens. When we finally tee up for a number he does not fail to satisfy (nine times out of ten) but then we also have to wait forever for them to come up, and it drags. Two, the miserable and slow plot. Morose is too kind a word for a rather simple story which seems more like a vehicle for some good musical experimentation. Gluck did this with Orpheus, Wagner with the Dutchman, Mercadante does not succeed in convincing us that this story is entertaining, or even interesting, in spite of the excellent music he gives it. If I were to make another Wagner comparison, this is Tannhauser: music good, plot badSo, what is an opera with a terribly macabre plot, a lot of workman recitative, but a series of eight out of nine great musical numbers? A bizarre alpha.

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