Friedrich von Flotow: Alessandro Stradella (1844)

Romantische Oper im drei Akten. Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

I turn 30 today! How better to celebrate than with a German opera about an Italian by a French-trained composer!

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Although best known for the once immensely popular Martha, in recent years this shorter work has seen a bit of a revival among the thirty operas of Flotow, perhaps with good reason (after all without the success of Stradella, the commission from Vienna for Martha might probably never have happened). On the face of it it is a monument to Western European music-cultural diversity (a German opera with an Italian setting: (Venice and Rome) written in the French opera comique style). It also appears that the work shares strong plot similarities with a certain 1837 grand opera by Louis Niedermeyer, including a heroine of the same name, failed assassination attempts, and an ultimately happy ending which Flotow actually wrote a one-act parody for in the same year, of which this work is an expansion.

As of July 2020 it is the only Flotow opera apart from Martha to possess a Wikipedia article. Since I am on a bit of a German-kick right now with Goldmark and Weber, I thought I would finally get around to some Flotow. The Flotow style is, however, not specifically German, but actually closer to French and Italian compositional and melodic styles with, however, a German orchestral richness and colour.

SETTING: Venice and Rome, 1670. The rather basic plot is a love triangle between the composer and music teacher Alessandro Stradella (tenor), Leonore (soprano), and her guardian Bassi (bass) a Venetian nobleman who (in act one) plots to marry her the following day. Stradella and Leonore elope during a Venetian carnival only for Bassi to separately send out two assassins Malvolino (bass) and Barbarino (tenor) in two failed attempts to assassinate Stradella, the second ending in a massive Marian hymn sequence because Italy+ La Madonna=great operatic ending.

The playlist is available on Youtube:Here 

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A Piazza in Venice outside the Villa de Bassi. (36 minutes)

0: The overture ** starts off with a lovely tune on the French Horn, this is the Italia theme which will return in act three. It gets reshuffled with some angst from the orchestra (including chimes introducing a mild celebration theme which will probably show up during the act one masque). The fifty-second finish is the most Teutonic element (perhaps this is the Marian hymn?). Flotow saves one very important melody for act two and does not use it here.

8: In des Mondes Silberhelle A most Venetian opening ** (the flowing water against the gondola, complete with a bit of upper string scatter), as a male chorus is heard sotto voce before a lovely (high) introduction from Stradella as he prepares to sing a serenade to the cloistered Leonore.

12: Horch, Liebchen, Horch The lovely tenor serenade ** has a seditious undertone and a playful clarinet accompaniment.

18: Durch die Taler The love duet is in the form of a Nocturno ** with the tenor and soprano alternating. They plot their elopement before a furious chorus of maskers arrives partying.

22: The first ballet ** (four and a half minutes in length) is an amusing bit of scenic filler which allows for a can-can-esque beat before a strong tarantella (which is Calabrian, not Venetian, unlike the more logical Furlana?). Either way, it is enjoyable and energetic.

27: Zu Jubelchor und frohem Reigen The eight and a half minute act finale ** starts with Stradella giving his impatient wait for Leonore (a return to the Serenade). They elope amid more choral partying (this changes gears to a much grander key). Bassi shows up looking for Leonore before the couple is able to flee the piazza and the chorus comments and laughs. The act ends with a minute-long symphony.

ACT 2: The home of Stradella in the Roman countryside. (40 minutes)

0: The prelude starts hymn-like but then switches to a romantic tune in the viola **.

2: Seid meiner Wonne Lenore embarks on a somewhat obligatory aria with remembrances of the Venetian Carnival **. The cabaletta is surprisingly more French than Italian, but every so often a bit of Weberian angst comes out to remind us that this opera is German, in spite of the well-timed coloratura.

8: Hort die Glocken The bell tolls: countryfolk come to sing ** the new hymn Stradella has composed in honor of the Marian festival to take place the following day. It shifts gears to a duettino con coro for the lovers.

12: An dem linken Strand des Tiber Now something very different: the two assassins show up at the same time not knowing the other has also been hired out to kill Stradella by Bassi. What is brilliant about this is how Flotow weaves the orchestration (in particular the woodwinds and strings) to turn what could be a very dark and dull scene reliant on stage direction for comedic effect into perhaps the most orchestrally complex in the score ***. The vocal distribution is also a wise choice, as the tenor and bass contrast each other in a way that a baritone-bass duet would fail to capture.

19, 26: Bunte Menge!/Raus mit dem Nass The bell tolls again, the countryfolk come on again singing their happy tune. Stradella comes on to try out his new hymn. This turns into an ensemble *** with a high soprano from Leonore as the three men and chorus patter away. Eventually it is just the two assassins and the chorus, and this is just as good. Malvolino and Barbarino sing a brief but amusing duet **, the chorus pops in at the end for an energetic finish.

27: Suddenly, everything stops for a placid seven-minute ballet **. The first movement could easily be an entr’acte as much as a dance. The second is more jovial, if only a little faster. The third might seem oddly familiar. The fourth is the most fast-paced.

35: Tief in den Abruzzen Stradella unwittingly wins over the assassins with a gorgeous song about the good that can be found in every human heart *** (Flotow (four times) pulls off a tune both Wagner (the act five duet in Rienzi) and Mercadante (the prelude to Orazi i Curazi), (Poniatowski also uses it at the end of the introduction ensemble in Pierre de Medicis), used earlier and it works very well with the seductive tenor line (which it was never used for in the other two instances, those being a soprano descant and orchestral respectively). I call this specific melody Enchantment and it is the most marvelous theme in music. The chorus sasses us to a brilliant act finish.

ACT 3: The same. (26 minutes)

1: Italia, mein Vaterland! The act starts off with the horn theme from the overture which turns into a tenor hymn to Italia ***. Leonore follows up more mildly but nevertheless joyously and the entire number turns into a tenor-soprano vocal playground, and yes, Malvolino and Barbarino break in too. It is obvious filler since the act would be less than twenty minutes without the number, but it is good filler. 

6: Rosig strahlt die Morgensonne Another lovely choral-ensemble number ***.

9: Sag doch an Bassi, who has been on stage for about four minutes so far in the opera, comes on in the last quarter hour and bribes Malvolino and Barbarino back to his side on the whole killing Stradella thing in a good trio with a twist: Barbarino ends up breaking into the Enchantment melody ***, and I need to mention this because I love it so.

18: Jungfrau Maria It is followed by a bit of patter trio and then a harp comes on with Stradella who embarks on another grand tenor song which is only a prelude to the brilliant Marian hymn ***. Malvolino and Barbarino are rendered powerless before the gorgeous tenor of Stradella (aren’t we all?).

24: Weh! The opera ends with Bassi realizing that he is licked and reconciling with Stradella and Leonora and then one last choral blast before the curtain falls ***.

COMMENTS:

Alessandro Stradella is a little gem, not because it is a great opera, but rather because it is a consistantly enjoyable opera. Even if the plot is a simplistic series of operatic conventions (elopement during the Venetian Carnival, paid assassins who are overwhelmed by both La Madonna and the most brilliant legato melody in all opera, a sparingly used buffo basso villain who is reconciled with the lovers at the end, a tenor capable of seducing both women and men with his voice), there isn’t a dull bar in the entire score, and that in itself is a bit of a musical miracle. The first act is ironically the weakest, not because it is actually weak, it isn’t, in fact it is actually the most picturesque with its watery Venetian opening, but because the second and third acts possess three of the most brilliant melodies in all opera: Italia (an interesting homage to Italian nationalism from a French-trained German-born composer), the Marian Hymn, and the Enchantment melody which alone could have saved any opera even if the rest were dull. It is also rather brilliant of Flotow to hold back on using this melody (it only appears five times, and it is not included in the overture). It is easy to forget that the opera isn’t Italian bel canto, except perhaps when the strong Teutonic orchestration comes out full-force. If I can fault the opera at all, it would be that Leonore is really more of a musical ornament, the token soprano who could just as well have been written for a contralto or mezzo without noticing much, than a fleshed out character contributing to the actual plot, especially when compared to the two assassins and Stradella himself, who also get the best music. She mostly just stands around contributing to Stradella musically; it seems a rather thankless and wooden role in an opera that otherwise seems close to perfect. In its compact way, Alessandro Stradella is an excellent night at the theatre and really needs to get more of an airing even if it has always been the second most popular opera of its composer. An alpha, maybe even plus.

One thought on “Friedrich von Flotow: Alessandro Stradella (1844)

  1. Very happy 30th birthday (a bit late, sorry!)
    I am really glad to read this review. Flotow’s music is just so attractive and full of great melodies.
    Looking forward to a review of Donizetti’s (brilliant) Don Pasquale! Why do you hate it so much??

    Like

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