Opera Comique en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 29 minutes.
Devoid of lower voices, this opera boasts four tenor roles with a lonely soprano and mezzo-soprano. There are thirteen musical numbers not counting the overture. The music for the soprano is exceptionally slow moving, with an air of the 18th century about it.
SETTING: Sicily, Middle Ages. This opera has a backstory, a main plot, and a comedic sub-plot: Backstory: The Conte de Monza, having spent the family fortune, seduced and abandoned a girl named Alice Manfredi, and became a pirate. Alice is taken in by a merchant named Lugano, dies of a broken heart, and the merchant has a statue erected in her honor which is worshiped by the townspeople as a saintly icon. Main Plot: Camille (soprano) the daughter of Lugano (who is never seen) is engaged to the younger de Monza son Alphonse (tenor) and is about to marry him when Zampa (tenor) arrives and forces Camille to marry him instead. Alphonse has somehow never met his older brother, and at first doesn’t even realize that he is Zampa. The viceroy (also unseen) pardons Zampa, and gives him carte blanche to marry Camille, in exchange for fighting against the Turks. The subplot involves Ritta (mezzo-soprano) who is the wife of Daniel (tenor) the second of Zampa, although she thought he was dead when he joined the pirates and has been allowing the Lugano servant Dandolo (tenor) to court her.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Casa Lugano, the statue of Alice Manfredi predominant. (65 minutes)
0: The sparkling overture ***, immediately recognizable as an orchestral rep piece, starting with a massive crescendo with the orchestra plugging away already at force nine (do not worry, it returns again, and again). Hints of doom impregnate the next minute before moving on to a gentle, almost religious sounding movement before another go at the crescendo, then more quiet (different melody), and then the crescendo plugged out again for a magnificent finish.
10: A ce bonheur supreme After the usual pre-wedding feminine chorusing (all nice and atmospheric) we get the first aria from Camille **, a slow moving piece salvaged by its own brand of dignity. It is followed by a furious choral section for the men announcing the arrival of Alphonse.
18: Mon bons amis A couplet from Alphonse * with a tune which does not stick in the mind for some reason but is nevertheless serviceable. Furious chorusing again, this time from both the women and the men, which finishes well.
24: D’une haute naissance Camille embarras on a gentle ballade to that slower movement in the overture **, it eventually is taken over by some lumbering in the counter basso, but returns. The melody has a Gluck air to it, also very slow.
33: Qu’as-tu donc! A furious, if understated, trio as the women are informed by Dandolo about the pirates house invasion that is about to take place *.
37: Le voila! The meeting quartet ***: first the women react to the arrival of Zampa, then he reacts to seeing Camille (and ends up on some low Bs) while Dandolo patters away on a comic descant. It eventually switches to an even more dramatic gear (and Zampa ends up going down to several low A#s) as the women realize that they are now prisoners. Zampa also makes a reference to Camille indicating that her father is already dead. For the ending, it gets three stars.
50: Au signal qui se fait entendre The act finale ***: builds up to a knockout from the orchestra pounding out the main tune from the overture as Zampa has Dandolo serve dinner to everyone.
54: Que la vague Zampa embarks on a dark couplet with his pirates ***. He takes the ring that he plans to marry Camille with and places it on the finger of the statue of Alice, declaring her (the statue) to be his fiancee for the evening. Dandolo remarks on how this is sacrilege (although he is dealing with pirates here, so it that not a forgone conclusion?).
59: Au plaisir a la folie Yet again reworking of the main theme appears, this time as what at first seems like another song based on the theme, but it quickly turns into something else, nevertheless very good ***. He tries to remove the ring from the statue, but the hand of the statue grasps it causing panic (excellent orchestral effect here). The act ends with a symphonic battle between the orchestra backing up Zampa and the pirates and the supernatural power of the statue of Alice. Brilliant terror.
ACT 2: The gardens, the chapel nearby. (52 minutes)
2: Aux pieds de la Madonne The women (including Camille) pray for deliverance (in vain) from the Virgin Mary, but they do so in the most lovely way *. Zampa comes on and watches Camille.
5, 8: Toi dont la grâce/Piquante bayadère Zampa fantasizes ** on the dancing of women from various nationalities (Indian, Italian, English, Spanish). This second section takes another tune from the overture and works it energetically ***.
15: Juste ciel! Ritta recognizes that Daniel is her long-lost husband, and how this complicates her relationship with Dandolo *. It has no barring on the main plot at all, but is a charming bit of comic filler.
24: Pourquoi, pourquoi vous troubles a ma vue Alphonse finally returns and asks Camille why she is so terrified in a dreamy duet **. This gives way to romantic sweet-nothings before she fills him in on the plot that we already know, namely on her forced marriage to Zampa. It has all of the charm of a barcarolle, and is distinctly Italianate. In the second movement bells start to toll and Camille knows that the end is neigh.
34, 36, 38, 41, 48: L’écho de nos montages/Douce jouvencelle/ C’est Alphonse/Honheur, Honheur The act finale *** starting off with the chorus waiting to attend the wedding ceremony *(bright), then another rondo from Zampa ** (dreamy), then suddenly we get a new warning from the statue welling up from the orchestra ***. Alphonse tries to stop the wedding as Zampa leads the unwilling but docile Camille to the altar *** (Zampa and Camille both hit low Gs here). Things start to go into the realm of recitative for a while between the two brothers (who however do not know of their relationship even at this late stage). The act ends with yet another sparkling stretta *** as Alphonse is forced to look on as Camille is dragged off against her will to marry Zampa (and organ postlude interjects), but wait, the orchestra (and the statue) gets one last crashing word before the curtain falls.
ACT 3: The chambers of Camille. (31 minutes)
0: The entr’acte ** is eery at first, perhaps reminding us of that supernatural statue or something. It eventually becomes more upbeat (of sorts), but never jovial. Camille is alone at first, embarking on a bit of melodrama.
3: Ou vas-tu pauvre gondolier? Alphonse is heard singing the most obvious Barcarolle ever **, it eventually becomes a duet with Camille.
10: La nuit profonde A serenade chorus ** with just a trace of the religious melody from the overture (we have heard it a couple of times, and it is only a trace).
16, 18: O ciel!/Pourquoi tremble The finale *** starts as Alphonse attempts to assassin and then realize that Zampa is his long-lost elder brother, so he cannot kill him. At this moment, Camille realizes that Alphonse will give her up. Finally alone, Zampa asks his bride why she is trembling *** (his lines are much more tender, including a high A and high Bb, eventually a sustained high Db as well!) to the point that you believe that he is on the level. Camille still attempts to put up a resistance, but the music gives way that she is weakening to him. The remainder of the opera is a frantic duet (will she give in to his amorous advances, will the statue kill him and drag him to hell?). Suddenly the orchestra returns to the supernatural element and Camille is relieved of her unwanted husband admit a lot of explosive instrumental work. Finally the chorus returns us to a bit of tranquil salvation and the opera ends grandly.
Perhaps befitting its setting, Zampa is very much an Italianate work. The overture and the individual act finales are the best work in the score. I personally find a lot of the work for Camille and Alphonse to be a bit slow (not sedate, slow) although basing much of this on Italian song patterns is understandable and justified. In spite of all of the reworking of Italian operatic conventions, it is actually the supernatural element with which Herold is most effective, using the orchestra to play out the role of Alice, and thus play an early example of the orchestra as an active part of the story and not just as an accompaniment. This is also, it goes without saying, the least Italian element in the score, but it is also what makes it a great work. Dare I say that it even has a Teutonic hue? Of the vocal parts, by far the most juicy is Zampa himself with his incredibly low (for a tenor) notes but also requiring rather a few high As, Bs, and even Ds on occasion. The part includes frequent dips to multiple low-Bs and even a low-G, which must be the lowest note a tenor ever has to hit and may be why the opera does not get so much of an airing, certainly nothing in this opera would indicate that it is worthy of neglect. Truly the entire opera should be as well know and loved as its overture has been for the last two centuries, and yet no commercial recording of the entire opera exists. My review is based on a 2008 concert performance recording, not a commercial release. If there were an opera that Bru Zane NEEDS to release, it is this one. Alpha plus.