Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.
The least well known of the Mercadante Reform operas, this one is also very hard to track down. Recorded only once in 1970, there isn’t even a synopsis in Italian much less English available so I had to dig into Internet Archive just for the libretto. It also appears that much of the music (although not any of the best bits) from I Briganti was recycled into this score. Much the same way I do not know which genre this opera is, is it melodrama? dramatic comedy?, the ending is ironic and no one dies so ironic drama?
SETTING: Pamplona, Navarre, 1450s. There are actually two Queen Blanca (Bianca in Italian) of Navarre in the 15th century, however, the libretto does not indicate a specific time period and since the first Blanca was married for the duration of her reign and the second was annulled in the middle of hers, I am going to assume that the Bianca of the opera (soprano) is the second queen since she is unmarried. She is the first of the two illustrious rivals of the title, the second is Elvira (soprano) the daughter of Guzman Prince of Pardos and Marshall of the Palace Guard (baritone), who is trying to marry her off to Duke Alvaro (tenor) the Grand Constable, even though she is in love with Armando di Foix (tenor) who has taken the fancy of Bianca. It is this mutual love for Armando which renders the two women as the illustrious rivals!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A Piazza outside of the Royal Palace, Pamplona, Navarre, foreground the Cathedral. (69 minutes)
0, 16: Salve, o Nume fausto a noi The long opening scene (there is no prelude, and literally the first scena in the libretto takes twenty minutes to transpire) is dominated by a single glorious tune *** which is a full sibling of the golden melody, which is of course the greatest thing that exists in music (it also shows up at the end of the opera). It is repeated approximately once every two to four minutes over the first quarter hour of the opera. It is initially stated by the full chorus, then the basses, then full chorus again after a recitative from Bianca, then it gets handed over to Armando (this gets reworked, but it is obvious that the tenor has the melody) during an otherwise uninteresting ensemble. It is very good (this lone melody), and a sibling of that descending trill melody which Mercadante appears to use in most of his operas other than this one. The rest is mostly stock gesturing, militant tenors, whimsical female chorus with bells, soprano queens doing their public pep talks all of it entertaining if not altogether thrilling. There are traces of Il giuramento act two finale in the concluding ensemble *.
23, 28: A quel sangue/Ah vivi al genitor Elvira tries to explain to her father that she loves Armando, but he demands that she marry Alvaro in an oddly limping trio * the best of which consists of Elvira giving her pathetic pleading soprano line (although Alvaro is energetic enough, especially in the middle section of the number **. The rest, unfortunately, is rather predictable to anyone with a background in bel canto as the men triumph over the fact that Elvira will give in even though she really would rather be dead than marry Alvaro.
Scene 2: A Garden terrace in the royal palace.
34: In solitaria valle sin ora The typical chorus of ladies-in-waiting surrounding a noblewoman accompanied by chimes comes on with an ironically pseudo-Spanish oomph *. Bianca then pines for Armando for several minutes.
42: Sorte avversa Bianca embarks on a love fantasy with a harp acting like a guitar *. It is more interesting for its execution that its melodic quality. Armando is brought in (to quotations from I briganti).
47: Dal ciel disceso un angelo Bianca makes a pass at Armando **, but he (somewhat stupidly, but otherwise there would be no plot) reveals that she has a rival for his love: Elvira!
59, 64: Felice momento/Regina, in vostro onore The act plays out as Gusmano comes on to ask Bianca to force Elvira to marry Alvaro. Bianca realizes that this is her chance to get rid of her rival and there is a mildly touching quartet that comes out of this **. The courtiers come on praising Bianca again, but this time to a series of fragmented melodies that will eventually end up in Elena da Feltre *. The act sort of just ends with a series of musical outbursts and a flourish of battery chords as Elvira passes out when Bianca announces to everyone that she is going to marry Armando. Not very satisfying in all honesty.
ACT 2: The Vestibule of the Cathedral. (52 minutes)
0: An oddly placed horn-dominated prelude opens the act *. The scene is dominantly filler as we meet Inigo, the royal cemetery keeper, and his wife Enellina, who have apparently been protecting the suicidal Elvira who is apparently dying or something because she is losing Armando to the Queen. Then, before Armando shows up, there is a clarinet dominantly interlude from the orchestra (equally bizarre).
8: In terra ci divisero Armando embarks on an aria which resembles Ecco, ridente in cielo (yes, I am not kidding). It is surprisingly good **, if brief. He gets Inigo and Enellina to tell him where Elvira is (apparently in a subterranean chamber under the Cathedral, the royal tombs probably) and he eventually makes to bring her up to the surface.
17: Cuor… pensieri… istanti… affetti Elvira embarks on a sad, sorrowful, little song which strongly resembles a number from I Briganti ***.
22: Cangiar poté mia sorte The reunion duet ** as Elvira realizes that Armando is with her and this revives her to some semblance of sanity. At least once it starts to come close to repeating the glorious melody from the beginning of the opera, but it never actually does. Nevertheless a serviceably pretty number and also apparently from I briganti.
33: Là, dal Cielo a cui volasti Bianca arrives and confronts Elvira in a weird duet (at first the vocal lines seem to run together in places). A harp/clarinet combo pops and we get something a bit better for about five minutes * (the coloratura saves it, otherwise the dominate melody can get tiring).
40: O tu, che un padre in lagrime Gusmano tries to guilt trip Elvira into consenting to marry Alvaro to the most saccharine sweet harp and organ accompaniment (it actually comes off, unfortunately and unintentionally) as hollow *.
45: La regina! Bianca returns and decides to have Elvira sentenced by her court (probably to death in order to get rid of her once and for all). And so Elvira is arrested. Another oddly boring act finale * ensues (even more so than the last one, although there are at least three instances when the glorious melody almost pops in again. Almost, but not quite).
ACT 3: (31 minutes)
Scene 1: A portion of the royal palace on the Arga river.
0: A nice flute-dominated prelude * flows into a recitative for Gusmano (an aria for Armando has apparently been cut, and appears to be the only cut in the score). More flute. Alvaro arrives and the three men rather predictably quarrel over Elvira. Mercadante seems to be blowing off stream and the scene rushes, races rather, to a conclusion.
Scene 2: The Court.
17, 30: Dolce e primo/Regna o Bianca! The judges come on to sentence Elvira (anticipated verdict to say the least). Ironically, she demands justice from Bianca, who up to now has been capriciously concerned only with getting her own way and musically attractive fanfare from her duped subjects. The chorus of judges is rather dull, I will not bother giving it a star. The duet, which starts off as an arioso for Bianca, is somewhat better * (pleasant at least, it is very obviously a reworking of fragments from I Briganti) although it lacks any unifying tune. It apparently has to work off of the pathos of the words, because there is little here of musical interest other than some stock bel canto coloratura (like I said, pleasant, but not much else). Eventually, Bianca gets around to reading the verdict of the court: Elvira is free! Everyone (other than Elvira) thinks this is some sort of change of heart for Bianca (who declares that all she has is to reign) and the opera ironically ends with one last reprisal of the Bianca chorus from the start of the opera ***. (I can say that placing the reprisal is the one bit of dramatic sense Mercadante has had since the first quarter hour of the opera!).
The problem with Le due illustri rivali is that it has only one great tune (and would be just an experiment on that one tune if it would show up more) and otherwise consists of boring stock gestures and quotations from other, better, Mercadante operas (he appears to be quoting and borrowing whole numbers more here than Donizetti would on average!). For all appearances, this is actually a pastiche with a single new big tune at the beginning and end. That one great tune in the opera, the first actually, one wishes had been dominantly used in the score, such as as a proto-leitmotif for Bianca (an otherwise uninteresting character). The plot is simplistic (which helps my pastiche argument): Queen realizes she has a rival for a man, also realizes that father of girl wants to marry her off to another man, uses her opportunity to force rival into a loveless marriage in order to get what she wants, eventually relents after driving the poor girl nuts. The motivation is petty, the character development bizarrely rushed, and rather weak in all honesty, and the reaction Elvira gives to all of this starts to make one wonder if not one but both of the women are crazy. The ending is particularly stupid (or is it comic irony?), with the jealous Queen only losing because her judges rule against her. Bianca is particularly uninteresting as a character, which obviously comes off as odd. If the plot of Elena da Feltre is depressing (and it is), this one is just stupid (like Keeping Up with the Kardashians meets Jersey Shore stupid), to the point of not being worth the trouble as well as uninteresting. Elvira also has this odd ability to predict bad news (sometimes incorrectly) in advance (that her father wants her to marry Alvaro, that Bianca wants to marry Armando, that the court is going to sentence her to death), which comes off as annoying. There are some nice things, mostly going to either Elvira or Armando (which seem to be re-workings of numbers from previous operas, usually I Brigante but there are also traces of Il giuramento and probably other earlier Mercadante scores as well), but apart from the centre of the second act, if you know other Mercadante operas, this quickly starts to come off as a red-headed step-child (and by act three, it essentially is). I usually do not say this, but this one probably deserves its obscurity.
A weird beta with one solid tune and a poignant aria.