Alessandro Nini: La Marescilla da Ancre (1839)

Opera in due atti. Running Time: 2 hours.

Hi, this is Historian Phil coming to you with yet another of my famous opera-history connection lessons, and this one is très compliqué.

This is one I know almost no one knows. I didn’t even know about it until I started writing this review. The husband of a certain famous operatic soprano diva, Marianna Barbieri-Nini who in 1847 would create the role of Lady Macbeth for Verdi, Alessandro Nini (1805-1880) was the composer of some eight operas, all of which have disappeared for well over 160 years, except for a single revival in 2003 of this one, considered by far his best. Nini had been teaching in St. Petersburg, Russia, earlier in his career and traces of Northern European orchestration can be heard in this score, although it is strongly entrenched in the world of Italian 1830s bel canto. It is also an interesting example of the role of capitalism in opera. With only a few exceptions, there really isn’t much of a difference between, say, Anna Bolena and this, but people have been paying to see the Donizetti opera for over a century (off and on) while the Italian public stopped paying for tickets to this since 1851 (when, incidentally, a member of the orchestra accused Nini of copying Verdi, to which the composer retorted by saying that, in fact, his opera had been written before Verdi had ever even had a single opera staged!). It had one airing in 2003, but it isn’t like anyone else is bothering to stage it again. Why? Capitalism, specifically ticket sales, or rather the lack thereof. This is why we must have 3000 performances of La Traviata and can not have nice (different) things. However, I digress, the libretto is apparently a bit of a mess (how many times have I said that on this blog?). Nini did not even set the entirety of it because it is too dramatically confusing, and the plot starts to take a turn for the incoherent, but the music he lavished on it is rather good, dare I say even very good considering that no one has heard of it since forever and a day. The plot is taken from history: the title character is Leonora Dori (1568-1617) who was known as Galigai and was dame d’honneur to Marie de Medici, Queen Mother and Regent of France who was the second wife of Henry IV whose first marriage was to Margaret de Valois and depicted in Les Huguenots. From 1610, following the assassination of Henry by a Roman Catholic fanatic, Leonora and her husband Concino Concini slowly bought up lands in France and eventually he became Grand Marshall of France with an army of some 7000 men. Louis XIII (under the advice of the Count de Luynes) eventually started to perceived him as a threat and had him arrested. While being taken to prison he apparently resisted on the bridge outside of the Louvre and was murdered by the guards in April, 1617. Leonora, who apparently suffered from epilepsy, was shortly arrested for sorcery and apparent conversion to Judaism (her physician, who had died the previous year, was Jewish) and was decapitated and post-mortem burned at the stake the following July. De Luynes was then given the estate of Ancre by Louis XIII and married Marie de Rohan (yes, the same Marie de Rohan as the Donizetti opera) before dying of scarlet fever in 1621. The Queen Mother was banished by her own son outside of France to Cologne where she died in 1642.

So that was our double history lesson (and connecting this opera to two other operas), how does the opera turn out?

SETTING: Paris, 1617. Luisa (not Leonora as in reality) or Galigai (soprano) is the wife of Concino Concini (tenor) but also the former lover of Michele Borgia (baritone, not in any way related to the Borgias you are thinking of) who is himself married to Isabella (mezzo-soprano), who accuses Galigai of witchcraft as part of a plot between her husband and the Count de Luynes (bass) to destroy Concini. Incidentally, the Concini have a Jewish physician named Armando (tenor). Galigai is put on trial, Isabella eventually confesses her false witness, but you already know whomst shall die. The opera ends with a Donizetti-style aria for the soprano as she is taken away to be executed. Oh, and I forgot, Isabella and Concino fall in love with each other, just to make everything else over-complicated!


ACT 1: (58 minutes)

Scene 1: A Gothic Piazza.

2: Al labbro dei perfide After the brief but Beethovenesque prelude (there is one good theme shared and thankfully repeated at least three times by the horns and clarinets) we come upon a chorus of masculine French courtiers * which would be rather at home in a middle-period Verdi opera.

6: Ogni rabbia sulla terra Luynes and Borgia plot against Concini leading to an fine cavatina from Borgia * and a standard cabaletta.

Scene 2: A room in the palace of the Marescialla, a party in progress.

11: Donna, se tutti esultano A scampering violin and bells introduces the ladies and Galigai *. There is one bit of modulation which is worth looking out for, otherwise it is a standard number.

14: Oh vane pampe Galigai has her first aria, and it is actually rather good **. Very much in the vein of Donizetti and enjoyable. Mostly it introduces the extent to which she is in the know regarding the Queen Mother. Finally, Borgia arrives and the situation about who is married to whom gets settled unsatisfactorily to a racing theme in the strings (it isn’t a melody exactly).

23, 26: Non ti renda/A me dunque The duet proper starts off with Galigai embarking on something that resembles Casta Diva (it is repeated), but much of the rest is rather pleasant sounding string music with woodwind ornaments **. They are interrupted by calls for vengeance from the courtiers. The second part of the duet is mostly patter strings supporting the vocal lines *.

Scene 3: The interior of the home of Armando the Alchemist.

28: The scene, which mostly consists of a dialogue between Luynes and Armando, and then between Armando and Concini, starts off with an enjoyable and rather jovial melody in the strings *.

32, 33, 41: Celi una rosa/Chi ti ruba/Tu solinga in questo Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes a glorious theme as Concini describes his adulterous love for Isabella ***. The harp and clarinet just as suddenly introduce her to us in a vision-like romanza ***. They do eventually revert to recitative but just as quickly rebound in a very good duet ** the best of which consists of an arioso for Concini and the strong finish.

51: Empi ascoltate insieme The climactic quartet ***, starting off with Concini and Borgia with Galigai and Isabella coming in momentarily as the four waltz along during this confrontation.

54: Morte a Concini! The act finale ** in which the court calls for the death of Concini (he escapes some how) and Galigai is arrested. A bit bizarre in its fury. The stretta has more than the usual show biz quality to it.

ACT 2: (60 minutes)

Scene 1: The Bastille.

0, 3: O Luce conforto A dark and almost scary prelude ** (lots of counter bass here!) flows directly into a gentle chorus of courtiers ** which is its total contrast (deliberately so?).

5: Ecco, Isabella! A sad trio ** as Isabella and Galigai confront each other and Borgia reveals that he really loves Galigai. The finish includes harp and the women running circles on each other.

Scene 2: The home of one of the supporters of Concini.

16: Oh sogni miei di gloria Concini has been hiding out, but plans on finding a way to free Galigai in a gentle aria *** worthy of Donizetti on his best day (like Lucia di Lammermoor). His supporters arrive and they go on the attack, swords drawn (and a good high Eb from Concini!).

Scene 3: The court room.

23: Forza di pochi The first item is a tuneful (if not so sinister) chorus of judges *.

28: Trema il passo The Gran Scena *** in which Luisa and Isabella confront each other and somehow reconcile even though Isabella has just testified against Luisa. A rather brilliant piece of theatre and the coloratura makes it even more attractive.

Scene 4: A dark road.

38, 44, 48: Ah tu non sai/Il perdon delle tue viscere Another brooding interlude ** (this time dominated by the violins). Concini comes on and eventually is found by Borgia and embark on a furious duet *** con coro leading to the death of Concini. This is followed by a brief but mournful Marcia funèbre **.

Scene 5: The prison cell of Galigai.

51: Odi i supremi accenti The opera ends with a delicate aria con coro for Luisa as she awaits execution ***. This is rather brilliant and shows to be between Donizetti and Verdi (there is an intensity here which the former never achieved and the latter would only meet decades later). Luynes arrives to lead her away.


The first thing that startles one about Nini is how much Verdi sounds like him! The second is how obviously different the two are. The older composer is already working with concepts that are more advanced than Donizetti (the choral work) or Rossini (the orchestration could be rivalled only by the French works, especially the rather rich usage of brooding lower strings, which can at times be positively Teutonic), and are on-par with middle-period Mercadante (think Orazi e Curiazi). Nini even builds dramatic tension as Verdi will: the opening is weak, in fact the entire first half hour is rather a loss, only for all of the parts to come together once Concini and Isabella acknowledge their adultery, their confrontation with their spouses, and then throughout most of the second act where the musical quality rarely lags. The plot is both complicated (romantically) and simple (basically everything else about it). Although it has its flaws, (and has moments of true brilliance beside banality) this opera, at its best, is very much worth a look over. It is even more fascinating as the work by a totally unknown composer, and is both the only example of his work and considered, apparently, to be his best.

A forgotten alpha be this.

2 thoughts on “Alessandro Nini: La Marescilla da Ancre (1839)

  1. Sorry, had some trouble finding this. Shouldn’t that be “La Marescialla” or are there two spellings? Anyway, I have a few hours work to do now, so looking forward to listening to this one!!


  2. I really enjoyed this, a very accomplished gem of an opera, particularly the second act. I say this not because of the “novelty” value of a work by an unknown composer. I really would enjoy listening to this again…and again.
    These kinds of post (unknown composer or little-heard work by a known composer) are my favourite! Good work!
    If the composer’s name had been Verdi, wouldn’t this be performed 10+ times a year somewhere around the world?


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