Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes.
This is the first of three reviews I finished in August 2020 because I just can’t get enough of Mercadante.
In essence La Gioconda forty years before the fact, this was the first opera of the Mercadante reform, and his greatest international success (there is just something about adaptations of the Angelo, tyran de Padoue of Victor Hugo that seems to save Italian opera just at the right moment, no). This one does have difficulties, as it is almost impossible to find a good recording of it, as they all are amateur copies of live performances ranging in time from the 1950s to the present. The vocal casting is also up in the air for three of the six soloists. It also has one of the most bizarre plots in all opera (a tall order surely you say, but it really is a piece of work).
SETTING: Syracuse, Sicily, 14th century. Our Gioconda is the noblewoman Elaisa (soprano) who is in love with Viscardo (tenor) who is in love with Bianca (mezzo or contralto) who has been forcibly married to Manfredo (baritone or bass) who is Duke of Syracuse and, actually in love with Elaisa because why not! Elaisa knows that Bianca loves Viscardo and wants to kill her, but when her father was to be executed, Bianca saved his life, so now Elaisa is indebted to her rival and has vowed (giuramento) to protect her. These are the four main characters although in act one one must also remember Brunoro (tenor or baritone) who is the secretary of Manfredo and who attempts to lead an uprising to overthrow him between acts one and two but who is dead by the time the first intermission ends (he is motivated by a sexual obsession with Bianca, whom he wants to kill as well because this is Italian opera and that is what people do). Brunoro initially attempts to sabotage Bianca by helping Viscardo to be alone with her in her bedroom, and then informs Manfredo. In the second act Manfredo gives Elaisa poison with which to kill Bianca because he is that much in love with her.
ACT 1: (70 minutes)
Scene 1: A party in the gardens of the palace of Elaisa.
3, 9, 12, 17, 22: La dèa di tutti i cor/Fier sospetto/Vicino a chi s’adora/Di un superbo vincitore/Or la danza si riprenda The first scene is actually a single, massive, introductory number lasting close to thirty minutes, the highlights starting off with a mild tenor love song for Viscardo (who sings of his love for Bianca within ear-shot of the spying Brunoro) * which is preceded (and followed) by choruses of masked party guests. Manfredo arrives and sings of his love for Elaisa * who then herself arrives and gives us the first good music in the opera ** which is the introduction to a quartet which contains traces of the main theme from the prelude to Elena da Feltre. Elaisa then embarks on her party piece ** which is surprisingly strong with its darker orchestration balanced with the gentleness of the soprano vocal line. The stretta ** seems related to how Pacini will end act two of Maria Tudor. Brunoro tricks Viscardo into meeting with Bianca, and encounters the infuriated Elaisa, in recitative. In many ways this loose structure of choruses and ariosi punctuated with ensemble is similar to the first act of La Gioconda.
Scene 2: The bedroom of Bianca.
33: Oh! sì, mie care After some uneventful but scene setting preluding and feminine chorusing, we come upon Bianca in her natural element ** (with the flute soloist from the prelude returning). She then confides in Isaura of her hope in seeing Viscardo again, who is momentarily brought by Brunoro.
47: Ti creò per me l’amor Things start to heat up when Viscardo is heard outside singing a love song to Bianca ** which turns into a furious love duet of reunion. This is cut short (although a bit magnificently) by the arrival of Elaisa, and Viscardo hides.
54: Di Viscardo io son amante Elaisa declares her love for Viscardo to Bianca in yet another furious duet **. Isaura arrives to protect Bianca, then Viscardo comes out of hiding
59: Fermate! Viscardo declares that he loves only Bianca, starting off a furious quintet and then quartet as Manfredo discovers everyone ** and reveals that Brunoro is trying to take over the city.
ACT 2: (40 minutes)
Scene 1: A square in Syracuse.
0: Vittoria! Siracusa! The victory chorus **, without any real orchestral introduction, it essentially just starts. Brunoro has already been killed.
3: Fu celeste quel contento Viscardo gets what is probably the best number in the entire show ***, a magnificent tenor aria .
Scene 2: The Ducal Family Tomb, Syracuse.
10: A long viola-led prelude **.
16: Alla pace degli eletti Manfredo comes on, having intercepted a letter from Viscardo to Bianca which reveals everything in the plot that hasn’t already been made known to him, and he plans out her murder to a heavenly feminine chorus **.
27: Oh! Qual nome pronunciaste! Elaisa arrives with poison from Viscardo for Bianca, but she switches out the poison for a hard narcotic, which she gives to Bianca to take when Viscardo arrives. The two women are reconciled (?) in a duet **.
37: Quel sangue…quel vorrei A final trio *** as Bianca takes the narcotic and appears to die. Musically this is rather grand (and even a bit chromatic), but in terms of theatrical timing, it probably seems bizarre how quickly Bianca goes from taking the drug to being (supposedly) dead (all of ten seconds, what poison acts that quickly?).
ACT 3: A hall in the palace of Elaisa. (21 minutes)
5: Ma negli estremi istanti Elaisa prays for death **, but she will restore Bianca to Viscardo.
9: S’io l’amava! Sciagurata! The finale ***. When Viscardo arrives, Elaisa goads him into murdering her, telling him that she has brought him to her home to show him the dead body of her rival for his love. He stabs her just as Bianca awakens (the phallic symbolism here is potent: Elaisa knows she can never possess Viscardo sexually, so she has him penetrant her with a weapon instead. She even pitifully tells him to stab her again.). Elaisa reveals the truth and dies in the arms of man she loved– her murderer. How does Bianca take this?
The plot is really irredeemable, if it weren’t taken to be serious it would actually be comically insipid. We basically have five people who are either in love with each other or who want to kill each other (except Bianca who is obviously oblivious to the actions and motivations of everyone else other than to what happens immediately in front of her). With Brunoro getting killed off during the first intermission, it does seem a little odd to have him in the first place. For those who know La Gioconda well, everything will seem extremely rushed: the Barbaro is already dead after act one, the tenor mercilessly murders the soprano in cold blood, and everything just takes a lot less time (the final act is even ten minutes shorter in Mercadante than in Ponchielli). Ironically, having the tenor murder the soprano makes more rational sense than the soprano suicide by dagger to avoid sex with the baritone that ends Gioconda which is more of a homage to male conceit (women usually don’t kill themselves with metal weapons, except in opera, men do). Elaisa is to some extent more of a human being than Gioconda, her murder-suicide is a heart wrenching attempt at having the man she loves even give her the time of day; it is possible to feel for her loss, and her death almost becomes our loss, which is more than I can say for most opera characters.
The other problem is that I am not convinced of the value of the score from the recordings I have heard. Much of it sounds like it would later be data minded by Mercadante for tunes in the next dozen or so operas he would write. The choral work is mostly rather boring, the soloist work is fine, but the orchestration seems to be where the greatest innovation has occurred. One good thing is that the long recitative passages that will later be found in Mercadante operas (spacing out numbers by sometimes twenty minutes) are thankfully absent here. And that I think is why Verdi, for all his bombast and even crude orchestral handling (prior to Macbeth at least) survives while Mercadante has mostly vanished: Mercadante has a far more loose dramaturgy than Verdi (and his plots are comparatively uninteresting), while the younger composer is by far more intense and compact even to the point of stupidity. But ultimately, except for a couple of numbers, this opera is really really very good, but not great, so A-/A.