Opera in due atti e quattro parti. Running Time: 2 hours 39 minutes.
Full disclosure, I actually have a copy of this opera in my personal collection, in fact I have had it for years!
The overall take on this opera is that the music is great but the plot is muddled and confusing. Felice Romani wrote the libretto, but it was so heavily edited by censors that he refused credit by the time of the first performances. Given its subject matter: (plots to overthrow/assassinate child-monarchs, women committing suicide rather than become queen, failed insurrections) Romani really should have known better than come up with this setting. The score, however, was successful with audiences. When it was obvious that the work had no future saddled with its plot, Donizetti reused most of the music in later operas such as Parisina, Gemma di Vergy, and Sancia di Castiglia. It was selected by Opera Rara as its first recording project back in 1977. I have owned a copy of the Dynamic release, which is somewhat shorter, for at least three years now and it was high time I got around to reviewing this, probably one of the strongest early Donizetti scores. Incidentally, the four principal roles were created by the same artists who created the four principals in Norma only three months earlier.
SETTING: 10th century France. Similarities to La Magicienne aside, Bianca (soprano) is in love with Ugo (Hugh Capet, tenor), but engaged to Louis V (contralto). When Louis announces that Ugo will marry her sister Adelia (soprano), she plots to have the king poisoned, which plays into an unconnected conspiracy against the Child-King by the courtier Folco (bass). The plot give away here is that Bianca will herself die by poison, after Ugo is imprisoned by the King, refuses to be broken out of prison by his supporters, and reveals to all that it is Adelia and not her sister that he loves. The vocal casting is very high here (three sopranos, a contralto, tenor, and bass).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (95 minutes)
0: The overture *** is very good and appears to have themes which will be later reused in Parisina. The first half is deathly serious (and grand), the middle more whimsical and even comic, the finish furious and energetic.
Scene 1: The Royal Throne Room, Paris.
8: No, che in ciel de Carolingi Boom! Boom! An energetic intro chorus of courtiers ** is followed immediately by a mostly placid cavatina for Folco (it ends with some energetic angst, fitting given its subject matter of a curse on Luigi that he will be hated by his queen and die by her wickedness), and recitative-chorus-recitative interjections from Ugo, Luigi, and Queen-mum Emma. The chorus establishes Hugo as the strongest supporter of the young king and that he is giving up the regency that very day. Luigi starts off a slightly military-sounding ensemble (it remains mostly placid, with bursts of militancy, especially from Ugo) as he promises to avenge the death of his father.
22: L’orifiamma ondeggi al vento An explosive stretta *** ends the introduction as Ugo tells the King to redirect his anger towards the enemies of France. The King changes his plans and sets out a new goal of establishing a greater (not Greater) France.
Scene 2: The apartments of Bianca in the palace.
31: No, che infelice appieno Bianca comes on for a rather dull and ordinary first half of her introductory cavatina which picks up after a furious chorus of ladies-in-waiting comes on and she switches to an oddly sedate (if pleasantly placid) second half * (punctuated by more fury from the ladies-in-waiting).
40: Io lo vidi… ah! chi non l’ama? Bianca reveals to her sister Adelia that she actually hates the King (but does not reveal why, but she does tell Adelia that she is actually in love with Hugo), in a rather good duet ** which is a collection of musical ideas which Donizetti will later pop into other scores. The finish is especially effective. Bianca demands that Adelia back up a fake story about their mother being ill and needing them both to go home as quickly as possible. Adelia is shocked by this, but gives in to lying about their mother to the King.
53: Oh! supplizio! oh! rio martire! The long scene ends with a quartet for the two sisters, Luigi, and Folco **. Luigi does not buy the sick mother story, even trapping Bianca by telling her that if she marries him immediately he will accompany her on the trip the next day, and she refuses, and he accuses her of being in love with another man. Watch out for the last two minutes when things really get agitated and an energetic finish ***.
Scene 3: An atrium.
68: Se tu m’ami … se ti move Finally, the love duet (Ugo/Adelia) takes a little to rev up but it quickly becomes ferocious, and then will finally blossom into a grand tune *** for an excellent finish with the female chorus in the background. Adelia tells Ugo to avoid Bianca, but gives him no explanation as to why. This is followed by an agitated accompanied recitative between Adelia and Bianca in which the latter informs the former that the King has banned her from leaving the palace, and she now seeks the protection of Ugo.
76: Quando fia sgombro e libero The nearly twenty-minute long act finale *** starts off: Luigi refuses to believe the mother story, telling Bianca that if she is so concerned about her mother (who is the Queen of Aquitaine, incidentally) he will send Ugo to her. But would he deprive the Queen of her daughter? Bianca replies: No, responds Luigi, he will send Adelia with Ugo. Bianca explodes (traces of this will end up in Maria Stuarda): Luigi accuses Ugo of being her lover. Ugo denies this, but Bianca claims that it is true: that she loves Ugo anyway. Ugo declares that he loves someone else, but who? He sees that Adelia is terrified and refuses to answer, instead demonstrating his disgust for Bianca, accusing her (truthfully) of disgracing both him and France itself! Luigi has Ugo arrested.
ACT 2: (64 minutes)
Scene 1: A prison.
0: The prelude * includes an English horn, an unusual bit of orchestration for an Italian opera of the 1830s and not part of the first performances of the opera as there was no English horn player on hand. Ugo is alone in his cell, but not for long, as Bianca comes in and tries to get him to start a revolt to overthrow Luigi (which he refuses to do).
5: Tu lo sdegni? The heart of the scene is a trio (initially a duet) between Ugo, Bianca, and Adelia ** and has all of the charm of a Beethoven symphony (the 6th incidentally).
17: Tu mi spingi Supporters of Ugo show up wanting to break him out of prison, but he refuses their help, he wants everyone to remain loyal to Luigi, including the annoyingly seditious Bianca. This is as explosive as the previous bit was placid, but is followed by a good melody from Ugo ** which is taken up by Bianca and Adelia. A rousing finish as Ugo ends up going into battle and Bianca swears that Ugo will suffer her revenge.
Scene 2: Chambers of the King.
22, 26, 29: Il suon dell’armi piu forte/Il Re!/Prova mi dai A rather surprisingly militant chorus of ladies-in-waiting **. Luigi and Emma discuss whom to believe and who to have executed for treason: Emma (rightly) tells her son to trust Ugo and not Folco, but Luigi thinks the opposite until soldiers arrive telling the King that the battle is over and that Ugo was the one who convinced them to lay down their arms ***. Ugo arrives with Adelia, confirming that it was fear of revenge from Bianca that caused Ugo and Adelia to be silent about their relationship: Ugo has no interest in the throne nor in Bianca (although why at this point Luigi wants her still is beyond my comprehension). Ugo offers to return to prison, but Luigi forgives him in a grand aria ** and orders the immediate marriage of Ugo and Adelia.
Scene 3: Outside of the Royal Chapel.
37: A lovely entr’acte ** featuring French horns again starts off the scene (I am certain this ends up in Gabriella di Vergy this is essentially the final scene of that opera,). Bianca and Folco come on and he suggests poisoning the King in order to get what she wants (ed: how would poisoning the King get her Ugo?), saying that that was how the former king was killed (by whom? you may well ask, you will soon see!).
40: Si, mia vendetta e posta Bianca is not sure about vengeance but does it anyway * (the thunder effects are rather good at least!). One can tell that Donizetti is trying his best with this, but if you are me, you have already lost interest in Bianca and her sob show and want to just get to the final curtain.
44: Perdono, o ciel! But wait, someone is praying for divine mercy ***, it is Emma. This is part of the plot which has only been hinted at before and Donizetti does a much better job of it than it could have been with spooky strings. Bianca is still bent on vengeance (return to boredom, I want more Emma!).
49: Ah! tutto il mira, ah! tutto Emma reveals all to Bianca: that it was she who poisoned the former king, her husband, and for the last five years she has done nothing but regret her action, she warns Bianca not to follow her path and not take revenge because it leads to nothing but misery. This is a surprisingly good number *** with a golden melody (it shows up in Gabriella as well). The wedding party comes on, which infuriates Bianca and causes Emma to call the guards out of fear of the younger woman. Everyone runs out of the chapel as Bianca drinks the poison and….
59: Di che amore Well, there is nothing left but the typical soprano aria con coro finale *. Musically, it is actually rather good (if a little too happy for a death aria, and the melody is rather charming), but does anyone care about what Bianca is claiming at this point? Everyone, including Ugo, gives her typical opera death scene sympathy, but frankly at this point, curtain! Okay, so the thunder is great! Thanks Opera Rara!
I love the score of this opera! It contains some of the finest Donizetti would write prior to Elisir, but the libretto and plot are an abomination against theatre! Let us create a scenario in which Bianca does not exist:
Here it goes, the revised plot of Ugo, Conte di Parigi!
SETTING: Tenth century Paris, France. Folco (bass) plots to expose Emma (mezzo-soprano), mother of King Louis V (contralto) as the murderer of her husband, the former King Lothair. Meanwhile, Louis is jealous of the love of Hugh (tenor) count of Paris, and Adelia (soprano) daughter of the Queen of Aquitaine and has Hugh arrested over circumstantial evidence concluding that he assassinated King Lothair. After refusing to be released from prison by his own followers, Louis orders for the execution of Hugh, and all seems lost until Adelia comes upon Emma praying for absolution for her terrible crime of mariticide. Revealing all, Emma commits suicide. Louis gives Adelia in marriage and abdicates the throne to Hugh, founding the Capet dynasty.
That is better than the plot of this opera and I wrote it up in ten minutes! But the fact that I can even rewrite the plot here (and it even fits most of the music, requiring the elimination of perhaps one or two numbers and significant modifications to the libretto involving giving lines from Bianca to either Adelia or Emma) demonstrates how stupid the main storyline is! If I had been alive at the time and had been a censor, this is what I would have told Romani to do! It would also save money on a second soprano! So what we have here is an opera I love having in my personal collection for its musical merits (which are many), but I am not going to make allowances for one of the worst plots in opera!
HISTORIAN PHIL: In historical reality, Louis V was married, in 982 at the age of fifteen, to a forty-two year old Countess Adelaide-Blanche of Anjou (notice that the two sisters in the opera take their respective names from the compound-name of this real-life individual?), who was already twice widowed, mostly as an attempt to solidify Carolingian rule in Southern France. Unlike Bianca, the marriage to Adelaide-Blanche ended in an annulment (the marriage was both unhappy and had never been consummated, partially because Louis had not yet reached puberty), and she outlived Louis by twenty-nine years (and being married again at least once, if not twice, more), dying at the then extreme old age of 86 in 1026.
BACK TO OPERA PHIL: The libretto is a gamma (or worse) but the score is for the most part at the alpha plus level which creates a bit of a problem. Ultimately the score is more important than the plot because even the stupidest scenario can be saddled to an amazing score, and the music is really what everyone is actually paying attention to, not so much the drama (this isn’t Racine!). Emma would be a brilliant Chekhov’s gun before there was one if only she had been used more effectively by Romani. She is a far more interesting character than the dreadful Bianca, and I wished there were more of her instead. And that is the thing: I can come up with an entirely different plot about Emma and Folco which makes more sense than what goes on in this opera! An alpha minus.