Opera in due atti. Running Time: 2 hours 53 minutes.
So I am starting to run out of 1830s Donizetti tragedies (this is my 33rd Donizetti review but I think I have Parisina, Ange de Nisida, and Alba left), and there are the earlier operas and most of the comedies to get through.
I have known about this opera for a long time, probably fifteen years. I have never bothered to hear it through however. Apparently it is the grandest opera Donizetti wrote up to that point. Originally performed in Naples in January of 1832, in honour of the 22nd birthday of King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, Donizetti wrote a full overture for the La Scala premiere the following December. Over the years, numbers were added to this score, including an aria for Fausta during the introduction, a duet for Constantine and Crispo in act one, and a complex of three numbers in the middle of act two involving an aria for Crispo, a duet for him with Fausta (which will end up in Maria Stuarda) as well as an aria for Constantine addressing Crispo with chorus.
But I will not be reviewing the overture (the above is just an added treat), just the performing version as presented in 1981 at Rome. I am rather surprised that Opera Rara has NOT done this one yet to be perfectly honest! This is one of the longest operas Donizetti ever wrote (even though it consists of only ten numbers, most of them be LONG), so strap in gorg because this one is coconuts!
SETTING: Rome, 326. The Constant MILF, Empress Fausta (soprano), young second wife of the Emperor Constantine (baritone) falsely accuses her step-son Crispo (tenor) of having committed adulterous incest with her: the catch is, she is lying (of course) and she is secretly (and unrequitedly, as Crispo is in love with the mezzo-soprano prisoner Beroe) in love with Crispo herself! Oh, and did I mention that Fausta is the daughter of Massimiano (bass) the archenemy of the Emperor (although he died, historically, in 310), who will stop at nothing to destroy his son-in-law? So tragedy ensues! There are two other soloists, a gaoler named Albino (tenor) and a confidant for Fausta named Licinia (contralto), so this is one of the few operas with a role for each of the six major vocal types.
VIDEO! Apologies for the visual quality but this is the only video of this opera.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (96 minutes)
Scene 1: The Capitol Square before the Temple of Jupiter.
0: Dio dell’armi, che infondevi After a few (rather uneventful) opening bars, the opera launches into a massive (twenty-minute long) choral triumphal introduction scene *** for Crispo, who has been victorious in his war against the Gauls. After the two minute chorus, Fausta steps out into the footlights and tells us about her predicament: horniness for her own step-son! This is apparently an addition for the 1833 production at La Fenice. We then return to around twelve more minutes of celebratory chorusing punctuated by plot forwarding ensembles (a good duet between Crispo and Constantine which turns into a trio with Fausta and then a quartet with Beroe culminating in Crispo publicly declaring his love for Beroe, who is apparently the daughter of a Gaulish prince). Constantine declares that Crispo and Beroe will be married the following day, but Fausta, who is in panic mode, tells him that it must be the day after that, as the goddess Vesta ordains that it be so. A grand climax (the orchestra reiterates the one big tune from the opening chorus) leads to the scene ending with a frightful recitative in which Massimiano vows to destroy his son-in-law and step-grandson.
27, 36: Spinto da quella smania/A speme di contento A familiar interlude (if you know Donizetti) follows and then a long (13 minute) duet between Constantine and Crispo (which was apparently added in 1841 and borrowed from Pia de Tolomei). This is okay *, but ten minutes in we get a military tune which is not a thousand miles away from the opening cavatinas for Polione in Norma ** (the basic melody is taken from an act one love duet in Il diluvio universale). Dramatically, it seems to serve no plot point, and being a later addition this is apparently obvious beyond providing filler, but it is musically worthwhile.
Scene 2: The imperial apartments.
40: Quel celeste tuo sorriso A gentle chorus of ladies-in-waiting (with harp, but ultimately stock Donizetti) asks Fausta why she no longer smiles *.
48: Ah, se d’amor potessi A lovely aria ** (with glockenspiel) for Fausta as she mourns the fact that her incesteous love is for nought. It is divided into three sections, the first two being more cheery than the angsty third.
63: No, sull’altar rammento Constantine embarks on a rather gentle duet with Fausta *. It meanders about, and later limps, but there are two good sections: the opening which is gentle and mostly dominated by Constantine, and the brief but energetic finish. It seems to serve no purpose to the plot at all apart from establishing the marital relationship between the two.
Scene 3: A pavilion.
73: A gentle prelude * starts off the scene as Crispo is led in by Licinia into the web set by Fausta. She reveals to him that she has a secret: she is in love with someone.
76: Ah! se orror di te non hai The duet * starts off with more oompah-oompah pulsating with woodwind ornaments. Much of the rest consists of energetic bel canto orchestral stock gesturing. Entertaining in itself as Fausta reveals her incesteous desires to Crispo and he is disgusted by her. She threatens to have Beroe murdered if he does not submit to her, and he begs her not to do this, kneeling before her in petition just before the entire court arrives and sees them in this compromising situation. Everyone thinks Crispo is guilty (even Beroe) as Fausta declares that he was declaring his love for her, which of course disgusts everyone and causes Constantine to curse Crispo and order his banishment.
86: Che veggio! The act finale ** starts off with a gentle section in which Fausta starts to realize that maybe her crusade to declare incest moral might have some unintended consequences that she did not think through. She begs Constantine not to curse Crispo, who in turn blames Fausta for everything (which is the truth). The stretta is related to the introduction in musical theme and provides a rousing closer.
ACT 2 (77 minutes)
Scene 1: A grove near the imperial palace, night.
1: Manca alcuno? Massimiano meets up with his supporters for this rather hum-drum number to order the assassinations of Constantine and Crispo so he can seize power by dawn *. Beroe and Crispo arrive on the scene and Massimiano eventually flees after encountering them.
9: Se crudel così m’estimi Crispo declares his innocence and that his father is unjustly accusing him ***. One of the better numbers in the score. Constantine orders his arrest. Beroe and Licinia are left talking about the impending trial which will sentence Crispo to death.
Scene 2: The Senate.
26: Se di regnar desio Beroe attempts to save Crispo by revealing that Massimiano is trying to have both father and son killed, but Constantine thinks that since Crispo is not weeping, he is guilty (that is sound logic, isn’t it?). A surprisingly good number **, but not great.
32, 40: T’amo ancora, ancor dal ciglio It is followed by the other aria for Constantine in this scene (technically, one and not both would be performed since they serve the same dramatic purpose). This second one is better ***. Constantine is particularly remorseful when the sentence of death is called down **, but nevertheless, Crispo is sent back to prison to await execution.
Scene 3: Atrium of the prison.
50: Per te rinunzio al soglio Gaoler Albino (who we have never seen before and will never see again) feels sorry for Crispo, but disappears once Fausta comes on and orders him to bring out the prisoner. Faust tries to make one more shot at seducing Crispo (disgusting), he tells her about the poison ring he wears. He gives this ring to Fausta. If this had occurred earlier, this would be the Chekhov’s gun moment. They embark on a duet, the first section of which will eventually end up in act 2 of Maria Stuarda **, one of the classic Donizetti tunes. Which begs one to question, given the initial success of Fausta, why did he borrow it two years later? The second half is okay, but not to the same level: it is more stock-oompah. Massimiano has Crispo murdered and makes Fausta watch. This is actually rather good psychological drama, and probably the first moment when anyone actually has some sympathy for Fausta.
61: Tu che voli già spirito beato Realizing that her own father has had her beloved killed causes Fausta to go off the deep end in a poignant aria ***. She drinks the poison from the ring, Massimiano returns realizing that voices off stage are ready to kill him. Constantine shows up with a pardon for Crispo, which is of course too late. Fausta, with little reason not to, reveals all of her lies and proves that Crispo was innocent. Constantine threatens to have her executed, but she declares that she is already dying by her own hand. The second half of her aria is more oompah-oompah, and she gets nothing but curses from her husband and the chorus, which declare her the most bestial of women, but she brings the opera to its final curtain effectively enough.
This opera is weird. Incest is strange enough, but stepmother-son incest is the most decadent kind. As with Bianca in Ugo, conte di Parigi why this woman is allowed to express her rather strange amorous emotions is bizarre and in the case of Fausta, it is not just dangerous, but also rather disgusting. It is hard to sympathize with her up until the very end of the opera, after Crispo has been murdered in front of her. Somehow this tale of Ancient Roman incest appealed to audiences for around twenty years, and then disappeared like the gleaming sound of a glockenspiel only to be revived once for this 1981 production. If there were ever an example of Donizetti being an edgy-boy with his libretti in order to give it to the censors, it is this! Given that my nonna had a tendency to disparage female sexuality in general, I must ask: was the success of the opera due to audiences being taken by the forwardness of Fausta in her declarations of her unusual sexual desire, or did audiences initially accept the opera in order to mock the deviant sexuality of the title character, who was, after all, an historical figure and Roman empress?
There isn’t much of a plot here, certainly not enough for nearly three hours, and most of the characters (apart from three of the members of the central love-quadraterwal, really all of them) seem tacked on to what is essentially a domestic dispute writ large by its imperial setting. Unlike Ugo, many of the numbers drag, in particular the unusually numerous duets. There are a lot of stock oompah-pas, although this might just be more noticeable because of the extended length of the opera. Only six of the ten musical numbers are actually necessary to the plot and given that four were added years after the original (and rather successful) first production, one must ask just why they were seen as important? Does Constantine need two arias in act two? Or two duets with Fausta and Crispo respectively in act one? Massimiano is unnecessary as a character: historically he was already dead and his actions do nothing to forward the rather depressing story as his daughter has already done everything by the end of act one just by being a publicly proclaimed incestress. The only thing he does do is have Crispo assassinated in front of Fausta, prompting her suicide. Beroe surprisingly gets no character development (nor an aria) and serves little purpose (she ultimately does not save Crispo, and does little else besides that). Albino appears once, and Licinia is more of a narrative prop than a character. So the typical parade of one-dimensional Donizetti characters are all present, leading to waste casting. There is also far too much of this opera which borders into the realm of opera seria and Wagnerian marathons of two hominids on an empty stage (the togas, and the fact that this thing is as long as Tannhauser, do not help overcoming either impression). And yet, there are good sections here: the Introduction to act one is magnificent theatre, Fausta does get her aria with a glockenspiel, Crispo gets one rather grand aria in act two, the Senate scene (when it is in full orchestra mode) has dramatic power and pathos when Constantine deliberates on having his son executed; there is the melodious prison duet and of course the final soprano aria from the murder of Crispo to the curtain is a quarter hour of great drama.
Truly, as the chorus says, there is no greater monster on earth than Fausta! I wonder if this opera might one day have its own fan base, after all with Kabaivanska, Bruson, and Giacomini (who championed getting the opera mounted in the first place) the case has been made for it. So in spite of the quality of much of the score, Fausta lies in deserved obscurity.