Gaetano Donizetti: Parisina (1833)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

A favourite of its composer, much of the score is taken from Ugo, conte di Parigi. I am inclined to recommend this one because its plot is more interesting than the idiocy of the former opera. The role of Ugo was also the first written by Donizetti for the French tenor Gilbert Duprez. Apparently it is a performance of this opera which is featured by Alexandre Dumas in chapter 34 of Le Comte de Monte Cristo

An edited version of the libretto, by Felice Romani, would be used for the 1878 La Parisina of Tomas Giribaldi, apparently marking the first Uruguayan opera. 

I am revising this review based on a recording which is thirty minutes longer than the one I originally used. The opera makes a bit more sense in this longer form, although most of the changes to the review occur toward the end. 

SETTING: Ferrara, 15th century. Parisina (soprano) is another stepmother with incest issues (recurring theme?). She is in love with Ugo (tenor) the son of her husband Azzo (baritone), Duke of Ferrara, by his first marriage, although this is unknown to all except Ernesto (bass) the minister of the Duke. Parisina also has a maid named Imelda (mezzo-soprano), and that rounds out the soloists. When Parisina admits her attraction for Ugo to Azzo, at first it appears that her husband will not take action against his only son, but this is a rouse.


ACT 1: (73 minutes) 

Scene 1: A room in the palace. 

3: È desto il duca? The prelude is the first movement of the overture to Ugo, conte di Parigi, only pitched in a different key and more low-key compared to the grandeur of that overture (basically it consists of the dramatic if dark opening). There is something proto-Tchaikovsky/Pathetique about it. It is followed by a rather pleasant (but underliningly stormy) standard male opening choral number as Ernesto and courtiers await the return of Duke Azzo **.

9: Per veder su quel bel viso A pleasant enough cavatina for Azzo *, it is taken from Ugo, Conte di Parigi as well although it is restructured within a dialogue between Azzo and his minister Ernesto discussing the fidelity (or lack there of) of Parisina (will she be found adulterous like the first wife of the Duke, Matilde?). The cabaletta is brief, but fiery. 

22: Si, son io! A duet for Ernesto and Ugo **, the latter having been banished, and, also, apparently in love with Parisina himself! Ugo has no idea that he is actually the son of Azzo (neither does Azzo know this!). Only Ernesto knows all, as Ugo was entrusted to him as an infant by Matilda before she died. Ernesto warns Ugo against his feelings for Parisina, nothing good may come of this situation, except maybe a good stretta as we get a foretaste of Ugo and his tenorial vocal gymnastics! 

Scene 2: Palace Gardens, the river Po in the background.  

35: Aura soave spira This is scene two, so of course we are off on a placid feminine chorus to introduce our heroine *. 

38: Forse un destin che intendere Parisina embarks on a mild cavatina * which is interrupted by the arrival of knights to what was the introductory chorus of Ugo, conte di Parigi. Up until this point it isn’t all that interesting, although the finish is rather rousing at least. 

52: Dillo, Io tel chieggo in merito The interview between Parisina and Ugo turns into a mournful encounter duet ** as  she urges him to leave the palace forever. There is one primary tune here which stands out, the rest is okay. Azzo arrives, Parisina attempts to pacify his anger at the supposed to be banished Ugo, which backfires.   

62, 69: Ah! Tu sai che insiem con esso/Voga, voga, quel lago stagnante The finale is overlong, but there are two sections which must be noted: The concertate ** will be reworked into the opening cavatina for Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. Azzo allows Ugo to attend the banquet he is hosting. Parisina follows and there is another chorus of banquet guests, yet it is only later, in the final four minutes of the stretta (as Azzo expresses his anger and Ugo, Parisina, and Ernesto their terror) that the number really flies *** and brings things to a satisfying curtain. 

ACT 2: (63 minutes) 

Scene 1: The bedroom of Parisina. 

0: Lieta era dessa Imelda and the ladies-in-waiting discuss how happy Parisina and Azzo appear to be in a tranquil scene *.

7: Sogno talor di correre Parisina comes in (there are traces of the Act 1 stretta melody in the strings) and has her maids prepare her for bed with a tranquil self-lullaby **. She eventually falls into REM-sleep. Azzo arrives and, dismissing the ladies and Imelda, decides to spy on Parisina as she sleeps. She has a dream in which Ugo does adult things to her and she begs him to flee with her. Azzo wakes her up, enraged. 

19: Ah! Chi veggio? Their duet which follows is actually one of the best scenes in the opera *** as she admits her love for Ugo and he threatens (but does not go through with) killing her. There is a striking intensity here missing in most of the rest of the opera, perhaps the earliest instance of Donizetti hinting towards what we would later recognize as Verdian. There isn’t a specific great tune, rather much of it consists of sustained string gesturing, but it sustains itself for nearly five minutes, followed by a more conventional, but dramatic, duet, which is stopped by a furious stretta. 

Scene 2: A hall in the palace near the banquet hall (in progress).

34, 41: Io sentii tremar la mano/Questo amore doveva A jovial chorus of party guests opens the scene followed by Ugo getting his big moment in what could easily be mistaken for an aria by Rossini ** as he remembers when Parisina crowned him with a laurel wreath during a competition. It is interrupted by a furious chorus of guests. Ernesto reveals the truth to Ugo, who expresses his willingness to die in a brief cabaletta with some nice tenor vocal fireworks **. 

Scene 3: A lobby leading towards the palace prison. 

52, 59: Per sempre, per sempre/Non e vita! Azzo plans on having Ugo and Parisina interrogated. The act finale starts off low key (it even starts to musically collapse in places), but eventually shifts to a larghetto section started by Parisina which builds into an effective quartet **. Azzo decides to pardon Ugo (to the relief of Parisina) in a recognizable stretta finale which is nevertheless attractive ***. 

ACT 3: The palace chapel. (24 minutes) 

1: Muta, insensibile You might think you are listening to Das Rheingold with that opening chord. The initial choral prayer could have been written by Mozart if not for the middle bit of agitation (and it beings to wander about) **. This is followed by a recitative for Parisina and Imelda in which the latter gives the former a letter from Ugo urging her to flee with him, which is seconded by Imelda (this sequence is decorated with a horn solo ornament which is rather nice *). 

10, 18: Ciel sei tu che in tal momento/Ugo!…è spento! The finale consists of three main movements, dominated by Parisina. The first is slow as she prays for Ugo **, (interrupted by the second part in which a funeral bell and off-stage male chorusing starts to cause Parisina to fall into a psychological daze). Azzo comes on for the third part as he stops Parisina from leaving the room, shows her the lifeless body of Ugo, and neurosis sets in leading to sudden death (and an oddly jovial patch) ***. 


Parisina is more a psychological work than a theatrical one, it is Byron after all! Azzo in particular makes references to the deceased character of Mathilde (the mother of his son Ugo) and all four of the lead roles embark on introspection to an usually high level for bel canto. The music, although generally good and at times great, represents probably one of the strongest pre-Lucia dramatic scores Donizetti would produce. But as its sparse production history bares witness, it requires great singers to pull it off effectively.

The rushed (yet delayed) preparation of the libretto by Felice Romani harmed the situation, and much of the score is taken from other works (with less than three weeks could anyone blame Donizetti?). My call on this being close to pastiche is probably accurate, and yet Donizetti did succeed here in choosing some of his finest music at the time to retro-fit. There is a lot of data-mining from Ugo, Conte di Parigi and thus from Imelda da Lambertazzi and Il Castello di Kenilworth. It is understandable that the opera succeeded for a time, but also that it failed in some productions and not in others. The vocal casting, especially for Ugo, demands masters of their craft, and a tenor who is both vocally agile, sure of his craft, and, preferably, a bella figura. Otherwise Parisina and her infatuation with him will make no sense. Speaking of Parisina, she does not require a high soprano, although higher than the near mezzo of Imelda.

The score does have a lot of things going for it from tenor vocal gymnastics, to some very well drawn dramatic scenes (the bedroom scene, the various confrontations between Ugo, Parisina, and Azzo), to strong orchestration (particularly in act three). The stretta to the act one finale is probably the finest moment (certainly the most energetic) in the entire score, although Donizetti manages three grand act finales here and that is impressive. There are some flaws, the first two act finales go on for too long even if they ultimately consummate very satisfactorily. It takes over an hour for the opera to finally strike gold, but once it does it flies with it! A few of the choruses are only so-so and forgettable. Parisina herself gets a rather dull intro, even if she is allowed to make up for this later. The third act is less than half the length of either of the other two acts, which seems lopsided at best and if not for its musical qualities as an afterthought. A weak tenor can ruin Ugo too easily (a taxing role, no wonder he does not sing at all in act three!), but the fact that only one character (out of a total of only five soloists!) is not immediately necessary to the plot, Imelda, and even she has an important function as a postal worker and confidant for the title character, is a rather refreshing break from the usual Donizetti over-casting. The scenario of Parisina is stronger and more durable than the idiocy of Ugo, conte di Parigi, the score is more finely crafted as well (ironic since much of the score of the latter is also alive and well here). Very close to being a complete work of art is this.

This one really does need a second chance, and with a great cast, it could be a real knockout. An alpha.

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