Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes.
Yet another version of the assassination of King Gustave III of Sweden which would be immortalized by Verdi in Un ballo in maschera but unlike the coded homosexual (or bisexual) king of Eugene Scribe, here we have a raging heterosexual regent, of 16th century Scotland no less! Yes, instead we get what could well have been titled Giacomo Stuart as he is our title character, the first head of a government to be assassinated with a firearm. James Stuart, 1st Earl of Moray, was born in 1531 the natural son of King James V of Scotland and his favourite Lady Margaret Erskine, thus making him around twelve years older than his half-sister Mary Queen of Scots. The opera is set around the time of his assassination in January 1570. It is so obvious that this is based on the Scribe drama, however, that the heroine is still named Amelia and there is a transvestite male named Oscar. The fortuneteller is named Meg, however. The killer is the Duke of Hamilton. The conspirators are counts, Howe and Kilkardy. The vocal distribution is basically the same as in the later Verdi opera, except Howe and the minor male roles are all given to tenors in this 1970 recording from Siena, a fact that I will not complain about.
This review actually took me at least two years. The first act was written at some point in 2018 or 2019, and was already my second attempt. I finally got back to it in August 2020 and completed the last two acts.
SETTING: Basically the same as Un Ballo in Maschera except set in 16th century Scotland instead of Sweden, or Boston, or Zanzibar (whatever!). James Stewart (tenor) is in love with Amelia (soprano), the wife of his friend the Duke of Hamilton (baritone) who eventually finds out and gets egged on by conspirators to murder his friend at a masked ball.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (72 minutes)
0: The overture ** is full-scale and eight and a half minutes long. There are two interesting features: one is an almost Spanish-sounding tune that pops up rather early and the second is a climax that occurs around half-way through which I have referenced in multiple other posts on this blog sounds almost exactly like the climax of the prelude to Herodiade by Massenet, and which repeats again before the Spanish tune returns. Another, a fugitive tune, represents either the conspiracy or Amelia in her attempt to warn James of the assassination.
Scene 1: A room in the royal palace, Edinburgh.
10: Ascoltate! The opera opens with a standard off-stage chorus and band which is made more interesting by a chorus of conspirators * which is framed by this otherwise rather standard number.
14: Se tu l’imponi A beautiful cavatina for James ** as he thinks about Amelia since her name is on his guest list.
17: Fra quei, che ti circondano A great duet for Hamilton and James **.
24: Della notte i rai lucenti Oscar comes on bringing with him a cheery recitative accompaniment. He defends Meg, who is accused of witchcraft, in an equally charming aria **.
30: Altra cura all’amore sopisca James decides to go to Meg and investigate **.
Scene 2: The hovel of Meg, the witch.
32: Aggiungo all’erbe mistiche Instead of being scary, the opening casting sequence is actually somewhat mystical **. It does get a bit more diabolical as she calls up Beelzebubble to let her see the future.
42: Viva, viva l’indovina An amusing episode (to a tripping orchestral accompaniment, watch the woodwinds here) follows as she makes predictions for a soldier named Scoto as James watches on disguised as a fisherman with Oscar. The crowd of followers disperses to an amusing ensemble **.
47: Sì d’amor, d’amore insano Amelia arrives seeking the help of Meg and her apparent magic (as overheard by James). A beautiful cavatina for Amelia ***. Meg gives her the usual advice: go at midnight to a certain place where capital punishment is enacted and find some magic mushrooms there. The cabaletta is a bouncy if far less intense affair and she flees the scene before Howe and Kikardy arrive to arrest Meg for her relationship with Satan, but not before James has his fortune told (he will be killed by the next man who shakes his hand).
62: Oh! Qual vede… Oh quale adombra At this moment Hamilton arrives and shakes his hand. Oscar immediately is terrified, but everyone else (except Meg of course) thinking that the prediction is idiocy. The ensemble has a tragic air to it for the longest time **.
69: La nostra voce s’innalzi a dio The stretta ** starts when James reveals his true identity to Meg and all.
(For some reason the video goes into a ten minute random selection of parts of the two remaining acts, including what appears to be a dialogue between Amelia and Hamilton at the start of act three first scene, (which uses the Spanish-like tune from the overture) then a bit for Amelia and an off-stage James from when I haven’t a clue, the last appears to be the party piece for Oscar in act three, returning to the performance at around 1:21:38. The remainder of the review will be conservative, there are six numbers left, so that I don’t turn everything into mashed potatoes).
ACT 2: A prison cemetery, midnight. (28 minutes)
6: Obbedisti al genitore The prelude is not the extravaganza of Verdi, but we come upon Amelia who searches the execution grounds for magic mushrooms before running into a love sick James **. She is eventually driven to confess her adulterous but reciprocated love for him (even though she at first resists and tries to dissuade him from pursuing her for the sake of his friendship with her husband). It never quite gets to the explosive Tristan moment of Ballo but in its own way, equally euphoric. Hamilton arrives, Amelia veils herself, and James tells Hamilton to not peek at the woman under the veil, well that doesn’t go well.
18: Qual rifulse baleno tremendo The chorus of conspirators shows up, plotting the murder of Hamilton, Amelia overhears everything and a spell falls upon everything with her soprano line and a harp in the background ***. The last two minutes are an interesting gallop piece as Hamilton and the chorus of murders gleefully contemplate their bloody purpose.
ACT 3: (48 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the house of the Duke of Hamilton.
4: Pria che mi chiuda il gelido Another lovely harp/soprano line combination for Amelia as she attempts to calm down her husband in a delicate duet ***.
10: Trema, trema! Hamilton tries to enforce fear in Amelia (James is actually announced) and he doesn’t want her to say anything as they conclude their duet **.
14: Nuova ferita, cruda, profonda Hamilton contemplates killing James, realizing, finally, that although he thinks what has happened with his wife has happened, that James was his friend **. A very heart felt number, full of human pathos and pain.
21: Già scaglio il ferro vindice The conspirators show up in a surprisingly gallant way and the lots are chosen, Hamilton will kill James ***.
Scene 2: The Palace.
27: Apra il varco all’esultanza A rather sedate chorus of maskers starts off the festivities and then Oscar pops in for a can-can-ish number *. Amelia tries to get a hold of James through Oscar in order to warn him of the impending attempt on his life.
36: E’ forza, è forza estinguere James comes on in costume and embarks on an asymmetrical aria **. Amelia attempts to warn him (more return of music from the overture), but it is too late and Hamilton attacks him, fatally wounding him.
42: Quando l’uom tu rivedrai The royal swan song *** a surprisingly taxing aria for the dying man. Eventually there is a clock-tick in the strings and woodwinds indicating that we are near the end, and James finally gives out.
Dare I say it, this is in many ways as good an opera as Ballo! It is slower, being at least twenty minutes longer than the later Verdi opera, and does not have as many tunes, but nevertheless has some stellar moments. The story is way too familiar, but one must remember that this is the older opera, so it really isn’t the fault of Mercadante that his opera was copied 16 years later by Verdi. There is one element of the story, namely that the king/governor/regent knows that he is in the love with the wife of his best friend, that has always been difficult for me. Why does he think he can get away with being in love with Amelia? Somehow he thinks he can get away with it. Unlike a lot of Mercadante where the characters can seem like cartoon-cutouts, here the characters are very obviously human and the music reflects this.
I get the impression that in some ways, Verdi was trying to make Mercadante invisible as an artist by basically copying scenarios. But that is just speculation.
Musically, one really interesting feature is the number of downward scales. Amelia gets the best music, but James is an incredibly enjoyable tenor lead. Meg is more impressive than Ulrica will be in Ballo, and it is debatable but Hamilton might just get a better aria in act three than Renato. An alpha.