Opera in due atti. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
Another Italian historical costume drama set in early modern France. This one only has four soloist characters. Apparently a triumph in February, 1833, the score was revised for a new vocal distribution in 1836 (the version presented here, which is of a revival from 30 October, 1990: just sixteen days before I was born!). The primary difference is that the Duke was originally performed by a tenor and Arthur by a contralto, and this is changed in the revision to a bass-baritone and mezzo-soprano respectively. The thing that will most stand out about this entry is how intense and dramatic the score is. The action, as one can guess from only four characters plus chorus, is rather simplistic.
SETTING: France, 1578. Caterina (soprano) is the wife of the Duke of Guise (baritone) the leader of the Catholic League against the Huguenots, but the Count de San Megrino (tenor), the favourite of King Henry III of France, is in love with her. Her cousin Arthur (mezzo-soprano) is also in love with her. When she loses her handkerchief and it is discovered by her husband near San Megrino (who challenges him to a duel which the Duke declines), he assumes that they are committing adultery and he forces Caterina to invite Megrino to her apartments in order to have him murdered. Both Arthur and Caterina try to convince the Duke not to go thru with this, leading to the deaths of San Megrino and Arthur and an uncertain future for Caterina.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (73 minutes)
Scene 1: The Louvre, a party in progress.
0, 5: Lo vedeste? The overture ***, sounds around twenty years younger than it is (this is 1832, it sounds more like Tristan und Isolde!) as the woodwinds and horns move about on a bed of strings, then, off-stage band plays, and repeat, and a naturalistic tune from the flute, more off-stage band, then a mild climax, more band with the full orchestra. It does not close, but goes immediately into the opening chorus of courtiers who gossips about Guisa and his political ambitions * which has a mildly military theme going on in the lower strings.
8: Non fuggirmi Much of the next ten minutes or so is taken up by a long, furious, passionate, duet *** between San Megrino and Caterina as he confesses his adulterous love for her and she tries, pitifully, to escape him. The intensity is electric, even when the orchestra lays off momentarily for the singers to catch their breath. Things eventually slow down, a little.
18: Grave, tremendo arcano The Duke suspects San Megrino and Caterina in an excellent aria *** (the string accompaniment is almost modern, hence the third star) as the courtiers react to his fury. It is in three parts, the first is the most intense, followed by a less menacing middle section (still with a dark counter bass) and then a quick finish.
27, 31: Pera chi vuol turbarla/Vieni, tu vuoi nascondere Duke and San Megrino get into an argument about politics and the latter challenges the former to a duel in an angry duet **. It quickly turns to a slightly more stock accompaniment (patter strings, then tremolo with patter strings all at once in the stretta ***). The Duke refuses to fight with a mere count, and the scene ends in mutual recriminations.
Scene 2: A room in the Ducal Palace.
37, 39: Con la luce/ Un sol momento Arthur pines for Caterina, but knows that, as her cousin and seeing that she is already married, it can never be. Initially in recitative, he moves into a full aria ** which has a tinge of Casta Diva to it. His cavatina ** could have been a missing page from a Rossini opera.
43, 46, 47, 49: Cercammo invano/Deh! non pensar che spegnere A chorus of female courtiers comes on accompanying Caterina * and she listens to Arthur has he reads Ronsard to her **. Suddenly there is an unexpected but amazing mini-climax ***, followed by a flowery duet for the two *** (repeat of the climax).
55, 59: E infierir così potete/Ah! lo veggo There is a long plot-forwarding recitative between the Duke and Caterina (much of it to a dark counter-basso and little from the high strings) leading to the inevitably furious confrontational duet in two parts (the first dark, the second to a patter theme) **. There is a direct transition into a recitative between Caterina and Arthur without the usual finish. He orders her to write an invitation to San Megrino (setting a trap as the Duke plans to have him murdered with an adulterous tryst as the justification).
63: Io lasciarti? A pretty little duettino between Arthur and Caterina * to the most placid theme (there is only a trace of the doom that will befall them). Arthur has been asked to send the invitation to San Megrino and realizes why.
69: Veggo, ah! veggo il destin The first act finale **: Caterina bemoans her fate as her husband gleefully pops out from behind a curtain and plans out his murderous designs. No great rattling conclusion this, but good just the same.
ACT 2: (57 minutes)
Scene 1: A Tournament at the Louvre.
0: Dunque è ver? After a brief march (which continues on) we come upon a chorus of courtiers congratulating San Megrino on winning a tournament *. Arthur arrives to give the invitation from Caterina to San Megrino.
6: Torna a lei A lovely aria from San Megrino made more interesting by a striking French horn **.
Scene 2: The palace of Guise.
11, 17, 20: Guisa, dirà la terra/Turmulto in Corte After a lovely orchestral intermezzo ** (far too pleasant considering what is going on), we come upon the Duke just as Arthur is about to return having sent off the invitation. Arthur begs Enrico not to go thru with his plot, but the Duke refuses because honour in a very good duet **. The courtiers come on *, informing the Duke that San Megrino has been elevated to the Duke by the King, intending to force Guisa to accept his challenge of a duel. Arthur asks the Duke to kill him, no such luck, but the duet con coro ends the scene effectively.
Scene 3: The chambers of Caterina in the ducal palace.
25, 31: Ah! fidar potessi almeno The scene opens with a dark and poignant entr’acte **, including a rather effective oboe solo. Caterina is terrified that the Count will accept her forced invitation, cursing time. Her aria, a harp accompanied prayer no less, is rather touching ** if not all that dramatically pathos-filled. San Megrino arrives without any apparent problems, which only makes Caterina more suspicious. She tries to convince him to leave, and he keeps protesting that she does not love him.
38, 40, 44: Deh! un accento/Dolce la morte rendimi/Ah perduti ancor! She reveals the truth, that the Duke plans on having him (San Megrino) killed that night. The Count is not bothered by this **, and even breaks his dagger by driving it into the keyhole of her door. The only thing he wants is for her to admit her love, no, her passion, for him! This prompts some ardent love music from him *** and a more gentle (if rightly worried) response from her. Sounds are heard outside, Arturo (off stage) throws a rope to save San Megrino. They hear the Duke shouting for an axe to cut down the rope outside, and San Megrino escapes the room into the garden below. The Duke bursts into the room with ladies in waiting and fails to take San Megrino alive.
48, 52: Lascia in prima/Ah! miccidi! Caterina asks that she be left to die in peace ***. An incredibly adult aria, she even requests of heaven that it never ask her husband the cause of her death. But lo! news is brought that San Megrino has been struck down and killed, Arturo as well is dead. Caterina prays also for her own death, but her husband will not have it. This is rather intense, even if it is mostly orchestral swirling. Caterina declares that her husband is killing her as the Duke declares that he will keep her alive to see her suffer for years for the dishonour she has brought to him ***. Curtain.
Given that few other Coccia operas are available (two others actually, from different periods than this), it is possible that the musical quality of this score is significantly higher than usual for its composer. The plot is rather single-minded (just a love quadrangle with two of the sides getting lopped off at the end actually, rather odd for Felice Romani, but everyone has a low day), but the music allotted to it is consistantly high quality. Caterina does not have the psychological downward spiral of say Lucia, but she is a very sympathetic character and the audience, toward the end, truly feels her tragedy. We never fully relate to San Megrino, his reasons for falling in love with Caterina, a married woman who does not truly reciprocate his feelings (they meet once in the opera before the fatal interview, during which she tires to resist him noticeably), is vague. The Duke, Enrico, has a standard honour code reason for single-mindedly wanting revenge on San Megrino, but this is hardly a narrative flaw in comparison to other operas. Arthur is almost the standard trouser role, but getting killed off in the end ties up some plot strings even if it seems extra and perhaps meant to take some of the sting away from the death of the tenor. The choral work is admittedly a little uneventful, but never less than fine. Overall I can both see why it was initially successful and why it has since fallen into oblivion. The musical quality is consistently alpha level and the overall dark, even Teutonic, accompaniment amplifies the action well, especially the recitatives which could have just been nondescript upper string chords, as in Bellini or Donizetti, are here handed over more effectively to the counter-bass and cello. Meanwhile, the plot really isn’t all that interesting, and is overtly simplistic, even if it is perfectly serviceable and by the end the title character is able to gain our total attention. I would like to hear this in the original version with the Duke performed by a tenor, but the fact that I have even been able to review the revised version is something of a miracle. Overall, an alpha, no plus.
A note from Phil:
Thank you to everyone who reads my blog! Your years of encouragement have helped me through some difficult times. Due to my hectic schedule of late, I have decided to schedule only one post per calendar month from now on as it has become too difficult for me to make sure that I have time to write more than that. I hope that that is enough to keep all of you coming to my blog and learning about the fascinating and often obscure titles I select to review.
This blog has become something of a therapeutic exercise for me, so I feel that I can not part with it, and there are too many of you that rely on it as a resource of operatic academic learning. As a professional educator myself, I can not see me taking that away from you.
Again, thank you all,
Phil of the Opera World