Opera in due atti. Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes.
Back in 2013, we all sort of came to the conclusion that Foroni has been the long lost hidden operatic messiah (and do not get me started on how he died at the age of 33!). Wexford, which had presented Cristina, Regina di Svezia for the first time outside of Sweden in over a century and a half, decided to present his first opera, Margherita, in 2017. Very different in tone to Cristina, this is a bel canto comedy in the same vein as Elisir, although with a dramatic twist which allowed its composer to work within multiple genres with the same libretto, producing a work which can be both sparklingly joyous and excitingly dramatic. An interesting feature might be that the title character is actually a mezzo-soprano! So in honour of the 100th birthday of my late contralto nonna, I bring you her operatic namesake!
SETTING: Switzerland, first half of the 19th century. Margherita (mezzo-soprano) is an orphan who is engaged to marry Roberto (baritone) the nephew of the wealthy Ser Matteo (bass-baritone), but is in love with the soldier Ernesto (tenor). Giustina (soprano), the sister of the latter, arrives with news that his regiment is about to leave, and the lovers make plans to marry the following day, with Margherita giving Ernesto a ribbon which he attaches to his cap, which he loses in the forest while trying to help his commanding officer Count Rodolfo (baritone) flee from a duel. The cap is found by Giustina who accidentally incriminates her own brother, (as she heard the Count being attacked in the woods). Ernesto is arrested. In prison, Roberto tells Margherita that he will only release Ernesto if she agrees to giving into his blackmail and marry him. Eventually, Count Rodolfo reveals his identity, that he was the man who was attacked, and that Roberto was the one who attacked him, freeing Margherita and Ernesto to marry.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (76 minutes)
Scene 1: A village scene near the house of Ser Matteo. (76 minutes)
1: Del tamburo al suon festante The opening chorus in praise of Ser Matteo is pure comic opera gold **. It gives way to his felicitations to the villagers. The number sustains itself for a full nine minutes.
11: Ah! se dimene stringere Giustina shows up telling the chorus that she has news **. The chimes make it a rather sweet outing, but it is also a rather excellent combination of bel canto and opera comique.
16: Di quartiere e di foraggio Everyone leaves, but not before a lively choral finish **.
20: Pria di dirvi il mio segreto Roberto asks his uncle for protection (alluding to the duel with Count Rodolfo and a woman named Matilda whose name shows up a lot but is never seen) in a duet which has only a slightly sinister tinge to it **. It is pure buffo Rossini for the baritone and bass.
Scene 2: Countryside near a forest.
28: Ecco sposo Margherita comes on awaiting her beloved Ernesto (who we still have not met) **.
34: Perenne in cor memoria Her aria (its third part) gets interrupted and turned into a trio with Roberto and Ser Matteo why try to convince her (unsuccessfully, of course) to agree to marrying Roberto as soon as possible **. Left alone, Giustina arrives with her news for Margherita about how Ernesto is about to be sent out for military duty.
39: Viva! Viva della guerra! A jolly soldiers chorus ** as Ernesto arrives with his regiment.
41: Quando col ciglio Ernesto says goodbye to Margherita and Giustina ** in a charming aria with chorus and soloists. Roberto comes on trying to bribe Gasparo (tenor) are forester in order to get Ernesto into trouble and foil his plans with Margherita.
49: Come potro vederti A rather touching aria from the fugitive Count Rodolfo **.
53: A te dapresso The love duet Margherita-Ernesto is prefaced by a strangely chromatic orchestral prelude, but once the singing starts it is pure comic opera **. She gives him the ribbon at this point, which he attaches to his cap. Count Rodolfo bursts in and begs Ernesto to help him, Margherita is terrified, but Ernesto tells her not to worry although he requests that she leave, which she eventually does. So the love-duet ends as a trio and the heroine is the one that leaves. After going over the plan in recitative, the two men depart into the forest.
Scene 3: An inn in the village.
63: Cogli amici sedere The chorus and Ser Matteo are rather jolly **, but not Margherita, who waits for Ernesto. Giustina shows up with the cap and a report of Count Rodolfo getting attacked in the woods. Everyone is convinced that Ernesto is guilty. Things go briefly chromatic, and then stillness.
69, 73: Opressa anima/Giusto Ciel Margherita can not believe any of this in the stretta finale *** which is in two halves *** the second providing a rather dramatic conclusion to an otherwise rather jovial work.
ACT 2: (65 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the house of Ser Matteo, two tables, on one is the cap of Ernesto.
0: Conciossiache la grandine A comedic scene ** for Ser Matteo and the chorus (who have to be constantly shut up for praising him, meanwhile he keeps sneezing while trying to hold court). Sometimes I wish that I could hold court…. Margherita and Giustina plead for Ernesto, who is then brought in, utterly desolated.
7: Nessun lo vide Foroni surprises us with an aria for Ernesto that could have been out of either Donizetti or Verdi during this time period ***.
10: Di quale delitto The section ends with a sparkling ensemble finish **, this is followed by a recitative between Roberto and Gasparo.
17: Oh! non e vero! Roberto tells Margherita that Ernesto can only be freed if she gives in to his demands that they immediately marry, and that Ser Matteo will back this. Margherita realizes the corruption behind the law in a ferocious duet ***.
Scene 2: A room in the home of Margherita.
25: Tu piangi? The chorus asks Giustina that she weeps for her brother **, saying that he will soon be freed.
31: Quando avvolta in roseo velo A lovely duet for sister and fiancee mourning the fate of the man they both love **.
37: In queste valle misera The second part of the duet gets a bit more energetic **. Count Rodolfo encounters Giustina and is determined to set the record straight with Ernesto and save both he and Margherita.
Scene 3: A room in the house of Ser Matteo serving as a prison.
43: E sogno, o verità! We come upon Ernesto in his cell ***. A brilliantly written tenor aria, strongly influenced by Donizetti, but remarkable for a first time opera composer. Ser Matteo shows up with Roberto attempting to force Ernesto to sign a false confession. He of course refuses.
50: Su non farla da gradasso A trio ensues *** (there are traces of Barbiere here in the lower voices, although the tenor and accompaniment are strongly still within the realm of Donizetti).
53, 55: Eviva Ernesto!/Non modi! The finale *** starts off with the arrival of Count Rodolfo who reveals that he was actually attacked by Roberto (remember that woman named Matilda he was talking about earlier?). However, we have a last minute problem: Ernesto knows about Margherita and the deal marriage to get him out of prison, and he doesn’t like it. Margherita pleads with her beloved ***.
61: Fu un istante One last sparkling stretta finale (with the triangle player giving it all its worth!) a joyous ending to a brilliant work ***!
Although some of the effects in this opera could be chalked up to parody, for a first time opera composer (all of twenty-three years of age!) to be this successful is frankly awe-inspiring. Verdi, by 1848 was starting to get to this level (certainly by Macbeth the previous year), but he was also twelve years older than Foroni! Imaging if Foroni had lived to be 35? We might have more than one Cristina! If I can fault this opera on anything it would be the slightly similar names of Roberto and Rodolfo given to two of the characters, which could be mixed up. But that is the libretto, not the score!
The mix of genres here allowed Foroni to tackle tragic opera in miniature while ultimately having a happy ending, but the work is truly a kaleidoscope of genres (comic opera, romance, drama, tragedy, rescue opera among them). His musical language is fully mature already, like William Frawley playing Fred Mertz from the very first episode of I Love Lucy, no need to settle into the role, it is all there! While other composers, even the greatest, took three or four operas in trial and error, here we have everything out of the gate! And all while giving his heroine role to a mezzo-soprano, (perhaps an homage to the contralto heroines of Rossini or even French influence?). Although Foroni introduced the works of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi to Sweden, he was their equal, at least in talent. Now, might we see I gladiatori any time soon? An obvious alpha plus.