Giuseppe Apolloni: Leila di Granada (1855)

Opera in prologo e tre atti. Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.

Sit back for a tale where literally all of the characters backstab and betray one another. The cast only consists of seven soloist roles (three relatively minor), but they practice three different religions and worship three distinct gods. The composer was only 33 years old when this, his biggest success, was first performed at La Fenice, and it was extraordinarily popular in its day, making the rounds for decades not only throughout Italy, but Europe, and North and South America as well. Its success probably had something to do with its initial casting, as several top sings of the era took part in creating roles for this opera, including Marianna Barbieri-Nini, who created Lady Macbeth for Verdi eight years earlier. Today, its plot would probably not work, although the libretto is actually extremely dense and complicated with veiled theological references making the accusation that Islam is actually a monotheistic paganism, and the score is blatantly pseudo-early-Verdian in construction (its lack of refinement and reliance on entertaining but already worn stock musical gestures made it unpopular only in a single west European state: France). There are ten musical numbers, the orchestra acts mostly as a background for the vocal lines, and there is a heavy tendency toward recitative brevity and through-composed numbers (the battery chords tend to stop rather than come to a complete conclusion). I chose the name the opera was given for its production in Naples partially to allow it to be ignored because I find myself dissatisfied with it. 

SETTING: Granada, 1492. Issachar (baritone) is the Jewish magician of Boadil el Chic (tenor) Muslim king of Grenada (who only appears in the prologue).  He betrays Boadil by joining the Spanish (motivated by the fact that the rest of his family has been whipped out by Muslim fanatics) in an attempt to save the Jews of Spain from King Ferdinand (bass) and Queen Isabela (soprano), but is sentenced to burn at the stake by the Inquisition. Meanwhile, his daughter Leila (soprano) is in love with the Moorish commander Adel-Muza (tenor) but pursued by Ferdinand and Isabela who seek to convert her to Catholicism at any cost. In the end, only the Christians survive.

LOOK OUT FOR:

PROLOGUE: The royal residence at the Alhambra. (18 minutes) 

0: The opera opens with a three-minute long prelude which would be otherwise insignificant if not for its usage of a slow variant of the golden melody ** which is then taken up into a military meter (it returns in act two and represents the Jews, in particular Issachar, the father of Leila). Issachar comes on to give exposition about how he is going to give the keys of Granada to King Ferdinand of Aragon. The strings start to drown out the baritone during the first of three cantabile parts to the aria. Boabdil, who has been reclining, rebukes Issachar, who in turn claims that he is a terrible leader. There is a quotation from Mercadante accompanying Boabdil if you can spot it (or is it Verdi?), in any case, Issachar causes a Verdian chorus of slave girls to pacify Baobdil as he plots to have the city destroyed by the Spaniards. This last section for baritone and orchestra is especially ferocious. 

ACT 1: (35 minutes) 

Scene 1: The garden of a ruined house on the edge of Granada. 

1: Del Corano il sacro carme Adel-Muza embarks on a surprisingly dim tenor serenata for Leila *. The finish is far too powerful considering what it is. Things get a bit more militant (albeit mild) as he talks about possibly dying in battle in the second part. The third (the cabaletta) is more up beat at least as he talks about making love to her in paradise, but the lone star at the top will have to make do.

11: Adombrato da palme un ostello Leila recalls what is left of her childhood memories *. She knows that she is not native to Granada, but a warmer region. Also, she remembers her mother. Much of this sounds like a dirge until Adel-Muza breaks in with some interjections about her mother and things turn to more loverly topics (although not the music). Leila warns that her father is coming and he leaves. 

17: Romito fior nel tramite A somewhat better number is the scene between Leila and Issachar in which he tells her that she is the only flower in his life, the wickedness of the sensual Muslims, and her own Israelite purity **. But he realizes that she is in love with Adel-Muza and curses her. The second section is obviously more furious and gives the scene a satisfactory conclusion. 

Scene 2: The royal pavilion of the Spanish camp. 

25: Dovrà per tale infamia The Spanish soldiers embark in a stock chorus, rousing but ordinary *. After an exchange between King Ferdinand and the Grand Inquisitor, Issachar arrives with Leila, whom be offers as a hostage. 

32: Se cor non hai di tigre in seno Leila rebukes her father to the most sunny tune ** in the brief but furious act finale. Issachar is about to be arrested and executed but he uses magic to set the Spanish camp on fire. Leila throws herself on the mercy of Ferdinand and Isabella, who really only have the veil for her. 

ACT 2: (25 minutes) 

Scene 1: Cellars of the home of Issachar. 

0, 4: Al tuo cenno That golden melody from the prelude to the prologue returns ** as Issachar and the Jews plot to destroy both the Christians and the Muslims (if only). After prayers, a passage of prophecy from Issachar, and more prayers, a harp interlude of some thirty seconds is followed by a prayer in which Issachar asks Gd to be chosen to kill his own daughter *. The rest of the scene consists of a call to arms and death to the Spaniards as the Jews vow to kill both them and the Muslims. This is actually very Verdian musically, although I must ask the obvious: the Jews are plotting in the cellars to destroy both Christendom and the Ummah? Seriously? Opera, whose side are you on?!? 

Scene 2: A pavilion in the forest near the Spanish camp.

13: Viva Spagna! After an energetic intermezzo, Isabella revels in the victory of her husband over Granada *. 

15: Fu Iddio che disse Ferdinand declares that he heard the voice of Gd to take the city *. A surprisingly mild piece for what might have otherwise been bellicose. Adel-Muza shows up having been sent by Boabdil to negotiate a truce with the Spanish, which, of course, they will have none of. Suddenly, Leila appears and Adel-Muza attempts to embrace her, but Isabella stops him declaring the Leila belongs to the Christian God alone. 

20: Di Dio! Ella a me! Adel-Muza tells Leila to leave with him. She refuses, although she is strongly tempted, which is noticed by the Spaniards who praise God for her temptation and condemn the Muslim as a pagan. A rather rousing finish to the act **, although much of the music does not fit the intensity of the words. 

ACT 3: A valley in the Andalusian mountains before a church. (28 minutes)

1: Era travolta The Baptismal procession * is a mild but tranquil piece. Fernando and Isabella, who are way too into converting Leila to Catholicism, escort her to the church. Leila stalls, however, fearing that she may be perjuring herself with this conversion. 

6, 10: Da quell’angusta soglia/Tra I beati in Paradiso Leila embarks on a delicate aria expressing her fear that what she is about to do is wrong *. The cabaletta is a bizarrely jubilant piece as she enters the church ***, the best number in the whole show. 

15: Meste d’incerto raggio Adel-Muza arrives disguised as a Spanish soldier in an attempt to stop Leila from converting to Christianity (which is too last at this point) and have her marry him. His aria is oddly mild and goes into how he can not believe how false Leila has been to him *.

17: Giunto io fossi alla metà Issachar shows up determined to kill Leila and Adel-Muza tries to soften him (it obviously does not work), but it makes for a energetic tenor-baritone duet **. They get stopped by a baptismal hymn as Leila is baptized. Now Issachar is really determined, and the moment he sees Leila coming out of the church he stabs her in the heart. Issachar is immediately arrested by the Spanish, who vow to execute him. 

23: Dio! Su quai labbra un grido This being opera, however, Leila gets an additional five minutes ** to remain alive and express her post-baptismal joy and admit that her love for Adel-Muza was not totally extinguished, before going to the pearly gates and her father and lover are sent off to be burned to death by Ferdinand and Isabella.

COMMENTS:

This opera has two problems: It can not make up its mind regarding which of the multiple sides of the plot it is on (musically, it seems to be pro-Jewish, but the libretto has said Jews plotting in underground rooms to destroy Catholics and Sunnis and commit child sacrifice in equal measure, so…), and the score is at best derivative of Verdi and Donizetti and at worst sterile (especially, weirdly, and I can not believe I am saying this, the tenor music). Add to this that none of the characters are either likeable nor at all interesting. Issachar would be an anti-Semitic stereotype caught between two equally evil worlds bent on global domination (Islam and Christianity) but his music indicates that Apolloni wants us to ally ourselves with this Judaic wizard (another clue?). His daughter, although the titular character, is oddly just as fickle as he is and her relationship with the Muslim Adel-Muza, while she contemplates conversion to Christianity under the guidance of the Catholic Monarchs, seems odd. Is Adel-Muza meant to humanize the Islamic elements of the story? because otherwise he could be a Christian and not much would actually change to the story. If anything, having the lover be a Muslim deflects from the hyper-Catholicism of the Catholic Monarchs. The two other tenor parts (the High Judge and Boabdil) are too small to really comment on and in the recording were performed by the same tenor. Ironically, having three out of seven soloist roles be for tenor does not help the opera all that much. Isabella, despite her queenly status, is a comprimario role, as are the two earlier tenor parts.

Ironically, the rushed nature of the opera was one of the reasons for its success, because although the story is complex enough for three acts, it could also just as easily have become cluttered.

The original play is actually centred on the relationship between Issachar and Leila, and him stopping her from converting to Christianity by way of a rather anti-Judaic human sacrifice (hence its original appeal to Western Christian Europeans). This is actually the primary motivation of the opera, for Issachar to murder Leila over her potential conversion to Christianity, not, as it might seem initially, Leila and her relationship with the Muslim Adel-Muza. The fact that Leila is a Jewish girl in love with a Muslim man but determined to convert to Christianity in spite of her Zionist father smells just too much of this being the religious equivalent of Victor/Victoria. It also renders all three religions as rather monstrous. Perhaps I should be grateful that all religions are being bashed here, rather than the usual good vs. bad scenario. Everyone is just bad, even if the Christians get a baptism in. In fact, the most interesting element of the plot is that all three religions are present here. However, isn’t the murder of the soprano in the doorway of (insert location) just too much? After having reviewed close to 350 operas, I am starting to wonder, do composers and librettists have a kill the soprano fetish? Since most composers and librettists have been male, is this some sort of revenge on their mothers for having been born?

As for the music, it is rather boring admittedly. I tried to like this entry, but there is no originality in this score and I found myself reminded far too frequently of operas I would much rather be listening to over this one (often times Verdi). There are some good elements, and the fast pace of the score does help, but the overall effect of this work will be indifference rather than dislike. Still, there are good moments, such as all three act finales and the aria for Leila in act three before her baptism. The result is ultimately a combination of good and bad ideas, of trial and error, and of presenting fundamentals while not knowing the historical context of their meaning. I am strongly tempted to say gamma here, but I will leave it at a beta.

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