Lauro Rossi: Cleopatra (1876)

Opera in quattro atti. Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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The 1870s were a very bad time for Italian opera. It was not that French and German opera were ascending in popularity, nor that Italian composers were not writing operas. It was that (with one exception) all of the new Italian operas written between Aida and Otello flopped, either at their premiere, or over the course of the next thirty years they disappeared from the stage. The longest hold out was I Lituani, which survived until a disastrous performance at La Scala in 1903 ended its around the world tour and caused it to not be performed again for seventy-six years. Ironically perhaps, it was another work by the same composer (Amilcare Ponchielli) which has survived into our present era, and that opera is La Gioconda. But really, that is the only exception.

At the same time, the librettist of Gioconda, the Italo-Polish Arrigo Boito, was pressuring Old Man Verdi to write Shakespearian operas, and one of the subjects they argued over was Antony and Cleopatra. Although Boito did not write this libretto, Marco d’Arienzo did and sent it to Lauro Rossi, who then set it. Rossi (1810-1885) had started writing operas in the early 1830s, fled Italy for Mexico after a fiasco in 1835, and had returned in the 1840s to become an academic musician in Milan and later Naples. His style, as demonstrated in this, his penultimate opera, is a personalized blending of Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Mercadante, and early Verdi, which must have seemed odd by the last quarter of the 19th century. The work only survived two years, disappearing after the 1877/1878 season in Naples.

In 2008, this opera was revived at Macerata (the birth place of the composer) in a slightly edited version (the overture and the first scene of act four have been removed or edited). However, it stars the Greek opera goddess Dimitra Theodossiou in the title role and was filmed by Dynamic, so it must be reviewed!

SETTING: Alexandria and Rome, 32 B.C.E. Cleo (soprano) is in love with Marc Antony (tenor) and tries to crash his wedding to Ottavia (mezzo) the sister of power hungry Ottavio Cesare (bass), prompting the Battle of Actium and their infamous suicides. Cleo also has an advisor named Diomedes (baritone) who features a lot in the opera.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A pavilion in the palace, Alexandria. (26 minutes)

0: The entire opening scene * features an interesting woodwind feature which is repeated when Diomedes comes on before he confronts the priests of Isis and their prophecy of doom (this gets a bit chromatic). A chorus of slaves interrupts them with their joviality.

6: Amiam! The love duet * has a sturdy melody through the interruptions from Diomedes and the chorus. Diomedes reflects on the words of a slave that Cleo wants to get rid of him, but he still loves her.

13: L’ore che fuggono passiam festanti The orgy * and ballet starts off with some standard Italian party music with mildly Egyptian charm. Cleo and Antony drink, and swear eternal love.

19: Libo alle notte Antony’s brief drinking song * before the arrival of Proculejo, the Roman ambassador, who gives him orders from Ottavio to either return to Rome or face an attack on Egypt. Antony refuses, Cleo declaring that Egypt can face any threat. General rejoicing about the triumph of love finishes the act.

ACT 2: A room in the palace. (22 minutes)

0: The brief entr’acte * involves more good woodwind work before we come upon Cleo waiting for Antony to return from Rome with her servants and head servant Carmiana. A strangely tranquil scene.

7: Io de ‘venti vorrei l’audace volo Cleo, angered by the false oracle predicting the return of Antony (which has not happened yet) prays that the wind bring her beloved to her *.

12: Tu! Si! The remainder of the act consists of a duet * for Cleo and Diomedes in which they get the entire situation straightened out, but then make things more complicated. Although they reconcile, he admits that Antony has another woman in Rome, Cleo furiously plots to poison her, and Diomedes warns her that this may destroy Egypt.

ACT 3: (28 minutes)

Scene 1: Room in the house of Ottavia.

4: Mentre le dolci immagini After a bizarrely happy chorus of bridesmaids, Ottavia reflects on how miserable she is because she knows Antony has another woman *.

8: Muovi, o suora A trio with chorus, the best number in the opera so far ** as Ottavia and Antony take orders from Ottavio to go to the temple for the wedding.

12: Non basta a me l’impero d’Occidente Ottavio, alone reflects on what a political coup he has made with this wedding. Now he does not have to limit his power to the West alone, but also, the East *. It includes an interesting function in the violins.

Scene 2: A wide street in Rome.

17: Cinto di nubi The wedding scene starts off with a hymn from inside the temple *. Cleo and Diomedes show up and Cleo crashes the wedding effectively when the bridal couple come out. An ensemble develops with Cleo’s soprano line towering above everyone else. Antony refuses to leave with Cleo, so she tries to pull a dagger on Ottavia (foiled by Antony and Ottavio).

24: Che tenti! The furious act finale ** as Cleo, Ottavio/Ottavia all swear vengeance on each other, and Antony can do nothing.

ACT 4 (29 minutes)

Scene 1: Between two obelisks in Alexandria.

0: Azio! Antony returns from the failed Battle of Actium * mourning his apparent betrayal by Cleo. A good tenor aria. The remainder of the scene consists of the chorus telling him that Cleo has decided to discuss terms with Ottavio and Antony resolves to commit suicide. This is not as musically effective.

Scene 2: A luxurious room in the palace.

11: Regina! Cleo (realizing that public opinion and Marc Antony are against her) decides to use her sex appeal to win over Ottavio (never a good idea) although she seems to be winning in this rather intriguing duet * with a flighty little tune bouncing about innocently. Proculejo arrives with the news that Antony has committed suicide, which causes Ottavio to turn on Cleo. He runs off, telling her that she will be taken as a prisoner to Rome. A tune, based in the trumpets, comes up and leads to a racing finish.

18: A Roma! The playout **: Cleo needs a way out, and Diomedes gives it to her: an asp. She finally realizes how much he loves her. Ottavio arrives with Roman soldiers, ordering her to vacate, and she takes the snake and has it bite her in the neck to the horror of the Romans. She declares to Ottavio that by death she will be liberated from the tyranny of Rome. The body of Antony is brought in sedately, Cleo curses Ottavio, and dies.

COMMENTS:

This is a bit of a bizarre entry. The music is retro, nothing indicates the 1870s composition date, it rather seems about thirty years older than it is, which critics of the 2008 production also indicated. The best characterization is actually Ottavia, and the best act is act three. The first two acts are weak dramatically and musically, with only a single solo number each for Cleo and Antony standing out. The fourth act has a greater dramatic intensity than the first two but is just under the third in grandeur. The encounter between Ottavio and Cleo is a little beyond belief given that in their previous encounter he was stopping her from murdering his sister. The overall effect is far too rushed. Something between a gamma and a beta.

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