“O nobile esempio!”
Amanda Squitieri, Daniel Montenegro, and the Chorus
Coro di Crociati e Pellegrini (Chorus of Crusaders and Pilgrims)
“Posa in pace”
Babatunde Akinboboye, Ben Han-Wei Lin, and the Men’s Chorus
“Bel conforto al mietitori”
VanNessa Hulme and the Chorus
“Quanto è bella, quanto è cara!”
Mr. Montenegro and the Chorus
“Della crudele Isotta”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Montenegro, and the Chorus
“Come Paride vezzoso”
Mr. MacKenzie, Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Montenegro, Ms. Hulme, and the Chorus
“Gira la cote"
Mr. Montenegro and the Chorus
“Silvio! a quest’ora”
Ms. Squitieri and Mr. MacKenzie
Opening scene and “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”
Mr. Montenegro, Ms. Squitieri, Nicole Renée Bouffard, Anne-Marie Reyes, Judy Tran Gallego, Mauricio A. Palma II, and the Chorus
Ms. Hulme, Tonya Hylton, Ms. Bouffard, Ms. Reyes, Leslie Schipa, Gabriel Paredes, and the Chorus
“Nella dolce carezza”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Montenegro and the Chorus
“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Montenegro, Mr. MacKenzie, Ms. Bouffard, Mr. Paredes, and the Chorus
I Lombardi alla PrimaCrocciata (The Lombards at the First Crusade) premiered in Milan at Teatro alla Scala in 1843 (a scant eleven months after Verdi’s first great success, Nabucco, and featuring the same librettist, Temistocle Solera). Based upon an epic 1826 poem by a popular Milanese poet, Tommasso Grossi, I Lombardi was an immediate popular success (although not a critical one). As Nabucco had, I Lombardi appealed to the nationalistic feelings of Italians still enduring the rule of Austria. Solera would have been especially aware of this, as his own father had been imprisoned by the Austrians. It particularly pleased its Milan audience with an opening scene showing the familiar Cathedral of Sant’Ambrogio, and a scenario that made it seem the Lombards (and thus the Milanese) almost singlehandedly won the Crusades. Once again (as at the premiere of Nabucco), the audience ignored the police rule of no encores (for fear of arousing a public uprising against the Austrians), and the premiere was repeatedly interrupted by shouts and cheers.
As would become a continuing aggravation through Verdi’s career, the censors – in this case, religious, not political – attempted to interfere with the first production. The Archbishop of Milan objected to the portrayal of the sacrament of baptism on stage and ordered the chief of police to ban the production. Verdi refused to back down and the production was finally allowed to proceed with a few minor changes in wording. I Lombardi was the first of Verdi’s operas to be produced in the United States (in New York in 1847) as well as in a rewritten version in Paris in 1847 under the title Jerusalem. It is rarely performed today, due in part to its convoluted and improbable plot as well as its overwhelming scenic demands (including “practicable” hills on which it was feasible for the performers to be able to sing, and to look as if they were really climbing – this from an era of mostly flat, painted scenic effects).
The opera is set in approximately 1099, first in Milan, then Antioch (in present-day Turkey), and finally Jerusalem. Arvino, son of the Lombard ruler Folco, leads his countrymen to the First Crusade following Folco’s murder by Arvino’s brother Pagano. It take months for the Crusaders to reach Antioch, where Arvino’s daughter Giselda is captured by the enemy and falls in love with Oronte, son of the Tyrant of Antioch. Following great hardship, the Lombards win their final battle to capture Jerusalem.
The first scene of I Lombardi takes place in the square outside the Cathedral of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. The citizens describe the noble example of the reconciliation of Arvino and Pagano (“O nobile esempio!”) They see the joy on the faces of the nobles, except for the terrible expression in Pagano’s eyes. It’s rare that the fury of the wolf is changed into the placid feelings of the lamb. The women ask what causes the joyful sounds in the cathedral, and the men explain that the banished Pagano has returned to beg forgiveness. They recount the story of his jealousy at Arvino’s winning the hand of the beautiful damsel Viclinda. After attempting to kill his brother and seize Viclinda for himself, Pagano had been exiled for his crime. Now returned from years of wandering and prayer at holy places, he is apparently repentant, but the people of the city remain doubtful that the wolf has really turned into a lamb.
The Crusading Lombard knights, soldiers and pilgrims mingle in a solemn procession. As they gaze at Jerusalem in the distance (“Gerusalem!”), they sing of the promised city, and the blood they have willingly shed to arrive there. They pray that their sight of these holy places will move God to accept their souls in their final hour. It was on this precipice where the lamb of mercy was tempted by the wicked one, who fell to earth when He said: “I am.” They are moved to tears by the sight of the Mount of Olives where the Nazarene wept for the fatal city, and over there, Mount Calvary, where he endured his wretched death. They pray for God’s salvation in the presence of the mountains, the plains and the valleys eternally sacred to human thought. Behold! He arrives – the living God, the terrible warrior!
Giselda has found refuge in a cave near Jerusalem following her conversion of her beloved Oronte to Christianity, who promised her that they will reunite in heaven as he died from the wounds he received in battle. She is visited in a dream by celestial spirits. In her vision (Visione), the angels tell her to turn her face toward joy because through her a redeemed soul has found his way to paradise. Giselda is amazed at this heavenly appearance as she seems to see the dawn of eternal day and then Oronte among the angels. She begs him to speak to her. Oronte tells her that because of her, he is now blessed in God’s presence. Now she should save her countrymen by leading them to the Pool of Siloam where they will find the fresh water they so desperately need.
Lombard Crusaders and pilgrims are camped near Rachel’s tomb outside Jerusalem. Exhausted by their journey and racked by thirst, the Lombards remind God of the trials they have endured in his name. He called them from their native home (“O Signore, dal tetto natio”) and they have joyfully followed his harsh path. They have served valiantly and pray that he won’t make them a laughingstock – they are Christ’s faithful soldiers. They recall the beauty of their native Lombardy’s fresh breezes, fair brooks, crystalline lakes and vineyards gilded by the sun. The cruel memory of their homeland is even harsher than the arid soil of Palestine. An early biographer of Verdi noted that at its initial performance, this chorus aroused a storm of political approval. Indeed, along with “Va, pensiero”, this chorus is still taught in schools in northern Italy as a patriotic anthem.
Verdi suffered mightily under the censorship restrictions prevalent throughout the kingdoms and provinces of Italy during his career, but no work was as fraught with ridiculous demands by the censors as Un ballo in maschera(A Masked Ball), written to be performed at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1858. Based by librettist Antonio Somma on Gustave III, a play by the prominent French playwright Eugène Scribe, the original story tells of the assassination of Gustave III, the King of Sweden, in 1792. Political conspiracy and regicide were always explosive issues in such a tightly controlled society as the Kingdom of Naples, but numerous versions of the story had already been performed in the form of plays and ballets throughout Italy.
Verdi had suffered at the hands of the Neapolitan censors in the past, notably in the case of Rigoletto, which he felt had been mangled out of all recognition. Initially, a number of revisions to Un ballo were demanded, most of which Verdi had expected, and to which he felt he could accede. Unfortunately, it was not until he arrived in Naples to supervise the production that he was informed the censors had refused the libretto entirely and demanded wholesale changes which Verdi refused to countenance. (Among numerous and ludicrous demands, the censors not only insisted that the locale be moved from Sweden and that the protagonist not be a royal figure, but demanded the elimination of the masked ball entirely, as well as a crucial scene in which the conspirators drew lots to determine who would have the honor of being the assassin – two of the most important scenes in the entire work.) Verdi stood on his artistic honor and refused any further concessions, in spite of a lawsuit by the president of the Teatro San Carlo and official threats to imprison him in his hotel room and refuse him passage from Naples until he had agreed to permit a totally different script devised according to the censors’ wishes to be foisted onto Verdi’s score. Verdi countersued and was finally allowed to leave with his score in return for returning to Naples to supervise a new production of Simon Boccanegra later in the year.
Having determined that a stage version of Gustave III was already approved for production in Rome that year, Verdi proceeded to make arrangements for Un ballo to premiere there the following year. Censorship issues again became problematic, especially since Rome was still part of the Papal states and hence usually presented both religious and political problems. However, Verdi pressed on and made changes that were considered absolutely necessary. (For this reason, many productions of the opera still adhere to the libretto as premiered in Rome, which changed the Swedish king Gustave to Riccardo, the Count of Warwick, “son of England.” As governor of colonial Massachusetts, apparently the Count of Warwick was distant enough in time and place to quell any fears of sparking a revolution in Rome.) In spite of the changes and a rehearsal process that left Verdi fretful and anxious about the production, Un ballo in maschera was a stunning success at its premiere in Rome in February, 1859, and Verdi himself was called to the stage for more than 20 bows.
The basic structure of Verdi and Somma’s work remained the same: Gustave/Riccardo is a much-loved and effective ruler, but he is warned by his faithful secretary Renato that there is a conspiracy against his life among disgruntled enemies. Riccardo refuses to live in fear and ignores the warnings. Riccardo is also secretly in love with Renato’s wife Amelia, who returns his love, but neither of them is willing to betray Renato. However, Renato becomes aware of their love and mistakenly believes that Amelia and Riccardo have already betrayed him. Confronting Amelia, he refuses to believe her fidelity, and he joins with the conspirators in their plot to assassinate Riccardo. Drawing lots to see who will have the honor to strike Riccardo first, Renato is grimly satisfied that he is the lucky one, and they resolve to fulfill the plot at the masked ball which Riccardo is to give that night. Amelia attempts to warn Riccardo to leave the ball, but it is too late. As he is dying from wounds inflicted by Renato, Riccardo informs him that Amelia had remained faithful and tells his court that he forgives Renato and his co-conspirators.
In the opening scene of the opera, Riccardo’s deputies and other gentlemen of the court await his arrival at his morning audience. Most of the men are Riccardo’s friends and supporters, but among the throng are the conspirators Samuel and Tom and their adherents. As the courtiers await their ruler, they hope that he has rested peacefully (“Posa in pace”) and beautiful dreams have refreshed his noble heart. They pray that their love will be a shield over his house in this new world. Meanwhile the conspirators huddle apart and plan their revenge. Their hate stands against him, readying his punishment in memory of those who have fallen because of him, who are not forgotten in their unhappy graves. (The censors had insisted that any hint of political assassination be removed, replacing it with a family vendetta.)
Riccardo’s chief aide Renato had discovered his wife Amelia in a compromising rendezvous with Riccardo, unaware that they have agreed to part because they won’t betray Renato. In spite of Amelia’s protestations of innocence, Renato prepares to kill her but submits to her plea to embrace her son once more before he does so. As he sends her from his study to their child, his fury grows as he gazes at a portrait of Riccardo that hangs in the room. He realizes it isn’t his wife whom he should stab in the heart. Much better the blood of another to wipe away the offense. His dagger will draw blood from Riccardo’s heart to avenge his tears. Gazing at the portrait, he says, “It was you” (“Eri tu”), you who stained the soul of the one who was the delight of Renato’s spirit, who in one execrable stroke poisoned the universe. Traitor! that repays in such a fashion the faithfulness of his closest friend. Oh, her lost sweetness, the memories of her embrace when Amelia, so beautiful and innocent, shone with love for him. It is finished! Nothing remains but hatred, hatred and death in his widower’s heart.
Donizetti wrote an extraordinary number of operas in the 1810’s and 20’s (almost 30 of them) and achieved a fair measure of success in Italy, but it was the Milan premiere of Anna Bolena in 1830 that brought him international fame. This was closely followed by the great success of L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), which also had its premiere in Milan, in 1832. Donizetti dedicated L’elisir to “the fair sex” of Milan in a letter to his publisher. The libretto is by Felice Romani, based on a libretto by the prolific French playwright Eugène Scribe for Daniel Auber’s 1831 opera Le philtre. Along with Don Pasquale, L’elisir has remained one of the most enduring and popular opere buffe.
L’elisir d’amore is set in a small village in Basque country, circa 1830. The bashful and inept young peasant Nemorino is hopelessly in love with a wealthy young widow, Adina, who appears unmoved by his passion. The elixir of love named in the title is first introduced as a theme in the opening scene, in which Adina, the owner of a large farm, mockingly reads the story of Tristan and Isolde (long before its serious treatment by Wagner) to her workers as they celebrate the harvest. Adina doesn’t believe in such potions, but Nemorino does. A troop of soldiers headed by the handsome and conceited Sergeant Belcore arrives in town, and Belcore immediately sets out to win Adina, who is amused and flattered by his attentions. The arrival of the soldiers is closely followed by that of “Doctor” Dulcamara, who extolls the virtues of his medications to all the assembled soldiers and villagers. Nemorino begs him for a love potion that will make Adina love him, and Dulcamara obliges with what he says is the same elixir as that used by Isolde (in reality, a bottle of ordinary wine). Having drained the bottle at once, the now confident (not to mention tipsy) Nemorino pretends to be indifferent to Adina. Vexed by his new attitude, she impulsively agrees to marry Belcore. To her and Nemorino’s dismay, however, the troops are ordered to return to their garrison immediately, and Belcore demands that Adina honor her promise of marriage at once before the soldiers must depart. Nemorino frantically begs her to delay for at least a day (at which time he has been assured the elixir will work its magic.) Still annoyed with Nemorino, Adina consents to the marriage. On the following day, as everyone is gathered for the wedding and Adina now strives to put off signing the marriage contract, Nemorino entreats Dulcamara for another bottle of the elixir. As he has no money, Nemorino’s only recourse to pay for it is to enlist with Belcore’s troop in order to earn a signing bonus. Adina soon realizes that Nemorino has acted out of love for her and her heart is softened. Realizing that she loves Nemorino, she buys back his enlistment papers and admits that she returns his love. Belcore philosophically accepts his loss of Adina and her property (recognizing that, of course, thousands of women still await his pleasure). Dulcamara informs the astonished Adina and Nemorino that the young man is now the heir to his uncle’s considerable fortune, and all ends happily – with none happier than the good doctor, as Nemorino’s success in love causes great demand for his wonderful elixir.
In the opening scene, the young peasant Giannetta and Adina’s other workers are relaxing in the shade of a tree as they celebrate the end of the harvest. They comment how comforting it is to the reapers (“Bel conforto al mietitore”) when the sun is no longer high and burning, as they rest and catch their breath under a beech tree at the foot of the hill. The burning sun of midday is tempered by the shade and the running stream. Nonetheless, the burning heat of love can’t be lessened by either shade or stream. How fortunate are the reapers that can resist the power of love!
As they are relaxing, Nemorino enters and spies Adina sitting reading under a tree. The hopelessly lovestruck young man can only wonder at her. How beautiful she is! How dear! (“Quanto è bella, quanto è cara!”) The more he sees her, the more he likes her, but he doesn’t seem capable of inspiring even slight affection in her heart. She reads, she studies, she learns…there’s nothing she doesn’t know. And he is always an idiot – he doesn’t know how to make her sigh. Who will illuminate his mind? Who will teach him to make her love him?!
Adina suddenly bursts into laughter as she reads. What pages! It’s a bizarre love affair. Giannetta and the others ask her what’s so funny and tell her to let them in on her witty reading. Adina says that it’s the story of Tristan and a chronicle of love. As they encourage her to go on, Nemorino murmurs that he’ll softly draw near to listen. Adina reads, “Tristan burned for the cruel Isotta (‘Della crudele Isotta’), hoping to possess her one day. He approached a wise sorcerer who gave him a certain elixir of love by which Isotta would be unable to leave him.” They all deride an elixir so perfect, of such rare quality, and wish they knew the recipe! Adina continues, “As soon as she took a sip from the magic vessel, it immediately softened Isotta’s rebellious heart. That cruel beauty became Tristan’s faithful lover, and that first sip was always blessed by him.” They again mock the idea of the magic elixir, except for Nemorino, who wishes that it really existed!
To the sound of drums, Sergeant Belcore leads his squadron into the gathering. Belcore approaches Adina, salutes her, and presents her with a small bouquet. Just as charming Paris (“Come Paride vezzoso”) awarded the apple to the most beautiful, so he offers these flowers to this delightful country lass. It gives him glorious happiness that his prize will win for him her beautiful heart. Adina murmurs “This young gentleman is modest!” in an aside to the young women, who agree with her, while Nemorino is annoyed at his advances. Belcore says he sees clearly in her little face that he has opened a breach in her heart. It is not surprising – he is gallant, he is a sergeant, and no beauty can resist the sight of a crest; she will surrender to the warrior god Mars as the goddess of love did. Adina can’t resist laughing, which fills Nemorino with pain. Belcore says that if she loves him as he loves her, why wait any longer to lay down her arms? Will his idol capitulate and marry him? Adina replies that she’s in no hurry – she wants a little more time to think about this. Nemorino is aghast – he will be wretched if she accepts; he will die of despair. Belcore urges that she not waste more time in vain. The days and hours are flying, and in war as in love, it’s a mistake to postpone things. Surrender to the victor, for she’s unable to flee from him. Adina notes the arrogance of these men. They sing of victory before the fight. No, it’s not so easy to conquer Adina, she tells him. Nemorino wishes that love would give him at least a little of Belcore’s courage. If he could at least say how he suffers, he would gain some pity, but he is too timid – he’s unable to speak. The workers exclaim that truly it would be amusing if Adina should fall, but she’s too seasoned a fox for Belcore.
Born to a long line of musicians in the Tuscan town of Lucca in 1858, Giacomo Puccini’s father and an uncle were his early teachers. The family had a tradition of playing church music, but the younger Puccini turned to opera after he and some friends walked nearly ten miles to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s Aïda, which he said opened a new musical window for him. He was to say later that he felt God had touched him on the shoulder once and promised him success, but only if he wrote music for the theater. After entering the conservatory in Milan, he was encouraged by the professor and composer Ponchielli. Although Puccini’s first two operas, the one act Oberto and the full-length Edgar, were not successful, he persevered. His first great success was Manon Lescaut, first performed in 1893. The playwright and exacting music critic George Bernard Shaw proclaimed Puccini the heir to Verdi, and the comparison is worth noting. Like Verdi, Puccini was an exacting taskmaster of his librettists, sometimes hiring and firing several for a project before he found what he wanted. He was keenly interested in the theatrical strengths of his libretti and searched far afield for plays and fiction which he could put to good use. Many of his operas were based on French plays and novels but also included work by Schiller (a favorite of Verdi’s). Two of his greatest successes, Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West, were based on plays by the American playwright and impresario David Belasco. (Except for his unwilling use of an American setting to replace Sweden in Un ballo in maschera, even the far-reaching Verdi had not drawn on American sources for his work.) Puccini was also to have as publisher for most of his career the firm of Ricordi, Verdi’s long-time publisher.
When La Bohème premiered in 1896 (under the baton of the young Arturo Toscanini), Puccini was already widely known in Italy. Although the opera did not receive great acclaim at its first performances in Torino and Rome, a production in Palermo in the same year was a wild success, and it reached as far as London and Los Angeles within another year. Along with Tosca and Madama Butterfly, La Bohème remains one of Puccini’s best-loved and most frequently-performed operas. These were followed by other notable works that are still frequently staged: La fanciulla del West (commissioned and first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, starring Enrico Caruso), La Rondine, the trilogy Il Trittico (also premiered in New York), and his last opera, left unfinished at the time of his death at the age of 66, Turandot. A lifelong smoker, after months of health problems and a chronic sore throat, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After consulting numerous specialists, Puccini agreed to undergo experimental radiation therapy in Brussels. After days of grueling treatments and an operation, he seemed to be recovering, but then suffered a heart attack. He died on February 29, 1924.
The fairy tale of Turandot seems to have originated not in China, but in a 12th century Persian epic poem. Later tales in Arabic set the story in China, and one adaptation had Turandot challenge her would-be suitors not with a set of three riddles, but to a wrestling match. Puccini’s interest in Turandot was first sparked by his reading of an adaption by Schiller of the 1762 commedia dell’arte play by the popular Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi. (The Schiller production was directed by no less than Goethe.) Puccini first began work with the librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni in March, 1920, but did not actually begin composing until January, 1921. The libretto they arrived at struck a balance between the sarcastic comedy of Gozzi and the idealized moral tale that Schiller presented, with Turandot no longer a heartless, cruel princess, but one who acts out of strong moral convictions. Between his health problems and his drawn out wrangling with his librettists, not to mention despair that the libretto would ever meet his expectations, composition continued until March, 1924, by which time he had completed all but the final scene. However, it was not until October 8, 1924 that he was finally satisfied with the text of the final duet. On October 10 he received his cancer diagnosis and left for Brussels on October 24. Puccini and his wife were never told how serious his illness was (at the request of his son), and he took the score with him to complete in Brussels. He apparently sensed the seriousness of his situation, however, and visited Toscanini before his departure to ask, “Please don’t let my Turandot die.” At his death, he had written vocal and piano sketches for the final scene, and the opera was completed by his friend Franco Alfano. At the first performance at La Scala on April 25, 1926, Toscanini famously put down his baton at the point at which Puccini had finished full composition and ended the performance with a curt announcement to the effect of “Here ends the performance, for this is where the composer finished,” an idea that was supposedly suggested by Puccini himself when he began to fear that he would not live to complete it. (Historical accounts differ widely on exactly what Toscanini said, but at the second and subsequent performances, Toscanini completed the opera as finished by Alfano.)
The story itself is simple. Set in Peking in a time long past, the title character is the daughter of the Emperor Altoum. Princess Turandot has resolved not to marry because she has discovered that an ancestor of hers was once raped and murdered by a foreigner, and she must revenge her ancestor’s death. Any suitor wishing to claim Turandot’s hand must first solve three riddles, and the result of failure is death. Many foreign princes have already lost their lives before the first scene of the opera. An unknown prince (Calaf) arrives in the city and instantly falls in love with the beautiful princess. He successfully answers the three riddles, and Turandot begs the Emperor to release her from her pledge, but the Emperor says he will keep his promise. Calaf provides a riddle of his own: If Turandot can discover his name before daybreak the next day, he will agree to die. After a night in which no one in the city sleeps in the effort to find out Calaf’s name, Turandot admits that she both loved and hated him as soon as she saw him. He tells her his name and allows her to decide his fate, and Turandot announces to the people that she has discovered his real name: His name is Love.
In the first scene, a mandarin has announced Turandot’s decree requiring the three riddles and that the Prince of Persia has failed the task. At the rising of the moon, he will die by the executioner’s hand. The crowd gathered in front of the imperial palace is excited and bloodthirsty as the executioner’s assistants appear dragging a huge sword and a giant whetstone. The crowd cries to them to sharpen the whetstone (“Gira la cote”) as the assistants oil and sharpen the blade to make it gleam and spatter fire and blood. Their work will never languish where Turandot reigns! The crowd calls for more sweet lovers to advance themselves, and the executioner’s men announce their readiness to embroider them with hooks and knives. The crowd knows that whoever strikes the gong to demand to be allowed the trial will see her appear, as white as jade and as cold as the sword, the beautiful Turandot. But love is vain if fortune isn’t there. The riddles are three, but there is only one death.
The crowd looks at the darkening sky, wondering why the moon delays. Pale face, show yourself in the sky, come quickly!, like a decapitated head, bleak, bloodless, aloof. O wan lover of the dead, the cemeteries await your funereal light. Over there! A glimmer is spreading its deathly light in the sky. They cry out for the executioner Pu-Tin-Pao, telling him the moon has risen. Children tell of a stork that sings in the mountains to the east, but April doesn’t bloom and the snow doesn’t melt. From the desert to the sea, thousands of voices sigh, “Princess, descend to me, everything will blossom and shine.” Suddenly the young Prince of Persia is led to the scaffold, and the crowd’s ferocity is turned to pity. O youth, mercy on him! How sweet his face is, how firm his step. In his eyes are exhilaration and joy. In the background, Calaf has arrived and joins with the crowd to beg for mercy for the young Prince. As the crowd repeatedly cries out for pity, Calaf wishes to see the Princess and curse her for her cruelty. The crowd falls to its knees as Turandot appears on the balcony of the palace, and they continue to beg for mercy. However, she dismisses their pleas with an imperious gesture and the Prince of Persia is led away to his death.
Opera verismo – “truthful” opera – developed during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Diametrically opposed to the Romantic Movement, verismo sought its subjects among the lives and language of common people, rather than royalty and historical figures, and was notable for its passionate intensity, showing the sordid and brutal and playing upon the emotions in swift, often violent, action. Among the seminal works of opera verismo in Italy is Pagliacci.
Born and trained in Naples in 1850, Ruggiero Leoncavallo studied composition in Naples, then literature at the University of Bologna, which aroused an interest in music coupled with drama, particularly as exemplified by Wagner. He struggled to survive by giving voice and piano lessons and accompanying singers in cafés all over Europe while he tried to establish himself as an opera composer. Finally, with Pagliacci, for which he wrote the libretto himself as he did for most of his works, he became internationally famous at the age of 42. Its Milan premiere in 1892 was quickly succeeded by productions in London and New York the following year. Sued for plagiarism over Pagliacci by another author, he successfully defended himself with his testimony that the story was based on an actual case of murder which took place in a theatrical touring company in Calabria. (As a child, he attended the trial, over which his father presided as judge, of a jealous actor who killed his wife after a performance.) Although he wrote a number of other operas and operettas that were successful at the time, and several arias from those works remain popular, Pagliacci is his only work that continues to be a standard part of the opera repertoire. Leoncavallo became an early adopter of the gramophone and its potential, and in 1907 he directed a recording of Pagliacci, whichbecame the first Italian opera to be commercially recorded in its entirety.
Pagliacci literally means “clowns” and refers to traveling theatrical players in a commedia troupe. The leading player of the company, Canio, discovers that his wife Nedda is in love with a young villager. In the course of a performance in which Canio plays a comical, cuckolded husband, the line between art and life blurs. Canio kills Nedda onstage, then her lover, before the eyes of the stunned audience.
In the Prologue, the clown Tonio appears before the curtain (“Si può?”) He explains that the author wishes to revive the ancient theater custom of the prologue. However, he will not reassure them, as in the ancient dramas, that the tears that the actors shed are false. No, the author has tried instead to paint for them a fragment of life, for he is inspired by truth. A nest of memories sang in his soul one day, and he wrote with real tears punctuated by sighs. Thus the audience will see love as humans actually love, and the bitter fruit of hatred. They will hear the pangs of grief, howls of rage, and cynical laughter! Therefore, instead of seeing their poor actors’ clothes, the viewers should contemplate the actors’ souls, for they are flesh and blood and breathe the same air of the orphan world as the audience does.
Following the arrival of the commedia troupe in the town and the players’ lively appeal to come to the performance that evening, the excited villagers hear the sound of the church bells ringing for vespers. They prepare to go to church, calling to each other to come along. The bells are calling them to vespers (“Din, don, suona vespero”) as the young people hasten in pairs to the church while the sun kisses the hilltop. The young ladies warn that their mothers are observing them and their companions need to watch out! Everything is radiating with light and love, but the young men caution each other that the old folks are keeping a close eye on the bold lovers.
Nedda is left alone after the villagers go to church while her husband and the other players go into town to a tavern. She is fearful of her husband’s fiery jealousy and what someone as brutal as he would do if he were ever to catch her…but enough of these fearful, foolish dreams. How beautiful the mid-August sun is! She is full of life, languishing with mysterious desire, but doesn’t even know what she longs for. Glancing into the sky, she exclaims at a flock of noisy birds. What are they seeking? Where are they going? Who knows! Her mother could foretell the future, could understand the birds’ songs and sang them to Nedda as a child. How they shriek up there, freely, launched in flight like arrows, challenging the clouds and the scorching sun on open wings. They also follow a dream, a chimera, among the golden clouds. Amidst wind, storms, lightning, they go, nothing stops them, over abyss and sea, they go toward a strange land which they’ve dreamt of and seek in vain. They are the Bohemians of the sky, following the secret power that drives them … they go on, they go on!
Tonio, one of the other clowns in the troupe, has returned from the tavern to approach Nedda while she is alone and declare his love for her. Nedda first laughs at him and, when he tries to force himself on her, strikes him in the face with a whip and drives him off. After Tonio has left, vowing to revenge himself on her, the young villager Silvio appears and calls to her softly. Nedda is surprised at his recklessness at such a time (“Silvio! A quest’ora”), and Silvio replies that he saw her husband Canio and the others at the tavern, so came cautiously through the woods. Nedda is still upset about Tonio and says that she turned away his assault with a whip. Silvio asks if she will live forever with her fear and begs her to decide his destiny and remain with him. The troupe will leave tomorrow – and when she has gone away, what will become of him and his life? If it’s true that she’s never loved Canio and detests her wandering profession…if her great love for him isn’t a fairy tale, then let them go away together that night! Nedda pleads with him not to tempt her. Does he want to ruin her life? It’s madness! She has trusted him, she’s given him her heart, he shouldn’t take advantage of her feverish love. He should pity her, and perhaps it’s better if they part. Fate stands against them, and their words are in vain. And yet she can’t tear him from her heart – she will live only on the love he’s aroused there. Silvio exclaims that she no longer loves him, and she swears that she does. He asks if she will leave with them tomorrow – if she can leave him without pity, why has she bewitched him? Why has she kissed him so ardently? If she can forget those fleeting hours, he cannot. He still desires those burning kisses which set his heart on fire. Nedda admits she has forgotten nothing; she has been turned upside down by her love. She wants to live bound to him, enchanted, a life of calm and tranquil love. She gives herself to him, and he will rule her. She will take him and abandon herself completely. They swear they will forget everything as they declare their love to each other with a kiss. Silvio says to meet at midnight, and Nedda replies that she will then be his forever.
On a trip to Vienna in 1912, on the heels of the success of La fanciulla del West, Puccini was offered a large sum by an Austrian publisher to write a light opera in the Viennese style. At first Puccini refused, but the persistent producers increased their offer and Puccini agreed, insisting however that he would not write an operetta but a “lyrical comedy.” The onset of World War I caused the cancellation of the contract, but Puccini decided to proceed with the libretto which had been translated for him into Italian by Giuseppe Adami (also Puccini’s librettist for Il Tabarro and Turandot, as well as Puccini’s biographer after his death). La Rondine (The Swallow) was a success at its premiere in neutral Monte Carlo in 1917, but subsequent Italian productions floundered and the opera has remained one of Puccini’s least-produced mature works (although in recent years there has been a revival of interest in it).
Magda de Civry is a beautiful demimondaine maintained in luxury in 1850’s Paris by the banker Rambaldo Fernández. Ruggero, the son of an old friend of Rambaldo’s on his first visit to Paris, arrives with a letter of introduction. Unaware of her relationship with Rambaldo, Ruggero falls in love with Magda , who leaves Rambaldo to live with Ruggero on the Riviera. After several months of happiness, Ruggero writes to his family to obtain their permission to marry Magda. When he shows her a letter from his mother rejoicing in her son’s newfound love and urging him to bring Magda to meet them, Magda confesses her past to Ruggero. She tells him that she was willing to remain his mistress, but his family would never be able to accept her as a wife. Despite his desperate pleas and her love for him, Magda insists on leaving him so that he can make a suitable marriage, and she returns to her life in Paris with Rambaldo.
La Rondine opens in Magda’s elegant salon, where the wealthy Rambaldo is hosting a party at which the poet-musician Prunier is the center of attention. The guests are laughing at his theory, but Prunier insists that it’s the truth: the new rage in elegant society is love. Magda’s maid Lisette derides this sentimental tale because everyone is in a hurry. “You want me? I want you – that does it.” Prunier takes offense at Lissette, but Magda advises him to forgive her and encourages Prunier to go on. He continues that romance is the fashion – blushing glances, furtive hugs, kisses, sighs, but nothing more! The other young women continue to tease him, pretending to languish and die, but Magda is intrigued and asks to hear more. He says the malady is massacring the female world – one delicate microbe that is whirling everywhere; It takes all by surprise and the heart has no defense, even Doretta’s. At this, the young ladies mocking him are eager to know who Doretta is. He replies that she is his latest heroine, a dear character who is seized by this illness. She will be immortal when he finishes his new song about her. The ladies beg him to play it, but Prunier protests that they won’t enjoy it. Magda calls for silence, and presents Prunier as the glory of the nation, who will deign to perform his latest song. Rambaldo asks the subject, and Prunier replies: “It’s love.” Prunier begins, “Who can guess the beautiful dream of Doretta?” (“Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”). In the dream, one beautiful day the king approaches the young girl and tells her that if she believes in him, if she surrenders to him, she will be rich. He tells the lovely creature, the sweet enchantress, not to be afraid, “your tears should disappear.” Doretta replies that she isn’t crying, but she will remain as she is, for gold won’t bring happiness. As Prunier pauses, Magda asks why he doesn’t continue, and he replies that he lacks a finale – if she can find one, he’ll cede his glory to her. Magda says it is simple. She takes up where the poet left off: One beautiful day a student kissed Doretta, and his kiss was a revelation – it was true passion. Mad love, mad embraces! Who could resist the subtle caress of a kiss so ardent? The others are moved by Magda’s ending. She asks why riches matter if at last happiness can blossom? Oh, what a dream to be able to love like that.
In Act II, disguised as a young working class woman, Magda has followed Ruggero to Bullier’s ballroom, where flower girls offer their wares (“Fiori Freschi!”) The young crowd of students, artists, actresses, and tourists try to attract the attention of the waiters to get drinks, and argue about who will pay. A number of the grisettes (young working women) have things on their mind besides dancing and proclaim their various attractions to the passing men. Some of the patrons are already dancing in the garden as other young couples flirt and pair off, and young men try to persuade reluctant young women to join them on the balcony or in the garden. “Without you life will be too bitter, but with you life may be too expensive!” Some of them beg for a kiss, as others vow to drink until the break of day. Rivers of champagne flow as the revelers toast youth and eternal laughter. As some young ladies pursue one young man and hope that he is rich, others approach Ruggero, who shows no interest. They begin to mock him sitting alone, so gloomy and depressed. He’s a lily, a mimosa, timid and not bothering to give them a smile or a look. Maddened by his silence, they demand to know his name, to no avail. He must be a prince that travels incognito. Abandoning him, one lady asks her friend for a little powder – she has a red nose!
Unaware of her true identity, Ruggero asks Magda to dance with him. They sing of the sweet caress of the dance (“Nella dolce carezza”) where they can close their eyes and dream. Everything seems far away and nothing can disturb them, the past seeming to vanish. The other dancers join in. What can torment them when love makes them happy, when they share one heart, when their kisses burn with equal ardor? They sing of mad kisses, trembling and vibrant, that are the life of lovers. “Give me life in your kiss, and live to kiss me!” Magda and Ruggero sing of their sweet intoxication, their enchantment, their eternal dream. The others delight in the soft perfume of the April night, the air full of spring and yearning.
Although Prunier claims to have lofty standards for his desired mate, he is actually in love with Magda’s maid, Lisette, whom he has brought to Bullier’s (dressed in Magda’s clothes, which she regularly borrows without her mistress’ knowledge). Lisette is sure she recognizes Magda, who pretends to be a working woman named Paulette. Unaware of this underplay, Ruggero leads the two couples in a toast. He drinks to Magda’s fresh smile (“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”) and her deep gaze, to her lips when they say his name. Magda says her heart is conquered, and he replies that he has given her his heart, his tenderness, his sweet love. She must guard his heart jealously, for it will always be hers. Magda says that all her dreams are coming true, if only she can hope. Prunier and Lisette declare their love as well: Prunier, because each of her kisses is a verse, Lisette, because his words are like embroidery. As the two couples sing of their love for each other (and their very different views of love), the other patrons surreptitiously join them, enjoying their vows of love and bringing garlands of flowers with which to festoon the young lovers.