Zdenek Fibich: The Bride of Messina (1884)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.

I probably should have completed this review years ago, as I actually started it back in 2019 but never got around to finishing it. Some of the material is from four years ago, but I obviously just got around to finishing it recently. 

This opera was written for an 1883 contest for the National Theatre of Prague. It won first prize and has remained critically acclaimed as its composer′s masterpiece, being performed throughout the 20th century in the former-Czechoslovakia and most recently in 2015 in Magdeburg, Germany. However, the plot is macabre and the score has an astringent and quasi-Wagnerian style which has hinder its popularity with the opera going public. An interesting feature of the choral scoring is the absence of sopranos, the two retinues of the princes are tenor-bass (Manuel) and alto-tenor-bass (Cesar), although there are two soprano soloist parts. This was also not the first setting of the story in opera, as an 1839 version by Nicolai Vaccai also exists and can also be heard under the Naxos label. The Vaccai opera switches out the vocal casting of both the mother and daughter characters as well as the two brothers. Of the Fibich opera, there are three recordings, all with Ivo Zidek as Don Cesar even though they were recorded over a 21 year period. This review is based on the last of these, the 1975 recording conducted by Frantisek Jilek. 

I want to also make it immediately obvious that I used an English translation of the Czech Wikipedia page for this opera in order to fill in plot details for this review. 


SETTING: Messina, 16th or 17th century. A rather simple plot involving a not so simple family: Donna Isabella (contralto) is the ruling Princess of Messina and has two sons Manuel (baritone) and Cesar (tenor) who are both in love with the same convent girl named Beatrice (soprano) who turns out to be their sister, whom their father had long ago installed in the convent because of a prophecy that she would cause the deaths of both of her brothers. But before this is revealed, Manuel kidnaps Beatrice and is found alone with her by Cesar, who kills Manuel out of jealousy. When the truth is revealed to him, Cesar commits suicide. 


ACT 1: A hall in the Royal Palace. (45 minutes)

0: The furiously dark overture * is very brief but full of rage and terror and immediately establishes the Wagnerian style of the rest of the score.

3: S tichým vdovy útulkem The curtain rises on Princess Isabella who has just come out of a three-month seclusion mourning her deceased husband *. She calls her servant Diego (a bass, to whom she references a secret treasure which she wants him to bring back from a certain convent…) and then suddenly there is fanfare and Isabella knows that her sons are about to return.

11: Vítej mi, pyšná ty síni knížecí The most Lohengrin-esque chorus not written by Wagner ** as Cesar and Manuel violently confront each other with their disagreement. (Notice also that there is a quotation from Vanda in the fanfare although I doubt anyone will pick up on this). The people then Slava Isabella in grand style.

16: Ó shlédni na mne Isabella makes a plea to Heaven for peace between her sons **, but it leads only to a temporary truce, allowing both brothers to remain ready to fight if the situation appears to warrant it. Having failed, she leaves the two men alone, but not before a rather good patch of ensemble work. 

23, 29: Ty starší jsi The brothers begin an awkward conversation, which quickly turns into a duet and a reconciliation **. A squire arrives with a message for Cesar that the “unknown” he has been looking for has been spotted nearby. Cesar rushes out after a brief mono cant *.

35, 43: Pět měsíců již tomu Manuel is questioned by his second Cayetan (bass) as to his strangely absentminded behaviour recently, and recounts ** that five months ago, he met a mysterious girl at a convent and fell in love with her (she has not taken vows yet). He has had this girl kidnapped and placed in a house surrounded by a secret garden. He plans to make her his bride and the new Princess of Messina (notice the oboe solo, later the chimes in the stretta finale **). 

ACT 2: (39 minutes)

Scene 1: The Secret Garden. 

4: Zda on to? Slyš! After an entr’acte (which has one theme which sounds terribly familiar but I can’t pinpoint it, in any case it becomes the melodic basis of the next aria **), and some harp arpeggios, we come upon Beatrice who awaits her unknown captor. She chides herself for allowing herself to be taken to this secret place, and not obeying her rarely seen mother, as well as the passionate looks an unknown man was giving her at the funeral of the old prince three months earlier. The only thing she knows is the name of her captor: Manuel.

12, 18: V chrámu Páně Cesar arrives with his entourage and declares his undying passion for her (oh brother!), having fallen in love with her over the coffin of their deceased father **. He tells her that a cortege will arrive to take her to be wedded to the younger Prince of Messina, who will then make passionate love to her in an earth shattering marriage consummation! She screams (literally) and bemoans her fate of joining a family which is cursed with fraternal conflict. The scene ends with a very brief stretta before fading into an intermezzo * as the scenery is changed (featuring bass clarinet at first). 

Scene 2: Before the bedchamber of the Princess Isabella. 

20, 27, 30: Již nadešel mi krásný/Dvé ratolestí laurových/Ó, lásko božská, všemohoucí Isabella declares her joy upon the reconciliation of her sons, and tells them that she will soon bring their sister to them. She goes into a long backstory ** as to why the sister has been hidden so long, due to a dream her husband once had that this daughter would one day cause the deaths of both of her brothers (somehow the two men are oblivious to the fact that the mysterious girl they are both sexually attracted to is in fact that deadly sister of theirs, but whatever, het boys think with their other head, apparently even when incest is involved). Although the brothers do make interjections, and are happy to meet their sister, the scene is dominated by Isabella **. Finally, a really break in the clouds as mother and sons embark on a glorious trio *** (notice especially the tenor work for Cesar, who is carrying the melody). Diego arrives and gives some bad news: the girl has been kidnapped and placed on a “Moorish ship”! Terrified, Isabella sends both of her sons to find their sister. Manuel is a little taken by the coincidental name similarities between his sister and his object of desire, and decides to go meet with her. Cesar decides to do the same, and entrust Beatrice to his mother, before going off to rescue his sister. Oh, little do they know! 

ACT 3: (53 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 2 Scene 1. 

0: The themes from the first act prelude return over the course of the following scene *. The conflict between the two brothers has spread beyond themselves as their two camps of supporters and retinue duke it out with each other for standing guard over Beatrice (yes, both groups, so how do the brothers not know of their mutual interest in Beatrice at this point?). Manuel shows up finally and after a lot of convincing, Cesar’s supporters let him speak to Beatrice. 

5: Beatrice comes on * and collapses into Manuel’s arms, begging him to take her away. After a long conversation, including a lot of orchestral movements which could have been written by Tchaikovsky, Manuel does the algebraic equations necessary to come to the conclusion that Beatrice is his sister, and he reveals to her who he is and who she is. She falls into her brother’s arms just as Cesar comes on and sees them together. At first, she attempts to hid Manuel, but the younger brother believes the worst and commits fratricide on the spot. Beatrice faints, and Cesar has her carried out and brought to his mother. Cayetan and the Manuel camp are left to mourn their fallen prince. 

16: The funeral march ***, which is also an intermezzo, and the most famous piece in the entire opera. It continues for a solid 12 minutes. 

Scene 2: Same as Act 1. 

27, 33: The scene opens with a furious dialogue * between Isabella and Diego before Bohemund (tenor, Cesar’s second) arrives with the still fainted Beatrice.  At first, Isabella thinks that the girl is dead, but Bohemund assures her that the girl is alive, and she eventually awakens to an orchestral crescendo ** and mother and daughter are reunited. But Isabella knows that something is wrong from the way she is acting. 

37: V roucho smutku Manuel’s men bring his lifeless body in, and Beatrice almost passes out again ***.  Don Cesar arrives and Isabella orders him to swear to avenge the death of his brother. He does so, and Isabella then reveals that Beatrice is his sister. Realizing that he killed his brother for absolutely no real reason at all, after all, it isn’t as if either of them could have married Beatrice anyway, he avenges his brother’s death (in spite of the pleas of everyone, including Beatrice) by committing suicide (the solution to all problems operatic) to a gloriously lovely tenor mono-cant. Everyone is horrified, although the final chorus is rather anticlimactic, and the orchestra fades out. 


In many ways, The Bride of Messina is the Czech Pelleas et Melisande. The score is both lush and austere at the same time, but retaining an obviously late-19th century flare. The star-ratings don’t accurately capture the overall experience of the opera. Nothing in the score is boring, for over two hours! 

The plot is somewhat bizarre, but involves a rather interesting aspect of human psychology, bringing to light the not overtly uncommon sexual attraction of people who are very closely related to each other (parents, children, siblings) who do not actually know each other and have never met before. Usually this tends to be fathers who fall sexually attracted to a daughter (as they were to their mothers years earlier) that they didn’t know they conceived many years earlier, but the same effect has occurred between mothers and sons as well as between siblings of the opposite sex who were never raised together. Although obviously incest, and therefor both illegal and immoral according to most, this does occur, although rarely so in opera.

Some of the features of the opera are strange, for example, Manuel is actually dead longer in this opera than Siegfried is in Gotterdammerung, and the parallel to the Wizard of Bayreuth does not end there as it is followed by a twelve solid minute long funeral march, which is also the most memorable moment in the opera. 

An alpha, of course! I seriously doubt anyone questioned it would be otherwise. 

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