Opera in four acts and six scenes. Running Time: 2 hours.
I wrote the body of this review three years ago in July, 2019, and I have been holding it off because I wasn’t sure that it is actually all that good.
I have heard this opera three or four times. The time I wrote this review has been the last time. It was left incomplete by Ponchielli upon his death in 1886, although he had ceased working on it a full decade earlier. It was later completed by his son and an admirer amateur composer named Arturo Cadore, who wrote the fourth act. The result was mostly disastrous, although the opera was performed at Monte Carlo, Milan, and Cremona. In 2007 a studio recording was released by Bongiovanni records which serves as the base of this review, and is available on Amazon Music.
SETTING: Valencia and Madrid, 1609. King Philip III of Spain is to banish all Muslims from Spain, but Elema (soprano) daughter of the Muslim mayor of Valencia Delascar (baritone), believes that if she sees the King and requests the one favour he promised her five years that the Muslims will be free to continue living in Valencia. She goes to Madrid with Giovanni d’Aguilar (baritone) who is an elderly knight and friend of her father, along with his daughter Carmine (mezzo-soprano), and her bethrothed, Fernando d’Alabayda (tenor) who falls in love with Elema. In Madrid, the court starts to believe that Elema is the mistress of the King (this is were the plot starts to become rather idiotic) and he offers to allow the Muslims to stay, but only if she will marry him, but she refuses, fearing all will scorn her as his mistress first and never respect her as his Queen. Carmine eventually figures out that Fernando is in love with Elema.
FUNNY NOTE: I actually tried to purchase this recording a few years ago and it was disappeared by La Poste somewhere in France. I got a full refund, but even after over two and a half to three years, I don’t regret that it never showed up.
From this point, I have left the review unaltered from July of 2019, please let me know what you think in the comments section:
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Valencia. (22 minutes)
1: La, del destro sulle The brief prelude starts off quiet and gentle before turning ferocious and quickly dying for an a cappella chorus from the Muslim inhabitants of the city of Valencia * as they recite daily prayers.
12: Non sai tu Unfortunately, the aria for Delascar establishing the scenario of the soon extradition of the Muslims and his duet with Elema in which she explains all of the details of her prior meeting with the King and his promise to her are musically very, very dull. There are snatches of tunefulness, but nothing is worth mentioning apart from a mild concluding duet for father and daughter *.
17: A te pietoso amico The Christian trio show up, Fernando becoming immediately attracted to Elema and Delscar gets his friend to take Elema with them to Madrid * and the four continue the journey to the city.
ACT 2: (33 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the palace of Aguilar, Madrid.
0: The act opens with a Dance of the Hours waltz tune * that continues into an otherwise dull conservation between Elema and Carmine. Fernando comes on just has Elema is about to tell Carmine that she loves someone (who though?) and Fernando tells them that the court thinks Elema is the mistress of King Philip, although he doesn’t believe any of it (although at least this prompts some angst, briefly, from the orchestra). A chorus of courtiers arrives to escort Elema to an interview with King Philip.
Scene 2: The Gardens of Buen Ritiro, Madrid.
15: Fra l′ombre degli ermi Finally, something amusing happens as the courtiers sing in the distance **. Scenic.
19, 26: D′amor la rea parola Fernando, alone, expresses his anguish knowing that he is now in love with Elema whilst engaged to Carmine *. What to do? The King arrives with Elema, but when his inquires about Carmine, Fernando simply bows and leaves without saying a word. Elema begs the King to allow the Muslims to stay in Spain. This prompts one good tune from King Philip * which does not last long but at least the temperature rises for about a minute. There is a sudden commotion and the Count de Larma arrives to tell the King that Fernando has been caught with his sword unsheathed in the royal palace (a grave offence). Fernando is brought in as the chorus of courtiers entertains in the distance, and explains that he took out his sword because the honour of a lady was outraged, indicating Elema. The King gives his approval and leaves reminding the courtiers that he is king.
ACT 3: (34.5 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the royal palace.
2, 10, 15: Dio da forza/Ti trovo alfin/Il cielo imbianca After a gentle prelude based on the first part of the act one prelude (but expanded) we come upon Carmine alone in a quiet aria * in which she resigns herself to the fact that Fernando is in love with Elema but that Elema has never encouraged him. Elema comes on and the two women reconcile. Elema is left alone before Fernando comes on and tells her that he is leaving Spain the next day because he loves her (orchestral passion ensues briefly *). Elema begs him to marry Carmine instead, if he loves her (that is, Elema). He consents and they embark on a very gentle duet * which gets interrupted by shouting from outside and an attack on an old Muslim man (who could this be?). In any case Fernando goes to investigate and save the old man. It turns out to be Delascar (is this really a surprise?) and the three run for it as Islamphobes storm the room.
Scene 2: The throne room.
29: Venite! The King contemplates signing the edict to ban the Muslims from Spain, but he thinkings about Elema. The Count de Larma announce Carmine and the King, thinking she has come to help Elema, orders for her to be brought, but their interview is rather inconclusive (and musically uninteresting), as she mostly seems to be taking about Fernando. He orders her out and signs the edict of banishment. The courtiers are heard outside again as Delascar arrives with Elema and Fernando *. King Philip reveals that he has signed the edict and it is too late. Fernando then randomly threatens the King and is arrested.
ACT 4: Valencia. (34 minutes)
3: Venite, o figli A surprisingly better opening than usual as we return to the Muslims as they board ships due for Morocco. In the recitative that follows for Delascar (enraged) there is some chromaticism which gives away that although it is mimicking Ponchielli, this isn’t Ponchielli. This is followed by a LONG aria ** for Delascar backed by the chorus of embarking Muslims. By far the best section of the score.
18: No! Pregar non Carmine and Elema arrive with the latter promising that Fernando and Carmine will be united in marriage soon. Fernando is released by the King and both come on (from Madrid to Valencia? surely this is a multi-day journey in the 17th century?). The King orders that Fernando marry Carmine immediately. Leaving, he tells Elema that she will have what she asked him for (how exactly?). Left alone, Elema reflects on how horrid her life is *. Around mid-way through a violin takes up the main accompaniment.
23, 30: Con lei vi lascio/Qual grido? Delascar comes on with a pardon from the King, and he asks Elema how this came about? He confronts her *: why has she brought him this shame, does she not know that their place is with their own people? Eventually he stabs her in order to solve the problem of not taking her along to Africa. Fernando and Carmine return so Elema can die in the arms of Fernando as one last a cappella Muslim chorus ends the opera *.
There are two fatal problems with I mori di Valenza. The first is that most of the score limps about and even the fiery passionate bits (most revolving around the tenor Fernando) do not last long. There are no big tunes like Cielo e mar or even Voce di donna, and when the score is at its best, it is merely placid and gentle, hardly setting the pulse racing. None of this is helped by the cast on this recording, all of whom, except for the mezzo singing Carmine, possess the verbrato of septuagenarian and octogenarian sopranos in an Eastern Orthodox parish choir. The chorus, ironically, does a slightly better job, or rather they are provided with the best music. The second is that the plot is uninteresting and unoriginal (based mostly on old hat opera tropes like love quadrangles and the death of the virginal soprano: been there, done that) and confused (not confusing, rather it is self-confused). Everything Fernando does in the opera is a theatrical triviality with little substance taken from much better works. The rationale for the royal promise is flimsy: why would the King of Spain make such a promise to a Muslim girl because he thinkings her flowers are pretty? At least in Charles VI, for instance, Odette is the goddaughter of the King, here there is just a random vaguely sexual attraction that never really goes anywhere. Why does everyone at court think Elema is the royal mistress? Why is Carmine okay with her fiance falling for Elema, at first sight? Why does the King sign the edict over a weird conversation with Carmine, especially when he knows it means he can never have Elema? Why does the King keep changing his mind about basically everything and everyone? Why does Elema fall in love with Fernando (for that matter why does Fernando fall in love with Elema while engaged to Carmine?), but then tells him to marry Carmine, and why does he so willingly oblige her? Why does she, in act four, suddenly feel that he is betraying her by marrying Carmine when it was her idea? And finally, why does Delascar murder his own daughter? None of these plot elements make any sense! So what is good about this thing? Well, the Muslim choruses in acts one and especially four, as well as the main courtier chorus in act two. Is this really enough to salvage the work? No, not really, and this is unfortunate because the primary plot point, the expelling of the Muslims from Spain, is a significant early-17th century historical event that tore an entire group of people from their home of over seven centuries. To saddle it with one-dimensional stock opera characters who are even confused by their own motivations is ludicrous and insulting. A gamma.
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