Ruggiero Leoncavallo: I Medici (1893)

Opera in quattro atti. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.

This review was something I started back in August 2020, then touched on in 2021 and 2022 before finishing up recently. I was in something of a competition with OperaScribe to complete this and I obviously failed. Although the Domingo 2007 recording (released in 2010) has better sound, this 1993 live performance is actually four minutes longer.

The first (and only completed) part of a planned trilogy of operas about Renaissance Italian history (the others were to be about Savonarola and the Borgias respectively), the composer intended his work to be seen as a human counterpart to the mythological Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner, and as with every other project Leoncavallo started apart from Pagliacci, it got nowhere. This has been mostly attributed to the inability of the composer ultimately to capture either the Renaissance setting nor create believably living characters out of his protagonists. A failure at its premiere in spite of a massive publicity campaign by Ricordi publishing house, and frankly Wagnerian in scope, it has only been revived twice in 1993 and 2013, both times in Germany, apart from a 2010 release with Placido Domingo as Giuliano (recorded in 2007) under the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Do not expect the Leoncavallo of Pagliacci here, this is essentially an Italian Wagnerian opera, complete with long, sustained, woodwind chords. There are direct quotations from Wagner operas here (Tannhauser, The Ring, Tristan und Isolde), this probably being the reason why the opera failed so miserably (it was seen as lacking in originality, being essentially copy-cat Wagner in the first two acts or updated Meyerbeer in the last two acts) although parts of the last two acts were given strong applause). In spite of its comparative brevity it will feel longer than it actually is in places; all I can say is just keep going with it!

SETTING: Florence, 1477-1478. The opera depicts the events leading to the conception of the future Pope Clement VII, and the murder of his father Giuliano da Medici (tenor) in front of his eight-month pregnant mother Fioretta Gorini (dramatic soprano) during Sunday mass in the Florence Cathedral on the (rumored) orders of Pope Sixtus V during the Pazzi Conspiracy. Lorenzo (baritone) brother of Giuliano, survived the attack and eventually had most of the conspirators executed (ironically with the help of the Turkish sultan), but not before the Pope excommunicated Florence. Another element is Simonetta Cattanei (lyric soprano) who is initially the lover of Giuliano before she is murdered by an assassin hired by the Pope when she attempts to warn the Medici of the conspiracy.

HISTORIAN PHIL: Most of the characters in this opera are actual people. Simonetta Cattanei Vespucci was considered one of the most beautiful women in Italy, and it is known that Giuliano was unrequitedly in love with her (but she was already married and a member of a family allied with the Medici, so it is unlikely that they were lovers). Simonetta has traditionally been seen as a victim of tuberculosis (she died age 23) although today it is believed that she actually had pituitary adenoma and died as a result of tumors caused by over-production of growth hormone on April 26, 1476, exactly two years to the day before Giuliano Medici was assassinated. Leoncavallo, of course, compresses time, and has Simonetta pull off a Giselda by being alive a year after her own death and killed while trying to warn Giuliano of the Pazzi conspiracy 


ACT 1: A forested hill overlooking Florence. (39 minutes)

0: The prelude ** is a rather magnificent experiment in Italian pseudo-Wagnerianism with its grand hunting horn tune. (It is obviously meant to resemble the prelude to Das Rheingold and, although slightly more musically diverse, there is more than one theme, it is mostly successful.) The climax flows directly into the action with Giuliano asking Lorenzo if the Pope is essentially an enemy now (this is done in the lower bass cleft of the tenor range, from E to A, essentially baritonal as if Leoncavallo made a mistake and was giving the line to Lorenzo). On his next line he does hit three mid-Es. They encounter the poet Poliziano while on a hunting party.

6: Tacita selva Lorenzo addresses the forest ** (telling it to keep silent the secret of the Pazzi Conspiracy). Giuliano responds with a massive depiction of Ancient Greece. They return to the hunt.

13, 16: Come amava il suo damo! Simonetta and Fioretta come on with the former singing an attractive Rispetto ** in two verses.

21: Vaga la montanina Left alone, Simonetta is attacked by Montesecco, an assassin in the employ of the Pope who will eventually murder her. This time it is just a frightful encounter, foreshadowing what will happen later *.

23: Se tu che mi parlasti? Giuliano returns and the couple embarks on an okay but rather long love duet **. Montesecco realizes their relationship.

35: Simonetta! Eventually Fioretta returns and meets Giuliano *. He politely says good-bye—but also that he loves her. 

ACT 2: Holy Trinity Square, Florence. (41 minutes)

2: Salve Signor! After an angry introduction from the orchestra, we come upon a group of conspirators **. It can be dull at points, especially with the dominance of the bass voices, but the tenor (Bandini is able to give us a little bit of oomph, thankfully with the support of the orchestra). 

8: Ascolta il canto Lorenzo comes on and serenades his mistress with a Gavotte **. Backed by two singers (tenor and baritone) this is apparently enough for him to wake the whole town and the Florentines sing the praises of Lorenzo (literally, since this is opera).

16, 20, 22: Le mie modeste/Ben venga maggio!/Canta! Canta!  Simonetta and Fioretta come on and are encouraged by both Lorenzo and the chorus to dance and sing **. A jovial choral number ensues which sounds like it came out of French opera comique **. Giuliano gets a short bit as well, prompting Simonetta to sing *. 

24: Si cantero! Simonetta obliges with a rather charming little number ** fully of Tuscan charm and coloratura. The chorus mummers in the background occasionally. This gets cut off (although thankfully not so short) by Simonetta collapsing and needing to retire. 

34: Allora che più facili The oddly nervous Fioretta-Giuliano duet * as she declares her love for him, which at first takes him for surprise. The act seems to end on a fade out but there are some battery chords to look out for.

ACT 3: A triple scene: The home of Fioretta at left, a Florentine street going off to the Ponte Vecchio, the house of Simonetta at right. (27 minutes)

0: The act starts with a three-minute intermezzo *.

4: Va, rinfranca The intermezzo comes close to quoting Tristan and Tannhauser, and is equally dark and brooding. We then come upon Fioretta, who is guilty guilty over having been impregnated by Giuliano in a dramatic aria which could have been written by either Verdi or Ponchielli quite frankly **. Meanwhile, she is very much in love with Giuliano, in spite of what she feels this will do to her friendship with Simonetta.

13: Giuliano, sei tu! Leoncavallo’s tour-de-force sequence *** of three conversations going on at once over a twelve minute period: Conspirators in the middle of the street plotting the assassinations of Giuliano and Lorenzo, to the left Fioretta tells Giuliano that she is pregnant with his child, to the right, Simonetta overhears both conversations and determines to warn Giuliano. The model for this septette is certainly Verdi (Rigoletto act four quartet and then trio in particular). Explosive, especially towards the end when Montesecco discovers Simonetta, who attempts to warn Giuliano, but the shock is too much for her and she becomes overwhelmed.

23: Ah, Simonetta! The tragic murder of Simonetta ***, in which Montesecco frightens her to death before she is able to relay her message to Giuliano (who discovers her with Fioretta just as she attempts with her last words to warn him), which Montesecco takes as a sign of divine favor on the assassinations.

ACT 4: The interior of Santa Reparata during Sunday High Mass (21 minutes).

0: Credo in unum deo The entr’acte ** (I swear this is the shortest and last as it is less than two minutes) races to mass in media res (faux Gregorian chant for SATB and child chorus with organ singing the Credo). The effect is dramatically strong, the counterpoint skillfully handled when it could have easily become mashed potatoes (far too much is going on for a Sunday mass).

8: Signor, prostrata in lagrime Fioretta’s stunningly beautiful prayer which stops the act in its tracks *** as she, heavy with child, prays for forgiveness from God for allowing herself to be seduced by Giuliano.

10, 18: Muori!/Appressati! The ten-minute play out *** in which the action (and music) move swiftly: Giuliano and Lorenzo are set upon during the Eucharistic Elevation and Giuliano is fatally stabbed, Lorenzo manages to narrowly escape amid screams from Fioretta and the assassins are apprehended. The congregation is divided: furious Florentines (knowing that the city will be excommunicated for allowing the cathedral to be the site of a murder) call for Lorenzo to take power, factions loyal to the conspirators call for his blood. Lorenzo is able to calm the people, reminding them of what the Medici have done for the city. This quickly turns almost everyone to his side, the crowd calling to have the murderers drowned in the Arno. But Fioretta much have some semblance of justice: the still living Giuliano, with his dying breath **, declares Fioretta as his wife. A very lovely passage, if brief, before Lorenzo takes her away as the congregation calls for him to speak and he realizes that, now with his brother dead, he is the sole power in Florence. Curtain.


My problem, and it is mine, is that I find that this opera is, even though it is obviously very good, nevertheless trudged and at times far over long. It is hardly long, barely over two hours actually, but it feels like it might as well be Tristan und Isolde! The second act feels twice as long as it actually is! I actually wrote this review over a period of two and a half years, one act at a time. I started work on this on 1 August 2020, went back in January 2021, then April and May 2022, and just now got around to finishing it. The writing style may seem different in the first two acts compared to the last two acts, as I finished them over a year ago. I am not sure why I stalled so long on this one, it isn’t as if I had never listened to it before, after all, I first heard the Domingo release back when it came out over a decade ago, so I was already familiar with the opera and distinctly remembered the last act.

Although it is true that the drama rises slowly, all four acts are constructed similarly to those of La Boheme (the Leoncavallo version: as they balance romantic/comedic and tragic themes) but also different. Here, Leoncavallo is obviously trying to impress (the staging for the last three acts are spectacular: the city square, a triple-split interior-exterior staging, the interior of the Florentine Cathedral). And he succeeds at making an impression, but it isn’t always what he probably wanted from the opera in the end.

The problem with the Ring Cycle comparison is that I Medici serves a different genre. Whereas Wagner is, in general, mythological (with two important exceptions), Leoncavallo, even at his most non-historical (which is not here) is still very human and grounded in very human emotions. The cathedral act depicts the human actions of holy mass, conspiracy, and assassination, not the fantasy white wedding of Elsa and Lohengrin and the brooding Odinism of Gertrude.

The opera ultimately falls into the same trap as Manon Lescaut (the Puccini version) in that instead of consisting of four acts of similar tone (romance giving way to tragedy and drama) and structure, each act becomes progressively shortly, and the switch from pseudo-Wagner to a combination of Meyerbeer and late-Verdi could be jarring for some. Frankly, I also hear obvious influences of Ponchielli here.

The presence of two prima donnas, one lyric the other dramatic, can almost feel like crowding, especially since the first is dead by act three and the second is seemingly less important until the end of act two. There is little build-up for the relationship between Giuliano and Fioretta, which results in pregnancy, but just as quickly his relationship with Simonetta turns into melodramatics, since although it seems musically important, it ultimately proves to be a dead end. Interestingly, the music Leoncavallo provides for Giuliano and Fioretta is comparatively subtle to that between Giuliano and Simonetta, which is a musical false flag. Fioretta’s best music lies, not in her scenes with Giuliano, but in her solo work, her aria in act three and her prayer in act four.

However, there is also a lot going for this opera. From the prelude we know we are in capable hands, and, although the first two acts can drag, the last two acts are swift and dramatically relentless in their brevity, with the last half hour of the opera possibly being the finest music Leoncavallo ever wrote, even including Pagliacci. And, even if the second act drags on like 1963’s Cleopatra, at least it is amusing divertissement. Although it has never satisfied the Italians, at least we know that the Kaiser liked this thing, for what that is worth.

Although the first two acts can only be termed “very good” at best, the last two acts somewhat make up for this with their condensed dramatic power. Alpha minus.

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