The Salzburg Festival this year decided to feature a concert production of an opera completely forgotten since the middle of the XIX century, until there was a single staged production in 2008, at the Chemnitz Opera, in Germany, which was also recorded and released in a CD. The opera was written in 1840 by Otto Nicolai, a German composer, and, to my taste, it is very beautiful! It sounds a bit like Bellini/Donizetti, with some hints of German orchestration (lots of brass) and at times it reminds you of the first Verdi.
I’ll give you the whole cast.
- Juan Diego Flórez, Vilfredo d’Ivanhoe
- Luca Salsi, Briano di Bois-Guilbert
- Clémentine Margaine, Rebecca
- Kristiane Kaiser, Rovena
- Adrian Sâmpetrean, Cedrico il Sassone
- Armando Piña, Luca di Beaumanoir
- Franz Supper, Isacco di York
- Coro: Salzburger Bachchor, direttore: Alois Glaßner
- Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker, direttore: Andrés Orozco-Estrada
It is based on a whackamamy story set in England at the time of the Crusades, in the XII century. Cedrico is an Anglo-Saxon big shot who strongly resents the Norman rulers. He has a girl in his ward, Rowena, who is a descendant of the old Anglo-Saxon king, and he wants to marry her off to some political ally. His son Vilfredo falls in love with her, and she loves him back, so Cedrico gets really upset and kind of disowns his son. Vilfredo then leaves for the Crusades with Richard the Lionheart, the Norman king, which is pretty much the worst thing he can do, in his father’s eyes. He gets almost killed in battle and is saved and restored to life by the Jewish girl Rebecca, who falls in love with him and follows him (in secret) to England, together with her father Isacco. In the meantime, Briano, a Templar knight (the Templario of the title) falls in love with Rebecca herself. Vilfredo and Briano fight in a tournament, and Vilfredo wins. All this happens before the curtain goes up.
So the opera begins with Vilfredo acclaimed as the winner of the tournament, but he doesn’t reveal himself, so his own father, Cedrico, doesn’t recognize him. After a martial happy chorus, Vilfredo enters, with his amazing cavatina. The music is so fit for Flórez, that it seems this Nicolai guy wrote it with him in mind. As a matter of fact, Nicolai wrote the role for Lorenzo Salvi, one of the leading operatic Italian tenors between 1830-1850, who sang Rossini’s Otello with Maria Malibran as Desdemona, and several operas by Bellini and Donizetti, including La Fille du Regiment. So we are not far off. Juan Diego Flórez did an incredible job in his first aria, which is REALLY high. His high notes are still laser beams through the theater, but we already knew that, from Pesaro. The aria has a sort of cabaletta with a da capo, and, honestly, the music is such that he could have really shown off in the da capo. He could have gone all Rossini on us, roulades and chromatic scales and picchiettati and trills and you name it, and we would have gone wild. But this is Flórez ladies and gentlemen, and he knows what he’s doing. The more he grows mature (I refuse to say that he’s getting old) and the more he shows us that what he has to sell is not so much the vocal fireworks, but it’s his style, his elegance, and his musical intelligence. Oh yes, my dear readers, I am musically in love with this singer.
In this sense his da capo in his first aria was a work of art. Because we all know what he’s capable of. But he did what was *right*, not what would get him the biggest applause. The crowd did go wild anyway, I was screaming like a teenager.
Anyway, the story moves on, and Briano enters, who has just been beaten in the tournament, and is also crazy in love with Rebecca, who spurns him (he can’t get a break). His men suggest that he kidnaps her, and he thinks this is a good idea. The cavatina (aria + cabaletta) was delivered by a fantastic Luca Salsi. I had already heard him in a concert version of Macbeth, and I had liked him immensely. I liked him even more here, and I was not the only one. In the final applauses, at the end of the opera, my feeling was that he got even more cheers than Flórez.
A chorus of women introduces Rowena, who sings her only aria, where she hopes that her love for Vilfredo can lead to happiness. Kristiane Kaiser lacks spunk, and has probably a bit too much vibrato. Her part is not so important, but I would have loved somebody like Olga Peretyatko in that part. Or Anna Prohaska.
Rebecca, the Jewish woman, arrives to Cedrico’s castle in tears, telling all the other women that somebody just tried to kidnap her, and failed. Rebecca is a mezzo role, she is the female lead, and she was supposed to be sung by Joyce Di Donato, who decided to cancel a few months ago, because she started to study the role, and realized it was not suited to her voice. We must trust Di Donato, she is such a musical animal that, if she says this role is not for her, she must be right. Still, I missed her a lot.
I didn’t like Clémentine Margaine in this first act. Her voice sounded very metallic to me, and it felt like she was singing into a tube. I was very disappointed. (She got much better in the second and third act, or maybe I got over my first impression, I don’t know.)
Briano arrives, and demands that Cedrico gives Rebecca to him, because she’s kind of his war booty. Here there is also a lot of racial tension, because Briano is a Norman, and looks down on the Saxon Cedrico. Cedrico tells Briano to get lost, Vilfredo arrives to stop Briano as well, and Cedrico finally recognizes him as his son (duh). Briano seems outnumbered, but his men arrive and kidnap Rebecca, while all sing a fast and furious finale primo.
The second act starts with Rebecca, a prisoner in the Templar castle, remembering when she met the wounded Vilfredo and saved his life. The aria is sweet and beautiful, and, as I was saying, I liked Margaine’s voice much better in this part. Briano enters and tries to woo her, but she says she hates him. He tries to make her understand that, as a Jewess, she’s not in the best of situations, in the Templar castle, and he can help her, and save her, and they can run away together, but she says she’d rather die. The duet is marvelous, and these two characters came out with a deeper psychological definition than all the others. This is also due to the interpretation capabilities of the singers, Salsi and Margaine, who were remarkable. Anyway, Rebecca is unmoved, and all the Templars arrive. The head of the Templars finds out that Rebecca is there in the castle, he understand that Briano screwed up big times, but, in order to save his face (and the face of the Templars) decides that she will be tried as a witch. Briano suggests to her that she asks for an ordeal by single combat, i.e. that she asks that a knight fights for her, to prove her innocence. Briano, of course, plans to fight for her. The plan backfires: the Templars agree to the single combat, but force Briano to fight against her, and not for her. He is desperate, but, if he doesn’t fight, he will be dishonored, and that, it seems, is worse than her death.
Vilfredo’s father, Cedrico, is very happy that his son is back, but he’s still mad at him, because he went to the Crusades with the Normans. A duet between Vilfredo and Cedrico follows, and it was amazing. Adrian Sâmpetrean was a commanding Cedrico, a very beautiful voice. Vilfredo pleads for his father’s forgiveness with wonderful music, and Flórez managed wonderfully to convey the pathos and the emotions. The duet was one of the peaks of the performance, in my opinion. When Rowena joins Vilfredo in his pleas, Cedrico relents and forgives him.
In the third act the Templars build the stake where they will burn Rebecca, but Vilfredo shows up declaring that he will fight for her, to thank her that she saved his life in Palestine. Briano falls dead even before the duel starts, probably struck dead by God himself, who’s getting sick of his nonsense. Rebecca confesses her love to Vilfredo, who is completely taken by surprise, and thanks, but no thanks, he’s in love with Rowena, so please go back to Palestine and be happy but away from here. Rebecca takes this rejection so badly that she dies of grief, on the spot. Vilfredo is celebrated and carried shoulder-high by the Anglo-Saxons.
The orchestra was incredibly good! The conductor was very communicative, dancing on the podium, and shaping the music with his hands, he was fun to watch. The orchestra was a bit too boisterous at times, but, overall, they gave us a great performance. There are several solos here and there, and, in particular, the first cello had an amazing solo that everybody enjoyed a lot.
The chorus did a great job, they sing quite a bit, and they were extremely good.
I am so happy I saw this performance. I think there is no reason why this opera should not be in the standard repertoire, I would love to see a staged version. As a first time, I’m happy it was a concert version, because the story is so whacky that it would have distracted me. But, with the right cast, I really think some opera house should seriously consider staging it.