Serious operas typically end with some, or even all, of the principals dead. Death is as frequent in opera as corruption is in politics. I thought it would be interesting to present a few that don’t require an undertaker after the final curtain. My definition of a serious opera is one that is not a comedy and which concludes with all its character alive; they don’t have to be happy, just animate. The operas are presented in chronological order.
First, two by Mozart. Idomeneo was written in 1781 when the composer was 24 years old. It was successful at its premiere in Munich, but has languished in the outskirts of the standard operatic repertory. It didn’t reach the Met until 1982 when it was staged with Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. I saw him do the opera in Chicago about the same time he was doing it in New York. There are those who think it a masterpiece. If opera seria is your thing, you may share this view. I had difficulty staying awake.
The action is set in Crete after the Trojan War. The Trojan princess Illia is in love with King Idomeneo’s son Idamante. Elettra who’s also on the island is jealous. The plot’s too convoluted to go into great detail. Idomeneo to calm Neptune into stopping a storm when he’s at sea vows to sacrifice the first person he meets when he comes ashore. Of course, that person turns out to be his son. He doesn’t reveal the identity of the sacrificial victim until Act 3 to the unhappiness of the populace – Oh voto tremendo. But just in the nick of time Neptune’s anger dissipates and the lovers are united and proclaimed rulers of Crete. Everyone is happy save Elettra who leaves to face the furies. She’s in trouble, but still alive. Act 3 finale
Mozart’s last opera’s title La Clemenza di Tito gives the ending away. There’s a plot against Emperor Titus that fails. Vitellia the daughter of the previous emperor Vitellio confesses her instigation of the conspiracy and Titus includes her in his general pardon of everyone in the known world. Nobody dies. Non più di fiori with basset horn obbligato. The opera is performed even less frequently than Idomeneo – 51 times versus 73 at the Met.
Beethoven’s rescue opera Fidelio gave him so much trouble that he never wrote another. The work has some great music in it, but it also has its longueurs, especially in the first scene. But the the canon Quartet appears and the listener is dazzled. Act 2 opens with Florestan, who Leonora disguised as Fidelio will rescue, imprisoned in a lightless dungeon. He complains of the dark and his situation – Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! The aria is extremely difficult written mainly in the most difficult part of the tenor’s range. Jonas Kaufmann gives it the best reading I’ve yet heard. Note the crescendo he takes with the first word – ‘Gott’. In the opera’s last scene the bad guy has been arrested, Florestan free, and Fidelio’s real identity revealed. Everybody is happy; the scene is closer to a cantata or oratorio than opera. Here’s the whole scene – Fidelio Act 2 scene 2. If there was ever a flawed masterpiece, Fidelio is it.
The first of Donizetti four operas about the Tudors has a happy ending. Il Castello di Kenilworth is based on Walter Scott’s 1821 novel Kenilworth. It depicts Robert Dudley’s (1st Earl of Leicester), Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, attempt to conceal from her his recent marriage to Amelia – based on Amy Robsart. In reality, Amy was married to Dudley well before he became involved with Elizabeth. She died in 1560 under suspicious circumstances. First performed in Naples in 1829, it was revised the following year.
Fearing the Queen’s displeasure, Dudley. asks his servant Lambourne to arrange for Amelia to be hidden until Elizabeth departs. Amelia is taken to a small cell in the castle by Leicester’s equerry, Warney. He then tries to seduce her and tells that she has been placed there because her husband no longer loves her. When Amelia rejects his advances, Warney vows revenge.
Amelia manages to escape from the cell and in a secret garden of the castle encounters the Queen. She tearfully tells the Queen about her troubles with Leicester, whom she believes has betrayed her. The Queen goes to Leicester and Warney angrily demanding an explanation. Warney deceitfully tries to persuade the Queen that Amelia is his wife. The Queen vows to resolve the mystery and briefly believes the lie. Leicester, however, reveals his marriage with Amelia to the Queen who becomes even more angry and dismisses him.
Warney, still desiring revenge, attempts to take Amelia away with him from Kenilworth with a lie that it is Leicester’s wish, but fails when she refuses to go. He then tries to poison Amelia, but is foiled by her faithful servant, Fanny. In the end, Elizabeth orders the arrest of Warney, pardons Leicester and Amelia, and approves their marriage to the jubilation of all [from Wikipedia synopsis]. In the novel Warney kills Amy.
The opera contains a lot of very good music. Of particular interest is the quartet from act 2. This excerpt is from a 2019 performance at the Donizetti Festival in the composer’s home town, Bergamo. The opera is good enough to stand comparison with the more popular Three Queens Operas.
Two of Bellini’s operas have happy ending even though they’re serious. Bellini seems to have been a very serious fellow. Heinrich Heine described him “as a sigh in pumps.” La Sonnambula is a silly serious opera with glorious music. The sleepwalker of the title somnambulates herself into Count Rodolfo’s room where she is discovered. Her sweetheart, the tenor naturally, finds her there and thinks the worst. Things eventually sort themselves out and the lovers reunite and everybody’s happy. Prendi: l’anel ti dono occurs in the opera’s first scene. The lovers express their love. Elvino (tenor) give Amina (soprano) a ring to seal their troth. Bellini’s extraordinary melodic facility has impressed all who followed including Chopin, Verdi, and Wagner. The latter usually hated everybody’s music, especially if the composer was still alive. Bellini died at age 33 when Wagner was just 22.
The Sicilian composer’s last opera was I Puritani. It’s another silly tale where the soprano (Elvira) goes mad when she thinks her lover (Arturo) has deserted her. He returns and she regains her reason. I wonder how this relationship will play out in the long run if every time her husband takes a break she goes bonkers. But that was beyond Bellini’s purview. The action takes place with the struggle between the Puritans under Cromwell against the royalists hence the rousing duet Suoni la tromba that ends Act 2. The baritone and bass sing the piece as a prelude to battle. The baritone on this recording is the great Matteo Manuguerra. I’ll do a post devoted to him soon.
The famous ensemble A te, o cara in which the tenor takes the lead is from the Act 1 scene 3. Arturo arrives and expresses his happiness about his love life; everyone then joins in. Alfredo Kraus is the tenor. Montserrat Caballé is the soprano.
Puccini has only one serious opera without a fatality. That’s better than Verdi who has at least one death in all his serious operas. Sometimes, the death rate reaches double figures as in The Sicilian Vespers. Puccini’s non-lethal opera La Fanciulla del West was written for the Met which gave its first performance in 1910. It starred Enrico Caruso and was led by Arturo Toscanini who said the opera was ‘a great symphonic poem’ which is what it is. Puccini was aware of all the music that was being created during his career and used all the new inventions of Debussy and Strauss in a way uniquely his own. While the opera has never had the popularity of Bohème, et al and never will, if it comes your way with a good cast and orchestra – don’t miss it. It is regularly performed. The Met has done it 111 times. The finale to Act 1 shows the beautifully dreamy web that Puccini spins with consummate skill. Pay close attention to the orchestra and the offstage chorus as the act ends. The writing is magical.
The opera concludes with Minnie rescuing Dick Johnson from being lynched. The couple says goodbye to all the gold miners and rides off into the sunrise – they’re in California and would run out of land if they went west. Fanciulla finale
Like all things, I’ve reached the end. Happily I hope.