Donizetti's Maria di Rohan

Sunday, FEBRUARY 18, 2018
6:00 pm

Presented at Lisner Auditorium.

Below you will find the Program Notes and Synopsis for Sunday's performance.

Program Notes

By Peter Russell

Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan is a microcosm both of its composer’s late career and its era in opera history. A jewel among many in the mature crown of its creator — an internationally recognized master of an operatic style he helped popularize — it arrived at a moment when his own fatal illness and the rapid emergence of two musical giants would soon revolutionize the art form forever.

At the time of its premiere at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor in June of 1843, audiences in Italy, France, England, and Austria regarded Donizetti as the nest living composer of Italian opera. Among the nearly 70 operas he completed during his lifetime (1797-1848), many had already become wildly popular staples in European theaters. Of the three great composers associated with the school of 19th century bel canto opera, he had outlived Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and Gioachino Rossini had retired from writing operas after the 1829 premiere of his William Tell at the Paris Opéra, choosing instead to lead the semi-retired bon vivant and éminence life, bestowing coveted endorsements on his junior colleagues until his death in 1868.

Donizetti had always been a facile craftsman of well-made operas, and a fierce workaholic. These traits only became more pronounced as his career progressed. The illness that increasingly dogged him, and occasionally rendered him bedridden for weeks at a time, was progressing at a rate that made relentless activity his only means to remain focused (he exhibited symptoms around 1840 of neurasthenia and bipolar disorder, and was eventually diagnosed with cerebro-spinal syphilis). The year leading up to the 1843 premiere of Maria di Rohan saw Donizetti not only taking up the reins in Vienna as court-appointed director of the Italian opera season and Kappellmeister, but traveling back and forth between that capital and Paris, Milan and Naples to oversee premieres and productions of other works. The 1843 summer opera season under his supervision in Vienna was to include a revival of Linda di Chamounix, a charming semi-seria work he had offered as his calling card to the Viennese in 1842; the local premiere of his new comedy Don Pasquale, unveiled earlier that year in Paris; Rossini’s The Barber of Seville as a vehicle for the debut of the young star Pauline Viardot; and two particular novelties: the first Viennese performances of Nabucco by the relatively unknown newcomer Giuseppe Verdi (Donizetti had admired its world premiere the year before at La Scala) and a new work by Donizetti himself.

For his new opera, Donizetti turned to a libretto that his old friend and colleague, Salvatore Cammarano, had supplied to another composer, based on a brie y popular 1832 French historic melodrama, Un duel sous le Cardinal de Richelieu. That operatic setting hadn’t found much favor, yet Donizetti, recalling that Cammarano had provided him with expert dramaturgy and beautifully crafted verses for two of his own greatest successes, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and Roberto Devereux (1837), recognized the book’s excellence — a classic love triangle set in the Parisian court of Louis XIII during the first third of the 17th century. So taken was Donizetti with Cammarano’s scenario that he completed his entire musical outline in just over a week.

The first run of performances in Vienna met with unanimous enthusiasm from the press and public. Donizetti’s principals included Eugenia Tadolini in the title role, who had also created Linda di Chamounix the year before, and the exceptional baritone Giorgio Ronconi as Maria’s husband, whose portrayal of Verdi’s Nabucco at its world premiere and again in Vienna helped establish both his supremacy as a singing actor and that new opera’s success. When Donizetti introduced Maria di Rohan to Paris later in 1843, Ronconi remained with the cast, joined by Giulia Grisi as Maria, the illustrious creator of Bellini’s Adalgisa and Elvira, and Donizetti’s own Norina in Don Pasquale. The availability of the strikingly gifted mezzo-soprano Marietta Brambilla prompted Donizetti to both expand and retool the role of the vicious Armando di Gondì. Originally sung by a tenor at the Vienna premiere, he tailored it to showcase her voice and presence in a “trouser role.” Parisians embraced the new work as warmly as the Viennese, and Maria di Rohan swiftly did the rounds of major European theaters, remaining a fixture in the repertoire late into the 19th century. As long as there were singers with the vocal charisma, technique, and presence who wished to perform Maria di Rohan, there seemed to be audiences willing to come hear it.

Just as the young Donizetti rapidly churned out operas on the heels of his first breakout success with Anna Bolena in 1830, Verdi capitalized on the juggernaut of his Nabucco with I Lombardi (1843) and Ernani (1844). Donizetti programmed the latter opera for what turned out to be his final year overseeing the Italian opera seasons in Vienna in 1844, conducting the performances himself. Verdi wrote the esteemed composer a letter expressing genuine gratitude for Donizetti’s enthusiastic championing of his music and his mastery in performing it. When Donizetti’s final illness a couple years later in Paris coincided with one of Verdi’s sojourns there, Verdi paid his older friend a visit, and came away shocked and deeply saddened at the unrecognizably diminished, taciturn shell he encountered of his once voluble colleague. By the time of Donizetti’s passing in 1848, Verdi was already established as the pre-eminent emerging composer of Italian opera: “the next Donizetti.” Coincidentally, 1843, the same year that witnessed the Viennese world premiere of Maria di Rohan and the Austrian premiere of Nabucco, also included the first performances of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in Dresden. With opera very much a vital, contemporary art form, the constant search for new box office draws led, by the turn of the century, to the end of the hegemony that Donizetti and his peers had enjoyed mere decades earlier, their works mostly supplanted by those of Verdi and Wagner.

With the perspective of history, a listener can appreciate Maria di Rohan on its own merits, but it is well nigh impossible to do so without the added context of Verdi’s early and middle-period operas. The musical and dramatic tension of the soprano/tenor love duet between Maria and Chalais that concludes Act II is effective; can it not have been in Verdi’s mind when he composed the analogous duet for Amelia and Gustavo in Act II of his Un ballo in maschera (1859), complete with quivering string tremolo when the heroine confesses her guilty love? The entire final act of Maria di Rohan is tautly wrought music-drama, building to its magnificent climactic trio. It contains an effective prayer for Maria, “Havvi un Dio,” with English horn solo, that presages traits of both Amelia’s “Gallows Aria” and “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” from Ballo. Chevreuse’s elegiac showpiece “Bella e di sol vestita” puts the listener in mind of two famous Verdi arias mourning lost love: “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller (1849) and Anckarström’s “Eri tu” from (again) Ballo. The final trio, with its vengeful, implacable lower male voice and desperate soprano/tenor couple, brings the opera to a conclusion as satisfying as Verdi himself would write in Ernani, making use of very similar elements. In both of these cases, death comes as the shocking final punctuation: no one character pulls rank delaying the curtain with an aria bemoaning ineluctable fate (Donizetti had attempted this sort of abbreviated dénouement once previously with his Lucrezia Borgia in 1833, but his prima donna was having none of it, and the heroine’s resulting final aria has remained a fixture in performances of that score ever since). Maria di Rohan bears the unmistakable characteristics of Donizetti’s own air for vocal melody and structure, while pointing toward the future. It has more concision and forward propulsion than most Donizetti operas, both in recitative and set pieces, and never makes use of coloratura for display at the expense of expression.

During the 20th century and beyond, performances of Maria di Rohan have become relative rarities. It has not been among the many Donizetti scores revived by either Opera Orchestra of New York or its predecessor, American Opera Society; nor has it ever been staged at the Metropolitan Opera or New York City Opera. Will Crutchfield’s Bel Canto at Caramoor offered a 2010 concert performance, which helped launch the career of soprano Jennifer Rowley, currently appearing as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, when she stepped into the title role as a late substitute. Live performances in Europe that have been preserved on recordings date from the 1960s (with Virginia Zeani, from Naples), 1970s (with Renata Scotto, Venice) the 1990s (Edita Gruberova, Vienna), and 2000 (Mariana Nicolesco, Valle d’Itria Festival). Curiously, however, tonight’s performance is not the first recorded performance of Maria di Rohan in the nation’s capital: Opera Camerata presented it in 1995 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (erstwhile Washingtonian Jason Stearns, destined for Metropolitan Opera solo appearances and a Washington Concert Opera leading role in Verdi’s Attila in 2011, was among the principals as Chevreuse). A Donizetti heroine who is denied a show-stopping “Mad Scene” or a mini-series length final aria that includes a dagger, decapitation or clenched fist raised heavenward may always cede performance space to her much noisier sisters. But Maria di Rohan is eminently worthy of our attention, a Janus work with bel canto bona fides and previews of coming attractions.

Peter Russell is the General Director of Vocal Arts DC and co-founder,
with Stephen Crout, of Washington Concert Opera.


Paric, c. 1630 during the reign of Louis XIII and his First Minister Cardinal Richelieu


Royal palace of the Louvre. Nighttime.

Courtiers notice the unusual lightening of the mood at court and comment that the King’s First Minister Cardinal Richelieu may be losing favor. Left alone, Riccardo, Count of Chalais, expresses surprise that he has received a letter from Maria di Rohan, the woman he loves but who has previously appeared to spurn him. Maria arrives to explain that her relative, Enrico, Duke of Chevreuse, has killed Richelieu’s nephew in a duel and has been condemned to death for breaking the law against dueling. He is to be executed the next day. Maria begs Chalais to use his in influence with the King to obtain a pardon for Chevreuse. Although fearing he may be aiding a rival for Maria’s love, he still agrees to help.

Left alone, Maria reveals she was forced to marry Chevreuse secretly a year ago. Word soon arrives that Chevreuse has been pardoned by the King, and Maria sings joyfully that she owes Chalais everything.

The courtier Armando di Gondì, who served as Chevreuse’s second in the duel with Richelieu’s nephew, enters dismissing the Cardinal’s displeasure, since he believes the Cardinal is about to fall from power. Moreover, he is certain that Richelieu is his rival for the love of Maria di Rohan, whom he saw entering the Cardinal’s home three times in one day. In a jealous fury, Chalais calls Gondì an infamous slanderer leading Gondì to demand satisfaction. Plans for their duel are interrupted when the newly pardoned Chevreuse arrives to give thanks to his savior, Chalais. On learning of the duel, he insists on acting as one of Chalais’s seconds. The duel is set for dawn the following day, at the Tour de Nesle.

Maria brings the news that the Queen has confirmed the Cardinal’s fall from favor. Chevreuse is overjoyed because he can now reveal his marriage. He had kept his wife’s name a secret because the Cardinal wanted to marry her to the nephew Chevreuse has just killed. When the courtiers ask the name of his wife, Chevreuse points to Maria. Chalais is devastated, and Maria helplessly watches his despair.

When it is announced that the King has just appointed Chalais as First Minister in place of the disgraced Richelieu, the act ends with a grand finale of conflicting emotions. Chalais exclaims that he only wanted high position to be worthy of Maria; Maria hopes his new power will help him to forget his love; Chevreuse and the courtiers sing of the freedom and joy that will come with Richelieu’s departure from the scene.


Chalais' hôtel

Before departing for the duel, Chalais writes a letter to be delivered to Maria if he is killed, which he hides in a drawer with a portrait of her. He also writes to the King declining the higher position. In an aria, Chalais asks his mother, who is dying in an adjacent chamber, to delay her death and he will join her soon in heaven. Gondì pushes his way into Chalais’ room and asks him whether the duel could be postponed by an hour so that he can see an old flame. Chalais responds ironically that now Gondì seems to be showing some signs of chivalry, to which Gondì responds that it is true that he treats love lightly, but fidelity very seriously.

As Gondì leaves, a masked Maria enters in agitation exclaiming that Chalais saved her husband’s life, and now she will rescue him. Richelieu has returned to power and is accusing Chalais of evil plots. When Chevreuse is heard calling to Chalais to urge him to hurry to the duel, Maria hides in the armory. Chevreuse claims that Chalais’s sword is too flimsy and starts toward the armory to find a stronger one. Chalais stops him, and when Chevreuse spies a woman’s mask, he realizes he has interrupted an assignation. He departs, urging Chalais to join him immediately as dawn is breaking.

Maria has overheard the two men and learned of the duel. On her knees, she begs Chalais to flee before he is captured and executed, and before he fights an illegal duel. Despite the calls of honor, Chalais is about to give in to her pleading when the Viscount, his other second for the duel, arrives with the news that Chevreuse is about to fight in his place since he, Chalais, has not shown up. Maria, in desperation, reveals that she still loves Chalais and continues to beg him to flee, saying he will cause her great grief and his mother’s death.


Chevreuse's hôtel

Chevreuse fought the duel since Chalais failed to appear. He killed Gondì but was wounded. Maria and Chalais are concerned about his condition, but Chevreuse is only worried about helping Chalais escape Paris. Chalais’s servant Aubry brings the news that Richelieu’s archers have broken into Chalais’ hôtel and found his love letter to Maria. Richelieu will soon give it to Chevreuse, and Maria realizes her husband will kill her when he finds out. Chevreuse returns to show Chalais a secret passage that will take him to safety. Chalais is able to tell Maria that if she does not join him in an hour, he will return to die with her. Left alone, Maria prays that her mother will intercede for her in heaven since her main crime was marrying a man she did not love at her mother’s command.

Chevreuse reenters to tell Maria that Chalais has made his escape. Fiesque, a military man, comes from Richelieu to demand the location of Chalais. Before Chevreuse can speak, Fiesque suggests he read a certain letter. Alone, Chevreuse realizes he is reading a love letter from Chalais to his own wife. A portrait of Maria is included. In a poignant aria, Chevreuse sings that life had smiled on him, but it was all lies. Maria returns in terror knowing she is coming to her execution. Chevreuse taunts her by describing her fidelity and virtue. The clock strikes the hour, and Maria looks at the door to the escape passage. Realizing she is expecting Chalais’s return, Chevreuse makes her wait with him to watch the fatal door.

Chalais emerges and tries to commit suicide, but Chevreuse wants to take his life himself. In a wonderful trio, Chevreuse tells Chalais it is the hour of his death, Chalais says kill me now, and Maria, too, begs for death, declaring it would be too cruel to leave her alive. The two men leave to fight a duel. A shot is heard as Richelieu’s archers break down the hôtel door. Chevreuse returns to explain that Chalais has taken his own life. The opera closes as Chevreuse proclaims death to Chalais and “Life with infamy, to you, faithless woman.”