Small picture of Donizetti







Donizetti's Torquato Tasso & Betly


by Charles Jernigan

(Photographs by Rota Gianfranco, courtesy of Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo)


Each year the Bergamo Music Festival in Donizetti's home city presents several operatic works which focus on their most famous citizen.  The Festival is usually split into two sets of performances, a month or two  apart, and last September they produced Lucia di Lammermoor and Betly.  In the first weeks of November came a repeat of the one-act Betly and a new production of the composer's Torquato Tasso.  I saw Tasso on 9 and 11 of November and Betly on the 10th.  Both works utilized new critical editions prepared by the Fondazione Donizetti.


Torquato Tasso

Surprisingly, Torquato Tasso is the only Italian opera I am aware of which centers on a famous artistic figure the way that Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini does in France, or Wagner's Meistersinger does in Germany.  The libretto, by Jacopo Ferretti deals with the impossible love of Tasso, author of Jerusalem Delivered, for Eleanora, the sister of Duke Alfonso II d'Este in Ferrara, and the author's subsequent imprisonment for madness.  It ends when Tasso is released from prison after seven years to travel to Rome so that he can be named poet laureate.  Tasso's confinement in a hospital for the insane is historically true and so is the plan to crown him poet laureate, although it never came to fruition because Tasso died in Rome before the ceremony could be held.  Modern medical sources believe that Tasso was bipolar because although he suffered from what his age called "madness" and melancholy, he was always able to function and write, and he often acted normally.  Tasso did fall in love with (or write love poems to) Lucrezia Bendido, a lady in waiting to Eleanora d'Este, and he was close friends with the older Eleanora, but a love relationship with her is probably fanciful.

Tasso's paternal family came from Bergamo, although he was born in Sorrento (his father Bernardo Tasso was a diplomat and poet himself); he spent much of his life in Ferrara and died in Rome.  In Bergamo, there is a Piazza Tasso, and my friend Rich Beams and I prepared for the opera by having dinner at the Café Tasso, a dinner which ended with "Tortu Donizzet," "Donizetti Cake" in the local Bergamasque dialect.

Jacopo Ferretti's libretto dates from 1833, a year when Donizetti produced an astonishing four operas plus one rewrite of an earlier score: Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, Parisina, Lucrezia Borgia and TassoIl furioso and Tasso are unusual in several ways--each includes a scene of madness for the male protagonist, each has a comic element, and in each the protagonist is a baritone.  (Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, based on an episode from Don Quixote, means "The Madman on the Island of Santo Domingo.")  Interestingly, both experimental libretti are by Ferretti. Torquato Tasso is not only about the relationship of the poet to the sister of the Duke, but perhaps even more it is about the backbiting and backstabbing that goes on in the gossipy court of Ferrara.  And ultimately, it is about the triumph of art over petty temporal concerns.  At the end, when Tasso has been imprisoned for seven years, he is about to be freed to go to Rome, and all he can think of is that now he is worthy of Eleanora.  Alas, he learns that Eleanora has in the meantime died.  After lamenting her passing, he ends the opera with  a tragic cabaletta (an oddity in itself), beginning in a lamenting minor key, and turning triumphant only in the final line: "Si: dell'onore al grido/Volo del Trebbo al lido.../Non vi sdegnate, O Cesari;/V'è un lauro ancor per me" ("Yes: at the call of honor/I fly to the shores of the Tiber.../Do not be offended, O Caesars;/There is also a laurel crown for me").  Art finally trumps everything else.


Oddly, almost everyone else in the opera aside from Eleanora d'Este is a traitor to Tasso in some way.  The tenor (Roberto Geraldini) is reprehensible because he pretends to be Tasso's friend, but he is jealous of his talent and the favor he gets at court; Don Gherardo, a self-important courtier and gossip is a buffo bass and he has comic arias, very much in the patter style to be found in Elisir or Don Pasquale.  He is jealous of Tasso because he thinks the poet loves the Countess of Scandiano, whose name is also Eleanora.  That Eleanora intrigues against Tasso's relationship with the sister of the Duke, because she wants him for herself so that she can be made immortal by Tasso's poetry.  So this is an opera semiseria, but an unusual one: a serious, even tragic, opera which boasts a strong comic, buffo element, has a tenor villain, and a baritone hero who ends the opera with a long prison scene where people believe he is mad.  It is not the kind of nineteenth century Italian opera we are used to! 

Musically, Tasso is variable.  Some of it is second-drawer Donizetti, as one might expect from a year when he produced three other new works and a revision.  But the best of Torquato Tasso is on a level with the best of Donizetti, including Eleanora d'Este's beautiful entrance aria "Io l'udia ne' suoi bei carmi" ("I heard in his beautiful verses") followed by the rousing cabaletta "Trono e corona involami" ("Take my crown and my throne").  Also great is all of Act III, which is an extended scena for Tasso, his sort-of mad scene, and of course there are the great ensembles which serve as finales for Acts I and II.  The buffo patter arias with chorus are also very good, and funny.

As far as I am aware the only existing recording of Torquato Tasso memorializes live performances which took place in various Italian towns in 1985 with Luciana Serra, Simone Alaimo and Ernesto Palacio.  Massimo de Bernart conducted.  That recording opens with a long sinfonia (overture).  The new critical edition shows that this nine and a half minute passage was not by Donizetti, and was apparently concocted by Maestro de Bernart.  There is no real overture, and this is just one change that the new edition has brought to light.  There is a lot of music here--about three hours worth, even if there is no overture, there are a lot of orchestral passages.  Almost every scene, even every aria, has an extended, interesting orchestral introduction to set the mood.  As always, Donizetti lavishes melodic riches on the score, many of them only phrases or ariosos which are heard briefly and then pass away.  Professional video was being made of both performances, so I would guess that a DVD will be forthcoming.




Roberto and Tasso

Bergamo's new production was directed by Federico Bertolani, with sets and costumes by Angelo Sala and Alfredo Corno, respectively.  The costumes and sets were all in black and white with red accents: the male chorus was dressed in black as were most of the courtiers.  Eleanora was given a white gown while Tasso's black leather pants and doublet trimmed in red made him look like a Renaissance biker who had left his Harley at the palace  gate.  The villain Roberto got black pants and a white doublet.  I am not sure about the symbolism (bipolarity?), but the costumes correctly  placed the time in the sixteenth century.  The stylized, color-coded sets and costumes were matched by stylized, slow movement by all the participants, who moved glacially even when the music said 'be excited' or 'hurry up'.  The sets included massive black columns for rooms in the Duke's court, white shrubbery and a white statue for Act II's "Garden."  There were tall red bars for the prison.  Pages and pages of manuscript were scattered across the stage, apparently alluding to Tasso's work as a writer.  When love was the subject, red sheets of paper dropped from above.  Not too subtle, but not too distracting either.  There was very little attempt to act beyond standard operatic gestures and poses, but perhaps that was intentional and part of the stylized approach.


Don Gherardo

Of the singers, I particularly liked Marzio Giossi as the buffo Don Gherardo.  He was a master of agile-tongued patter, and had a good comic voice; he was also the only singer to give point and skill to the acting.  Gilda Fiume was fine as Eleanora d'Este; she has a firm voice, good in the high ranges with adequate coloratura, but I can't get the wonderful version of her entrance aria sung by Montserrat Caballe on a Donizetti arias album of long ago out of my mind.  Leo An, a Korean baritone was the only non-Italian in the cast.  His Tasso was a mixed bag; sometimes his voice was deep and resonant, but at other times he had difficulty with the higher range, and his voice seemed to come from the head and not the chest.  He has been singing a lot of Rigoletto's lately, and that is a natural progression from this role.  It was really Donizetti, more than any other composer, who established the modern baritone as a separate voice category, with the help of Giorgio Ronconi, his first Tasso, who went on to premiere six other Donizetti operas between 1833 and 1843.  Giorgio Misseri as Roberto Geraldini started strongly, but faded and seemed to alternate between a strong, pleasant tenor and a pinched tenorino sound.  The cast was rounded out by Annunziata Vestri as the other Eleanora and Gabriele Sagona as the Duke.  Overall, the singing was at a competent provincial level.  Sebastiano Rolli led the orchestra enthusiastically, a reading torpedoed occasionally by extremely wayward horn playing--and the horn has a lot exposed writing in the prelude to the final act.

It has been said, and I think it may be true, that Donizetti in 1833 saw himself in the character of Torquato Tasso.  He is the artist who perhaps as early as 1833 foresaw the end to his own life in syphilis-induced madness and bi-polarity. In the end, what remains is the art.  I don't think that Torquato Tasso will ever enter the repertory, but it is an interesting and unusual piece, and worth doing on occasion.  Tasso's final aria-cabaletta is a strong forecast of the anti-cabaletta which ends Lucrezia Borgia or even Edgardo's final cabaletta in Lucia di Lammermoor.



The other offering at the BMF this week was Donizetti's delightful 1836 one-act opera, Betly.  Donizetti himself wrote the libretto for this work which premiered at Naples' Teatro Nuovo on 21 August, 1836, less than three months after its companion piece Il campanello di notte (The Night Bell) had premiered at the same theater. Il campanello, also a one act opera with libretto by Donizetti, had been a big hit, and the composer determined to capitalize on its success and follow it up with a similar comedy.  For the source, he turned to Scribe's libretto for Adolphe Adam's opera Le châlet.  Curiously, both Betly and Torquato Tasso ultimately trace their roots to plays by Goethe,Torquato Tasso to Goethe's play of the same name and Betly to Goethe's singspiel Jery und Bätely. Betly, o la capanna svizzera (Betly, or the Swiss Hut) was not so successful at its first outing and Donizetti soon revised it; it had more success at its second coming out in September, 1837, at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples.

Betly is a strong-willed young woman and owner-operator of the "capanna svizzera," or a small, simple châlet or hostel in Appenzell, Switzerland.  She is beloved by Daniele, a local lad.  When the opera opens, the villagers have played a cruel trick on Daniele by sending him a forged letter from Betly, declaring that she will finally agree to marry him.  He orders champagne all around for that night's celebration.  But when Betly arrives, she tells Daniele right away that he's crazy and must be the butt of a joke.  In despair, Daniele goes out to join the army and soon comes across a company of soldiers.  He tells the sergeant his sad tale, not realizing that the sergeant is none other than Max, Betly's older brother who has been away for fifteen years.  Max decides to help Daniele, and takes his troops to Betly's châlet; they cause havoc, raid the wine cellar and accost the women.  Betly asks Daniele for help, and he is only too willing to oblige, even though he is a shy and modest fellow.  Max challenges Daniele to a duel, and when the alarmed Betly tries to stop it, the only way out is to agree to marry him.  She goes inside to get the marriage agreement, and hopes it will work since it will need to be signed by her long lost brother, Max.  Of course Max agrees to sign, reveals who he is, and all ends happily.

Daniele, Betly and Max

If this sounds a little like L'elisir d'amore, written in 1832, well--yes it does.  The Swiss setting gives Donizetti the chance to write some "Swiss" or Tyrollean yodeling music with Betly's tuneful  entrance  aria "In questo semplice, modesto asilo," ("In this simple, modest dwelling"), but for the most part the score slides from one tuneful number to the next.  Max's entrance aria "Ti vedo, ti bacio" closely resembles Belcore's "Come Paride vezzosa," from Elisir d'amore, but is even closer to Count Rodolfo's "Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni" in Bellini's La sonnambula, another opera with a Swiss mountain village setting.  There is a drinking chorus that sounds like it owes a lot to Comte Ory.  However that may be, for an hour and twenty minutes of ravishing melody and just plain fun divorced from the troubles of the world, it would be hard to do better.

Betly and Daniele           

                Max and soldiers

The BMF production by Luigi Barilone changed the"simple, modest" hostel to a grand spa hotel in the Alps, circa 1928.  The stage set relied on projections of posters from that era advertising Switzerland, and a couple of sofas were the only props.  Daniele was dressed in a golfer's sporting outfit from the '20's and Betly arrived carrying a pair of vintage skis.  Chorus members were dressed as bellhops and waiters at the de luxe hotel, and women wore flapper-style dresses and hair-dos.  The Italian name for Betly's simple châlet, La Capanna Svizzera was changed to the German equivalent, Die Schweitzer Hütte.  I didn't think it did any damage to the story, and the large contingent of Swiss opera lovers in the audience, who had come to Bergamo to see these rarities, chuckled at it.   Betly's message of a strong willed woman who cowers and needs a man to protect her at the first hint of trouble might not sit well with today's feminists, so at the end, while Betly sings her charming rondo-finale, Daniele has his tuxedo removed and is dressed in the red bell-hop costume: he might be marrying Betly, but there is no doubt he is going to work for her too, and he will start at the bottom.

Betly is an opera that requires only three singers, plus chorus.  Our Betly (the two performances were double cast) was Linda Campanella.  She was pert and acted well, but she was obviously too old for Daniele--more like his mother than his lover.  Vocally she held her own.  Daniele was Angelo Scardina, a young tenor who was funny, but not really the Nemorino-like village bumpkin with a good heart that he is intended to be.  I did not find his tenor very mellifluous.  Max, Vittorio Prato, though suffering from a cold, sang well with a smooth legato for "Ti vedo, ti bacio."  The chorus and orchestra of the Bergamo Academy and Bergamo Music Festival did their part under Maestro Giovanni Battista Rigon, but it sounded as if that wayward horn player was back with this group too.

Like Torquato Tasso, Betly was performed in a new critical edition of the original 1836 score with spoken dialogue.  The music mostly sounded familiar to me, but there were passages where a melody had been changed somewhat for the revised version I had heard before--made more bright or given a more particular orchestration, or at least it sounded so to me.  I have seen Betly only once before, several years ago in Modena.  It deserves more frequent performances than that.  Given the limited resources needed and the constant tunefulness of the score, it would be a perfect vehicle for college or conservatory performance.  Or as one half of a full evening with Il campanello or Rita orIl giovedì grasso--all charming Donizetti one-acters.

Betly was performed in the lovely, restored Teatro Sociale, a theater in the upper city of Bergamo (the older, medieval town, where Donizetti was born is on a hilltop and is called Città Alta; the newer city, where the larger Teatro Donizetti--venue for Tasso--is located lies below on the plain and is called Città Bassa).  The Teatro Sociale dates from 1809 and saw performances of many operas by Simone Mayr, Donizetti, Mercadante and others.  European Union arts funds have led to its restoration, and it is a little gem.  The ceiling was not restored, and so the opera-goer looks up to the original wooden beams that support the roof high above the tiers of boxes.

Our 6 PM performance of Betly was over by about 7:30.  (Before the opera started buffo bass Gabriele Sagona performed a newly discovered buffo aria with orchestra by Donizetti, "O donne, e perchè siete"; it was evidently composed to insert into an opera by another, older composer, given the eighteenth century style.  It was a delight.) 

This year the BMF made announcements in both Italian and English and projected surtitles were in both languages too, a concession to the growing international importance of the Festival.  The numbers of foreigners in attendance was happily announced by the management, and there were busloads of German, Swiss and Austrian opera lovers as well as a scattering of people from France, England and America.

When the opera ended several of us walked down through the rain to the Agnolo d'Oro, an old fashioned inn which might have doubled for Betly's Swiss chalet.  It was bright and welcoming in the rainy night, hung with dozens of gleaming copper pots and with all kinds of bric-a-brac decorating the shelves.  There we dug into our farewell Bergamo dinner--luscious plates of casonsei alla bergamasca, a meat stuffed pasta served with bits of bacon, sage and butter, or foiada, broad pasta noodles cut in odd shapes and served with a sauce of sausage and porcini mushrooms.  There was steaming polenta taragna mixed with melted cheeses and served with coils of sausage or a rabbit stew, and a delicious local wine, Valcalepio.  All of this is peasant fare in the Bergamo area, and hearty fare it is.  Switzerland is nearby, and one could imagine Betly bringing the plates of food to the table in her châlet, pursued by Daniele, now a husband and a bellhop.  Discovering Donizetti is even better when followed by Italian food and wine!  The rumor is that next year's Festival will include Anna Bolena and the very rarely done Il paria (The Pariah).  I hope to be back.