Adelia, by Gaetano Donizetti
Let's suppose you're rich and powerful. (Actually, for all we know, here At the Opera, you are rich and powerful!) You're the owner of a multi-million dollar business that just went public; or maybe you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company; or perhaps your grandfather invented some indispensable product and made so much money that everybody in your family lives in their own mansion, and you've all had whatever you wanted all your lives, and never had to work.
Then, one day, you meet a person who's from the "wrong side of the tracks." Somebody who doesn't run with your usual crowd; an individual your friends would look down on; a person who thinks the Monte Carlo is a Chevrolet. But, in spite of yourself, you're drawn to this person, and you fall in love.
Now, first of all, your friends would warn you away from this involvement. "He's just out for your money," they'd say. Or, "She isn't worthy of you - not even in your class. Find someone more appropriate." If you persisted with the relationship, your friends could start avoiding you; they might see you as, somehow, tarnished. Then, if you started talking marriage, your lawyer would insist on a "pre-nup." That might alienate your "intended," and the whole relationship might go down the tubes. Or, you might skip the pre-nup, go through with the wedding, and get fleeced by a gold-digger. Or, you might go through with it, and live happily ever after - all by yourselves, because your friends won't speak to you, and your spouse's friends think you're a rich louse.
In any case, no matter what happens, it's probably going to be a decidedly complicated situation. But, maybe that's for the best because there have been times and places when such "mixed-class" relationships weren't complicated at all. They were illegal!
At least, that was the case in the days of this week's opera, Donizetti's Adelia. It takes place in 15th century Burgundy, where the Duke who ran things had a law against the mingling of nobles with commoners. Actually, the law said that any noble who became romantically involved with a commoner would be executed! Now, that does seem just a bit extreme. But you can probably see why a composer as astute as Donizetti would've loved this law. It makes a great plot device: if you share the wealth, you lose your head!
Now, in case you've been scratching your head, trying to remember the last time you heard Adelia, you can stop. You've probably never heard it at all - most folks haven't. And that might be because of the ending. As you might have guessed, the story involves a nobleman who falls for a common woman. The original libretto called for the nobleman to be hanged at the opera's end, at which point his lover committed a Tosca-style suicide, plunging to her death from some convenient ramparts. Donizetti's problem was that he was writing the opera for a premiere in Rome, where the local censors worked for a pretty stern taskmaster: the Pope. Naturally, these censors weren't about to approve any operatic executions - much less suicides - on a Roman stage. So the opera was "fixed" by having half its characters change their minds about every ten minutes. As a result, the girl's father - who at first demanded that the Duke hang her lover - decides he's not such a bad chap, after all. Then the Duke makes the father a nobleman, which makes the girl "worthy," and everything's hunky-dory.
Ok, we'll admit it: The opera seems a little silly at first glance. But this is Donizetti, remember. He's a guy who seldom put a note wrong in his operas, and the music is first-rate. Actually, much of it is downright beautiful. And the story? Well, it's nothing if not a whole lot of good, old-fashioned fun!
The production is by Eve Queler, and Opera Orchestra of New York. To learn a little more about the proceedings, join Lou Santacroce At the Opera, half-an-hour before curtain. He'll talk Donizetti with Thomson Smillie; get into a class conflict with Will Berger; and join Scott Speck to discuss the music, which includes an unusual, pain-in-the-neck chorus. That's At the Opera, from NPR.
Opera Orchestra of New York
Info and Libretto, in Italian
NPR World of Opera