Katie Derham presents a rare performance of French Romantic composer Benjamin Godard's oprera Dante. Starrring soprano Veronique Gens and tenor Edgaras Montvidas.
Katie Derham presents today's opera, and it's a rarity: Dante, by the French Romantic composer Benjamin Godard, starring soprano Véronique Gens and conducted by Ulf Schirmer. The score, rich in Mendelssohnian lightness and Schumannesque passion, is matched by a plot which contrasts the public and private sides of Dante Alighieri, and which finds time for a whistle-stop tour of The Divine Comedy itself.
Benjamin Godard: Dante - opera in 4 acts
Béatrice ..... Véronique Gens, soprano
Gemma ..... Rachel Frenkel, mezzo-soprano
Dante ..... Edgaras Montvidas, tenor
Bardi ..... Jean-François Lapointe, baritone
Virgil's shadow ..... Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone
A schoolboy ..... Diana Axentii, soprano
Bavarian Radio Chorus
Munich Radio Orchestra
Ulf Schirmer, conductor.
A public square in Florence.
The city is torn apart by a war between Guelfs and Ghibellines. As the College of the People prepares to appoint a Prior to calm the political tensions, Simeone Bardi reveals to his friend, the poet Dante – who has just returned to the city – that he is soon to marry the woman he has loved in secret: the beautiful Beatrice. At these words, Dante – also in love with the young woman – must restrain his emotions. After the two men have left, Beatrice enters, followed by her confidante Gemma, to whom she confesses her tender feelings for Dante, though she believes she will never see him again. The crowd emerges from the palazzo. It is announced that the College of the People has named Dante supreme leader of the city. Beatrice trembles at the name, while Dante, who now reappears, is on the point of refusing this honour. Then the young woman comes forward and instils confidence in him: ‘To be loved, do your duty!’ This ambiguous declaration worries Bardi, while the people acclaims its hero.
A room in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.
Bardi thunders forth his rage against Dante. Enter Gemma, who asks him to give up Beatrice’s hand. When he tries to dismiss her, saying that she does not know what jealousy is, she confesses that she too is consumed by unreciprocated love: she has lost her heart to Dante, but he loves Beatrice. After they leave, Beatrice appears; concealed behind a tapestry, she has heard everything. Bardi’s words of hate and Gemma’s avowal of love have convinced her that she must renounce Dante. At this point the young man himself enters. When Beatrice rejects him, he declares his passion once more. Overcome with emotion, she ends up yielding to him. Then a group of Ghibellines and Guelfs appears, followed by Bardi. Charles of Valois has entered Florence and proclaims Dante’s banishment, while Bardi condemns Beatrice to end her days in a convent.
Mount Posillipo. To the left, a tomb carved into the rock, shaded by oleanders.
While groups of countryfolk dance to the sound of rustic instruments, an old man points out Virgil’s tomb to a group of schoolboys come from the city. They all adorn it with palm leaves and garlands while singing a hymn to the poet’s glory. As they depart, dusk falls slowly. Dante appears, laboriously climbing the mountain, exhausted and broken-hearted. He makes a final plea to Virgil: that the Roman poet may grant him the inspiration to regain his glory, by dictating the ideal poem to him. Dante hopes thereby to recover Beatrice’s esteem. His eyes close from weariness, and as he falls asleep the tomb slowly opens; Virgil emerges from it, crowned with laurels. In a vision at once sublime and terrible he shows Dante Hell, where the lost souls of Ugolino and of Francesca and Paolo appear, and then Paradise. A final celestial vision reveals Beatrice surrounded by angels: she promises that, if Dante completes his work, the two lovers will be reunited.
The same setting as the previous act.
Dante is awakened by the songs of shepherds. Intoxicated by his dream, he resolves to find Beatrice. At this point, having been directed to the place by Gemma, Bardi arrives and declares he has repented: jealousy has given way to remorse. He offers to lead Dante to the convent in Naples where Beatrice is cloistered. Dante forgives the man who now wishes to restore his happiness. They leave together.
Naples: the garden of a convent.
Beatrice is seen among the procession of nuns, pale and barely able to walk. She tells Gemma, who has come to see her, that her death seems imminent. But she rallies somewhat when her friend announces that two men have come to visit, for she hopes to see Dante again. He duly appears, followed by Bardi. The two young people exchange ecstatic words of love as in Florence. But suffering has fatally weakened Beatrice’s health, and she suddenly faints. Though Gemma and Dante hasten to her aid, her eyes close for the last time after gazing heavenwards. She dies, repeating the same words Dante heard in his dream. Through his despair, he nevertheless hears the consoling words of Gemma and rises as if illuminated: ‘Yes, I must live on; I must sing for her! God made her mortal; I will make her immortal!’
- With thanks to the Palazzetto Bru Zane