By Luca Zoppelli
Alberto Franchetti was almost 30 years old when the city of Genoa commissioned a special opera to mark the forthcoming 400th anniversary of the great navigator’s “discovery”. Although he was a similar age to the members of the “Giovane Scuola” (“Young School”) and had close personal ties to some of them, his previous opera Asrael had revealed the impact of his solid musical education in Germany (Munich and Dresden) and his closeness to the spiritual Europeanism of the musicians from the Italian Scapigliatura movement in the 1860s and 1870s. The libretto of Cristoforo Colombo was one of the first written by Luigi Illica, who is known for his subsequent (and troubled) working relationship with Puccini. As partly shown by correspondence from the time, the creative process for Cristoforo Colombo was also long, arduous and the cause of frequent disagreements, to the extent that at the premiere Illica ended up withdrawing his name from the printed libretto.
The opera was essentially based on Historia de las Indias by Bartolomé de Las Casas. It originally presented the key episodes popularly associated with the story of Christopher Columbus over four acts and an epilogue. In the first act (Salamanca, 1487) we see the crowd awaiting the verdict of the Council: pilgrims from Provence sing about a legend that fills the people with hope about the discovery of new lands, but the villainous Roldano Ximenes describes the terrible danger presented by the ocean in a fiendish ballata and turns the crowd against Columbus. It is announced that the Council has rejected the proposal and Columbus is mocked and almost lynched by the mob, then goes to see Queen Isabella, who provides him with the resources to attempt the feat during an enraptured duet.
The second act (12 October 1492) takes place on board the Santa Maria. The crew has lost all hope of reaching land or returning home and even Columbus has his doubts. During a religious service a mutiny led by Roldano breaks out. Just as Columbus is about to be thrown overboard, the words “Terra, terra!” (“Land ahoy!”) are heard to the delight of all concerned.
In the third act (Xaragua, 1503) a portrayal of the savage treatment of the indigenous people by the Spanish is intertwined with a depiction of a romance between a young Spanish officer named Guevara and the Princess Iguamota. The latter is the daughter of Queen Anacoana, who in turn has seduced Roldano as part of a plan to massacre the invaders.
In the fourth act (Xaragua), Columbus has returned to restore order. His noble-minded morality even wins over Anacoana, but he is removed from his post and arrested after a royal ambassador arrives. As the Spanish soldiers commit acts of savagery, the indigenous people burn themselves to death in their temple.
In the epilogue (Medina del Campo, 1506) an old, ill Columbus tries to obtain an audience with Queen Isabella in the crypt of the kings of Castile but then finds out that she has died. Seeing his hopes lying in tatters, he loses his wits, recalls his past feats and then dies. This allows the composer to recapitulate the main musical themes associated with the plot in the previous acts, like “Siegfried’s Funeral March” in Götterdämmerung.
The opera was very successful and it helped to establish Franchetti as one of Italy’s top composers. It seems that Verdi’s circle admired it because Boito contrasted it with Fior d’Alpe in a letter that he sent to the maestro on 16 March 1894: “Franchetti had the wind in his sails with Cristoforo Colombo but this time he’s found himself in stormy waters and sunk without a trace.” However, Cristoforo Colombo was considered to be too long so there were a number of cuts and rewrites. They mainly concerned the third and fourth acts, which were set in America.
There are no surviving complete copies of the music used for the original version. All that remains is the libretto published for the premiere in Genoa on 6 October 1892. As well as altering the finale of the fourth act (the mass suicide of the indigenous people was replaced by a repeat of their dirge), Franchetti made numerous cuts for the subsequent performance on 26 December at La Scala in Milan, removing approximately a hundred pages from the score altogether. The first vocal and piano score published by Ricordi matched the version used at La Scala. Toscanini was on the podium on 24 October 1894, when yet another version was presented at the Teatro Sociale in Treviso. Following suggestions that were made as early as summer 1892 by Luigi Mancinelli (the conductor at the premiere in Genoa), further cuts were made and the two acts in America were combined into one. A new score was published but it was still based on the version with four acts, albeit with yet more abridgements compared to the previous one. In the appendix, details were provided of the “connection” required by those who wanted to join together the acts in America, as in the Treviso version. At heart, Franchetti continued to prefer the version with four acts, but it was the one with three that prevailed and was performed in theatres for several decades before disappearing from the repertoire and then finally making a return in a few modern revivals. In a last-ditch attempt to save the score from sinking into oblivion, yet another version was unsuccessfully presented at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 7 December 1923. Working with an anonymous librettist (probably Arturo Rossato, after fruitless talks with Giovacchino Forzano), the composer removed the acts set in America altogether and replaced them with a new act. Mostly using the existing music, it showed Columbus returning to Palos, the curious Spanish locals watching a procession of indigenous people, and the navigator being arrested.
Like I Medici by Leoncavallo, which was written at around the same time and was similar in many ways but much less successful in musical terms, Cristoforo Colombo presented a historical tableau that was set during the Renaissance and revolved around a heroic figure who embodied the spirit of research and intellectual freedom developed in Italian humanism. In the decades after Italian unification, the members of the ruling class of the newly created country were desperate to develop a sense of national identity, which was tricky for historical and political reasons. They sought to identify roots for it in Italian intellectual traditions and presented a distinctly liberal take on them. They were particularly keen to place the emphasis on a secular spirit prevailing over religious obscurantism. Like I Medici, Cristoforo Colombo is steeped in fierce anticlericalism. The first version, which was presented in Genoa, underlined this outlook by portraying the slaughter of the indigenous people at the end of the fourth act as part of a dreadful tableau of religious intolerance. It could be translated as follows:
(Crowds of fanatically chanting friars and soldiers swarm around the temple)
FRIARS AND SOLDIERS
Let the fire burn! Consume the godless images!
Devouring flame, burn and purge!
On the ashes of the dark temple, let us plant a cross where an idol once stood.
(The temple comes crashing down. […] A Dominican friar holding a sword in his left hand and a cross in his right hand plants the latter among the devastated ruins of the temple. Bound in chains, Christopher Columbus shields his eyes from the horrific sight and weeps).
Although Franchetti (like Leoncavallo) was one of the admirers and connoisseurs of Wagner’s drama (and most of all his romantic operas from the 1840s, which were very “Parisian” in nature), Cristoforo Colombo is part of the late Italian wave of “Parisian” grand opéra with historical settings, which exponents of musical culture from the country were hoping would pave the way to a less provincial and more European approach. For some decades, avant-garde figures had already seized the opportunity to deal with subjects deemed to involve greater intellectual reflection, while also trying out new dramatic structures and fresh composition techniques. Nonetheless, by 1890 it seemed that the time of the grand opéra was almost over. Its dazzling nature – which was one of its defining features – had lost its appeal. Verdi had done a great deal to introduce grand opéra techniques on the Italian scene, but the day before the premiere of Cristoforo Colombo he let slip a significant comment: “Ah, so Franchetti likes his mise-en-scène to be spectacular? It’s different from yours and I abhor it. We should stick to the essentials. With a big mise-en-scène like this everything is always the same… Lots of takings… Hordes of people… And forget about the drama and music! They are an afterthought.”
In grand opéra, subjects were traditionally presented that theoretically depicted the contrast between the private sphere and the (generally destructive) historical backdrop. Cristoforo Colombo differs from this because its historical tableau – with its ideological connections – is the most important thing and the real motivation behind the show. In actual fact, the original concept for the opera seemed to pursue the ideal of a degree of balance between historical and ideological icons and the development of personal conflicts, especially in the complex web of ties involving Columbus and Queen Anacoana (i.e. the shift from hypocritically concealed fierce opposition to acceptance of utopian human justice and living together, followed by an attempt to destroy it at the end of the story). The cuts that were gradually made to the third and fourth acts in later versions of the opera not only reshaped the romantic relationship between Guevara and Princess Iguamota but also eliminated all of this, thus diminishing the dramatic depth of the score. The first act sets up an effective historical tableau that reveals the titanic figure of Columbus, the fiendish and sinisterly sneering Roldano, and the utopian dimension emerging during the duet with Queen Isabella. It is probably fair to say that the opera reaches its peak in the second act, which effectively conveys the doubts that plague the minds of the crew and Columbus himself. The chorus of fear and uncertainty in “Ove ne spinge il vento” is superb and the use of harmonious language is very advanced. Spellbinding orchestral passages are mixed with distant choral calls that conjure up images of the space and solitude in the vast ocean. Deprived of the fascinating dynamics of the encounters/confrontation between the Europeans and the indigenous people, the act set in America mainly revolves around the exoticism of the choruses, dancing and lamentations of the latter. The material is not entirely lacking in interest, thanks in part to Franchetti’s attempts to experiment with sound: in the Areytos the bells of the French horns have to be put in sacks and the string instruments playing the accompanying ostinato are divided into three groups: bows, col legno and pizzicato. Nonetheless, it is not enough to carry the weight of the volatile historical issue of the massacre of the “others”. Although it fails to offer a better solution, the 1922 version takes into account the failure of the act in question by removing it altogether.
The styles employed reveal that the composer was inspired by a number of sources, including Wagner, grand opéra and Italian vocal traditions. He drew on the former for the admittedly simple technique of using identifying motifs as he moved through the stages in the plot. The most frequently recurring theme is the lyrical one that first appears during the duet by Isabella and Columbus. It represents the “Great Idea” of an extraordinary land that is waiting to be discovered and converted. Rather than a leitmotif that could be reworked in a Wagnerian way, it is a genuine theme that is broad and syntactically concluded. Entire numbers or sections of numbers can be built up around the original form and variations of it, such as the choral peroration that closes act two and the arioso on brotherhood by Columbus in the fourth act. Only in one – extremely effective – case is it used to “comment” like a Wagnerian leitmotif: as we hear the stifled sound of pianissimo brass, the first four bars resound to counterpoint the death of the old indigenous man murdered by the gold-hungry Spanish at the start of the third act. This distressing scene shows that the noble undertaking upon which Columbus embarked has descended into vile and barbaric plunder.
Another motif that Franchetti uses a number of times – in a way that tends to be tautological, often within the melody of the “Great Idea” – is personally associated with Columbus himself. The powerful sound is heard for the first time when the navigator makes his entrance and a variation on it is used for a funeral march in the marvellous orchestral prelude to the Epilogue. The first sentence in Roldano’s ballata is sometimes made to resound in order to reflect his sinister machinations. On the whole, in Franchetti’s opera references of this kind seem to be used more for broad mentions and recollections, perhaps in varied forms, than as leitmotifs with semantic and thematic purposes. Wagner’s influence is felt more in certain aspects of harmonies and the tones of the motifs. The “lyrical” side of things – which is saved for intimate expression by the characters and in particular for the romantic plot – sticks more closely to the traditional Italian cantabile style, with a traditional recurrent syntax. In his correspondence with Illica when they were writing Cristoforo Colombo, Franchetti maintained that there was a need to work on “clearly defined passions”, which could be idealized through the music. In the lyrical pieces, he urged the librettist not to break up verses and not to change meter too often. This position seems to be surprisingly classicistic for someone who is sometimes described as an Italian “Wagnerian” and it is diametrically opposed to the tendency to stretch and split up the syntax showed – albeit in different ways – by both the veteran Verdi and the up-and-coming Puccini.
References to grand opéra can be found in the third stylistic level, which would have been in the background in other works but has a predominant role in this case, painting a picture of the environment and adding historically or ethnically determined local colour. In technical terms, this is done through an abundance of pieces of music for scenes that are highly characteristic thanks to the use of a stylistic register that gives a nod to the period (the Ballata by the pilgrims, the prayers) or is exotic in nature (the various types of music associated with the indigenous people in the third act). As mentioned above, the gradual process of shortening the acts set in America ended up putting this exotic side – which is frankly rather naïve – at the forefront.
Overall, there is no denying that the opera is lacking in consistency due to the varied elements that are brought together. At the end of the day, they draw on a number of dramaturgical options and bring together a range of models that could not be dovetailed smoothly. Nonetheless, there is a great sense of musical and dramatic vigour on many pages, the orchestral sounds are masterfully managed from the beginning to the end, and some striking tableaux are produced by the space settings and the characteristic aesthetics. A “popular” approach was taken to the Italian fin de siècle repertoire, which appears heavily influenced by the demands of the entertainment market when seen from our perspective today. Cristoforo Colombo is one of the few works in it with more to offer us than mere scholarly rediscovery.