By Gian Paolo Minardi
Published in Una piacente estate di San Martino. Studi e ricerche per Marcello Conati, edited by Marco Capra, Lucca, LIM, 2000, p. 323-335.
The first thing that catches the eye when embarking on an examination of Cristoforo Colombo by Franchetti is the fact that the choice of composer was endorsed by none other than Giuseppe Verdi. In early 1889 the city of Genoa was planning to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America with an opera. The mayor personally paid a visit to Verdi to ask him to write the music. The great composer was still getting over Otello and behind closed doors it is likely that he had already been tempted into beginning work on Falstaff. In addition, he was no longer prepared to accept official engagements of any kind. Instead, he recommended the musician that he considered to be best suited for the task at hand: Alberto Franchetti. It goes without saying that the City of Genoa immediately took his advice and on 13 May that year they signed a contract with the young composer from Turin. Luigi Illica was also engaged to work on the project, having won a contest to write the libretto. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that Verdi’s recommendation was simply a way of turning down the offer gracefully. He was famous for his frank – and sometimes even unrefined – nature, so he would never have come up with a ruse like that simply to get out of an awkward situation. In addition, for many decades he had enjoyed close, warm ties with Genoa, where he spent the winter months in order to benefit from the mild climate. By putting forward Franchetti’s name for the Columbus project, he was showing his faith in the young composer, albeit indirectly. He was approaching 80 years of age and rather isolated from the world, but still keeping track of things. None of the changes that were clearly taking place on the scene seemed to have a significant impact on this venerable figure, but he kept a close eye on everything that happened from his secluded viewpoint and was ready to pull strings when necessary, like a real éminence grise. There are no other clear sources in which it is possible to ascertain that Verdi expressed open admiration for Franchetti. All that we have is a clue in a letter sent to Boito on 14 March 1894, which was after the Columbus job: Verdi mentions Franchetti’s opera Fior d’Alpe, which was due to be staged at La Scala, and asks Boito to tell him about it, writing: “There’s no denying that the subject is innocent to say the least and the verses are what they are. Nonetheless, there’s the potential for good music there. If Franchetti can stop being so puffed up and pompous for a moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could pull something impressive out of the bag.” The faithful Boito replied on 16 March, the very next day after the performance: “Fior d’Alpe proved to be inane and inconclusive, so it is not worth wasting too much ink over it. 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.” The opinions shared about Franchetti in these letters were mixed and the same applies to Cristoforo Colombo, which is likely to be what Verdi had in mind when he wrote “puffed up and pompous”. It would appear that his tone was not entirely negative, but simply indicative of the distance which helped to protect the veteran’s solitude. He grew more and more retiring as he withdrew from the opera scene after Aida and was faced with ambiguous outlooks that seemed to shine an equivocal light on the evolution of Verdian dramaturgy, which was made to seem both conservative and guilty of disregarding traditional operatic values. In his younger, less restrained days Boito had fallen out with Verdi in a big way, but now he helped to bring about his return. Nevertheless, the composer remained just as cautious about the changing world around him. Under pressure due to the demand for realism, he was as alert and prudent as ever. Suspicious curiosity about new creations was intertwined with his personal traits, including distrustful discretion and conscious determination. “But I’m old and reactionary… or old at least, but not so reactionary” he wrote in a letter to Giulio Ricordi, who had sent him L’amico Fritz to read. This offers an insight into what he thought about the work being presented by the generations of younger musicians, such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini. According to Ponchielli, Verdi had the following to say about Le Villi and Puccini: “we do not like his kind of music because it follows in the footsteps of Massenet, Wagner etc.”. The few glimpses of his opinions that have survived reveal traces of a break in an otherwise continuous line on the path followed by Verdi, even when he took things to extremes. It all revolved around profound unity between the music and words for dramatic purposes. This is made apparent by the uneasiness that he felt when reading L’amico Fritz: “In terms of the music, I started looking through it but I soon grew tired of all that dissonance, those false modulation ratios, those imperfect cadences, those inganni, and also… so many changes of tempo, with almost every bar. They are all very hot, but they are offensive to the senses of both rhythm and hearing.” In this frank confession, perhaps it is possible to discern the reasons – or at least one of the many reasons – why Verdi showed faith in Franchetti, whom he knew from his first opera: Asrael, which premiered in Reggio Emilia in 1888. This was despite the many differences between their respective experiences as composers, starting with their social backgrounds.
Alberto Franchetti was the son of Baron Raimondo Franchetti, a rich entrepreneur. Born in Turin on 18 September 1860, he was first introduced to music by his mother, Baroness Sara Louise Rothschild, who was a refined pianist. He continued his studies in Venice after his family moved there and then honed his craft in Germany. He first studied under Rheinberger at the Munich Conservatory and then under Draeseke and Kretschmer in Dresden, where he graduated in 1884. He made the decision to move to Germany because he wanted to escape from what he considered to be the restraints of the “home of opera” as the century drew to a close. Vague ideas of doing the same were shared by people throughout the Italian music scene and it was one of the most significant signs of a conflict with the Verdian outlook, which was more dedicated than ever to the “Italian way” and “going back to the old approach”. Franchetti was not the only young musician to make this change in symphonic direction and figures such as Martucci and Sgambati went about it in an even more determined way. In terms of how prophetic it was, critics seem to be making an increasingly clear distinction between their idealist energy and the limited horizons presented by their results. Bearing witness to this tension is a letter sent by Franchetti during his time as a student in Munich. It was addressed to his father, who wanted him to return to Venice: “You know that my passion for music grows every day. My gratitude would be as immense as my love for my art if you were to give me the means to become a real musician one day. It is my greatest and only desire […] My city of choice would be Dresden, partly because it would give me the chance to have lessons with the famous Professor Wüllner and partly because it is a very quiet place […] In Italy, there are no musicians who can compare to Rheinberger, Wüllner or Rheinecke in Leipzig. This is underlined by the fact that there are almost as many foreigners as German students in German conservatories. No American or German would ever contemplate going to Italy to study composition. The few proficient musicians that can be found in Italy are figures who learned their trade in other countries, such as Scontrino, Bonamici, Sgambati and Catalani: the Italian government paid for the latter to study abroad […] I implore you once again, my Dear Father, to offer me the same opportunity.” He sent the letter in 1884, which is also the year when he wrote his Symphony in E Minor. Together with two by Martucci and one by Sgambati, it remains one of the most significant records of the “Italian attempt” to revitalize a distant instrumental tradition by joining up with the great current of classical and romantic symphonic music. While Martucci largely stuck to the pattern established by Brahms, Franchetti also sought to tie his output in with the “music of the future”. This was enough to make Verdi suspicious and he did not miss an opportunity to denounce these incursions. Giulio Ricordi enthusiastically wrote to tell him about the success of Otello in London and he replied: “You talk about triumphant Italian art! You are mistaken! Our young Italian musicians are not good patriots. The Germans have gone from Bach to Wagner, they make good German operas, and that’s fine. We are the descendants of Palestrina and by imitating Bach we are committing a musical crime. These operas are not only pointless but actually harmful.” A few years later, he wrote a letter to Perosio, a music critic and representative of Ricordi in Genoa. It was sent during the city’s 1891-1892 season, which brought together Otello, Cristoforo Colombo and La Wally. This time his words were even harsher because he was talking specifically about Catalani, of whom he was not at all fond: “I do not think that these people will expect me to make an appearance in the theatre simply because they are staging my Otello or paying tribute to the Great Genoese Discoverer, and certainly not because of the new German opera by the little fellow from Lucca, although they tell me that it did well at La Scala. I was told about it by Ricordi, who’s taken it into his head to publish his operas. I don’t suppose it’ll do him any good. The public want Italian music rather than imitations or German masquerades. There’s no call for the music of the future.” Despite his “Germanic” inclination, Franchetti was spared this peremptory condemnation. In January 1889, Verdi was spending the winter in Genoa as usual and he had the opportunity to see Asrael. “[…] I will tell you about it in person once I’ve read it better, because the performances here are so bad in every way that it’s hard to get the right idea,” he wrote to Giulio Ricordi on 9 January. “However, it is plainly the work of a musician (which may seem obvious enough). All the same, despite this general opinion I would venture to guess that Franchetti embarked on a diligent, strict and solid programme of study but did not complete every aspect of it. That is neither here nor there. Rossini had only just begun his education when he fled from Mattei’s school. In spite of everything, Asrael proved popular here. There was wild applause for every act and three encores even for the badly performed pieces.”
It would appear that Verdi gave some credit to the young composer making his debut and unlike in other cases, he did not lose interest in him even though he drew on foreign influences. The road from Asrael led to Cristoforo Colombo, even though the subjects presented different demands: Ferdinando Fontana based the libretto of Asrael on a visionary medieval legend, while Illica focused on the epic nature of Columbus’s adventure. There were far more subtle consequences and compromises on the way than were – understandably – noted by critics at the time, in a theatrical landscape that was a little too bundled together in various ways in the last decade of the century. Leaving aside the truly resounding but detached remarks by Verdi, the only sign of resurgence came from Cavalleria rusticana, which was a revelation. Proof that the tide had turned was provided by the contrasting fortunes of foreign works in Italy and Italian operas abroad. In the previous decade, Wagner had grown in popularity and the most acclaimed works in Italian theatres were Carmen, Lakmé and Die Königin von Saba, whereas – with the exception of La Gioconda and Mefistofele – big Italian exports were thin on the ground.
The two Italian operas neatly symbolize the opposing energies and impulses driving the Italian scene in the last quarter of the century. Although it did not go to great lengths to conceal its conservative background, La Gioconda found a compromise between Verdi’s concrete rules and the grand opéra approach. Mefistofele embodied a fresh sense of restlessness – albeit one that largely faded away over time – and was deemed “the first of our operas to have an art nouveau outline”. The two works – referring in particular to the “first version” of Mefistofele – also help to illustrate the transformations in operatic structure on a broader scale. This could be seen in the instructions that Boito is known to have given, which stated that “opera today” needed to “do away completely with formulas, create forms, and put into practice the most extensive development possible in tone and rhythm today, in the finest incarnation of theatre.” It would appear that Verdi appreciated the significance of these words. He distanced himself from them to some extent because he liked to think and clearly show that he was above the fray, but their influence can be seen in his work, in solutions that are unfailingly highly original. The musicians of the following generation – who were generically labelled the “Giovane Scuola” (“Young School”) – put naturalism and verismo at the heart of their work. Although they were breaking new ground in some respects, they could also be considered to have revived the original spirit of “the popular opera composers”, as Giannotto Bastianelli is known to have said of Mascagni. In any case, they were anchored to a historical context that amended the very notion of verismo. As Dahlhaus noted when discussing Cavalleria Rusticana, “the concept of verismo in opera can be justified in some respects, but at the same time there is no question that the moderation of social criticism, the domination of cantabile operatic style for long stretches, and evasion in literary prose and ‘musical prose’ […] are unrealistic or even anti-realistic features that can give rise to thoughts of ambiguous stylistic tendencies in Mascagni and Puccini.” The convergence of extremely varied stylistic reasoning and characters led the German scholar to reaffirm that “a univocal classification is not one of the conditions that are ipso facto conducive to the aesthetic success of an opera.” This observation neatly highlights the fact that it is not necessary to follow the usual, straight path through the “post-Verdi” landscape, which all revolves around “verismo”. Instead, it is worth wandering more freely through terrain of different kinds, where blurring the boundaries seems to be the predominant approach. Ambiguity itself serves as a stylistic hallmark and most often it is a clear symbol of what is new, but it is also not uncommon for it to be a sign of authentic presentiments which are even in some cases driven towards an anti-verismo register. However, it tended to be the tempering of a number of mostly incompatible factors that gave rise to that particular brand of Italian decadentism that stemmed from Scapigliatura. Its distinguishing feature is that brings together inherently conflicting themes and styles, so that the same opera can combine “a taste for frightfulness and fantastic set designs with Wagnerism, crepuscular melancholy, the harmony of little things and a taste for a humble world, seemingly in contrast with the fondness for the exotic” which seems to constitute another important focal point of this broad wave of thoughts and feelings.
Wagnerism seems to have acted like a big veil that protected and gave an eminent air to all of these contradictory displays. This is all without the much clearer impact that Wagnerian influence had in France – albeit essentially outside the world of music – as one of the cornerstones of the decadent movement. It is only the perspective provided by more than a century of hindsight that is making it increasingly clear just how light and fleeting this veil was. Most significantly, it is revealing the radical importance of a contrast with the Verdian world that was represented by the Wagnerian label. Even more than genuine ideological tension between the musicians themselves, this radicalism was generated to a large extent by conflicts between the publishers Ricordi and Lucca, and a fresh enterprising approach, not to mention the part played by criticism that was swayed more by nationalism than real understanding of Wagnerian dramaturgy. Meanwhile, in the musical evolution spreading through theatres in the last 30 years of the century, an increasingly substantial role was played by emerging tendencies that seemed to move on a higher plane than the contingent debate. They can even bolster the idea of a route that was maybe not univocal but more generally oriented: the gradual establishment of a notion of drama, associated with that of continuity in the structural arch, intensification of the symphonic fabric, and the new function of the leitmotif. Although it is an extremely generalized portrayal, the picture painted in this way makes opposing models such as Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and Meyerbeer’s grand opéra seem much closer compared to the Italian experiences in that 30-year period, bearing in mind the Verdian evolution, the “Wagnerians” (as Boito and Catalani were immediately labelled), and the many musicians that it is increasingly difficult and implausible to group together under the “Giovane Scuola” (“Young School”) umbrella.
Cristoforo Colombo made its appearance against this highly varied backdrop filled with contrasting and contradictory tensions. A big part in shaping it was played by the librettist, Luigi Illica. He served as an extremely flexible intermediary in the tangled web of reasoning and behaviour running throughout post-romantic dramaturgy. As a writer, he was capable of catering to all of the vast range of needs expressed over three eventful decades.
Illica took his first steps as a librettist with La Wally, which was first performed in the same year as Cristoforo Colombo. With La Wally he was already moving in the decadent terrain of scapigliatura but revealing a certain sensitivity to displays of symbolism along the lines of naturalism packed with fresh resonance that steered well clear of the realm of realism. He subsequently showed that he was open to the latter without letting it hold him back from other experiences and other input with French origins. He presented a more Italian take on them and a domestic perspective prevailed over the exoticism, even to the extent of including D’Annunzio-esque archaisms. Illica would go on to work with Franchetti again ten years later, on Germania. However, their first joint project was Cristoforo Colombo itself. Illica earned the commission by winning a contest launched by the City of Genoa in 1889.
Genoa City Council’s level of involvement in the initiative was unparalleled. According to the local press, “the City Council totally renovated the Teatro Carlo Felice, completing the marble flooring, rebuilding the ceiling above the stalls, installing electric lighting with a special workshop in the theatre itself, radiators, fans, etc.; the cost of this renovation work amounts to approximately 420,000 lire, with the box holders paying 12,500 lire. With the theatre looking glorious and as good as new, the City Council wanted to put on an exceptional summer season. Thanks to a grant of 160,000 lire, it arranged a series of shows with Piontelli. They began on 20 August 1892 with concerts conducted by Luigi Mancinelli […]”. The same conductor was at the helm when Cristoforo Colombo made its successful debut on the evening of 5 October 1892. After two performances he was replaced on the podium by Arturo Toscanini. This was always part of the plan because Mancinelli already had other commitments in Madrid. Some sources in the local press claimed that the premiere was an “unprecedented” success, but not all critics offered such unqualified praise. “There is no denying that this is the greatest, loftiest and most moving music that can be conceived,” wrote the critic of Il Caffaro. “Kaschmann’s singing and acting were peerless. What an artist! No words can convey the impact that he made.” Appearing alongside Kaschmann in his role as the leading man were Edoardo Garbin, Carolina Mussini and Giulia Novelli. Verdi and his trusted friend and agent Giuseppe De Amicis had pulled some strings behind the scenes. In a letter sent to the former on 10 October 1892, the latter seems to see things in a different light from the newspaper critic quoted above: “Although the new opera proved reasonably successful, it was entirely down to the circumstances, and in general things at the C. Felice are not going very well at all.”
Although the critics acknowledged the size of the task faced by a young musician in his second work of this kind, they did not fail to underline certain inconsistencies, the majority of which were due to the nature of the celebration: “[…] the commissioning city council wanted a grand opéra, which compromised the merits of its initiative and made it necessary to include a little of the savage side of America,” wrote Zorzi in Il Mondo Artistico on 18 October 1892. “Despite all of Illica’s conscientious historical research, passion for big dramatic lines and close look at customs, catering to this need made the conventionalism, hogwash and manners of old-fashioned operas inevitable. The great, epic figure of the discoverer of a new world was diminished and lost among the feathers, assegais, darts, idols and fury of the savages that we have already seen in L’Africaine and Il Guarany. Nonetheless, we feel confident that Cristoforo Colombo by Franchetti can still become a masterpiece.” Zorzi immediately put his finger on the real weakness of the opera, which was also picked out by many other critics: the lack of balance in the dramaturgical structure of the last two acts, which take the focus off the riveting story of the “discovery” and branch off into a colourful “American” tale filled with love interests and romantic coups de théâtre. The musician took note of these comments and made substantial changes to his creation. There is an unpublished, undated letter to Illica that gives an idea of the toil required by the rewrite: “Dear Illica, I’ve thought about it and there will be no rearrangements and no new aria, just cuts […] and a new finale in act 4. I do not feel like fiddling around with […] Colombo endlessly because it would mean stopping work on Germania and Giove.” At the end, he is referring to Germania, which was first staged at La Scala in 1902, and Giove a Pompei, a musical comedy with a libretto by Illica and Romagnoli that had its premiere in Rome in 1921. This shows just how long and drawn-out the “Colombo problem” was. First of all, Franchetti rewrote the last two acts and merged them into one. This version of the opera was translated into German by Ludwig Hartmann and presented in Hamburg on 5 October 1893, then taken to La Scala and Treviso the following year. The opera continued to spread gradually. A version with two acts (the third was cut) was used for the first performance in the Americas, which took place in Buenos Aires in July 1900. The same cut was used at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in February 1909, back in Buenos Aires in 1910 (with Titta Ruffo in the lead role), in Philadelphia and Chicago in 1913 and finally at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in 1916. The three-act version of the opera reappeared at La Scala in 1923, with Antonio Guarnieri conducting and Carlo Galeffi in the starring role. While this intricate journey can be reconstructed, there are still many gaps in our knowledge. We are aware of three rewrites by the composer, the first of which was for a performance at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1894. The second was for a revival of the opera at La Scala in 1908, after Toscanini urged his close friend Franchetti to do it. The conductor had always maintained that there was a need to make big changes in order to give the work more condensed dramatic consistency. The last rewrite was in 1923. It was for the Teatro Costanzi in Rome and alterations were also made to the libretto by Arturo Rossato.
Emerging from all of this like a watermark are two dramaturgical lines that are interwoven on the broad cloth of the opera. The composer strived to join together these two horizons without ever managing to integrate them completely like fellow composers such as Verdi did. In Aida, the celebratory aspect and the exotic elements are ultimately perfectly incorporated within the urgency of the dramaturgy. However, it is very clear that the issue here goes beyond a sterile comparison and takes us back to the general considerations mentioned above and the dissociation common in the works of the younger composers. They are lacking in the centralizing tension and “moral force” that plays a key role in tying together 19th century operas, first and foremost among which are those by Verdi. One of the inherent characteristics of the broader decadent perspective is this intertwining of various vanishing points in a polycentric structure in which narrative impetus and linguistic interest seem to take something away from each other. These perspectives were problematic, partly because of the way in which they all slotted together was more expansive. One of the more watchful critics who noticed this was Lorenzo Parodi. The day after the premiere in Genoa, he underlined the “gravity of the opera” and in connection with this the limitation of Franchetti’s music, which was “too scholastic, especially in the choral part”. He also drew attention to what he considered to be a “serious shortcoming”, which was “the lack of a love story”. One aspect that unquestionably becomes evident from the very first notes of the opera is the care taken by the musician over the constructive scanning. On the whole, this is highlighted by a clear partiality for big chapters in the structure, as summed up by the titles given to the two parts. The first encompasses the first two acts – even though they cover separate moments in time and span the period from 1487 to 1492 – and it is called “the discovery”. The second is called “the conquest”.
These two big backgrounds play host to the conspicuous panels of the individual acts, within each of which the scenes are joined together without any gaps. The framework makes it plain that Franchetti was perfectly at home shaping both the symphonic and choral sides of the piece and it is even easier to perceive the ease with which he set down the colours, which were always fragrant and transparent and never became bogged down by the overlapping that bedevilled so much Italian symphonic music at the time. This was something that was rather surprisingly acknowledged by Catalani, who was not particularly fond of Franchetti, partly because of their professional rivalry and partly because they had very different sentiments and personalities. He had been very critical of Asrael because he thought that it had countless faults. Nonetheless, after watching Cristoforo Colombo he could not contain his enthusiasm. “Last night I heard the first act of Colombo played by the orchestra. The music is extremely beautiful and orchestrated by a great maestro,” he said to Depanis. He later went on to elaborate on this: “He is an excellent composer […] If you come, you will be astonished by the instrumental music. I find it hard to believe that in 36 days he has orchestrated five acts with such an unerring, balanced hand and with colours that are unfailingly beautiful, rich and dazzling.” In a consummately coherent way, the symphonic sensitivity and distinctive lightness permeate the sound and make the “story” seem like it is moving along swiftly and effortlessly. They help to take the edges off the breaks that Franchetti was inclined to make in his construction process. His studies in Germany clearly made him diligently dedicated to this approach. Many years later, a revival of the opera at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in 1916 made Gaetano Cesari wonder – in a positive review in the Corriere della Sera – whether “the first thing that [Franchetti] learned in music lessons was fugues” because the impact on the composer of his fruitful time studying under Rheinberger was so plain to see. As mentioned above, while the polyphonic fabric really breathes life into the score, it only becomes a really distinctive feature at certain times, when archaic evocation or collective definition come to the fore. In general, it ties together extremely varied forms of expression, including when the main line marked out by the voice of the composer winds its way through the harmonious epic.
The call of the sea can be heard in the short orchestral introduction as soon as the curtain opens. Even more than by the restless waves of violins and cellos, it is expressed by the trumpets. They encapsulate the sad, fatalistic colour evoked by water stretching out towards the horizon. It is an unmistakably maritime beginning, which inevitably calls to mind another “Genoese” opera in the shape of the unmistakable “hue” of Simon Boccanegra, although the colour in that cases shrouds a very different drama. There is an epic quality to the singular elegiac shading of the figure of Columbus, his ideality, the way in which he is driven to push past boundaries into the unknown, and his solitude, which leads to suspicion and hostility against him. This forms the emotional nucleus of the opera, which is subsequently delineated in greater detail during the different stages in the story. There are other allusions as it moves forward, but only so that the historical development of Cristoforo Colombo can unfold coherently. For example, there is the picturesque chiaroscuro backcloth in La Gioconda – essentially another “maritime” opera – and the “dark” characters that emerge from it such as Barnaba, who is reflected to some extent in the menacing Roldano. Then there is the broader perspective. The world that is presented and portrayed in a consciously condensed but nonetheless clear way almost seems to get lost within it, as if it were being assimilated by a superior force. This utopian tension is the driving force behind Columbus’s undertaking and it is the other centre of gravity that works its inexorable influence on the opera. Due more to its intellectual projection than any specific linguistic intertextuality, it inevitably calls to mind Boito’s Mefistofele.
This established point of view sets the right poetic pace for the first two acts, each of which is contained within an arc whose unity is reinforced by the variety of interlinked musical episodes. Some of these stand out, as noted by the first critics. For instance, in the third scene of the first act Soffredini deemed the appearance of the pilgrims “peculiar and awkward”. The archaic ballata struck up by the three minstrels from Provence shines an evocative, prophetic light on the start of the confounded story, seen from the downtrodden viewpoint of the crowd (there is more than one not entirely coincidental resemblance to Mussorgsky right from the start). The sturdy hand of the musician injects huge amounts of life into it and steers the expanding discussion until it explodes majestically with the double chorus, showing admirable contrapuntal capabilities. With unquestionable efficacy and an effect reminiscent of Verdi, the widespread participation in the crescendo contrasts with the opposition in the following scene, which is dominated by the reaction that the villainous Roldano starts to trigger against the general harmony. A bewildering array of terrifying images are treacherously presented in Illica’s verse, which shows his extreme taste and still remains true to the scapigliatura movement. An evil seed is planted and it transforms the astonished apprehension instilled in the people by the poetic tale of the pilgrims into open scorn, in an arresting episode that has become known as the “laughter” scene. “The mocking chorus has many rare qualities,” noted Parodi. “It is a full-throated chorus in six parts, featuring two distinct movements and unprecedented boldness.” Counterbalancing this big “choral” opening is the entrance of Guevara in the second part of the act. He is a positive character who provides the first opportunity to shine a light on the protagonist, thanks to the meditative way in which he opens his heart in friendship. The exploration of personal feelings is taken even further in the meeting with Isabella.
In the expansive finale of the act, Franchetti’s melodic side largely takes over the story, but the transition is fairly smooth. In other words, the melodist does not head down an entirely Italian path. Once again, everything is clearly shaped by the composer’s awareness. This meant that he took on board more tortuous tensions, seemingly opening up the concise shaping of the opera in accordance with movements that were more subtly touched upon by the chromatic effects. This is an inclination that can be found in Ponchielli and also in Verdi’s Otello. The awareness shown also made it apparent that the composer had espoused more “European” approaches, significantly fusing Mendelssohn’s eburnean and sentimental line and the curves of certain Lisztian melos, such as the harmonious and beguiling Consolations. This is not the only way in which Liszt made his mark on Franchetti’s fervent yet orderly orchestral fabric. It is also possible to make out the indirect influence of certain symphonies in particular, including some vibrant moments and even more so problematic areas in livid chromaticism.
In the eccentric picture painted by the first act, the dramaturgical perspective of the wide, crowded space filled with contradictory feelings is gradually narrowed until the focus is restricted to the disconsolate sadness of Columbus, who is heartened and comforted in the end by Isabella. The second act stands out due to its epic solitariness. Set on the Santa Maria, which was one of the three ships taken by Columbus on his voyage, it underlines the drama at the heart of the opera. The main grounds for conflict are interwoven and really pushed to the forefront. Everything is put under even greater strain by the fact that the characters are all stuck on a ship lost in the vast ocean. The composer intertwined everything very adeptly and used the symphony to evoke the menacing ocean all around. This is true right from the uneasy, engrossed beginning, with an open, questioning portrayal and sounds made more mysterious by the tone of the organ. As well as immersing the audience in the environment, with the polyphonic voices the composer also conveys the fears and dismay of the crew. This lively background gives even greater emphasis to the voice of the pensive Columbus, who shakes off doubts with convoluted soliloquies. It required great shrewdness on the part of Illica, whose refinement is tempered by Franchetti’s smooth melodic inspiration. In this case, the latter seems to draw on influences from his homeland, espousing popular scents and inflections from the length and breadth of the varied Italian landscape in the second half of the 19th century, including opera and romantic chamber music.
A loving light is reflected in the excitement of the end of the act. It all revolves around the marked contrast between the assiduous Gregorian chant of Salve Regina and the mutiny that is breaking out. The energy from both converges and comes pouring out in the triumphant fullness of the singing after the new land is spotted. There is a line that runs through the first two acts and binds them together thanks to similar displays of tension, at the heart of which is Columbus. There is no doubt that it is broken in the third act, even in the definitive version of the opera in which the third and fourth acts are merged into one. It was called “a sizable blockage in the airways of the work” by Cesari in 1916. This opinion is consistent with the views expressed in Italy in the early 20th century, when there were calls to revive the principles of dramaturgical unity. It was a reaction to the “dispersion” witnessed in 19th century opera at some points, when it was partly driven to extremes by a polycentric propensity with deep roots reaching as far as Baroque music. Grand opéra proved to be a highly efficient outlet for these inclinations. Verdi always took painstaking care over dramaturgical measure, but during the composition of Otello even he was tempted to include a Turkish attack in the third act due to his irresistible, intrinsic urge to make an “impression”.
This broader perspective opened up by grand opéra – and in particular the way it ventured into exoticism – must be taken into account when examining the act of Cristoforo Colombo that is set in the Americas, with its – admittedly rather gratuitous – love interests, its lively episodes in terms of coups de théâtre, and the different aims of the composer when dealing with material that required him to harness the “local colour”. It was all perfectly in keeping with the way in which the Italian opera scene had been moving for at least 20 years. An extremely wide range of external input was gathered and presented using models that upon close inspection do not actually vary that much. As well as L’Africaine and Thaïs by Massenet, there were lesser variations on them such as Lakmé by Delibes which could nonetheless be potentially significant for Italian musicians when combined in different ways. For example, take Catalani with Dejanice, the later work by Ponchielli, when he tended to tone down some of his more sensational melodrama with a more refined style, and Gomes with Il Guarany and of course Lo Schiavo. Varying levels of care were shown in the crossovers and the increasingly subtle amounts of input would lead to the floral pleasures of Iris by Mascagni and, with the aid of Pierre Loti’s exoticism, Madama Butterfly. Looking further afield, this enables us to push beyond the often artificial barriers of “verismo” and place it in a wider and more varied context. It can be noted that the musicians of the “Giovane Scuola” (“Young School”) were in contact with the new languages being discussed in fin de siècle Europe. It validates the views of those who quite rightly talked about the high level of formalization in verismo, thus shifting the sights of the young innovators who shared an aversion to the poetics of the school – especially Pizzetti, Malipiero and Casella, who were the three main exponents of the “1880s generation” – towards the inadequacy of the ideological system. In some ways, the rupture caused by the “exotic interlude” in Cristoforo Colombo actually helped to reinforce the link with the epilogue in the last act, which was the fifth in the original version of the work, thus ensuring that it followed the classic grand opéra structure. The spotlight switches back to Columbus, now forlorn and seeing his fortunes fading. Franchetti presents sorrowful, resigned recollections of his epic deeds. The music leaves behind the livelier, more ostentatious sumptuousness of the previous acts in favour of emotional concentration that has nothing spectacular about it. This is immediately epitomized by the meditative Largo in F-sharp minor that begins the incisive closing episode and instils a sense of calmness in the two scenes in question. There is a touching encounter between the protagonist and Guevara, funereal singing by the friars in the crypt of the kings of Castile, a passage when Columbus relives his dramatic undertaking in visions, and finally a mournful Larghetto as his life comes to an end in front of Isabella’s tomb.