Long thought lost, Giuseppe Verdi’s tragicomic opera I Giuliani (The Happy Few) unexpectedly received its world premiere last week at Gracie Mansion. Though neither Verdi scholars nor New York’s operaphiles were consulted in advance, both groups were among those who sat enthralled as the convoluted action rolled on. Because so little is known about this obscure, suppressed, and still unfinished creation, a detailed synopsis follows:
I Giuliani, ossia La Separazióne della prostata
(The Happy Few, or Separation Under Protest)
SOURCE: I Giuliani is based on an episodic work of fiction, Il Posto, ossia Le Notizie del giorno (The Post, or The Daily News), by a group of anonymous scribblers known as I Cazzipiccoli. Full of arcane topical references, the work has never been translated into readable English. No one can fathom what attracted Verdi to it.
SCENE: Pompeii, shortly before the eruption.
ACT I: The steps of the Palazzo Giuliani
A troop of the city’s guardsmen, gli Azzurri (so-called from their traditional blue togas), is attempting to hold back an angry crowd demanding the abdication of Rudino, Principe dei Giuliani, who has offended them in countless ways. They have listed 41 before Safiro (basso buffo), commander of the Azzurri, arrives to tell them the palazzo steps are now closed to the public. Prodded by the guards’ bastonetti di notte, the crowd disperses.
Safiro begins to curse the unruly
citizens, but is interrupted by the arrival of a sedan chair bearing Rudino (tenor) and his latest infatuation, La Giuditta (mezzo), who is rumored to practice witchcraft in her lair on the East Side of the volcano’s rim. Relieved to be safe on the now deserted steps, the lovers praise the joys of privacy in the rapturous duet “Amore semplice, pubblicità complicata” (Love is simple, fame complex).
Suddenly, to a stinging accompaniment of staccato piccolos, a small chorus of peculiarly dressed androgynes rushes on: le tribune, or gossipmongers, licensed by common law to report the city’s rumors. They want to know if Rudino will attend a performance by his wife, La Donna di Giuliani, a noted amateur singer, who has just announced her appearance in a scandalous new opera, “Arie delle vagine.” (Literally, “Vulvic Songs,” an improbable title; some scholars give, more plausibly, “Arie delle vagire” [Songs of Wailing Women].) As Rudino evades the question, telling them he is presently more concerned with his campaign to represent Pompeii in the Roman Senate, the tribunes spot La Giuditta, whom they have never previously seen, tiptoeing up the palazzo steps. To distract them, Rudino stages an elaborate song and dance, summoning Safiro and gli Azzurri to his aid, as he always does in tense situations: He explains that the lady is just a friend, singing, “Viva l’amicizia, la verità, Pompeii” (Long live friendship, truth, and Pompeii). While the guards sing along, the tribunes express suspicion in counterpoint, and La Giuditta, in obligato, begs them to go away.
The ensemble is building to its climax when, in a startling new key, a messenger (tenor) dashes in: At the Temple of San Nettuno, where the Giuliani have worshiped for centuries, Oconore, the High Priest, is dying, “senza cervello” (without a brain). “As he lived,” one tribune mutters, only to be silenced instantly by Safiro’s glare. Rudino, seizing his chance to escape, hastily escorts La Giuditta out, shielded by the Azzurri, as the curtain falls.
ACT II, Scene 1: Temple of San Nettuno.
In the darkened crypt, priests of the Fish God pray for mercy around the dying Oconore’s bed. In the haunting aria “La rigidità,” Oconore (bass-baritone) confuses his unyielding policies with his increasing paralysis. Rudino, with La Giuditta, hurries in, kneeling to receive the dying Archpriest’s blessing, plus a final injunction to let the priests of the Fish control all Pompeii’s schools. Rudino vows to obey.
Suddenly, with a blare of trumpets, the temple is invaded by Rudino’s hated rival, Hillaria (soprano), Queen of Constantinople, who also claims to speak for Pompeii in the Senate. She flings herself across the Archpriest’s bed, pleading for reconciliation between his rite and her Eastern thought, in the familiar aria “Per compassione, per giustizia” (For compassion, for justice). Rudino, always quick to take umbrage, starts to denounce her fiercely, when he abruptly doubles over in pain. La Giuditta rushes to his side, again noticed by the ubiquitous tribunes. Moaning an extraordinary mix of high and low notes, Rudino is carried out by the Azzurri. Discreetly mingling compassion with a hint of triumph, Hillaria completes the cabaletta to her aria as the tribunes scurry after Rudino. In the uproar, everyone forgets the Archpriest.
ACT II, Scene 2: Outside the amphitheater.
Lined up to buy tickets for La Donna’s performance, the crowd debates (to a sardonic variation on “Amore semplice”) whether she will appear, and if not, what excuse she may offer. The composer, one points out, is Hillaria’s court favorite. Another wagers that Rudino will invent a malady to keep La Donna at home; the first counters that La Giuditta can cure any malady. “But what if,” a third asks, “the malady is she herself?” The amphitheater’s manager (baritone) comes out to announce that the opera is canceled: La Donna is returning to the palazzo, for her husband has “una prostata ammalata.” “Will La Giuditta be there, too?” a cynic asks, as they rush out to learn the truth.
ACT III: The steps of the palazzo.
Twice as many Azzurri hold back the enormous crowd as La Donna (nonsinging role) arrives, heavily veiled, in the family palanquin. As she mounts the steps, she is halted by an aide (baritone) bearing an official notice of separation signed by Prince Rudino. Redescending with dignity, she lifts her veil just long enough to tell the tribunes, in her single line of dialogue, “La Giuditta non fu la prima” (La Giuditta wasn’t the first), which they take to mean that Rudino has had previous affairs. As La Donna leaves, a man at the edge of the crowd shouts that she has entered the convent of Diana.
Hillaria now appears outside the palazzo, begging the crowd to leave Rudino alone, comparing his struggles with those she and her husband, King Guglielmo, face “in casa, in intimità” (at home, in private). The crowd agrees but refuses to leave. Moans of pain are heard from the palazzo; sympathetically, the crowd murmurs, in one of Verdi’s celebrated choruses, “Noi, vittime del tiranno; ora soffre il tiran.” (We are victims of a tyrant; now the tyrant suffers, too.) All at once, the palazzo doors are thrown wide, and out walks Oconore, whom everyone had assumed to be dead. In ringing tones, he proclaims, “Rudino è carne morte; il Principe son’io!” (Rudino is dead meat; I’m in charge here.) As the crowd shrinks back in horror, La Giuditta and the ailing Rudino appear, struggling to pull the Archpriest from his throne; Hillaria summons the Eastern armies; and La Donna emerges from the convent leading a regiment of armed priestesses. As they converge on the usurping Archpriest, the volcano erupts, obliterating Pompeii forever.