Unlucky Lady

Amelia Anckarström may have no counterpart in history, but as Italian opera heroines go, she's the real deal. PATRICK DILLON looks at what it takes to bring this volatile lady to life.

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Sondra Radvanovsky as Verdi’s Amelia at Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago 2012
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© Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago 2012

Who is Amelia?

Expressed as geometric metaphor, she's the fictional apex of a fictional triangle whose other two points began as actual historical figures. 

Expressed musically by a not ungifted lyric portraitist, she's the sum of a pair each of trios and duets, some larger ensembles and, most of all, two great arias that capture every beat and throb of her wavering heart. 

It doesn't matter that there was, historically, no "real" Amelia: Verdi's music makes her as palpably flesh-and-blood as the two men in her life, whose models were real late-eighteenth-century Swedes. The arts-fostering enlightened despot King Gustavus III was indeed shot at a masked ball, at the Royal Swedish Opera, a house he'd built just a few years earlier. And it was Jacob Johan Anckarström, a politically disgruntled army captain, who pulled the fatal trigger — a "miserable man" of "muddled brain and ferocious perverted heart" and "one of the many victims of the new revolutionary ideas then in vogue," as he was limned in 1894 by the British historian Robert Nisbet Bain. ("From a very early age," Bain added in a footnote, "he delighted in public executions and in horribly torturing animals.") 

Bain called him, too, "a brutal husband" — but that's his only mention of a Mrs. Anckarström. Four decades after the regicide, the fertile brain and fluent pen of Eugène Scribe were goosed by the theatrical possibilities of a masked-ball opera-house assassination; but convention demanded a leading lady, and the era's strict, if erratic, censorship dictated a murder scrubbed clean of political motive. The result was "Amélie, comtesse d'Ankastrom" — a noble lady of divided affections, faithful wife of the king's foursquare, politics-perfect best friend and loving mother of his son, but secretly pining (requitedly, if chastely) for the far more ebullient monarch. Amélie made her stage debut in Paris in February 1833 as the heroine of Auber's Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué, a grand opéra in which she grandly but generically gave voice to her nobly tortured heart. In the last act, her anxieties (and the audience's) over the fate of her beloved Gustave were tabledfor a full half-hour of glittering ballet. A decade later, as Amelia, she made her debut as an Italian-opera heroine in Mercadante's Il Reggente,for which librettist Salvatore Cammarano transplanted Scribe's plot to sixteenth-century Scotland, with her husband and her platonic lover now dubbed, respectively, "il duca Hamilton" and "il conte Murray." 

By the fall of 1857, Il Reggente seemed remote enough from its source for Verdi to suggest to the poet Antonio Somma, as a break from their ever-troubled adaptation of King Leara look at Scribe's Gustave to fulfill an upcoming obligation to the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. "It's grand and vast; it's beautiful," he'd written to a friend, "but it also has the formal conventions of all operas, something I have never liked and now find unbearable." Somma, accepting the invitation, asked Verdi to annotate Scribe's text with marginalia indicating his preferred rhythms and forms: "I beg you to give me plenty of instructions!" Verdi, ever a hands-on collaborator with his writers, little needed such encouragement; and their surviving correspondence makes clear that, wherever the action was moved to placate the censors, and whatever the title — whether the Swedish Gustavo III, the Pomeranian Vendetta in Domino or the English-colonial Ballo in Maschera (with husband and lover now renamed Renato and Riccardo) — he wanted an Amelia at once sharper and better rounded than Scribe and Auber's emotionally corseted lady. Writing to Somma in November 1857, he praised the lovers' Act II duet for having "all the warmth and agitation of passion" but faulted Amelia's preceding scena for its lack of the same. "Perhaps it's the form that spoils everything; the two stanzas weaken the situation." That's certainly true of the Scribe–Auber equivalent; with its "conventional" contours, it catches none of the volatility Verdi sought in a woman who, at her first onstage appearance (allegro agitato e prestissimo), is greeted by the shrewd Ulrica with the question "What's got you so worked up?" (Had Somma's will prevailed, we'd have met Amelia earlier, in a scene that remained unwritten, either by him or by Scribe — sitting in "her boudoir … [with] a lovely balcony at the back, a loggia over a vast horizon … playing her harp and singing a song that refers generically to the desires of a loving heart." The generic, of course, was exactly what Verdi wanted to avoid.)

"A secret, bitter care that love has awakened!" is Amelia's answer to Ulrica; but it's a secret that, given her anxious jitters, can't really be contained, as we're told in the first of her characteristic — widely leaping, dynamically shifting — phrases: she loves the man "whom heaven has chosen to rule us all." When Ulrica prescribes the remedy for such a love, Amelia's anxiety escalates. "You're stunned, you tremble?" the fortuneteller asks. "I'm frozen!" Amelia answers, but a few bars later she thaws in another wide-ranging outburst: "Grant me, O Lord, the strength to cleanse my heart!" Amelia, a properly God-fearing (but fashionably superstitious) Protestant lady beset by temptation, is forever invoking God, while free-thinking Riccardo (the agnostic composer's surrogate, perhaps?) does so only as passing figures of speech. 

Love versus duty — that's the gist of Amelia's quandary. Whether Swede or British Bostonian, she likely married out of familial duty, dutifully bore a child and now finds herself locked in matrimony to a decent but dull man who leaves her unfulfilled. It's no surprise that his charming, witty, intellectually agile boss should capture her romantic fancy: he's a free spirit whose vocal entrance is marked a piacere,and whose following cantabile ("La rivedrà nell'estasi"), with its dolcissimo markings, takes impassioned melodic flight. Renato's opening solo ("Alla vita che t'arride"), on the other hand, is solid and square; even his cadenza sounds straitlaced. Verdi's music for Amelia tells us that temperamentally, she's more Riccardo's match than her husband's; as hard as she tries to govern her feelings, they're continually breaking free.

Her two arias expertly portray this emotional tug-of-war. In the splendid scena that opens Act II, Verdi achieves exactly what he aimed for: formal structure gives way to a fluid integration of its parts. The orchestral introduction immediately captures Amelia's high-strung anxiety (another allegro agitato) as, still unseen, she makes her way toward the "orrido campo"; then the music softens as she appears, with a solo flute recalling (dolcissimo, espressivo) the theme of her Act I prayer as she kneels and silently prays for courage. She rises (to renewed orchestral agitation) and descends the hill that leads to the gallows and the magical love-effacing herb. The ensuing recitative charts the ebb and flow of her resolve. Nervously broken phrases dip repeatedly to low D. "And if I should die?" she anxiously wonders. "Die!" (Perire!), she repeats, steeling herself. "Well, if that's my fate and my duty, let it happen — so be it!" she sings with grave resolution, in her longest phrase so far.

The aria itself now begins, introduced by a solo cor anglais, as she speculates on the herb's effects, first calmly, then with mounting emotion. "What will remain of you, my poor heart?" she asks. Verdi neatly solves the problem of two symmetrical stanzas by confining the melody to the English horn the second time around as, her courage faltering, Amelia reverts to broken interjections before once again addressing, con dolore,her "povero cor." The clock strikes midnight, and her fears escalate; she imagines a head rising from the ground, staring at her with angry eyes, as her terror plunges her from a high B-natural to a low A. Once more she falls to her knees in prayer, her voice rising to a forte high C, then descending as her nerves steady. "Miserere" (Have mercy), she repeats twice, calmer now, but she succumbs to a final burst of emotion with a high B-flat to launch a cadenza (marked lento)that once again finds her seeking solace for her troubled heart. 

If this scene impresses the hearer with its deft juxtaposition of emotional extremes, Amelia's Act III aria scores with its simplicity. She's already confronted her fear of death; now, facing it at her husband's hand, she's uncharacteristically calm, and her music — more symmetrical than we've yet heard it — carries a distinct whiff of the solid Renato's as, firmly and eloquently, she pleads for a last embrace from her son. Surely Verdi's model here was the similarly structured "Sois immobile" from Rossini's Guillaume Tell, where, to a cello obbligato like Verdi's, Tell instructs his imperiled son to stand still and think of his mother. Amelia's aria shares the contours of Tell's until, once again, her emotion bursts free as she imagines her motherless child: "che mai più non vedrà," she cries repeatedly, climaxing in an anguished cadenza with another exposed attack on a top note (here a C-flat) before slowing to a final, adagio "mai più vedrà." 

Neither aria is a simple sing; nor is the rest of the role, which, along with Aida, is one of the mature Verdi's two heaviest for soprano. What, then, is an "Amelia voice"? At one stage in Ballo's composition, Verdi wanted Rosina Penco for the role — his first Leonora in Il Trovatore and an admired Violetta, too. But well before she got around to singing it, second thoughts arose: she was no longer the singer he'd once so admired, he complained; she'd retreated to the bygone style of thirty years earlier, when she should have been advancing the style of thirty years hence. Just as he sought to break away from the old operatic conventions, he seemed to be looking for a new kind of singer to meet his new demands. 

Thirty years on from the first Balloverismo was ready to explode. By 1905, it was in full swing, and the famous verismo soprano Eugenia Burzio made one of the earliest recordings of Amelia's music; but her undeniably exciting "Ma dall'arido stelo," with its liberal treatment of both music and words and (at least to today's ears) near-comical exaggerations of voice and style, hardly suggests a Verdian paragon. Thirty years on from Ballo, Lilli Lehmann sang itsMet premiere, in German — the first in a long line of Wagnerians who embraced the role there, from Gadski and Destinn to Rysanek, Nilsson and Crespin. Lehmann left us no audio souvenir, but these other great ladies all did, and none of them could be called perfect. Neither could Leontyne Price or Montserrat Caballé, my first, and fondly remembered, stage Amelias, or indeed any of the other sopranos I've heard in the role, live or recorded, though Callas comes tantalizingly close. 

So what would a "perfect" Amelia need? The late Earl of Harewood penned a good job description — "rhythmic accuracy … solidity in middle and bottom registers, brilliance and reliability at top, the ability to sing long legato lines together with an aptitude for attack and a vocal size able to dominate orchestra and ensemble alike." A beautiful voice, too, I'd add, and an electric stage presence. 

Who is Amelia? The sopranos who tackle the role would probably agree with Riccardo and Renato: she is a lovely, impossible ideal. spacer 

PATRICK DILLON, a longtime New Yorker, is a regular correspondent for Opera Canada and Scherzo (Madrid).


spacer "The Sopranos" What makes an ideal Verdi soprano? (Peter G. Davis, March 2001)
spacer "The Callas Legacy" A tribute to the close-to-perfect diva (James C. Whitson, October 2005)

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