Lyric drama in a Prologue and three acts.
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, based on Adam Mickiewicz’s narrative poem Konrad Wallenrod (1828).
First performed at La Scala, Milan, on 7 March 1874.
Near Marienburg, towards the end of the fourteenth century
German troops are sweeping across the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, destroying all resistance. From the battlements of a castle, an old bard, Albano, gloomily describes the scene of a land laid waste and a people destroyed: who will save Lithuania now, he asks. Aldona, a noble lady joins him and asks whether her brother, Arnoldo, and her husband, Walter, have returned – they had left the castle together that morning to join the fight. Albano tells her that they have not returned, and Aldona launches into a great patriotic prayer for the salvation of Lithuania and the Lithuanian people. The inhabitants of the castle join in.
Walter and Arnoldo return, but with bad news: mercenary troops led by a captain named Vitoldo have defected to the Germans, leaving the Lithuanians hopelessly outnumbered and many of them have been slaughtered. There seems to be no hope left. Everyone goes inside the castle except for Walter and Albano. Walter tells Albano that he is willing now to undertake a plan which Albano had suggested some time previously, and asks Albano to wait for him by the bridge, where two runners are awaiting instructions. Albano is pleased that Walter is going to act and blesses the enterprise – Walter thanks him for being virtually a father to him. Albano leaves, and Aldona joins Walter; she realises that he is going away, but tells him how much she loves him and says that she will go with him, whatever it is he has to do. But he tells her that his mission is dangerous, and that her duty is to protect their children. Albano calls him, and just before Walter leaves, he entrusts Aldona to the care of her brother, Arnoldo.
Ten years later: in the square outside Marienburg Cathedral
Festivities are under way to celebrate the election of a new Grand Master of the Knights of the Cross, a German order of knights. It is to be Corrado Wallenrod, a foreigner. Vitoldo, the treacherous mercenary from the Prologue, hears the news and tries to spread slander about Wallenrod, but the crowd will not listen – they believe Wallenrod to be a just and fair man, and launch into a chorus of praise, calling on the bards, one of whom is Albano, to lead them. As Vitoldo mutters that Wallenrod will find him an implacable enemy, Albano is scanning the crowd, looking for a familiar face. To the sound of trumpets, ten Lithuanian prisoners are led in, in chains: Arnoldo is among them. They are to be executed as part of the ceremony to welcome the new Grand Master. Hymns to God can be heard from the cathedral and as the people wait for Wallenrod to appear, Vitoldo calls for the executions to begin and the prisoners resign themselves to their fate. The Archbishop leads a procession of clergy out of the cathedral, and the German Prince appears at the other end of the square; finally, Corrado Wallenrod, preceded by the Teutonic knights, arrives. By Wallenrod’s side is Albano. The Archbishop invests Wallenrod as Grand Master, and Wallenrod makes a stirring speech about his duty and his commitment to his brother knights. The crowd, whipped up by Vitoldo, call for the execution of the Lithuanian pagans but Wallenrod chastises them – he has heard a divine voice telling him not to seek revenge, and orders the release of the prisoners. The crowd accept this divine advice, and the prisoners express their gratitude, but Vitoldo and the nobles are furious. Everyone leaves, until only Arnoldo remains. He is amazed to have recognised Wallenrod as his brother-in-law Walter. He falls to his knees in prayer at his deliverance, and is joined by Aldona, disguised as a pilgrim. She recognises him, and from their joyful conversation, it becomes clear that he had left her in the safety of a convent, but that she has not taken the vows, preferring to risk travelling around searching for her husband, and that some divine impulse has drawn her to Marienburg. Arnoldo tells her that he has just seen Walter, and when a band of minstrels passes by, they move to join it, but their way is barred by Albano who challenges Arnoldo. They all recognise one another and with joy at the reunion, they swear to find vengeance for their homeland, or die in the attempt.
The Great Hall of Marienburg Castle.
A feast of celebration is in progress, led by Wallenrod, with the knights drinking and praising his great wisdom, while Vitoldo mutters darkly in the background. Wallenrod calls for dancing, and Spanish/Moorish slave girls oblige. But Wallenrod soon tires of the dance and calls for a song – he wants something gentle and rural, but the Germans want ballads about battles and victories. Arnoldo and Aldona come in, disguised as bards, with Albano keeping in the background. Arnoldo presents himself as one who will sing, and he sings longingly of a free Lithuania. Everyone is shocked, and there are calls for him to be killed; Wallenrod is disturbed by the familiar voice, but he draws his sword and advances on Arnoldo. Aldona steps between them, saying that he is her brother, and at that point, Wallenrod recognises them both. Arnoldo and Albano urge his not to betray them. Wallenrod entrusts them both to Albano and orders them to be imprisoned for their own safety, saying, for the benefit of the crowd, that there will be executions tomorrow – but Vitoldo has recognised Aldona. The guests grow restless, and as Arnoldo and Aldona are led away, the celebrations resume.
Scene 1: Three months have passed. Fighting between Lithuanians and Germans is still fierce, and in the ruins of a church in the mountains, a group of women, led by Aldona, are caring for the Lithuanian wounded.
Aldona pours out her frustration – her country is being destroyed, and she fears that Walter is dead. Albano and Wallenrod arrive, and Albano urges Walter to give his wife strength to continue, hoping that she too will revive in Walter the will to sustain the fight. They sing tenderly of their past happiness, and when there are warlike calls, Walter urges Aldona to pray for him and leaves to return to Marienburg where he will join Arnoldo and lead the Lithuanian forces against the Germans. Soldiers and women express their thoughts, while Vitaldo, who is now revealed as the leader of an inner circle of knights, the francs-juges or vehmgerich or ‘free judges’, who are a self-appointed court of summary justice, turns up with his men and tells them that he has now discovered who Wallenrod really is and that he he is going to Marienburg to kill him. Aldona overhears them, and resolves to go to Marienburg herself to try to save her husband.
Scene 2: In the Great Hall of Marienburg Castle.
Wallenrod tells Albano that Aldona is safe, but that the vehmgerich have discovered his true identity and condemned him to death. Rather than be taken alive, he takes poison, and sings an impassioned aria about justice and freedom. Albano begs to die with him, but Vitoldo and his knights burst in: Walter rips the insignia of the Teutonic Order from his uniform and throws it to the ground. Vitoldo attacks him, but shouting from outside means that the Lithuanians have been successful. Arnoldo bursts in, followed by his men and by Aldona, and Walter dies in Aldona’s arms as Arnoldo and Albano look on helplessly. A final chorus of spirits welcomes Walter to heaven, and everyone observes that a man who dies for his country will achieve everlasting fame.
Related Opera Story articles can be found on
Amilcare Ponchielli’s life and his operas
The background to the writing of I Lituani
The stories of Ponchielli’s other operas
The life and librettos of Antonio Ghislanzoni
Other operas about freedom fighters, including Konrad Wallenrod, by the Polish composer Władysław Żeleński (1885), also based on Mickiewicz’s poem.
and many other aspects of Ponchielli’s operas.
© Roger Witts 2009