Opera composers have to start somewhere. In the case of Francesco Cilea, his first stage work, Gina, was a graduation piece written when he was twenty-two and performed by his fellow students in the theatre of the Conservatorio in Naples where Cilea had studied alongside Umberto Giordano with the distinguished and magnanimous composer Paolo Serrao as their teacher. Cilea had no choice over the librettist (the prolific but slightly unpredictable Enrico Golisciani), the orchestra and chorus (and the staging) were all extremely modest, and Cilea himself conducted the work. Originally in two acts, he subsequently extended it to three, and in both of these forms it achieved a modest success. Cilea was always a hard taskmaster on his collaborators and also on himself, and he subsequently referred to Gina as “a simple juvenile experiment … which actually served to teach me many things that I hadn’t been able to learn in the conservatoire”. This was a characteristically self-effacing comment from Cilea, since Gina is a charming opera, full of dramatic twists, lovely music and well-rounded characters. It is rewarding to listen to, but that is as far as it goes, since revivals are unlikely. As a gentle rustic opera by a composer who was about to be drawn into the more dramatic and swirling verismo style, and whose operatic output was very small before he turned to teaching, we are lucky to have a good recording of it.
Melodramma idillico in three acts.
Libretto by Enrico Golisciani, based on comedy play Cathérine, ou La croix d’or by Mélésville (a nom de plume of Baron Anne-Honoré-Joseph Duveyrier) and Nicholas Brazier of 1835.
First performed in the Theatre of the Conservatorio di San Pietro alla Majella in Naples on 9 February 1889.
In a village in France around 1812/1814, in the courtyard of a small country estate, women estate workers can be heard in the distance singing that love usually makes even hard work bearable, but that there is no laughter today, because conscripts are being rounded up to go off to war. In a barn on one side of the yard, unseen by anyone in the house, a young man, Giulio, dressed in shabby clothes and swathed in a large cloak, looks across at the house and sings of his misery: the girl he loves (Gina) is there, but she knows nothing of him or his love, and in his hopelessness he longs for death so that he can console himself by joining his mother. As he goes back into the barn to keep out of sight, Lilla comes into the yard from the lane and is met by Gina, who invites her in. Lilla asks urgently if Uberto has returned – he is Gina’s brother and Lilla’s sweetheart. Gina says that he is not back yet, and pours out her worry that he will be conscripted. She says that a protective star will take care of him, and Lilla adds that although he has been ill twice in the last year, he has recovered, and although he is poor, he has no debts. Consoling themselves that the Lord loves everybody equally, they weep on one another’s shoulders, but Gina comments that despite Uberto’s absence, they do have a guest – she has spotted the sad-looking young stranger wrapped up in a cloak who has taken up residence in the barn.
There is a bit of a turmoil outside and then a group of newly-recruited local lads, Uberto among them, come rushing in excitedly. The lots have been drawn and Uberto has been selected. The sergeant in charge of the recruiting drive, Flamberge, greets Gina and Lilla elegantly and tells them what a joy it is to be a soldier: neither a loving sister nor a fiancée can save you from enlistment, but since Flamberge has been in the army now for twenty years, having a very exciting time and obviously still alive, it can’t be all bad. He urges the girls to settle down and wait for Uberto to return from war a field marshall. Gina and Lilla are unconvinced and tell Uberto that he must find some way to get himself rejected immediately but Uberto, deeply embarrassed, tells them to calm down and get lunch ready. They see this as an opportunity to work out a plan to get Uberto released, but Flamberge holds Uberto back as the girls and the other recruits start to leave. The sergeant tells Uberto that attempting to get a release is a non-starter, and Uberto agrees, saying that he is willing to do his bit, but that he is still responsible for the two women. Flamberge tells him that they will be leaving in a few hours and sings a rousing soldiers’ song to Uberto, who says that he will be ready when the time comes. Together, they agree that they will reach the battlefield in good spirits and ready to fight for the Emperor, while in the background, the local farm-workers can still be heard singing cheerfully.
Uberto now agonises over his situation; he wants to fight the enemy and be a worthy son of his country, but he cannot bear to leave Lilla and Gina. He looks sorrowfully at the family farmhouse and remembers all the happy times they have spent together there – he bids the house goodbye, uncertain that he will ever return.
Gina and Lilla now join him, angry that they have overheard Flamberge telling the other recruits that Uberto will be joining them. He reminds them that it is his duty, and Lilla tells him that it is his duty to die too, and that if he dies, they will die as well. He retorts that if that is the case, then there will be no-one to care for him if he comes back wounded. Lilla softens and apologises, and Gina too says that if ever a man with a magnanimous soul such as her brother should come into her life, she would give him her heart gladly. Giulio, still in the barn and unseen by them, hears this, and stands amazed as he hears Gina go on to promise that she would give such a man not only her heart, but her precious heirloom ring as a marriage token. She says that whoever returns to her with the ring will have her as his willing bride. Uberto is moved by all this emotion, and tells her that the troop will not be leaving for eight days, so why don’t they all have lunch.
Gina leaves, and Uberto now tells Lilla that since she is stronger than his sister, she must hear the truth – he confesses that he lied about the eight days, and tells Lilla that they will be gone very soon, and that Flamberge’s patriotic soldiers’ song will be the signal to move out. Lilla is upset by his subterfuge, but she accepts his decision and tells him that she will wait for him, certain that heaven will reunite them, and they join in a tender bitter-sweet love duet.
Gina calls that lunch is ready and all the farm-workers come in and set up the tables; Uberto sings of the joys of good food and good company and Gina and Lilla say that their modest meal is better than a royal banquet. As they toast one another and their mutual happiness, Flamberge is heard singing his rallying song. Uberto steels himself to depart, Lilla can no longer conceal the truth from Gina and the two girls try to block the way to prevent Uberto from leaving. The stand-off is resolved by the arrival of Flamberge, and just as Uberto tells Gina and Lilla that he has had enough of their interfering, Flamberge announces that he has Uberto’s discharge papers. Gina misunderstands and tries to grab the papers and tear them up, but gradually the message sinks in – Uberto has been discharged from active service. Overjoyed, the girls throw themselves onto Flamberge, who disentangles himself and tells Uberto that he has a note to give to Gina, a note given to him by a stranger in a broad-brimmed hat who seemed very shy. Mystified, Gina opens the note. It is unsigned, but the writer states that he heard Gina’s promise about marrying the bearer of her ring – he is willing to take Uberto’s place among the recruits, but he asks that Gina should give him the ring, through Flamberge, as a pledge. Gina suspects what has happened and runs to the granary to see if the stranger is still there, but he has gone.
Two years have passed and Lilla sits in the small garden of Uberto’s house, singing sadly about Uberto’s long absence. From her song, it emerges that she and Uberto had married and that Uberto had in fact joined up, despite Giulio’s noble attempt to take his place. She yearns for the day when he will return. Gina comes in bubbling over with joy and Lilla eventually calms her down sufficiently to learn that a courier has arrived with a letter from Uberto saying that he is on his way home – he expects to arrive on 3 April, which, as it happens, is this very day. Gina hugs Lilla and sings rapturously of flower scents, angels singing and a heart full of paradise. Suddenly, they hear a coach drawing closer and can see Uberto waving to them.
Sure enough, the coach arrives and as all the local country folk come running up, Uberto, in his military uniform, climbs out, followed by Giulio, in the uniform of a lieutenant. Uberto greets his sister and Lilla excitedly, and then introduces them to Giulio. Gina welcomes him, and Uberto tells them that he is only alive because of Giulio. Giulio urges him not to tell them the whole story, but Uberto ignores him and explains that Giulio had not only saved him from being killed by a Cossack at the battle of Jena, but had actually got wounded in Uberto’s place. The two girls are full of thanks, but Giulio shakes them off, saying that favours of that kind are normal in battle, but he comments under his breath that his plan is working. Uberto then announces that Giulio is going to stay with them for a while, but Giulio politely declines the invitation, at which Uberto promptly says that in that case, he will take Giulio prisoner; then, under his breath, he tells Gina that he has a plan which he will reveal to her shortly.
Uberto leaves, leaving Giulio and Gina alone. Neither of them knows quite what to say, so Giulio takes out his pipe and fiddles around lighting it, while Gina takes her embroidery out of her bag and starts to work on it. She shyly sings a little song about a country girl who comes out of her house early one morning and asks the sun to help her find the man whom she is waiting for. Giulio is enchanted. Gina, wondering why he does not take the hint, carries on with the song, this time singing about little birds who ask the sun to help them find the man who is too shy to come out. Giulio finally realises what she is saying and asks her what she thinks they should do. Gradually, she prompts him into telling her something about himself: he knows nothing of his family, and driven by weariness, he sought death on the battlefield, but despite all his effort, he only succeeded in winning medals. Then, he admits that he has fallen in love … with Gina! Tactfully, she pretends to be surprised, and says that her heart has been given to no-one. Giulio, thinking that he has gone too far, suggests that Uberto and Lilla will no doubt have a suitable husband in mind for her. She tells him that he is wrong, and Giulio launches into a glorious song about finding an angel and running to the top of the world. Gina, overjoyed, responds by pouring out her own feelings, but then remembers her vow, and runs off leaving Giulio wondering what he has said.
Uberto comes in and asks why Gina is crying her eyes out in the room next door, and Giulio tells him that not only will he stay, but that he wants to ask Uberto for Gina’s hand – Uberto is delighted, because that was the very plan he had hinted about to Gina. The two men share their happiness at the turn of events.
Gina, however, now returns and when Uberto tells her about Giulio’s proposal, she announces that it is impossible because she had promised herself to the mysterious stranger who took Uberto’s place two years earlier, and had given him her ring as a pledge of her commitment. Giulio is delighted and tells everyone that that is no obstacle. Gina is shocked – does a promise mean nothing to him, she asks. Giulio says that it means everything to him, because … he is that very stranger!
Uberto is overjoyed, Gina and Giulio are ecstatic, and he tells her that he did not want her gratitude, he wanted her love, and now he has it. Uberto starts to talk about arranging a wedding and Gina asks Giulio to return the ring to her. Ah! he says, that’s a bit of a problem. He explains that he was wounded one day and fell as if dead, and as a last gesture, he gave the ring to a friend. Gina does not believe this and goes into a huff and asks Uberto to send Giulio away. Uberto tries to calm her down, while Giulio, dismayed, turns to leave for ever.
At this crucial moment, who should bowl up but old Sergeant Flamberge, with a long beard and a gnarled stick, still singing his rousing battalion anthem. He and Giulio gaze at one another in amazement, and Flamberge tells everyone that the last time he saw Giulio, Giulio was lying mortally wounded on the battlefield and with the last ounce of his strength, he had entrusted the ring to Flamberge with the request that he should return it to Gina and tell her what had happened to him. Giulio simply announces that he recovered from the mortal wound (come on, suspend your disbelief – this is opera). As Gina and Giulio fall happily into one another’s arms, everyone sings of the great joy that has been brought by a golden ring.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
the story of Cilea’s life and his operas
the life of Enrico Golisciani and his long list of opera librettos
the appearances of pipes (and smoking in general) in opera and the various purposes that they serve
the first attempts at opera by Cilea’s contemporaries – some far more successful and influential than others
the lives and operas of many of Cilea’s contemporaries …
… and many opera plots and other stories linked to operas at the end of the nineteenth century
© Roger Witts 2011