Opera seria in two acts.
Libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola.
First performed in the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on 19 November 1825.
It is dawn in Pompei on the morning of 25 August 79AD. In the atrium of Sallustio’s house, cheerful voices can be heard in the distance hailing Sallustio. Sallustio himself enters the tablina, one of the public reception rooms in his house. His son Menenio is with him, and they are followed by Pubblio, the director of the public baths, and various clients and freedmen of Sallustio, and then by Appio Diomede, the tribune of Pompei, leading in the town’s elders and patrician leaders.
Menenio congratulates his father, and Sallustio asks the gods to make him worthy of the favour he is about to receive. The crowd sing praises to Sallustio, whom they have elected chief magistrate. Pubblio formally announces the appointment, and Appio is the first to congratulate the new magistrate, speaking of their tender friendship. Amid all the congratulations, however, Appio mutters about a burning fire that is consuming him and urges his heart not to give him away. Sallustio says that he already feels that he is a better person and Pubblio adds that the gods have shown their support by letting such a worthy man be appointed. Appio explains that a great festive event is being prepared in the forum to celebrate the appointment, and then, as Sallustio’s wife Ottavia approaches with her maids, Appio again privately comments that the sight of her makes his heart sad.
Ottavia’s maids sing of the celebratory garland of roses which Ottavia is wearing, and Ottavia greets Sallustio by telling him that she has long awaited this day, and that now her happiness is complete. Sallustio is moved by her love, and as Appio again urges his heart not to make him so jealous, Ottavia sings tenderly of her happiness. Appio now urges everyone to head for the forum, led by Ottavia and a group of noble matrons. As Sallust and his supporters leave in high spirits, Appio whispers to Fausto, one of Sallustio’s freedmen, that he will return shortly.
When everyone has gone, Appio quickly returns, and is furious to see that Menenio is still with Ottavia and tells Fausto to get rid of him, adding that if his main intentions are frustrated, he has a plan B; Fausto tells Menenio that his tutors are waiting for him in his rooms, and Ottavia tells her son that he should go to them. Appio and Ottavia are left alone, and while Ottavia looks forward to joining Sallustio for the celebrations, Appio announces that surely she can see how much he loves her. Ottavia is appalled, and tries to leave, but Appio begs her to have mercy on him. She tells him that a base passion must give in to reason, and Appio tells her that a burning love has no time for reason. She tells him that he has abused her friendship, and Appio throws himself at her feet. As she continues to berate him, Appio’s passion turns nasty and he threatens her. He curses the gods for making her so implacable, while she tells him that he has spoiled her day of joy. She leaves; and Appio quietly calls Fausto to return.
Fausto has been eavesdropping and knows of Ottavia’s rejection of Appio. Appio asks Fausto if he is loyal, and Fausto replies that after receiving so many gifts from Appio he is indeed ready to betray his former master; gold, he says, will always triumph over virtue. Appio goes out and returns with Clodio, Pubblio’s teenage son. This is Plan B. Telling Clodio of the rewards he will receive, Appio gives him and Fausto their instructions – Fausto is to dress Clodio convincingly as a woman so that he can join the crowd of maids who will accompany Ottavia to the celebrations. Fausto asks what will happen next, but Appio tells him to obey, not ask questions. Fausto has a twinge of regret about getting involved in such a plot. Appio leaves, and as Fausto takes Clodio inside to adorn his hair and dress him up, Fausto observes that those who trust in love are blind.
On the northern side of the town, at the Nola gate, a crowd is gathering for the festive procession to the forum on the other side of the city. Appio meets up with Pubblio, tells him that Clodio’s disguise is in hand, and rehearses the plot. Pubblio confirms that he owes his wealth and his job at the baths to Appio and that he will do what is required of him.
The forum of Pompei as it is today, with Vesuvius still brooding in the background (author’s photograph)
In the forum, preparations are in full swing. The Temple of Jove is in the centre, flanked by triumphal arches leading to all the main streets of the town. Solemn processions enter through these two arches – one consisting of the magistrates, elders and patrician leaders leading Sallustio in a grand chariot and followed by the crowds, and the other consisting of the maids and the matrons (including the disguised Clodius) with young girls and boys dancing round, leading Ottavia’s carriage. The High Priest and his sacred entourage are waiting on the steps of the temple, with an altar on which the sacred fire is burning, and a wreath lying in a sacred bowl. The distinguished community leaders and the crowd all hail Sallustio, as supreme power over Pompei is granted to him. Sallustio responds by dedicating himself to his new job. To sacred hymns and dancing, the High Priest places the laurel wreath on Sallustio’s head. Sallustio is greatly moved, Ottavia is overjoyed, and Appio and Pubblio relish the revenge which they have got planned.
Sallustio descends the temple steps and Pubblio presents him with the official stool, the sign of office, granted only by merit and favour. Sallustio asks what he can do to show his gratitude to the town, and Pubblio replies that he must exercise his new powers to Pompei’s advantage. Appio steps forward and presents Sallustio with the Hand of Divine Justice, a symbol of his legal powers, and urges him to punish every crime, light or serious. Sallustio swears never to be swayed by friendship, blood ties, the fair sex or age, and Appio and Pubblio smirk up their sleeves while Ottavia wonders what trick Appio might be planning to hurt her and Sallustio. The High Priest tells Sallustio that a feast is prepared in the Great Theatre, and as Appio and Pubblio sneak away, Sallustio calls everyone to accompany him and calls on the gods always to bestow favour on Pompei.
Appio and Pubblio have reached the Grand Theatre before the crowd, and as Appio anticipates his revenge on Ottavia for rejecting him, Pubblio repeats his support for Appio’s plan.
The author sitting pensively in the Grand Theatre in Pompei, still occasionally used for performances today, as the seat numbers show.
The citizens of Pompei now flock to the theatre (the stage directions say that they come from various directions, but there are only two directions to approach the Grand Theatre). The town lictors come first, then the Vestal Virgins led by the Grand Vestal, then Sallustio, Appio, Pubblio and Ottavia with her maids, among whom is the disguised Clodio. Ottavia and Sallustio greet one another tenderly, and as they enter the theatre together, Pubblio suddenly begins to shout; he pushes into the gaggle of maids and throws himself on the disguised Clodio, who fakes appropriate surprise. Pubblio hauls the lad out and demands to know why he is disguised as a girl. The whole crowd expresses astonishment and when Sallustio demands to know what is going on, Pubblio says that Clodio is disguised at Ottavia’s suggestion, in order to dishonour her husband. In the shocked silence which follows, Pubblio explains that Ottavia is having an affair with Clodio and keeps him close by her disguised as a maid. Sallustio hesitantly asks Clodio whether this is true, and Clodio announces that Ottavia is very beautiful, and who can resist the passion of a young heart.
In a powerful and dramatic quintet, Sallustio, Ottavia, Appio, Pubblio and Clodio explore their feelings at what has just happened and the crowd express their sorrow that the happiness of the day has been spoiled. Ottavia tells Sallustio that she is innocent, and not afraid of slander, but that the deceit which she has been subjected to is beyond reason. Appio now reminds Sallustio of his responsibilities to the law and his vow not to be swayed in the delivery of punishment for crimes, and Pubblio and Clodio add their weight to the demand for punishment of an adulteress. Sallustio protests that he knows the purity of his wife’s soul, and Appio piles on the pressure, saying that Clodio has done Sallustio a favour by revealing her true nature. Ottavia realises that the whole thing is Appio’s revenge, and as Sallustio asks for help from the gods to guide him through his dilemma, she too asks the gods to strike down the liars and prove her fidelity. Appio and Pubblio urge Sallustio to uphold the law that he has vowed to preserve. The crowd, realising the awfulness of the situation, disperses glumly.
Appio and Pubblio meet on the steps of the temple and Pubblio reassures Appio that Fausto will not give the plot away, and that Sallustio will have no choice but to condemn his wife. Soldiers arrive, and form two flanks either side of the seat of Justice. The populace arrived, with the elders and the patrician civic leaders. Then Sallustio and Ottavia arrive. The crowd solemnly remind Sallustio of his duty to uphold the law, despite his personal grief, and he tries to find the courage to do the right thing. Ottavia addresses him as a judge, not as a husband of fifteen years who has known her unwavering loyalty and devotion, and she demands vengeance for the insult, asking where is the man who has accused her and what evidence does he have. Sallustio announces that he wishes to speak to Ottavia alone, and dismisses the crowd. Alone, Sallustio says that as a husband and not a judge, he must know if there is any truth in the accusation, and whether Ottavia has anything to confess to him. Ottavia is rightly offended, and now, convinced of her innocence, Sallustio says that Pubblio and Clodio must retract the accusation and demonstrate their loyalty to the law. Ottavia tells him that this will not happen, because they have been bribed by Appio – she tells Sallustio of Appio’s attempt to seduce her. At first, he can hardly believe her, but as he realises that she really is innocent, he tells her that he can save her, and they both call on the gods to help them.
Appio and Pubblio burst in and say that the people are getting impatient to see justice done. Sallustio takes a deep breath, and calls forth the accuser. But Appio speaks first, using his position as tribune to accuse Ottavia of interrupting a civic celebration by her betrayal of her husband. Pubblio then claims that Ottavia has enticed his son away from the family home, seduced him, and then forced him to dress as a maid in order to keep him close to her. And he reminds Sallustio that the whole of Pompei witnessed the outcome. Sallustio orders Clodio to speak, and the boy repeats that Ottavia is so lovely that his shameful blushes should be answer enough. Sallustio realises that he is losing control of the situation, but Ottavia accuses Appio of attempting to seduce her, threatening her when she refused, suborning Pubblio and Clodio (whom she says she had never seen before), and devising the whole plot.
Appio calls her a liar, and when her maids speak up to say that they had never seen Clodio among them before, he orders them to be silent because they are accessories to the crime. The crowd call upon Sallustio to dispense justice – but just at that moment, there is a low rumble from Vesuvius. The crowd panics at the noise, and Ottavia says that it is the voice of a god lifting the veil from a nasty slander. Appio counters by saying that it is the voice of a god demanding a punishment. The crowd repeat their calls for Sallustio to make a decision, Appio and Pubblio call for the death penalty immediately, and as more rumbles come from the volcano Sallustio, in anguish, announces that Ottavia is to be buried alive at once. Ottavia is dumbfounded, Appio exults at his victory, and Sallustio is horrified at the enormity of his verdict.
At Appio’s house just outside the city walls, Fausto is waiting, unaware of what has happened. He is beginning to regret his betrayal of Sallustio and Ottavia, and is hoping that Pubblio’s hints that he might back out of the plot mean that Ottavia is still safe. He leaves, intent on finding Pubblio. Appio now arrives home. He realises that by taking such a vicious revenge on Ottavia, he has actually destroyed the woman he loves, and his heart now has no peace. Townsfolk arrive to tell him that the funeral procession is waiting for him, and reluctantly he leaves, commenting that he is about to lose her forever, and his love will now be completely hopeless.
At the dungeon where such death penalties are carried out, on a balcony looking out over a street flanked by funeral monuments, Ottavia slowly arrives, veiled in black, preceded by her mourning maids and guarded by soldiers. Sallustio follows, and then Appio, Pubblio and the crowd. Ottavia’s maids are weeping, and the crowd implore the god to stop hurling his thunderbolts now that a guilty woman is about to meet her just death. But the sky darkens and a great wind arises. Sallustio gathers his strength and orders a tomb to be opened. Ottavia asks to speak with her husband but Sallustio says that her husband has died of a broken heart, and he is now merely the upholder of the law. Heartbroken herself, Ottavia tells him that one day, her innocence will be proved, and that he will feel pity for her; but all she wants to do now is to weep on his hand, and to die bearing no grudges. Sallustio is close to breaking down and even Appio and Pubblio begin to feel remorse. Ottavia’s maids still protest that she has been the victim of a cruel trick, but the crowd comment that a misplaced passion is bound to lead to lost virtue. Ottavia bids her loyal maids farewell. She turns to Appio and tells him to rejoice in his victory, and she tells Pubblio to get out her sight because he is a foul slanderer. She then begs Sallustio to look after their son. As she is led into the tomb, the noise of roaring from Vesuvius gets even louder. Sallustio suddenly calls out that the gods are not appeased, but they are still angry; he orders the sentence to be suspended. In horror, everyone turns to watch the plume of smoke and lava burst out of the volcano and the whole sky becomes dark.
The augurs turn on Appio and accuse him of bringing this disaster on their town; Pubblio breaks down and confesses his part in the plot, saying that it is he who deserves to be put to death. He reveals all the details of Appio’s plan, including the parts played by Clodio and by Fausto. Sallustio and Ottavia fall into one another’s arms and as Appio joins Pubblio in confessing everything, both of them are dragged away and sealed in the tomb.
Vesuvius erupts in full and aweful majesty, and ashes and lumps of pumice fall from the sky. There is total panic; the crowd realises that there can be no escape, and a dense fog rolls over everything, accompanied by massive claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. Then, through the fog, Menenio bursts in driving a chariot; he urges his parents to climb on, and then drives the chariot away taking them to safety. The crowd disperses screaming; parents lead their children this way and that, not knowing where to go, some people are carrying their possessions, the Vestal Virgins and the priestesses try to flee. The rain, thunder, lightning, explosions and fog add to the total confusion. Pompei is destroyed.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
The life and operas of Giovanni Pacini
The life and librettos of Andrea Leone Tottola
The background to the writing of L’Ultimo Giorno di Pompei
The details of the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius which caused the destruction of the city of Pompei
The places in the opera which you can visit in Pompei today – Sallustio’s house, the forum, the temple, the Grand Theatre, the Nola gate and Appio’s house.
and another opera which tells of the destruction of Pompei, but which was based on the famous novel The Last Days of Pompei by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, published in 1834, nine years after Pacini’s opera
… and many, many other operatic tales of love, betrayal, death and revenge
© Roger Witts 2007