Opera in one act.
Libretto by Arturo Colautti.
First performed on 18 April 1896 in the Teatro Communale in Mola di Bari
(now named the Teatro Van Westerhout).
The scene is Venice in the mid seventeenth century in the bedroom of Doña Flor, the wife of the Spanish Ambassador to Venice, Don Filippo Carlo Olivarez, Marquis of Pilar. The apartment overlooks the Grand Canal. It is the evening of the Carnevale.
Doña Flor returns from the carnival festivities in the palazzo below; she dismisses her maid and then as she undresses, she wonders aloud why her lover did not use the secrecy of the masked celebrations to approach her. Gondoliers outside can be heard singing that luck is like a wave – if it falls low it reveals and betrays you, if it rises high it engulfs you. Saddened, Doña Flor takes up a lute and sings a song to her lover but this does not raise her spirits and she kneels in prayer instead.
Her husband Olivarez enters and apologises for disturbing her prayer. He asks her why she slipped away from the festivities so early and she tells him that she found the heat and the jollity oppressive, so she decided to hide in her room instead. He comments that it was not sensible to undress and then open the window on such a night, with no moon and so many people around. Again, gondoliers can be heard singing about an exchange between one man who is about to be married and another who is carrying a drowned man. Olivarez comments that even the gondoliers seem unusually gloomy and asks his wife if she would prefer to be alone. She says that she would, but he approaches her, telling her that in her state of undress she is very lovely. He turns to leave, and Doña Flor prepares to get into bed, but suddenly he tells her that he has a note, intended for her but delivered instead to him. He has read the unsigned note, but gives it to his wife and tells her to read it: ‘I shall come tonight; the signal will be the serenade’, she reads out. She tries to suggest that it is just a carnival joke but he tells her that he had intercepted the note – the author had paid in silver, but he used gold to acquire it from the person charged with delivering it.
Doña Flor tries to assert her innocence, but with increasing rage, Olivarez calls her a liar and a whore; he is a man of honour, he tells her, and in earlier days he was delighted with his pure young wife. They exchange hurtful insults – your winter has killed my spring, she tells him, and when he responds that he raised her up to his level of nobility, she replies that he bought her. They struggle, and Doña Flor falls to her knees. A boat full of merrymakers passes by on the Grand Canal and are heard singing about a lover who cannot find his beloved in the dark. Olivarez curses Venice with its fascinations and its corrupting influence and stares at her, commenting that his pure flower from Castile has been soiled in the mud.
Defiantly, Doña Flor tells him that she does indeed have a lover – young, handsome, brave, and that she loves him more than she loves life. Olivarez chokes back his anger and tells her that in Spain, it is customary for sinners to be put somewhere where they can plead for heavenly forgiveness, but that she is destined for another fate. He demands to know the name of her lover. He asks how they meet – does the lover have the boldness to come in through the front door of the palazzo, or does he climb secretly in through the balcony using a silk ladder? She hesitates to reply, and Olivarez tells her that he will wait there with her for her lover to come. He produces a ladder from his doublet and says that he will lower it himself and gag her so that she cannot call out a warning. He unsheathes his sword, places it on a table and settles himself on a chair in front of the balcony. The silence is broken by the great bell of San Marco striking midnight. While Doña Flor prays quietly, Olivarez relishes the situation and comments that of all the womanisers in Venice, Alvise Malipiero is the most cunning; every husband suspects him but he scorns both decent men and immoral women.
Doña Flor pretends to be indifferent to the mention of the name, but Olivarez taunts her further, telling her that Malipiero has already made a painting of her so why would he not climb the ladder to check that her features are still the same? Doña Flor desperately tells Olivarez that Malipiero is not her lover, and that Olivarez should kill her and spare an innocent man. Olivarez says that if it is Malipiero, then everything changes, and they shall both live because he will be more than revenged. Doña Flor is puzzled, but Olivarez continues relentlessly, telling her that Malipiero now has a new lover, the well-known Foscarina. Doña Flor accuses him of lying but he merely observes that a painter finds beauty in many things. He tells Doña Flor to look at what Malipiero wears around his neck – it is miniature with an image of Foscarina which he has painted, just as he painted hers. So she too is betrayed, just as she has betrayed her husband.
As Olivarez and Doña Flor stare at one another, the voice of Malipiero is heard outside calling for his dark-haired beauty to come out onto her balcony to greet her lover. Olivarez goes to sheathe the sword and leave her to face Malipiero but Doña Flor begs him to kill Malipiero. Olivarez says that he is in no hurry, and suggests that if someone cuts the ladder, Malipiero will fall into the canal and be drowned – he tells her that his manservant is ready with a knife.
Outside, Malipiero can be heard singing again: if your love has gone, just continue to sleep and do not come out onto the balcony. Doña Flor declares that Malipiero’s betrayal deserves no mercy and Olivarez gives her the ladder and tells her that he is going to leave her to face her disloyal lover alone. He watches as she unrolls the ladder and lets it fall, and then raises a candelabrum three times as a signal, then he leaves, laughing cruelly.
Alvise Malipiero, a young Venetian nobleman, climbs the ladder and comes over the balcony. He embraces Doña Flor, unaware of her resistance, and then kneels in front of her and sings passionately of his love for her. Eventually, he recognises her silence and asks her what is the matter. Coldly, she asks why he did not come to her party earlier and he explains that he was delayed by his mother’s birthday celebrations. She asks if there were many charming women there and he tells her that there were poets too and that he had read a sonnet which he had composed in her honour. She asks to hear it, commenting that Italians can lie in poetry just as well as they can in prose. She sits down, and Malipiero sings the sonnet to her; it is a beautiful poem of love. Doña Flor applauds lightly and comments that love does not need words; it thrives in silence. Mockingly, she sings a Spanish habanera about a mother advising her daughter to beware of a lover when he starts to produce poetry. Malipiero is surprised and asks whether she does not believe him. She says that she is dark-haired and cannot compete with the blonde Venetian beauties. Malipiero explains that it was her sultry beauty which first attracted him to her, and when she bursts out laughing, he throws himself at her feet, declaring that she is his only love. As he continues to pour out his love, Doña Flor begins to weaken in her resolve and finally falls into his arms telling him that she loves him. They kiss slowly and gently.
Olivarez now comes in, and seeing them in a warm embrace, hisses ‘La Foscarina!’ The enchantment is broken; Doña Flor breaks free as Olivarez hides in the curtains by the door; Malipiero asks who spoke that name, and she says that maybe the wind blew it in from the Grand Canal. As he takes her in his arms again, she plays with the locket around his neck and asks him what it contains, since he always wears it over his heart. He changes the subject and continues to embrace her, but Doña Flor opens the locket and shouts out at what she sees inside. It is Foscarina, she accuses. Malipiero tells her that it is a picture of the Madonna. She tears the locket from his neck and stamps on it, ordering him to leave by the balcony. He is surprised and pleads with her, but when Olivarez, still hidden, stamps on the floor, she tells Malipiero that her husband is knocking at the door and again orders Malipiero to leave as he vainly repeats that he is loyal to her. Reluctantly, he climbs over the balcony and begins to descend the ladder.
Olivarez comes out of hiding and sees Doña Flor leaning over the balcony; he hears a brief cry, and then a splash. She stands, then crosses herself. Outside, gondoliers sing that a splash might mean an accident, but maybe the Lord wanted it. Olivarez approaches Doña Flor and congratulates her, laughing. He picks up the broken miniature and says that it was a copy of a Spanish Madonna which he bought from a Jew for a few coins and gave to Malipiero to bring him luck. Doña Flor realises that she has been tricked and looks horrified over the balcony. She pleads to the Virgin for forgiveness, points at her husband and screams ‘Assassin!’ and faints. Olivarez stands over her and laughs.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
The life and operas of Niccolò van Westerhout
The life and librettos of Arturo Colautti
The background to the writing of Doña Flor
The plots of the principal librettos of Colautti, including Fedora for Umberto Giordano, and Adriana Lecouvreur and Gloria for Francesco Cilea.
A similar story of a vicious love triangle in Venice in Erich Korngold’s one-act opera Violanta
… and many more aspects of Italian opera at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.
© Roger Witts 2008