Volume 37, No.2 - Summer 1991
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1990 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Enrique Alberto Arias

The May 1991 production of Amilcare Ponchielli's I Lituani by the Lithuanian Opera Company of Chicago with guest artists and orchestra from Lithuania has raised many questions about this rare opera and its composer. Ponchielli is known to most music lovers as the composer of La Gioconda (1876), but his many other compositions have fallen into oblivion. Born in 1834, Ponchielli studied at the Milan Conservatory beginning in 1843 and remained in provincial and rather unimportant positions until 1872, when his I promessi sposi won acclaim at Milan's La Scala and established the composer's reputation. His later career was marked by success, culminating in the 1876 production of La Gioconda at La Scala. Beginning in 1880, Ponchielli taught at the Milan Conservatory, including among his students Puccini and Mascagni. Ponchielli was active at the same time and moved in the same circles as Giuseppe Verdi, with whom he shared many common points of musical style and aesthetic.

It is clear from the above that Ponchielli had an important career and was a musical craftsman of a high order. Unfortunately, like so many other gifted opera composers of his generation, his operas are now little performed — even La Gioconda is not as popular as it once was—and the impact he had on his contemporaries is now little understood. With this in mind, the questions regarding I Lituani are especially intriguing. Why would an Italian composer write about Lithuania? How does this opera compare with such famous works as Verdi's Aida? And what are the specific inspirations for this powerful score?

In 1874 Ponchielli received a commission for an opera from the Italian publishers Ricordi. This was to be I Lituani, premiered at Milan's La Scala on 7 March 1874 with great success. The libretto was by Antonio Ghislanzoni (1824-93), who a few years earlier had written the libretto for Verdi's Aida (1871), an opera which, as we shall see, I Lituani has much in common. I Lituani was later revised and presented in St. Petersburg in 1884 as Aldona.

The libretto of I Lituani is based on Adam Mickiewicz's long epic poem Konrad Wallenrod. Born in Lithuania, Mickiewicz (1798-1855) came to be one of Poland's major poets in the first half of the 19th century. Inspired by such poets as Byron and Goethe, Mickiewicz often espoused the cause of his native country, although writing in Polish. This is especially evident in Konrad Wallenrod (1827), written in the style of a medieval epic and celebrating the victory of the Lithuanians over the Knights of the True Cross. The Teutonic order, or the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital at Jerusalem, was founded in 1190. In 1309 their headquarters became Marienburg—a convenient base from which to wage war on their pagan and Christian neighbors. Although founded as a benevolent organization, they were better known for their cruelty and rapaciousness. In the mid-14th century they battled fiercely with their Prussian and Lithuanian neighbors, and it is this period and this theme that dominate Konrad Wallenrod, and consequently I Lituani.

By the end of the 19th century Mickiewicz had a reputation as an impressive nationalistic writer, and it is no surprise that Ghislanzoni, himself a writer of importance, would turn to Konrad Wallenrod as a source for I Lituani (see the appendix). Because the epic is told as a story within a story, Ghislanzoni was forced to combine incidents and change the order of events of the original, resulting in an intricate libretto.

Specifically, Konrad Wallenrod is the story of Konrad, a seemingly loyal Teuton, who became the master of the knights. During the fight between the knights and Teutons, he allows the Lithuanians to win by misdirecting the attacks of the knights. It is later made clear that Konrad, an impostor, is actually a Lithuanian who had long planned this course of action. A complementary plot concerns the mysterious Aldona, who has walled herself up in a tower, promising to remain faithful to God until her death. Despite Alf's love for her and Konrad's pleas to free herself, she remains in the tower, a symbol of purity.

Ghislanzoni expands these elements by creating a continuous interaction between the principals and chorus and by conferring greater independence on Aldona and those associated with her. It is apparent that Ghislanzoni not only used the poem but also the historical-explanatory notes that Mickiewicz included with the poem (see the appendix). These notes make clear that the literary original was loosely based on episodes from 14th century Lithuanian history. It is also obvious that Ghislanzoni was interested in writing an effective libretto in the style of Aida.

One of the key questions that occurs is why Ponchielli would choose such a subject. Actually, there are several reasons for his selection. Like Verdi, Ponchielli was interested in Italian liberty and wrote works inspired by this passionate desire for freedom, such as his Hymn in Memory of Garibaldi of 1882. Like Verdi again, Ponchielli chose in the instance of I Lituani a seemingly innocent subject, but one with political implications for his day. As we have seen, the main theme of I Lituani is the Lithuanian struggle for freedom from German oppression. The story can be interpreted differently, however. The Lithuanians can stand for the Italians and the Germans for the Austrian empire, which had controlled Italy for much of the 19th century. Thus the Lithuanian cries for freedom can possibly stand for the Italians' cries, and a political situation of the 15th century can be viewed in terms of those in the 19th, or even of the 20th century. Verdi also had reinterpreted history in I Lombardi (1843) and in Un ballo in maschera (1859), just to cite a few examples. By selecting subject matter about distant times and lands, Verdi and Ponchielli could deliver political messages in the form of exciting and brilliant operas.

Another clear reason for I Lituani's initial success was that it dealt with an "exotic" people. By the late 19th century there was a fervent fascination with non-Europeans, probably influenced by the colonization of the period and the consequent greater knowledge of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Such works as Leo Delibe's Lakme (1883) and Verdi's Aida are just a few operatic examples that could be mentioned. For most Europeans of the day, Lithuania was as strange as Africa, and an opera on the subject was sure to spark interest.

Yet another reason for I Lituani's immediate success was that it dealt with a national subject, a stimulus for much poetry and music of the later Romantic period. Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (1836) established a tradition that was continued by many operas, such as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (1869). I believe that Bon's also acted as a general model for I Lituani because of their common emphasis on chorus and somber color. Characteristically, this type of opera is based on some important episode in the history of a given people, but expanded to allow greater prominence for the soloists and chorus. Often the chorus stands for the "people" as a whole and is therefore integral to the opera; thus the chorus assumes the role of a major character and dominates large portions of the opera.

In addition, both Verdi and Ponchielli were influenced by the French tradition of grand opera. Beginning in Gaspare Spontini's operas for the court of Napoleon, this tradition culminated in the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose Les Huguenots (1836) is a perfect example of the genre. Although this type reached its zenith in France in the 1830s and waned quickly thereafter, composers of the younger generation continued many of its characteristics. Wagner's first major opera, Rienzi (1842), is fully a part of this tradition, and traces of this genre can still be detected in his later works. Both Verdi's Aida and Ponchielli's I Lituani are greatly influenced by this tradition and have a common emphasis on history, spectacle, and ballet.

I think another possible reason for the similarities between Aida and I Lituani results from these two works being by the same librettist. As mentioned earlier, both operas have "exotic" subjects, choral episodes, and ballets. But in addition, there is a real similarity in the treatment of the heroines of the two scores. Both Aida and Aldona suffer from their being aliens, both feel a transcending love, and both are caught in historical circum-stances beyond their control.

This leads to another matter that is evident in any consideration of I Lituani: the apparent similarity in Verdi's and Ponchielli's musical styles. Verdi was the slightly older composer and had achieved by the 1870s an immense reputation, already having written such masterpieces as Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), and so forth. Both Verdi and Ponchielli wrote for La Scala and had Ricordi as a common publisher, and they both used libretti by Ghislanzoni and Boito—all of which is to say that they moved in a common sphere. In addition, the connections between the two composers' styles is so strong that much of I Lituani could, on superficial hearing, be mistaken for later Verdi. There are many of the same melodic and harmonic patterns, the same somber orchestration, and the same emphasis on the older modal traditions in many of the choruses. More importantly perhaps, Verdi's concern for integrating section into section evidenced in the later operas is mirrored by Ponchielli. This means that I Lituani has no long, virtuosic arias to focus attention on the soloists or to impede the forward motion of the drama. Rather one has duets and trios which build into choral passages, the solo sections functioning as parts of larger designs. On the other hand, there is little in I Lituani of the styles of Bellini and Donizetti, nor is there much prefiguration of the verismo outlook of Ponchielli's famous student Puccini.

The use of the middle ages was common during the Romantic period. Of course, Wagner is the best example of this, with such an opera as Lohengrin (1850) coming immediately to mind. Generally speaking, one does not think of Wagner much influencing Italian opera composers of the late 19th century. And certainly the general musical styles of Wagner and Ponchielli are far apart; but there is a common juxtaposition of good and evil— Germanas is somewhat equivalent to Telramund in Lohengrin, while Aldona is somewhat like the virtuous Elsa. Also, the long choral episodes which betray the influence of the Renaissance, the grand symphonic interludes and ballets relate I Lituani to Lohengrin in a general way. And both operas are nationalistic, but from a different point of view—Wagner, obviously, being very pro German. I would not want to overemphasize these connections, but the suggestions remains that something of Wagner's grandeur and cosmic symbolism can be found in I Lituani.

In many respects, I Lituani evolves more as an oratorio than an opera. As suggested frequently, the chorus is almost continuously on stage and the solo sections lead into choral conclusions. The principals often enter with the chorus on stage and the chorus, standing for the "people," often reacts in a unified manner. In addition, there are several beautiful a capella passages for the chorus, such as the "Preghiam pei vegilar" of the prologue. Like the choruses of Aida, the choruses of I Lituani confer a sense of sweep and monumentality.

The orchestra also plays an important role and is treated like the orchestra in Aida, which means that the darker colors predominate and the brass receive emphasis. The ballets of the second act are not only like the ballets of Aida but also allow for contrast of orchestral color and relaxation of emotional tone. The prelude to the opera as well as the scoring of the ballets and large choruses show that Ponchielli fully learned Verdi's mastery.

All of this has been said to establish the traditions and patterns that Ponchielli was working with while composing I Lituani. Considering I Lituani as an individual work of art, one is immediately struck by the complexity of the story line. The individual characters move like puppets and are hard to keep track of. Indeed in trying to follow the opera, it is easier to focus on the major themes rather than the logical progressions of the individuals. Ghislanzoni compressed an intricate history into the confines of an opera that lasts about four hours—about the same length, by the way, as Aida. As in some of Verdi's middle period operas, what results is a confusing multiplicity of characters whose motivations are sometimes obscure.

In summary, I Lituani represents one of Ponchielli's great accomplishments. Despite its initial success, the work has not held the operatic stage, possibly because its subject matter is obscure and its libretto complex. Ponchielli's dramatic musical style compares favorably with that of Verdi and clearly shows the influence of that great genius. Although many traditions and operas had a general impact on the formation of I Lituani, the relationships to Aida are the deepest and the most telling. For a modem audience, I Lituani remains a problem, a problem whose solution lies in the correct understanding of its stylistic and historical antecedents.


The following statement by Ghislanzorni regarding his libretto for I Lituani is important for the proper understanding of the origins of the work. It is found in Giuseppe de Napoli, Amilcare Ponchielli La Vita/ Le Opere/ L'Epistolario (Cremona, 1936), pp. 118-19.

"In the notes of Adamo Mickiewicz's Konrad Wallenrod, we read the following: We have given our poem the title of 'Novella Storica' (Historical Novel) because the characters' traits are based on important facts, and they have the mark of truth. The chronicles of the epoch, however, are obscure, and the general idea of the true events must be left to conjecture. Did Konrad Wallenrod actually exist? There is no doubt about it, as there is no doubt about his actions when the terrible occupation of the Teutonic Order was shaken and subjugated. This history does not stop there, and we owe the hypothetical storyline, which most likely occurred somewhere else, to the audacious and fervent fantasy of the illustrious Polish poet: Konrad, of Lithuanian origin, enrolled in the Teutonic Order with the purpose of dominating them and avenging his oppressed country from being dragged to extreme ruin.

"Two words about the origin and laws of Franco-Giudici. During the Middle Ages, the dukes and barons used to allow felons to go unpunished; but a society and its members, unbeknowest, took an oath to punish the guilty without regard to friendships or blood relations. The society's judges — the formidable Veh (later the society called itself Veheema) — would notify the condemned that they were to be given a death sentence by shouting the news under the windows of their homes or another place frequented by them. Strange rites accompanied the secret meetings, denunciations, and sentences, including the pointing of swords to the heart of the guilty, as is written in the Gran Libro. Adam Mickiewicz aptly described one of these meetings in his poem, as did Goethe, even earlier, in his Goetz von Berlichingen. The author of the libretto, using poetic license as can be guessed by reading, did not faithfully reproduce the scene where Konrad is proclaimed a traitor three times.

"The religion of the Lithuanians was a strange mixture of idolatry and imported Christianity. In the solemn rites, the vaydeloti and the ligonoti represented the priest and the bards. Among the fantastic divinities, the Willi were objects of special and sympathetic veneration, shapeless and diaphanous creatures, avengers of crime, or messengers of celestial forgiveness.

A. Ghislanzoni
(Translated from Italian by Francisco Foti)

For further information on I Lituani, please consult: Irmos Jankauskienës "Diplominis Darbas, A. Ponkjelio Opera Lietuviai", Lithuanian Conservatory of Vilnius, 1988. This thesis is available in the Zilevičius Archive, Lithuanian Youth Center, 5620 South Claremont Ave., Chicago, IL 60636.