Venice Plays the Villain, in Donizetti's 'Caterina Cornaro'

Donizetti's opera has two acts, preceded by a lengthy PROLOGUE, which takes place in Venice in the mid-15th century. People have gathered to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Caterina, the daughter of Andrea Cornaro, to Gerardo, a handsome French knight.

But just as everyone is entering the church for the ceremony, a shadowy figure appears and demands a private chat with Caterina's father. It turns out the mysterious man is Mocenigo, a member of the powerful Council of Ten. He tells Andrea that the Council has other ideas for Caterina. They want her to marry Lusignano, the King of Cyprus, for political reasons. As Mocenigo leaves, he also makes it clear that Andrea and Caterina have no choice in the matter, saying the only alternative is death.

A shaken Andrea returns to the church and abruptly calls off the wedding. There's a chorus of objections -- and an indignant protest from the would-be groom, Gerardo. But Andrea is adamant, and the scene ends as Caterina bitterly rips off her bridal veil.

Scene two of the Prologue is in Caterina's private rooms. She's still despondent, tearfully listening to the lively songs of gondoliers on the canals. Her maid Mathilde then brings her a secret note. It's from Gerardo, who says he's planning to come that night to take her away. If they can't be married publically, they'll simply elope.

Caterina waits for him anxiously. But before Gerardo arrives, she has a visit from her father, and Mocenigo. They tell her that if she fails to marry Lusignano, Gerardo will be killed. Further, Mocenigo urges her to receive Gerardo as planned -- but to tell him she's no longer in love with him. To make sure she doesn't hesitate, he points out several of his armed henchmen in a nearby room.

Gerardo arrives, as expected, ready to spirit Caterina away. But fearing for his life, she denounces their love. When the surprised Gerardo mentions rumors that she might be marrying a king, she tells him the rumors are true. In a frantic finale, Gerardo curses the day he met Caterina, and makes his escape.

For ACT ONE, the action moves to Cyprus. Mocenigo is alone in a square in Nicosia, at night. He's come from Venice with a band of armed henchmen. Their leader, Strozzi, approaches Mocenigo with a message. He says that Gerardo has also arrived in Cyprus, armed to win Caterina back. Mocenigo tells Strozzi to gather his men together, ambush Gerardo, and murder him.

We then meet Lusigano for the first time. He's alone, as well, and in disguise. And while he may not be the man Caterina had wanted to marry, it seems he's not such a bad guy after all. He had thought the Venetians wanted to cement an alliance. But it turns out they want to get rid of Lusignano, and control Cyprus for themselves. Lusignano is angry at their betrayal -- and also upset that the Venetians have made Caterina unhappy by forcing her to marry him.

Strozzi's men pass by, and soon after Gerardo cries out in the distance. But after a moment, Strozzi appears again, this time on the run. Gerardo has escaped the assassination attempt -- with the help of Lusignano. At first, the two men don't know each other. But as they talk, they discover they have plenty in common. They're both originally from France. They're both in love with Caterina. And now, they both have plenty of reason to hate the Venetians. Gerardo reveals that after leaving Venice, he joined the famous order of the Knights Hospitallier, in Rhodes. Now, he dedicates his life to serving Lusignano, and protecting Cyprus.

The next scene takes place in the palace. Lusignano feels sorry for Caterina, who never wanted to be in Cyprus to begin with -- much less married to him instead of Gerardo. As he tries to console her, word comes that a Frenchman is there to see him. The man bringing the news is no other than the Venetian hitman, Strozzi, who has infiltrated the royal palace. Not knowing who the Frenchman is, Lusignano asks Caterina to entertain their guest. As Strozzi ushers him in, he realizes that it's Gerardo and immediately leaves to report this news to his boss, Mocenigo.

Caterina and Gerardo meet once again, in private. They share news of their new lives -- Caterina as Queen of Cyprus, and Gerardo as a Knight of Rhodes. But Gerardo has more news. He tells her of the Venetian plot to overthrow Lusignano. It seems they've giving the king a slow-acting poison, hoping he'll die without anyone knowing who's responsible.

Mocenigo then enters and admits the plot. He tells Caterina that if she doesn't go along, he'll accuse her of adultery, and say she is the one who poisoned Lusignano. This scheme has a weak point. Lusignano isn't actually dead yet! And he appears in person to say he's ready to declare Caterina's innocence and have Mocenigo arrested. But before Lusignano can call his guards, Mocenigo signals to someone outside. Cannon fire is heard, and as the act ends Cyprus is under attack.

ACT TWO begins with drums representing the guns of battle. Gerardo gives a stirring appeal, rallying the citizens to fight for Cyprus and their king. In the palace, we find Caterina. She listens as her ladies describe the battle outside, and then prays for holy intervention.

Before long, news comes that Lusignano and Gerardo have won a great victory, and the Venetians are defeated. But when Lusignano returns, he's been mortally wounded. Supported by Gerardo, he urges Caterina to rule in his place, and then dies. Gerardo, having fulfilled his promise to Lusignano, quietly leaves for Rhodes. The people of Cyprus kneel before Caterina, their new queen, as the opera ends.