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Event Series Event Series: Il diluvio universale

Azione tragico sacra by Domenico Gilardoni
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
First performance: Napoli, Real Teatro di San Carlo, 6th March 1830
Critic edition by Edoardo Cavalli © Fondazione Teatro Donizetti


A typical opera with a sacred subject designed for performance during Lent season, Gaetano Donizetti’s Il diluvio universale made its debut at the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples on 6 March 1830, with the celebrated bass Luigi Lablache in the role of Noè. Domenico Gilardoni’s libretto was inspired by Francesco Ringhieri’s tragedy Il diluvio, to which he added elements from Lord Byron and Thomas Moore. The model is, of course, Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, performed in the same theatre twelve years earlier. However, this incomparable model of religious opera intertwined the ‘sacred’ stories of the Bible with the ‘profane’ vicissitudes of the main characters, in a mixture of public and private themes. Despite an egregious mistake by the prima donna, Luigia Boccabadati, who at the premiere started singing the concertato of the finale of act one in advance, Il diluvio universale was well received and marks a crucial stage in Donizetti’s creative evolution. The extensive revision of this opera carried out by Donizetti a few years later witnesses the fact that he viewed it as very important. The second Il diluvio universale debuted at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa on 17 January 1834. However, the version presented at the Donizetti Opera Festival will be the original, Neapolitan one. Riccardo Frizza, the festival’s music director, will be on the podium while the performance will be directed by the Masbedo artistic duo: through the Flood, the first natural cataclysm in history, they urge us to reflect on such topical issues as the environmental emergency and the climate change – two topics that affect us all. This interweaving of collective and individual destinies is one of the core themes of the dramaturgy of Il diluvio universale. Once again, Donizetti is talking about us.


Noè and his family, knowing that God is about to send the flood, prepare the ark just outside the city of Sennàar, doomed to be destroyed together with its sinful inhabitants. Noè has converted Sela, the wife of Cadmo, the leader of the city. Sela confesses to Noè that her husband despises her for her faith and has publicly offended God and defied him to punish him. Cadmo’s mercenaries arrive and want to burn the ark, Noè tries to stop them, and Sela decides to return to her husband to persuade him to desist. At this point, Ada, Sela’s confidante but secretly in love with Cadmo, enters the scene. Ada makes Cadmo believe that Sela is close to Noè not for religious reasons but because she is in love with the prophet’s eldest son, Jafet. Much to Ada’s satisfaction, Cadmo repudiates his wife and sentences to death Noè, his sons, and also Sela, who has found refuge with them. Noè warns Cadmo not to defy divine wrath and foretells him that a flood is coming, while Nature unleashes thunder and lightning. Cadmo reaches the ark intending to destroy it, while Noè, Jafet, and Sela are arrested.
Cadmo promises Ada to marry her after his wife’s death sentence is carried out. In a dramatic confrontation between Cadmo and Sela, she refuses to confess a betrayal she did not commit but accepts the punishment, only asking to be allowed to embrace her son one last time. Cadmo denies her and even claims that he will reveal to her son his mother’s guilt and marry Ada. Betrayed by her friend, repudiated by her husband, and cursed by her son, Sela pleads for divine mercy. Meanwhile, Noè is imprisoned in the ark. Sela arrives to bring him the news that Cadmo has decided to kill them all. Noè then predicts that the flood is imminent. As Cadmo and his court celebrate the upcoming wedding, Sela arrives. Cadmo is willing to take her back as long as she recants Noè’s God and curses him. To get her son back, Sela agrees to do it but, as she pronounces her abjuration, she is stricken by lightning and falls to the ground. The Flood is suddenly and violently unleashed, as everyone flees in chaos. When the storm subsides, the few survivors gather on the mountaintops, while Noè’s ark floats undamaged on the land that has been submerged by water.