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Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
12 Nov 2006

DONIZETTI: Don Sebastiano

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Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848): Don Sebastiano

Fedora Barbieri (Zaida), Gianni Poggi (Don Sebastiano), Giulio Neri (Don Giovanni Da Silva), Enzo Mascherini (Camoens), Dino Dondi (Abaialdo), Paolo Washington (Don Enrico), Angelo Rossi (Don Antonio), Ugo Novelli (Ben-Selim), Coro e Orchestra Del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Carlo Maria Giulini (cond.)
Live performance, 2 May 1955, Firenze


Music composed by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Libretto by Eugène Scribe, based on the drama by Paul-Henri Foucher.

First Performance: 13 November 1843, the Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Zaida (Zayda), daughter of Ben-SelimMezzo-Soprano
Don Sebastiano (Dom Sébastien), King of PortugalTenor
Don Giovanni di Silva (Don Juam de Sylva), Grand InquisitorBass
Camoens (Camoëns)Baritone
Abaialdo (Abayaldos), Arab leaderBaritone
Don Enrico (Dom Henrique Sandoval), the King's lieutenantBass
Don Antonio (Dom Antonio), the King's uncleTenor
Ben-Selim, governor of FezBass

Setting: Lisbon and the Moroccan desert in 1577.


Act I

In Lisbon harbor, an armada is being readied to set sail to carry the army of King Sébastien to Morocco for a crusade against the infidels. The sailors describe their preparations for departure (“Nautoniers, mettez à la voile”). Dom Juam de Silva, the Grand Inquisitor enters with Dom Antonio, the King’s uncle. The latter preens because he will be regent during Sébastien’s absence, but Dom Juam (in an aside) mocks him, for he is determined to turn over all Portugal to King Philip II of Spain. A soldier approaches with a petition, requesting permission to address the King. Dom Antonio has just dismissed him rudely, when Sébastien appears and insists upon hearing the man’s petition (Camoëns: “Soldat, j’ai révé la victoire”). He explains that he is the poet Luis de Camoëns (Luiz de Camões), companion of Vasco da Gama and author of The Lustanians; he pleads for the privilege to accompany the King on his African expedition. The ominous voices of Inquisitors are heard approaching (“Céleste justice”) as they lead a Moslem maiden to the stake. Much to Dom Juam’s displeasure, Sébastien insist that she be released and aided to return to her native land. The girl, Zayda (mezzo-soprano), throws herself at the King’s feet in gratitude (“O mon Dieu, sur la terre”). A trumpet signals the hour of departure, and Sébastien invites Camoëns to predict the expedition’s fate (Camoëns: “Oui, le ciel m’enflamme”). As the sky darkens and thunder threatens, the poet prognosticates disaster for the King’s crusade. Undismayed and his optimism apparently widely shared, Sébastien boards his flagship. The populace bids the armada farewell, while Dom Juam cynically expresses his hope that Camoëns’ prediction will prove true.

Act II

Scene 1: A luxuriant African oasis. To one side is the entrance to the house of Zayda’s father, King Ben-Selim, in the distance a view of the city of Fez. Zayda confesses her love for the man who saved her life (“Sol adoré de la patrie”), an emotion that prevents her from being able to accept Abayaldos, the Moorish chieftain her father wants her to marry. Zayda’s companions seek to raise her spirits (“Les délices de nos campagnes”). Abayaldos appears and announces that the Portuguese army is approaching the plain of Alcazar Kebir, thereby rallying his followers to advance against the enemy (“Les chrétiens dans nos deserts”).

Scene 2: The battlefield of Alcazar Kebir is littered with bodies of slain Portuguese and Moorish warriors. King Sébastien has been seriously wounded, but he thinks only of trying to save his loyal companions: Camoëns and Dom Henrique de Sandoval. The King lapses into unconsciousness as Abayaldos and his troops whirl in to massacre any chance survivors (“Victoire, victoire, victoire!”). To draw attention away from Sébastien, Sandoval announces that he is the King as he dies from his wounds. His body is carried away in triumph by the Moors. No sooner are they gone that Zayda, veiled, enters and searches among the slain for Sébastien (Duet: “grand Dieu! as miser est. is grandee”). She recognizes him and soon they confess their irrepressible love. When Abayaldos and his scavengers return once more (“Du sange, c’est la loi du prophète”), Zayda begs him to spare the life of this man, offering to marry Abayaldos at once if he will only let this wounded man live, explains that as a Christian had once saved her life in Lisbon, she has vowed some day to save a life in return. Grudgingly and suspiciously, Abayaldos consents. Zayda leaves with the party of Moors. Alone on the darkening field, Sébastien laments the fate that has deprived him of all he cares for (“Seul sur la terre”).


Scene 1: In a room in the royal palace in Lisbon. Abayaldos confronts Zayda whom he has brought with him on his embassy to the court at Lisbon. Zayda has aroused his ferocious jealousy because, although now his wife, she murmurs someone else’s name in her restless sleep. She protests her innocence, but his suspicions and resentment are not placated.

Scene 2: In the great square of Lisbon in front of the cathedral, Camoëns, now in rags, apostrophizes his native town (“O Lisbonne, ô ma patrie”). Reduced to begging, he asks another soldier for alms, and is both shocked and delighted to recognize the tattered veteran as Sébastien, miraculously survived, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary (Duet: “O jour de joie”). In abrupt contrast to their jubilant reunion, a funeral chant is heard issuing from the cathedral (“Donne au coeur fidèle la paix éternelle”). To the accompaniment of a solemn funeral march, the cathedral doors are flung wide and a huge funeral procession leads on a catafalque so massive that it requires twenty men to carry it. Sébastien is watching what is purported to be his own funeral, for in the catafalque is the body that Abayaldos brought from Alcazar Kebir. Outraged, Camoëns protests the fraud. Dom Juam orders him seized, but Sébastien steps forward and, identifying himself, countermands the order. In the confusion attendant upon this announcement, Camoëns eludes capture and later determines to rouse support for the discredited king. Beside himself with rage, Abayaldos recognizes in Sébastien the man whom Zayda had begged him to spare and his hated rival (Sextet: “D’espoir et de terreur”). Dom Juam orders the pretender seized so that hem ay be tried by the Inquisition (“Scélérat, ah, en vain tu tentes”). Those opposed to Sébastien are determined he must die (Stretta of the finale: “Il faut qu’il périsse!”).

Act IV

In the subterranean hall where the Inquisitors examine and torture their prisoners, the hooded and masked officials assemble (“O voûtes souterraines”). The implacable Dom Juam urges them to fulfill their sacred obligations. Sébastien is led in and in answer to Dom Juam’s interrogation, he steadfastly insists upon his true identity. A veiled witness is produced, Zayda, who swears a solemn oath of her veracity as she recounts how she spared Sébastien’s life upon the battlefield. Dom Juam accuses her of blasphemy; Abayaldos, of adultery (“Va, perjure, epouse impie”). Although Sébastien and Zayda protest their innocence, Dom Juam charges them both with treason and orders them to prison, while the outraged curses of the Inquisitors pronouncing anathema fall about the ears of the hapless pair.

Act V

Scene 1: A room in the Tower of Lisbon. To one side there is a door opening upon a balcony; to the other, double doors that lead to the interior of the prison. Dom Juam has summoned Zayda, offering to spare Sébastien’s life if she can persuade him to sign a document denying that he is the rightful king and abdicating all claims to the throne. Zayda eagerly accepts this offer, thinking of the pleasure of sacrificing herself to spare her beloved (“Mourir pour ce qu’on aime!”). When Sébastien is taken to her so that she may explain the Inquisitor’s proposal, the King scornfully rejects the document, preferring death to dishonor. Yet, as he realizes the sacrifice that Zayda is intending to make (Duet: “Vain espoir, vain effort”), he declares that he would gladly renounce his throne if only they might live and love. Just then Camoëns voice is heard, as he makes his way up a rope ladder to the balcony (Barcarolle: “Pècheur de la rive”). He has come to help them escape and lead them to Sebastien’s loyal supporters (Trio: “De la prudence et du mystère”).

Brief final scene: Outside and beneath the tower, Abayaldos warns Dom Antonio that Camoëns is leading a conspiracy to free the King, a plot that the regent acknowledges he is perfectly aware of, as he awaits his prey. When the figures of Zayda and Sébastien are seen descending the rope ladder from the balcony, gunshots ring out and two corpses plummet into the harbor below. Dom Juam arrives exultantly, dismissing Antonio as he announces the annexation of Portugal by King Philip II of Spain. The distant voice of Camoëns is heard celebrating the memory of King Sébastien I.

[Synopsis Source: Opera Orchestra of New York]

Click here for the complete libretto

Click here for the complete libretto (Italian tranlsation)

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