Misunderstood Melodrama: Bellini's 'Zaira'

WOO-1245-Zaira-300-2The two acts of Bellini's opera both take place in and around the palace of Orosmane, a middle-eastern sultan.

ACT ONE begins in Orosmane's harem, where we meet Zaira. She's Orosmane's favorite, and the two have fallen so much in love that Orosmane has asked Zaira to marry him. She has eagerly agreed, even though she realizes she was born a Christian in Europe. She still wears the small golden cross that was given to her when she was just a child. But Zaira was orphaned long ago, and Orosmane has given her a good home.

Still, not everyone in the palace approves of the upcoming marriage. One of the sultan's high officers, Corasmino, is determined to stop it. And Fatima, another Christian woman in the harem, urges Zaira not to abandon her faith.

Meanwhile, Orosmane is visited by a delegation of French knights, led by Nerestano. An agreement has been reached for ten captured Frenchmen to be released from the sultan's prison. Orosmane, apparently giddy with love, is in a magnanimous mood. He offers to return one hundred French citizens -- not just ten. But two must stay behind -- the aging French Prince, Lusignano, and Zaira, the Sultan's bride-to-be.

As it turns out, Orosmane is eventually persuaded to release Lusignano, as well. In an emotional scene, the old leader is reunited with his men — and he also meets Zaira. When Lusignano first sees Nerestano, he realizes that he has found his long lost son. And that's not all. When he spots the small cross on Zaira's neck, Lusignano knows that he is the one who gave it to her, when she was small. Lusignano and Zaira are father and daughter, and Nerestano is Zaira's brother.

But the reunion is less than joyful, as Zaira still seems determined to marry Orosmane. And, in any case, the sultan isn't about to let her go. He orders her back to the harem to await their wedding. But as she says goodbye to her father and brother, love for her family seems to overcome her feelings for Orosmane, and Zaira pledges not to go through with the marriage.

Watching this tearful scene from a distance, Corasmino mistakenly believes that Zaira and Nerestano must have fallen in love. He decides to use that knowledge to drive a wedge between Zaira and the Sultan.

As ACT TWO begins, Zaira still hasn't told Orosmane that she no longer wants to marry him, and now begs him to delay the ceremony -- hoping to gain extra time to work things out.

WOO-1245-Zaira-300Meanwhile, her father Lusignano has grown gravely ill, and dies. The sultan allows his French visitors to give their old leader a Christian burial -- but Zaira cannot attend the ceremony, as the wedding is to take place the very next day. In fact, Orosmane never even tells Zaira that Lusignano is dead.

As all this is going on, Corasmino is still plotting to prevent the marriage, and Nerestano is still determined to take Zaira back to France. Corasmino intercepts a message from Nerestano to Zaira -- asking her to meet him that night, in a remote garden. He shows this message to the Sultan, who is immediately convinced that Zaira has betrayed him. He tells Corasmino to go ahead and deliver message, so they can catch Zaira and Nerestano together -- and that's exactly what happens.

Zaira has learned of her father's death. Grief-stricken, she's even more determined to avoid the wedding. So she decides to meet Nerestano, and try to escape.

That night, the sultan and Corasmino are hiding in the garden when Zaira arrives, followed closely by Nerestano. Zaira renounces her love for Orosmane and wants to return home, to France. Quietly, the two try to leave. But Orosmane has been listening, and is still convinced that Zaira and Nerestano are lovers. He leaps from his hiding place and stabs Zaira. As she's dying, she says a last farewell to Nerestano -- calling him "my brother" -- and Orosmane realizes his mistake. Now even more distraught, he draws his knife again. This time he stabs himself, and Zaira and Orosmane both die as the opera ends.