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Introduction, synopsis and libretto in Italian and English

Chiara e Serafina (also known as I pirati) (1822), opera semiseria
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
Librettist:   Felice Romani  (1788-1865)
First performed: October 26, 1822 at La Scala, Milan.
Recordings:  None known of the complete opera. The trio from Act II Scene X is included on The Young Donizetti, Opera Rara ORR 299.

Libretto by Felice Romani (pdf)

Libretto translated by Paul Archer (pdf)

Note on the translation: I have tried to capture the spirit of Romani's libretto and to make it highly readable. A readable version is of course different from a singable version. Unfortunately I am hampered in my ambition to provide a singable version by not being able to refer to the original score. If anyone has located the score, I would be glad to hear from them!


The year when Chiara e Serafina was first performed, 1822, was a landmark year for the 25-year old Donizetti. Chiara e Serafina was the last in a series of four operas to receive a performance that year. In the previous two years there had only been two operas each year, and the first opera to be performed in 1822 was only his fifth opera to be staged in a theatre although there may have been one or two early student productions in Bologna where he was studying. By the end of 1822, Donizetti was working full-time and had tasted his first successes as a composer of operas with performances in Rome and Naples, culminating in Chiara e Serafina being performed at La Scala, Milan.

The first opera of Donizetti’s to receive a performance in 1822 was Zoraida di Granata with a libretto by Bartolomeo Merelli, at the Teatro Argentina in Rome on January 28th. Donizetti had worked with Merelli on three previous operas, two of which had been put on at the Teatro San Luca in Venice and one that had been performed during Carnival at Teatro Vecchio in Mantua. The opera was very well received and Domenico Barbaia, a prominent theatre impresario, offered Donizetti a contract to compose in Naples. Donizetti, who was stationed with his army regiment in Venice, was discharged from the army so that he could devote himself entirely to music composition. For his next opera he worked with the librettist, Andrea Tottola, and La zingara was first performed on May 12 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. His third opera of that year, La lettera anonima, had a libretto by Giulio Genoino and was performed just seven weeks later on June 29th also in Naples at the Teatro del Fondo.

Donizetti then began work on Chiara e Serafina to a libretto by the 34-year old Felice Romani. This was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that would last into the 1830’s, but the next production wasn’t until May 1828, nearly six years later, with Alina, regina di Golconda performed in Genoa. This was followed by Anna Bolena in 1830 in the Teatro Carcano in Milan and then by Gianni di Parigi at La Scala in Milan in 1831, which was the first time for Donizetti’s work to be performed there since Chiara e Serafina nine years earlier, although in the intervening years twenty-one of his operas had been put on at various other theatres. Donizetti and Romani went on to work closely together during the 1830’s on a series of operas: Conte di Parigi and  L’elisir d’amore in 1832, Parisina d’Este in 1833, Lucrezia Borgia in 1833, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra in 1834 and revised as Eleonora di Gujenna in 1839, Adelia (or La figlia dell’arciere) in 1840 with a libretto by Romani and Girolamo Marini.

1n 1822 Donizetti may have been hitting his stride as a composer but Romani was well established as a librettist. He had written two librettos for Simon Mayr – La rosa bianca e la rosa rossa and Medea in Corinto in 1813 which led to him being appointed librettist at La Scala. In the years up to 1822 his numerous librettos included Atar (1814), Le due duchesse (1814), Mennone e Zemira (1817), Danao (1818) and Atalia (1822) for Simon Mayr, Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Il Turco in Italia (1813) Bianca e Falliero (1819) for Gioachino Rossini, Maometto (1817), I due Valdomiri (1817) for Peter Winter, La gioventù di Cesare (1814) for Stefano Pavesi, Il barone di Dolshein (1818), Il falegname di Livonia (1819) and Vallace (1820) for Giovanni Pacini. Romani had quickly become the go-to librettist of his era. He was to go on to work with all the leading composers and, in addition to Donizetti and Rossini, he is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Vincenzo Bellini which began with Il pirata in 1827 and continued with, La straniera (1829), Zaira (1829), I Capuleti e I Montecchi, La sonnambula (1831), Norma (1831) and Beatrice di Tenda (1833).

Donizetti, on the back of his success in Naples in the first half of 1822, must have felt confident that opera was a musical form he was mastering and now he had been teamed up with Romani with the chance of a performance at La Scala. He would have read through Romani’s libretto fast, as it is a fast read, and with a mounting sense of excitement. Here was an action-packed drama with scenes ranging from the laugh-out-loud farcical to the nerve-wracking suspenseful with ample scope for a variety of musical interpretation ranging from a soft romantic duo (Serafina and Don Ramiro) to comic arias (Picaro), a dramatic trio (Chiara, Serafina and Lisetta) and full-blooded choruses.

Donizetti would also have appreciated that the libretto’s characters, into whose mouths he would put the music, although conforming to established types, were well-drawn with varying inner motivations. One of the features of the plot is that several of the main characters are not who they purport to be. This is most obvious with Picaro, the trickster figure, who double-crosses his way through the opera. Chiara is forced to take on the disguise of a sailor boy. Similarly, her father, Don Alvaro, cannot reveal who he really is because he has a death warrant out on him. Don Fernando plays along with Serafina and Ramiro’s love match but schemes to marry her himself for her dowry.

Set against these shifting characters are the more stable characters. They are of wide variety ranging from the comic fool, Meschino, to the truly menacing and dangerous pirate, Spalatro, from the flighty shrew, Lisetta, to the strong and ardent lover, Ramiro. Even the eponymous heroines, although sisters, have widely different characters due to their different backgrounds since their early separation: Chiara has spent many years in exile in the rough conditions of imprisonment on the Barbary coast and so therefore has a hardened pro-active, stop-at-nothing, capability; while Serafina has spent her time as the ward of a wealthy man, Don Fernando, in his country house and exhibits a more traditional feminine character, softer, more gullible, more nervous in stressful situations.

Another merit of the libretto is the contrasting scenes. It starts in the wide-open air, a shoreline with the sea stretching to the horizon. It also ends there. In between much of the action takes place in dimly-lit ruins underground. So the audience is presented with a clear picture of what lurks beneath the superficial cheerfulness of life as we plunge into darker psychological depths encompassing fear, danger, seduction and double-dealing treachery. We go from a relatively ordered world to a highly disordered one.


The action takes place on the island of Mallorca. Fisherman are setting out to sea to catch fish for the wedding party of Serafina and Don Ramiro. There are rumours, however, that Serafina may be forced into marrying her guardian Don Fernando. A sub-plot is established as we see the self-important Meschino hopelessly besotted by a young woman, Lisetta. A storm comes in and Serafina’s long-lost sister, Chiara and her father, Don Alvaro, are swept ashore. They have escaped from long years of captivity on the Barbary coast. Don Alvaro had been a considered a hero on Mallorca for saving the island from the attacks of Barbary pirates, however his name has been besmirched in his absence by Don Fernando and he has a death warrant out on him. When the castaways are found, they cannot therefore reveal who they are and Chiara pretends that they are two innocent shipwrecked sailors. They are taken to the castle of Belmonte by Agnese, the castle’s custodian, along with her daughter Lisetta and Meschino. But not before they have heard the alarming rumour that Don Fernando, the enemy of Don Alvaro, is intending to marry Serafina – and so Chiara resolves to go off on her own, still disguised as a sailor, to find Serafina.

A band of pirates has also been swept ashore by the storm. They have a secret hide-out on the island which is accessed by entering an ancient sarcophagus and going through tunnels that lead into the water system under the abandoned Castle Belmonte. The tunnels open out into a large dungeon-like area under the castle. While Spalatro, the pirate chief, and the other pirates descend into the tunnels, Picaro is left to muse on the pirate life and how he would rather find an easier way to get rich quick. He is carrying a small chest he has found on the shore, but before he can look to see what is in it, he encounters Don Fernando, for whom he used to work before becoming a pirate. Don Fernando offers him new employment: if Picaro agrees to help him in his quest to marry Serafina, he will reward him with gold. Picaro accepts the deal with alacrity. The plan is that Picaro will be introduced to Serafina as her long-lost father (Don Alvaro) and, after their joyful reunion, he will play on her duty as a daughter so that she will come with him into hiding until the death sentence on him (as Don Alvaro) is revoked. By this means, Don Fernando hopes to separate Serafina from Ramiro, her fiancé, so that he can marry her himself for her dowry. The introduction duly happens in the gardens of Don Fernando’s country house where we meet Serafina and Ramiro. The plan works well as Serafina agrees to accompany Picaro into hiding (thinking him to be her father) while maintaining her loyalty to her lover, Ramiro. However all has been observed by Chiara who is disguised as a mute orphan sailor boy begging for money as a busker. She now knows that Picaro and Don Fernando are not to be trusted as they are scheming to take Serafina away from Ramiro, but to say anything would be dangerous in Don Fernando’s house. She will wait for an opportunity to get Serafina on her own to reveal the truth. However there is a twist, Picaro has become enamoured of Serafina’s charms, and he will not go along with Don Fernando’s plan to remove her to Cadiz and wait for Don Fernando’s arrival there. He starts to hatch his own scheme which for the moment he reveals to Serafina as being to go to the king for a pardon. As he has already been given his payment in gold by Don Fernando, he no longer has any incentive to carry out Don Fernando’s scheme.

Meanwhile the pirates have travelled through tunnels to enter their underground lair under Castle Belmonte. Meschino stumbles across them while looking for Lisetta who he thinks has teasingly run away from him and is hiding there. Meschino is captured by the pirates, but they hear shouts and scatter into hiding as a group from the castle arrive including Agnese, Lisetta and Don Alvaro. They rescue Meschino but don’t believe his story of pirates being in the castle. Now Picaro and Serafina enter, they are disguised as strangers with Serafina covering her face with a long veil. Picaro says that Don Fernando has sent them with a letter. The letter conveys a command from Don Fernando to Agnese, the custodian of the castle, to give them rooms for the night because Picaro (in his guise as Don Alvaro) has to hide somewhere safe. Agnese agrees to this and they leave. Shortly afterwards Picaro returns to look for the secret trap-door that Don Fernando has told him leads to an escape route via pasages under the castle to the sea. The trap-door is hidden in the pedestal of a statue of Don Alvaro that honours him as the hero of Mallorca. While he is locating the trap-door, he overhears Chiara telling Don Alvaro about the treacherous plan. Picaro comes forward and confesses to the plan. He also informs them that the warrant for Don Alvaro’s arrest has been revoked and evidence of this is being held by Don Fernando. He advises Don Alvaro to seek the help of Ramiro in retrieving it while he takes Chiara to be reunited with Serafina. Don Alvaro hurries off. Picaro takes Chiara by surprise and locks her in a dungeon cell. When Serafina comes in, he grabs her, bundles her through the trap door and makes his escape with her. Guards rush in with Don Alvaro and Ramiro and they release Chiara. The first act ends with all joining forces to search for the traitor, Picaro, and save Serafina from his clutches.

The second act begins in the pirate’s refuge underneath Castle Belmonte. It is a gloomy place with passages and arches, and a staircase leading up into the castle above. The pirates fear they are coming under attack having been betrayed by Picaro, and resolve to defend their refuge. Meschino unwittingly stumbles on them (again!). He reports that Chiara and Lisetta had found the sarcophagus on the seashore open and they had persuaded him to join them in exploring its secret passage further thinking that Picaro might be hiding there. Meschino has lost them in the labyrinth of passages. The pirates spread out through the passages to defend their refuge from intruders, leaving Meschino behind. Chiara enters and persuades Meschino not be so cowardly; they set off together to find a way out. Now Picaro and Serafina come down the staircase, having entered through the trap-door in the castle above. Picaro leaves Serafina alone while he tries to find the escape route to the shore. Suddenly the pirates return, dragging Chiara, Meschino and Lisetta with them. They take Serafina prisoner. Chiara reveals to Serafina that they are sisters and that Picaro is not her father. Picaro reappears and pretends to be on the pirate's side; he gives them the bag of gold that Don Fernando had given him. He whispers to Serafina that he has a plan to save her. Serafina and Lisetta are locked in cells. In return for the gold, the pirates give Picaro a small chest they had found, which is the same chest that Picaro had brought ashore in the beginning of Act 1. Picaro opens it and finds a letter inside that testifies to Don Alvaro’s innocence. He hands the chest to Chiara, who receives it joyfully as she can now clear her father's name. The pirates leave Picaro in charge of Chiara and Meschino. Picaro releases Serafina and Lisetta. He tells them his plan to get them all out safely: he will go up the staircase to the trap-door by which he entered and break it open so they can escape into the castle above. Meschino is sent to keep watch for returning pirates while Picaro goes up to the trap-door. The girls are left alone and frightened, they can hear Picaro hammering on the door above. Then Picaro rushes back down to the staircase and, to their relief, he is accompanied by Don Ramiro and the castle guards. Don Ramiro is joyously reunited with Serafina. Meschino, Serafina, Chiara and Lisetta make their escape up into the castle, while Picaro, Don Ramiro and the guards set off to find the pirates and force them back to the sea.

The scene now shifts back to the shoreline as in the beginning of Act 1, however it is not so tranquil now as it has become a battleground. The fleeing pirates are forced back towards the sea and captured. The defenders are victorious, but their joy is cut short because Chiara has gone missing. However she shortly reappears to say that she had gone back to the pirate’s refuge in order to retrieve the letter that proves her father’s innocence. The treacherous Don Fernando is imprisoned. Picaro is forgiven everything and the opera ends in much rejoicing by all.

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