Ricciardo e Zoraide, dramma in due atti to a libretto by Francesco Berio di Salsa, was first produced at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, on 3rd December 1818. The singers of the first performance were Andrea Nozzari (Agorante), Isabella Colbran (Zoraide), Giovanni David (Ricciardo), Michele Benedetti (Ircano), Rosamunda Pisaroni (Zomira), Giuseppe Ciccimarra (Ernesto), Maria Manzi (Fatima), Raffaella de Bernardis (Elmira).
The autographes are in Naples, Conservatorio; Pesaro, Fondazione Rossini; Bruxelles, Fondo Michotte.
At the time of the crusades, the Asiatic prince Ircano has left his native land and established a small kingdom on the borders of Nubia. Agorante, the powerful king of this region, asks for the hand of Ircano’s daughter Zoraide; when this is refused, he declares war on Ircano and expels him from his territories. During their flight Zoraide meets Ricciardo, the bravest of the paladins, and, falling desperately in love with him, leaves her father and goes to live with Ricciardo in the crusaders’ encampment. Ircano, distraught at the loss of his daughter, clads himself in black armour and, styling himself “the Weeping Cavalier”, wanders everywhere in search of her. Meanwhile Agorante, having learned of Zoraide’s hiding-place, causes her to be kidnapped and carried off to his palace where his jealous wife, Zomira, still holds away.
A Square outside the walls of Duncala, capital of Nubia. Whilst the victorious troops march past, Agorante is acclaimed by the people for his triumph over the reckless Ircano: the king, his thoughts forever straying to his beloved Zoraide, proclaims his victory, proudly declaring that he fears neither Ricciardo’s vengeance nor the new armies raised by the crusaders.
A Room in Agorante’s palace. Zoraide hears the people shouting for joy in the distance and tells her confidante, Fatima, how her heart despairs over her wretched destiny: parted from her beloved Ricciardo and now the prisoner of Agorante, the girl also trembles to think of her father’ s anger and the possible vengeance of the jealous queen of Nubia. Zomira herself now enters and, pretending to be friendly towards Zoraide, tries to learn her secret thoughts and surprise her into confessing her love for Ricciardo, hoping thus to goad Agorante into a jealous fury. Zoraide, wishing at all costs to avoid Agorante’s anger, is careful not to betray her feelings, whereupon Zomira threatens her, giving full vent to her jealous rage. Agorante now comes on; he declares that he will repudiate his wife and marry Zoraide who, however, once more repulses the tyrant’ s amorous overtures. Zomira swears to be revenged whilst Agorante, indifferent to her protests, promises himself that he will have his way.
An open space by the banks of the Nubio river under the walls of Duncala. Some soldiers and scouts, whose duty it is to defend the city, rest beneath the walls. When they have all gone away Ricciardo disembarks on the shore with Ernesto, ambassador of the Christian encampment; the paladin has come to Duncala to set Zoraide free, and to avoid recognition he has disguised himself as an African guide. Ernesto tries in vain to persuade him to give up the dangerous venture: the heroic Ricciardo is ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of his beloved.
A Room in Agorante’s palace. After a brief scene in which Zomira instructs her confidante, Elmira, to spy upon her rival Zoraide, Agorante enters with his courtiers and receives the visit of the Christian ambassador, who has come to demand an explanation for the kidnapping of Zoraide and of some Frankish warriors. The king proudly retorts that he feels under no obligation to observe rules and treaties negotiated with an invading army: he agrees, magnanimously, to free the warriors, but he will keep his beloved Zoraide a prisoner in his court. Ernesto warns Agorante that this could mean a renewal of war between Nubia and the crusaders, whilst Ricciardo can hardly restrain his anger. To prove the sincerity of his passion, Agorante now has Zoraide brought in and he declares his love to her before the entire court. Once more Zoraide conceals her real feelings by pretending that her enforced separation from her father prevents her from complying with the king’s wishes. Despite Ernesto’s threats and Zomira’s opposition, Agorante summons his troops and insolently declares that he will not give up Zoraide and that he is capable of defending his own country.
Atrium of the palace adjoining the gardens. Zamorre, a court dignitary, informs Agorante that the Frankish ambassadors’s guide (in reality Ricciardo) has remained at Duncala to speak to the king. Agorante receives Ricciardo who, in his guide’s disguise, pretends to hate Ricciardo and all the crusaders; he complains that Ricciardo has carried off his wife and is only demanding the return of Zoraide because he believes her to be Agorante’s mistress, and wishes to be revenged. The king begs him to reveal Ricciardo’s treachery to Zoraide, hoping thus to persuade her to become his. When left alone Ricciardo meets the unhappy Zoraide, who is overjoyed when she recognizes him; the paladin reassures her that Ernesto will shortly come at the head of his men to free her. Unknown to the lovers, Elmira has witnessed their fond reunion and goes off to tell Zomira what has happened. Agorante comes back and tells the supposed guide, whom he obviously trusts, that he will demonstrate his generosity by freeing Zoraide; however, the idea of thus restoring her to his enemy Ircano makes him change his mind, and he declares that Zoraide’s destiny shall be decided by a duel between a crusader and an African champion. At this point there enters a mysterious knight, clad in black armour, who proclaims himself Zoraide’s champion; though nobody recognizes him, he is none other than Ircano. Agorante chooses the African guide to represent him in the combat, and orders Zoraide to be confined in prison. When all have retired Zomira enters and is astonished to hear from Elmira the true identity of the guide: having learned that he is Ricciardo himself, she hurries off to bring to fruition her implacable schemes of vengeance.
A deep and dark dungeon. Zoraide, who is anxiously awaiting the result of the duel, is joined by Zomira, who tells her that the victor is the mysterious African guide, whom she knows is really Ricciardo. She pretends to sympathise with Zoraide, and describes a route by which she could escape together with her beloved paladin. In actual fact, the jealous queen is preparing a trap for the lovers, having ordered her guards to arrest them during their flight, and now tells Agorante that the lovers have run into her trap; the king, meanwhile, has discovered that the mysterious Black Knight is Ircano. Distracted by the course of events he announces that justice will shortly be done and Zomira rejoices in the apparent success of her plans or vengeance.
A great square in Duncala. The people mourn the unhappy fate of Ricciardo and Zoraide who, condemned to death, are escorted on by guards: they are joined by Ircano who, having been wounded by Ricciardo in the duel, has also been condemned to death. Before mounting the scaffold the dejected Ircano repudiates his daughter, accusing her of leaving his protection to follow her passions, with the result that they have all been ruined. When Agorante enters, Zoraide begs him at least to spare her father; he agrees to this, but only on the condition that she yield to his wishes. Torn between her love for Ricciardo and her love for her father, Zoraide agrees at last to save her father’s life by the hateful bargain. At this crucial moment, however, Ernesto arrives at the head of his crusaders; he has defeated the Nubian armies and soon disperses Agorante’s few remaining guards. Ricciardo generously spares the lives of Agorante and Zomira, whilst Ircano, deeply moved by his daughter’s conduct, embraces her and consents to her union with Ricciardo, amidst the general rejoicing.