Reflector #29: Gaetano Donizetti – “Ô Lisbonne, Ô Ma Patrie”

It only takes a quick gaze at one of the painted portraits of King Sebastian and his ginger fresh-faced looks to know that messing with the Moors was a bad idea to start with. That’s what he resolved on doing in 1578 on an untimely and unnecessary expedition to Morocco.  Something that was so last century at a time when Portugal had already found a sea route to India, established trade with China and even Japan and was mostly in control of trade in the South Asian seas. The tragic outcome of the expedition took place at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir where Sebastian went missing in action,  heirless, leaving a freeway for the King of Spain to take over. What ensued for Portugal were 60 years under the yoke of the neighbours, indebted by the ransoms for the nobility caught up in that battle, an irreversible dent on the maritime position to the English, Dutch, and French, and things started to go downhill from there. This created a myth around Sebastian’s disappearance and his eventual re-appearance one day (on a misty morning according to poet Afonso Lopes Vieira). This is self-recognised as Sebastianism in the Portuguese collective psyche – applied even to various fields – like a saviour complex in reverse.

This is the backstory to the Italian Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal.  The opera, written in French, premiered in 1843 and features among others, the love story between Sebastian and the Zayda, the daughter of the governor of Fez (was it not an opera from the Romantic epoch), and also the poet Camões, a keen traveller, who was known for never turning down a good scrap (he lost one eye in battle in Ceuta), although chronology suggests his presence in Alcácer Quibir was very unlikely. The aria “Ô Lisbonne, Ô Ma Patrie” is set upon the return of Camões to Lisbon after surviving Alcácer Quibir.

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