Stark mad in white satin


Commedia per musica in 1 act

By Giovanni Paisiello

Libretto: Giuseppe Carpani and Giovanni Battista Lorenzi, after Benoît-Joseph Marsollier de Vivetières’ Nina ou La folle par amour

First performed: Belvedere di San Leucio, Caserta, 25 June 1789

Revised: Teatro dei Fiorentini, Naples, in 2 acts, autumn 1790

Reception: Enthusiastic, and popular in Italy until 1845.

For more information about the opera, see the dossier.


Nina is a hard girl to like.  She’s mad, and gloomily so; like most gloomy things, she bores.  She believes that her lover is dead, killed in a duel by the man her father wanted her to marry.  And so she mopes, pines, and laughs hysterically, until reunited with her lover.

These days, her composer, Giovanni Paisiello, is best known for composing the original Barbiere di Siviglia.  He was a favorite of the crowned heads of Europe; Napoleon considered him “the greatest composer there is” – but, on the strength of Nina, it’s easy to see why Rossini supplanted Paisiello.

The opera is static.  Most of Act I is an extended mad scene, lasting more than half an hour.  One has to admire it, if only as a display of stamina, but it doesn’t make for entertaining drama.  There’s also a shepherd’s aria, accompanied by bagpipes – guaranteed to put your teeth on edge.

There are some fine things in the score:

Nina’s aria “Il mio ben quando verrà”;

the quartet “Comè!  Ohimè !  Partir degg’io”;

Lindoro’s cavatina and aria “Questo è dunque il loco usato…  Rendila al fido amante”;

and the duet “Oh momento fortunato!”.

The rest of the score sounds like Mozart, but not as good; and the finest thing in the filmed production (Zurich 2002) is by Mozart: the concert aria “Ah, lo previdi”.  As an interpolation, it smacks of self-indulgence.

That filmed production does the opera no favours.  The opera should be a pastoral semiseria, a sentimental piece with a happy ending.  The director, Cesare Lievi, reads: “Delightful garden, bordering a park on one side, and on the other a main road, which one reaches through a majestic gate” – and thinks: “Basement of an asylum, with peeling walls, and one chair.”  O God, another opera about mad people, set in a lunatic asylum!

This is a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli.  Bartoli was a sympathetic Angelina in Rossini’s Cenerentola; she has an excellent voice, but…!  Here she channels Helena Bonham-Carter: all frizzy hair and wild eyes.  She rolls around on the floor in spasms, kicking her heels, and cramming flowers into her mouth, like a cross between Nebuchadnezzar and a two-year-old.  Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

The young Jonas Kaufmann, playing her presumed dead lover, shows why he is one of the great tenors of the generation.  Blessed with a fine voice and natural stage presence, he lights up every scene he’s in.


Suggested recordings:

Nina - Hirsch.jpgHans Ludwig Hirsch’s 1998 Arts Music recording, starring Jeanne-Marie Bima, William Matteuzzi, Alfonso Antoniozzi, Gloria Banditelli, and Natale De Carolis, with the Hungarian Chamber Chorus Concentus Hungaricus.





Nina - Bonynge.jpgRichard Bonynge’s 2003 Nuovo Era recording, starring Marina Bolgan, Don Bernardini, Francesco Musinu, Fiorella Pediconi, and Giorgio Surian, with the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo “Bellini” di Catania.






Heavy Méhul


Opéra-comique in 1 act

By Étienne Nicolas Méhul

Libretto : François-Benoit Hoffman, after De Dea Syria (attributed to Lucan)

First performed : Théatre Favart, Paris, 3 May 1792

Reception: Méhul’s third opera.  A success – 200 performances during Méhul’s lifetime.  Cherubini thought it Méhul’s best work: “Stratonice lacks nothing; it is a work of genius.  Méhul’s masterpiece.”

For more information about the opera, including roles and numbers, see the dossier.

For 19th century criticism, see here.


Méhul, almost forgotten now, was the leading French composer during the Revolution, and a favorite of Napoleon’s.  He composed the Chant du Départ, the “the brother of the Marseillaise”, and Wagner and Berlioz both admired his music.

Stratonice - Ingres.jpg
Ingres, La Maladie d’Antiochus (1840)

There is little passion in Stratonice, but it is a touching, high-minded work.  It’s rare to find an opera in which everyone is good.  Opera characters are usually selfish or obsessive; they are, as Peter Conrad argues, pure Id.  Méhul’s opera shows characters willing to sacrifice their happiness and their lives for others.  Antiochus loves his father Séleucus’s betrothed, but would rather die than admit it, or ruin his father’s happiness; Stratonice loves him, but is honor bound to love her husband-to-be; and Séleucus chooses the love of a father over the love of a spouse.

It’s a very eighteenth century attitude: reason and benevolence triumphing over self-interest and passion.  In its depiction of a king who chooses the good of others over his own happiness, and the general forgiveness with which the opera ends, could Stratonice be hoping that the monarchy and the Revolution could be reconciled?  The opera was performed in May 1792, nearly a year after Louis XVI and his family had tried to flee France; the National Convention condemned the king to death six months after Méhul’s opera, in January 1793.  Méhul himself composed an openly monarchist Jeunesse de Henri IV, meant to be performed in 1792, but unperformable at the time (Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, 2010).


Stratonice CDThe recommended recording is William Christie’s 1996 recording starring Yann Beuron (Antiochus), Étienne Lescroart (Séleucus), Karl Daymond (Erasistrate) and Patricia Petibon (Stratonice).

Antiochus has an excellent aria at the start, where he resolves to take his feelings to the tomb; and there is an impressive ensemble that starts as a duet, becomes a trio, and then a quartet.  Surprisingly, Stratonice, although the title role, has no aria of her own; she takes part in the ensembles in the middle and at the end of the opera.


The complete opera is on YouTube, beginning here:



Farsa posta in musica

By Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto: Domenico Gilardoni

First performance: Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, 6 February 1830.  Performed to only a half full theatre, because of a ball, but Donizetti thought the performance “went off very brilliantly” (Charles Osborne, Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizettti and Bellini).  Performed for a few seasons, then neglected until 1977.

For more information about the opera, see the dossier.


Pazzi per progetto CD.jpg

“Io son pazzo e non son pazzo.”

After watching Donizetti’s Pazzi per progetto, a one-act farce set in a lunatic asylum, I feel like a candidate for the padded cell.  While I’m waiting for the kindly gentlemen in white coats to fit me up for one of those natty jackets with the sleeves up the back, I’ll tell you why I’m sticking straws in my hair.

A farce needs a busy, complicated plot – but it should also be logical; the complications should arise from reasonably sane human beings at cross purposes.  (Look, for instance, at the best novels of P.G. Wodehouse or at Fawlty Towers, which are intricate and beautifully constructed.)  This opera isn’t so much complicated as contortuplicated.

There are Colonel Blinval and his wife Norina, separated while he was away in the wars; they each pretend to be dead to test the other’s constancy.  There’s Eustachio, a deserter in the colonel’s regiment who pretends to be a doctor.  There’s Cristina, a Frenchwoman who’s in love with Blinval.  Why is unfathomable; he’s a swaggering lout who whales into Eustachio with his baton.  She pinches Eustachio, so maybe they’re kindred spirits.  Her wicked guardian Venanzio has had her committed so he can lay his claws on her inheritance.  (She claims she’s not mad; they all say that.)

The music sounds like warmed-over early Rossini.  Some of it is; one of the few good jokes in the piece is when Norina, pretending to believe that her husband is dead, sees Blinval, and launches into “Qual mesto gemito”, Semiramide’s scene at Ninny’s tomb, when her husband’s ghost appears.  The final aria, on the other hand, is a reminiscence of Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” (Barber of Seville).  The rest is standard opera buffa, peaks (or hillocks) of conventional music in acres of dry, flat recitative.  There are buffo ensembles, buffo duets, and five buffo basses / baritones.  Five!  When I first heard The Barber of Seville, my favourite song was Enzo Dara’s fleet patter song “A un dottor della mia sorte”.  But five buffo basses?  Too much!

The best piece in the score is “All’udir che il mio tesor”, the charming aria Donizetti wrote for Norina, showing that he could write good music for the voice even when well below par.

To make matters worse, I watched this on a poor quality recording, without subtitles – while trying to follow along on a libretto in shattered French.  (Thanks, Google Translate!)

The CD recording of the production has sharper sound, and is a better introduction to this minor work by one of the masters.


I want his head, Herod!


Opéra in 3 or 4 acts

By Jules Massenet

Libretto: Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont (Georges Hartmann), after Gustave Flaubert’s “Hérodias”

First performed: Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, 19 December 1881, in original version of 3 acts and 6 scenes

Reception: A success!  Hundreds of Parisian artists, journalists and music-lovers headed north to Brussels for the première.  The Parisian critics, the Brussels press and the foreign journals, Massenet’s early biographer Schneider wrote, consecrated dithyrambic article to Massenet and his music. Yet the work was not performed in Paris in French until 1903.

First performed in Paris: Théâtre Italien, 1 February 1884 (in Italian)

For the dossier (roles, set designs, musical structure), see here.

Parts of this article are adapted from my article on Massenet’s operas, published on MusicWeb International.


Massenet’s opera is a hothouse of Middle Eastern exoticism, eroticism and religious fervor.  It deals with the conflict between earthly and profane love, a theme Massenet would return to throughout the late nineteenth century.

Like Strauss’s Salome, Massenet’s tale concerns the relationship between John the Baptist, the Jewish maiden Salome, Herod Antipas her uncle, and Salome’s mother Herodias, Herod’s second wife and former sister-in-law.  Massenet’s opera lacks the hysterical nastiness of Strauss’s early masterpiece, the sense, as Strauss’s father put it, that insects were crawling about inside his clothes.

Massenet’s version is in the line of French grand opera: a four act historical costume drama, mixing private passions, public scenes and spectacle.

Marthe Duvivier (Salomé) lors de la création à Bruxelles.jpg
Marthe Duvivier as Salomé, Brussels

His Salome is a sweet innocent, almost a flower child of the ’60s sitting at the feet of her guru, not Strauss’s feral princess who does a striptease for her stepfather and makes love to the severed head of John the Baptist on a silver charger.


Tamer than Salome, Massenet’s opera was almost as shocking as Strauss’s.  Here were Biblical characters, among them Christ’s precursor, in love with Salomé!  Cardinal Caverot, Archbishop of Lyon, excommunicated Massenet and his librettists; scandal was always good publicity.

Massenet, in only his second mature composition, shows the imagination and sensitivity to text that would make him the greatest French-born opera composer of the nineteenth century.  For all its musical riches, however, the opera is not one of Massenet’s best.  Contemporary critics suggested that he needed better librettists, one with more idea of how to structure an opera.  The action is diffuse.  What, after all, is the story of the opera?

His other grand opéras – Le roi de Lahore (1877), set in mediaeval India; Le Cid (1885), based on Corneille’s tragedy of Spanish chivalry; and Le mage (1891), a fanciful retelling of the founding of Zoroastrianism – set up the drama in the first act.  Le Cid, for instance, is about the conflict between love and duty; the hero must kill his sweetheart’s father, to avenge an insult to his father.

Monnaie illustrations.JPEG
Illustrations of the Brussels première.

Halfway through Act II, little has happened.  Hérodiade offers several reflective arias that tell the audience how the characters feel: Salomé loves Jean (“Il est doux, il est bon”), Hérode lusts after Salomé (“Vision fugitive”), and Hérodiade is jealous of Salomé, fears that Hérode will abandon her, and wants Jean dead (“Venge-moi, ne me refuse pas”).


What’s missing is a narrative thread.  Part of the problem is that the relationships have changed; Hérodiade abandoned her daughter to marry Hérode, and Hérodiade and Salomé do not recognize each other as mother and daughter until the very end of the opera—whereupon Salomé stabs herself.  The finale is unconvincingly abrupt, inadequately prepared for, and the two women’s relationship is underdeveloped.

The only video recording doesn’t help.

It treats the opera as a vehicle for voices.  Superb voices – Montserrat Caballé as Salomé and José Carreras as Jean.  As music theatre, it’s in the worst, old-fashioned approach.  The singers stand on the spot, and, without making eye contact, deliver their lines into the audience.  Occasionally they raise an arm.

It doesn’t suit French opera at all.  French opera should be riveting drama; it was meant to be theatrically immediate as well as musically beautiful or powerful.  Critics judged libretti on their literary merits, as if they were plays, and singers were expected to act as well as sing.  Massenet, with his concern for naturalism, intimacy and theatrical effect, would have been dismayed.

Maurice Renaud (Hérode), Théâtre de la Gaîté, 1903.jpg
Maurice Renaud (Hérode), Théâtre de la Gaîté, 1903

The production also turns Jean and Salomé into conventional lovers, as if they’re Lucia and Edgardo.  Salomé, as someone said, loves Jean; Jean loves God.  The duet at the end of Act I makes this clear.  Jean tries to teach Salomé about God, but she has eyes only for him.  His love is divine, hers is mortal.

Edmond Vergnet (Jean) lors de la création à Bruxelles.jpg
Edmond Vergnet (Jean), at the Brussels première


[ Ah ! je t’écoute ! je t’adore ! (Ah, I hear you ! I adore you!)

[ L’éclat de tes yeux,               (The brilliance of your eyes)

[ Plus resplendissant que l’aurore,      (More glorious than the dawn)

[ Illumine les cieux !               (Illuminates the heavens !)

[ Je t’écoute, je t’adore !                      (I hear you ! I adore you !)

[ Je t’aime, je t’adore !             (I love you !  I adore you !)

[ Je t’appartiens !                                 (I belong to you !)


[ JEAN (chanté en même temps)        (singing at the same time)

[ Enfant, c’est la foi nouvelle et la vie !          (Child, it is the new faith and life !)

[ C’est la foi nouvelle et l’immortalité !          (It is the new faith and immortality !)

[ Regarde cette aurore !          (Look at that dawn !)

[ Regarde cette aurore !          (Look at that dawn !)

[ Ô vérité !      (O truth !)

(Jean se délivre des bras de Salomé qui tombe à genoux, extasiée ; il s’éloigne en lui montrant le ciel.)

(Jean extricates himself from Salomé’s arms ; she falls to her knees, in ecstasy ; he moves away, showing her the sky.)


In the Barcelona production, the lovers embrace at the end of Act I.  They’re in the same pose at the end of Act II, looking into each other’s eyes.  Hérode isn’t, and he should be.  The directions are clear: “The Canaanites surround Jean.  Hérodiade and Vitellius enter the palace.  Phanuel leads Herod away, who cannot tear his eyes away from Salomé.”  The implication is that Hérode is so obsessed by Salomé that he is blind to the political situation.  Hérode follows Vitellius and Hérodiade into the palace.  A character detail has been fumbled.

Hérodiade Plasson.jpgThe recommended CD is Michel Plasson’s 1995 Toulouse recording, featuring Cheryl Studer, Nadine Denize, Ben Heppner, Thomas Hampson and José van Dam. Georges Prêtre’s 1963 recording has a largely Francophone cast — Régine Crespin, Rita Gorr, Albert Lance, Michel Dens and Jacques Mars — but offers highlights rather than the complete work.




Doge-y business


Tragedia lirica in 3 acts

By Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto : Giovanni Emanuele Bidera, after Casimir Delavigne’s Marino Faliero

Donizetti’s 45th opera.

First performed : Théâtre Italien, Paris, 12 March 1835, a couple of months after Bellini’s Puritani premiered at the same theatre.  Rossini had commissioned both composers to write operas for Paris.  Both were hits, but only Puritani has survived.

For the dossier, see here.

For contemporary criticism, see here.


We know how Italian serious opera is supposed to work.  There’s a soprano and a tenor couple, and a wicked bass or baritone who threatens their love.  At the end, the tenor and soprano both die.

Marino Faliero doesn’t play that way.   The tenor dies in the middle act, in which the soprano doesn’t appear at all.  And our sympathies are with the bass, the husband cuckolded by his wife and his nephew.

That cuckolded husband is Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice.

The historical Faliero was an old man when he became Doge: 80 when he was elected by the aristocratic councils of the Ten and the Forty (September 1354), and 81 when he was executed six months later for conspiring against those same aristocrats (April 1355).  Tradition has it that his second wife Aluica Gradenigo’s affair with Michele Steno was his motivation for the conspiracy.

Delacroix - Faliero Execution.jpg
Eugène Delacroix – The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero (1825 – 1826)

In Donizetti’s opera, Steno tries to seduce Faliero’s wife – here named Elena – but fails.  The Doge’s enemies scrawl obscene graffiti on the walls of the Rialto, libeling his wife.  Faliero’s nephew Fernando, who loves Elena, kills Steno, but dies in the effort.  Throughout the opera, the Doge acts for personal reasons.  As he tells the conspirators:

E il doge ov’è?
Questa larva è già sparita,
sol Falier vedete in me.

(And where is the Doge ?
That phantom is already gone,
you see in me only Faliero.)

Politics and personal matters intertwine, as they do in Verdi’s two later operas about Venetian and Genoese Doges, I due Foscari (1844) and Simon Boccanegra (1857).  Verdi’s operas may be better, but Donizetti’s work is dramatically effective, and surely an inspiration for his great successor.

Consider Act II, a taut, tense half hour that shows Donizetti’s mastery of atmosphere.

Act II - in colour.JPEG
That’s what a stage set looked like in the 1830s.  Impressive, isn’t it?

It takes place on the Piazza di S. Giovanni e Paolo, by night.  The  conspirators pass by in a gondola, singing a melancholy chorus.  Offstage, a voice sings a barcarolle.  Fernando enters, determined to avenge the insult to his uncle and aunt.  A clock strikes three.  The Doge arrives, masked, to meet the conspirators.  They threaten to kill him when they discover his identity, but he quells them.  The conspirators draw their swords and swear an oath.  Thunder and lightning.  They hear a cry; it is Fernando, mortally wounded – but he has killed Steno.  As the curtain falls, the Doge vows revenge.  This is strong theatre.


I’d recommend the 1977 RAI recording, starring Cesare Siepi, Marisa Galvany and Giuliano Ciannella.

Marino Faliero NaxosThere’s also a Naxos recording, recorded at Bergamo in 2008.  The orchestral detail is better, but I’m not so keen on the singing.  The problem is the role of Fernando, composed for Giovanni Battista Rubini, an extraordinary tenor who created roles for both Bellini and Donizetti.  Ciannella doesn’t attempt some of the notes; Ivan Magri does, but not always happily.  It really calls for a Juan Diego Flórez.


Singing coach


Opéra Comique en 3 actes

By Adolphe Adam

Libretto : Adolphe de Leuven & Léon Brunswick

First performed : Théâtre Royal de l’Opéra-Comique (salle de la Bourse), 13 October 1836

For plot synopsis, roles and musical structure, see here.

For contemporary reviews, see here.

Acte 1er.JPEGWe’re so used to a diet of Norse gods, metaphysical love deaths, and consumptive heroines that we’ve forgotten that in its day opera was often the equivalent of the mid-century musical: popular entertainment with a hit song.

Adolphe Adam’s Postillon de Lonjumeau, a light opera about a coachman turned opera star, is a case in point.

The coachman Chappelou leaves his bride Madeleine on his wedding day to become a tenor at the Paris Opéra, and live the life of a grand seigneur.  The action picks up ten years later.  Chappelou, now calling himself Saint-Phar, is a star, and Madeleine, calling herself Mme de Latour, has inherited a fortune from an aunt.   Chappelou marries Mme de Latour, without knowing he’s marrying his first wife in disguise; he also thinks the marriage is a sham.  He realizes that he’s committed bigamy, and worries that he’s going to be hanged – but, as always in this sort of opera, he’s reunited with his wife—both of them.

And here’s the hit song, sung by Nicolai Gedda:

That may be why the opera has largely vanished, bar the occasional German resurrection.  The plot’s too frivolous for most opera houses, but the aria is too demanding for most amateur or provincial companies – and why would a tenor who can sing high Ds bother with the opera when he could sing something sturdier?

The music’s light, but it’s also lightweight.  I prefer the music Adam wrote later in his career: le Toréador, a little one-act gem, with its clever variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”), or Le farfadet with its windmill scene (“Hou, hou, hou!”).  It’s also not as good as some of the opéras-comiques of the time; it lacks Auber’s fizz and wit (Fra Diavolo, Le cheval de bronze) or Boieldieu’s tunefulness (La dame blanche).

Mariage du postillon de Lonjumeau.JPEG

Verdi and Puccini would seize on the idea of a woman abandoned by her husband and plotting revenge for ten years, and milk it for dramatic effect.  But there’s little sense of emotion here.  To demand psychological realism, though, is to miss the point.  This is frothy fun, to be enjoyed as such.


The recommended recording is Jules Gressier’s 1952 recording for the RTF, starring Henri Legay and Janine Micheau.  It’s an authentically French performance, in the old style.

I’m not so fond of Thomas Fulton’s 1985 Monte Carlo recording starring John Aler and June Anderson; it’s not French enough.  You can hear some of the highlights below:

Mariage du postillon de Lonjumeau.JPEG

Opera in the Orient – nuff Said


Opéra-comique en 1 acte

By Georges Bizet

Bizet’s fourth opera, set in Egypt

Libretto : Louis Gallet, after Alfred de Musset’s poem Namouna (1832)

First performed : Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), 22 May 1872

For the dossier, see here.

For contemporary criticism, see here.



Opéra-comique en 1 acte

By Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns’s first performed opera, set in Japan

Libretto : Louis Gallet

First performed : Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 12 June 1872.

For the dossier, see here.

For contemporary criticism, see here.


One of the joys of opera is its fascination with other cultures.  Two one-act operas by Bizet and Saint-Saëns, both composed to libretti by Louis Gallet and premièred in 1872, show the French interest in the East.

Djamileh libretto.jpgBizet’s Djamileh is a Middle Eastern fantasy of opium-smoking princes and slave girls.  French opera was long acquainted with Middle Eastern stories, while Félicien David (Le désert) and Ernest Reyer (Le Sélam) had written symphonic odes inspired by their travels in North Africa and Palestine.

Saint-Saëns’s Princesse jaune riffs off the Japonoiserie of the time; the hero is a young Dutch scientist who downs a bottle of opium (!) and fancies himself transported to the Orient.  “Japan,” Saint-Saëns wrote (‘Louis Gallet’, in Ecole buissonnière), “had recently been opened to Europe.   Japan was in fashion; people talked only of Japan; it was a craze.”

Apart from their exotic settings, both have similar stories; they’re about men who overlook the love of a woman.  Prince Haroun of Cairo buys a new slave each month; when the thirty days are up, he gives her liberty – but Djamileh wants to stay by his side.  Kornélis is in love with a Japanese statuette of the Princess Ming, and completely unaware that his cousin Léna loves him.  Both women become their doubles.  Djamileh takes the place of Haroun’s newest acquisition, while the Japanese idol comes to life with Léna’s face.  At the end, the men realise that love has been under their noses all this time, and all ends happily.

Ernest Reyer, who had inherited both Berlioz’s mantle as music critic for the Journal des débats and his progressive view of music, praised both works, and realized that the composers were presenting non-European music to a European audience in a way that is exotic and intriguing, but accessible.

He noted that Saint-Saëns had adapted “eastern-style themes … to accepted western notions of harmony and rhythm” (Nicholas Tarling, Orientalism and the Operatic World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 261).  Bizet also suited Middle Eastern music to European taste.

“Here we have true Oriental music,” he wrote of Djamileh, “at least as it is understood by visitors to the countries of its origin…  It is true, not through imitation of certain instrumental effects sui generis, nor by the use of a scale wholly diferent from ours, but by the accompaniment it gives to the landscape our imagination evokes, of the picture it spreads before our eyes.  It is a slightly conventional, slightly dressed up truth, if you like, but a truth that takes into consideration our ears and the nature of the musical sensations to which we are accustomed.  Besides, don’t we know that all music when it travels changes climate, loses its effectiveness by losing its poetry, and sometimes even changes character?” (Tarling, pp 161–62.)

Both scores evoke other cultures through music, and novel orchestral effects.  La princesse jaune has a chorus sung in Japanese, while the first aria is a poem in Japanese and its translation into French; some of the music is written in the Japanese pentatonic scale.  Djamileh has a strikingly modernist opening that anticipates Shostakovich or Prokofiev; it’s a spare, strongly rhythmic march, with figures on drums and bassoons, and a solo for clarinet.  Later there are tambourines, a humming chorus (tenors and basses), and descending chromatic piano passages.  There is a ghazel (an Arabic lyric poem that begins with a rhymed couplet whose rhyme is repeated in all even lines) and an almeh (belly dancing).Princesse jaune score.jpg

Djamileh is the stronger of the two.  Although Bizet doubted whether the work was theatrical, he makes the audience care for the slave in love with her master; her “Lamento”, in particular, shows his gift for characterization that would bloom so gloriously in Carmen.  La princesse jaune is slight, and the story unconvincing, but the music is exquisite.  The overture is one of Saint-Saëns’s finest compositions; it uses themes from Kornélis’s aria “Oui, j’aime en son lointain mystère”, his evocation of Japan, and the chorus “Anata wa dô nasaï masita!”.

Both operas were flops; Djamileh held the stage for eleven performances, and the Princesse jaune for five performances.  The problem?  The dreaded Wagnerism!  To a twenty-first century ear, they sound nothing like Wagner – certainly there’s less Wagner here than in Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine or Hélène, both avowedly Wagnerian, through-composed, “advanced” operas.  The conservative French critics saw the creeping hand of Teutonic menace everywhere, particularly after the Franco-Prussian War; they saw it in Verdi’s Don Carlos, they even saw it in Carmen!  Félix Clément, a normally reliable if conservative critic, thought Saint-Saëns had compromised his reputation in writing La princesse jaune, while Djamileh appalled him; he objected both to the plot (the characters were insane) and to the music (there isn’t any).  Clément also wrote:

“What are the cavatines, the duos, which the Orient has sent us?  What are the passionate or touching melodies that came to us from the land of harems and polygamy?  It is to us Westerners that it falls to put to music the loves of these people, by supposing they have our way of feeling, our ideas, the caprices of our imagination, all things foreign to them.”

From one angle, this seems racist; from another, it’s an accurate critique: nineteenth century “exotic” music isn’t genuinely exotic, it’s a Western idea of other cultures.  Different cultures, after all, see the world differently.  Clément, for all his apparent racism, comes closest to modern cultural relativism.  Europeans took the exotic trappings of other cultures – the externals of costume, dance and custom, the detailed recreations of buildings and landscapes – but assumed that certain ways of thinking were human universals, rather than being culturally conditioned; they read their attitudes into those cultures as norms.

Music, too, depends on culture.  What we think of as beautiful or even normal music might appall other nations.  A party of Burmese ambassadors visited the Paris Opéra in the 1850s.  “The rattling in the throats of the male singers, the screaming of the lady vocalists, and the tempest raised by the orchestra, made a profound impression on their sensible hearts and they manifested an inclination to throw themselves at the feet of the Emperor.”  (Paul Kildea, “Fashioning Faust”, Faust programme, 1998 Opera Australia)  Conversely, kathakali or Chinese opera might seem alien or unfathomable to Westerners.

It took a later generation to appreciate the works; Fauré admired La princesse jaune, which was remounted nearly 30 times between 1909 and 1914, while Mahler and Strauss both liked Djamileh.


You can judge for yourself.  I recommend this recording of Djamileh:

  • Lucia Popp, Franco Bonisolli, and Jean-Philippe Lafont, with the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Lamberto Gardelli. Orfeo, 1983.

There’s also what seems to be a TV film in Hungarian.  I couldn’t understand a word of it (except “opium”), but it’s delightful all the same.  It’s an attractive production, in Arab costume (turbans and fezzes), with belly dancers, monkeys, and some nifty opium-sodden reverie sequences.

La Princesse jaune is available from Chandos, on a disc with the Suite algérienne:

  • Maria Costanza Nocentini, Carlo Allemano Cantemus, with the Swiss Italian Orchestra conducted by Francis Travis. Chandos CHAN9837, 2000.Princesse jaune CD.jpg



La princesse jaune