36. Richard Cœur de Lion (André Grétry)


Comédie in 3 acts, in prose, mixed with ariettes

By André Grétry

Libretto: Michel-Jean Sedaine

First performed: Opéra-Comique (1re salle Favart), 21 October 1784


5 stars

Richard Cœur-de-lion (Richard the Lionheart, for Anglophones) is a rarity today, but was one of the classics of French opera, by one of the most celebrated opera composers of his day.

Beethoven wrote Variations on one of the big tunes, and had the opera in mind when he wrote Fidelio.  Mozart also wrote Variations, from some of Grétry’s other operas, which musicologists say influenced the da Ponte comedies.  And Tchaikovsky quoted an aria from Richard in The Queen of Spades.  In Paris, it was performed 621 times by 1950, with 19 performances in the early twentieth century.  At least one of the arias was still a baritone warhorse mid-century.


Everybody knows that Richard the Lionheart was captured on his return from the Crusades and held prisoner in European castles.  Just about every Robin Hood film shows the Saxon outlaw raising funds to ransom his master, and thwarting the plans of Richard’s slimy brother, Prince John.

Richard the Lionheart.jpgHistory states that Leopold V, Duke of Austria, captured Richard in 1192, and stuck him in a cell in Dürnstein Castle.  After the Pope excommunicated Leopold, the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, locked him up in Trifels Castle, Germany, and demanded 100,000 marks for his release.  Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother, moved heaven and earth to get her son released; that is, she heavily taxed the clergy and the laity, and paid the ransom.  Pragmatic, but unromantic.

According to legend, the minstrel Blondel searched the castles of Europe for his master.  He would stand outside the castle walls, and sing a song they had composed together.  At last, he came to the castle where Richard was imprisoned, sang his party number, and the king capped it with the second verse.  Blondel rejoiced, told the rest of Europe where Richard was, and the king was soon released.

Gustave Doré, 1832.

That’s the basis for the opera, which shows how Blondel, disguised as a blind old man, finds his master, and rescues him from the wicked governor Florestan.  (A name Beethoven gave his wrongly imprisoned hero in Fidelio.)

Blondel resolves to find his master in the once famous aria “O Richard, ô mon Roi”, sung here by the Belgian baritone Michel Trempont:

That song’s a corker.  It’s vigorous, heroic, and has a great tune.  It was also a Loyalist anthem during the Revolution, sung by the followers of the deposed Louis XVIII.  Although Richard was first performed in 1784, five years before the storming of the Bastille, the song is prophetic: a king abandoned by all the world save his loyal servant, and his queen crushed by grief.

Equally fine is “Une fièvre brûlante”, the recognition song.  The tune – beautiful, simple, and immediately memorable – runs through the opera, and musicologists point to it as an example of the motif of reminiscence (or leitmotif) decades before Wagner.  Here’s Beethoven’s version:

It’s first heard in Act I, when Richard’s wife, Margaret, Countess of Flanders, and her suite arrive at the castle; Blondel plays the tune on his violin in her presence to test whether she really is Margaret.  A devoted wife would never forget the song her loving husband composed for her in happier times.  Satisfied that it’s Margaret, Blondel then plays the tune several times, with variations (a good way of putting it firmly in the audience’s head).

In Act II, we hear it for the first time as a song.  Blondel sings it outside the castle walls – towards the top of the treble clef, high for a baritone; the aria was, though, composed by the tenor Richard.  The king hears the song, and replies.

The tune is heard for the last time in the opera’s finale, at the end of Act III.  This is part of a massive, multi-section choral number whose exalted joy reminds me of the sublime ending to Fidelio.

Richard himself has another impressive aria, “Si l’univers entier m’oublie”, in which the king laments his imprisonment and calls for death to end his suffering:

One sub-plot deals with the love affair between Laurette, daughter of an English exile, and the governor Florestan.  Laurette sings a delicate aria, “Je crains de lui parler la nuit”, which shows the fears and uncertainty of young love.  Mady Mesplé sings it here:

These are four highlights from the opera, but everywhere one hears a master.  If they were on YouTube, I would have posted Blondel’s Saracen chanson, “Que le Sultan Saladin”; Blondel and Laurette’s couplets, “Un bandeau couvre mes yeux”; or the Ronde de Nuit that opens Act II.

I’m puzzled, though, why the opera isn’t a fixture in the opera house.  It’s musically first-rate, it moves swiftly, and there are no longueurs.  Is it that the lead role is a baritone, and there’s little love interest?

As it is, though, Richard, and Grétry’s other operas [1] languish in as much obscurity as the Lionheart.  Hopefully a minstrel will rescue Grétry, and restore him to his full glory in the eyes of the public.

[1] Among them Zémire et Azor (a version of Beauty and the Beast, admired by Mozart and Thomas Beecham, recently staged in Saratoga), L’Amant jaloux (performed to rave reviews by Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera in 2015), and Andromaque and Panurge, both praised by David LeMarrec at Carnets sur Sol.


Richard CD.jpg


  • Orchestre de Chambre de la Radio-Télévision Belge, conducted by Edgard Doneux, with Charles Burles, Michel Trempont, Jacqueline Sternotte, Danièle Perriers, Mady Mesplé, Ludovic de San, Monique Bost, Nicole Dukens, Jean van Gorp, Jules Bastin, and Jean Bussard (EMI Classics/Angel Records CD: B000063XQN, recorded 16-26 May 1977).


35. Mona Lisa (Max von Schillings)


Opera in 2 acts

By Max von Schillings (Op. 31)

Libretto: Beatrice Dovsky


4 stars.png

Schillings’ opera is an intense shocker inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, and which plays with ideas of reincarnation and the eternal mysteries of Woman. It was a success in its day, performed throughout Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia from its première in 1916 until WWII, and staged at the New York Met in 1923.

It may have lost much of its popularity, but it’s a powerful work that deserves more attention. (It has been commercially recorded three times, and revived in the German-speaking world in 1953, 1983, 1994, and 1996.)

The historical Mona Lisa, Lisa del Giocondo (1479–1542), was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a prosperous Florentine cloth and silk merchant. The marriage appears to have been successful; Francesco, in his will, wrote of “the affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife … [and] the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife…”

There’s not enough for an opera, so Schillings’ Mona Lisa is, like so many operatic heroines, unhappily married. Her father made her marry Francesco, here a jewel merchant, rather than the man she loved, young Giovanni de’ Salviati, in the Pope’s service. Mona Lisa and Giovanni meet again, Francesco discovers that they love each other, and all ends tragically.

This is a stock situation; we’ve seen it, for instance, in Bellini’s Pirata. What makes it theatrically effective is the gruesome double murder.

Francesco keeps his treasures in a secret chamber, a box within a box, hidden behind a tapestry. Giovanni hides inside the box – and Francesco locks him inside to suffocate, while he makes love to his wife outside, both knowing that Giovanni is dying.  Mona Lisa collapses, while her husband triumphs.

The second act opens with Mona Lisa coming to her senses.  At first, she believes that the harrowing events of the night before were only a dream – but soon realises they were all too real.

In the second act, Mona Lisa has her revenge; she tricks Francesco into entering the treasure chamber, then shuts him inside to die.

The plot is as gripping as the famous second act of Puccini’s Tosca, which it resembles: baritone tortures soprano’s lover to make her yield, soprano kills baritone.

Two scenes set in the present day frame the story. An old man and his young wife visit the house of the Certosa Monks, formerly Francesco’s house. A lay brother tells them the story of the murders. We’re in no doubt that these people from the early twentieth century are Francesco, Mona Lisa, and Giovanni reborn; they’re played by the same singers, the young wife has Mona Lisa’s fondness for flowers, the husband has Francesco’s obsession with pearls, and the lay brother recognizes the wife as Mona Lisa at the end. Will the same drama play out, three and a half centuries later?

The framing story adds an eerie, metaphysical element to the drama, typical of the theatrical sophistication of the early twentieth century.

The score is post-Wagnerian, halfway between Strauss and Puccini. It’s through composed, without any “big tunes”, but the music is always appropriate to the action.  It reaches lyrical heights in Mona Lisa and Giovanni’s love duet; the two murders are dramatic, the first act ending on a grim curtain; and Mona Lisa’s two big arias are intense.

Mona Lisa herself is one of those operatic beauties who fascinates yet disturbs mere men. She seems to embody the eternal female, enigmatic and unfathomable. The lay brother, about to tell the story, finds women baffling:

Woman is a riddle past all solving.
Within her soul, unknown to her, there sleep
A thousand possibilities… And she is soft as wax,
She bends to every hand,
And is Fate’s plaything…
She shrinks back from an unkind word,
And bears unheard-of torture with a smile…
She cannot bear to break a flower,
And then, again, grows drunk with cruelty
Which a man’s mind would scarce know to conceive.
Love makes her strong…and hate unconquerable!
The heart of woman in its depths conceals
The lust of Eve for the forbidden fruit;
The sinful, wanton longing of the Magdalen,
And all the wondrous power of her remorse;
The thirst for blood and vengeance of the Baptist’s murd’ress,
The Virgin’s purity, her gentleness and mercy!
According as the dice of life may roll
So does that enigmatic creature, woman, change!

Mona Lisa’s smile perturbs Francesco. He gazes at Leonardo’s painting, and muses:

That smile! Ah, yes!
(With increasing agitation)
That look, you say? Mysteriously delusive…
And yonder mouth, whose smile seems one so yielding.
My wife, who never smiles and never thrills
Is like a shadow – and this picture lives!
Thus Eve once smiled in Eden’s garden,
Thus Helen smiled and dark Semiramis,
Bath-Sheba and Cleopatra!
The senses captivating, mystically,
With consciousness of power, entrancingly!
And I must solve the mystery of her smile!

Both men see her as incarnations of the sensuous, mysterious woman who destroys men; both, tellingly, see her as Eve and the Baptist’s murderess Herodias. That list of names also recalls Kundry’s reincarnations in Parsifal; she, the primeval devil-woman, the rose of hell, was once Herodias and Gundryggia. So, too, Mona Lisa, Eve, Helen, Semiramis, Bath-Sheba, and Cleopatra may all be incarnations of Woman.

To see Mona Lisa as the eternal female, though, is to fall into her husband and the lay brother’s error of objectifying her, rather than seeing her as a person.

“We are human beings who have lost our way,” she tells Giovanni. “We are human beings born to suffer – And happiness, alas, I long since have renounced!”

The audience understands that she is not a temptress, but a woman unhappily married to a brutal husband: a rapist who “likes it when a woman would deny herself, As well you know it heightens my desire…”, and a collector.

Francesco prizes Mona Lisa as a beautiful thing he owns, esteeming her beauty as much as he does the pearls he makes her wear to “cure” (restoring their lost glow) or the jewels in his treasure room where Giovanni dies. He is, in his aestheticism and jealousy (the collector’s mania), a cousin of Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, who felt his wife smiled too much – and made sure she smiled only for him.

The Duke gave orders, and all smiles stopped – but the Mona Lisa smiles her enigmatic smile forever.

Suggested recording

Starring Inge Borkh, conducted by Robert Heger, Berlin, 1953.

34. Orphée aux enfers (Jacques Offenbach)


Opéra bouffon in two acts and four scenes

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto : Hector Crémieux

First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Paris, 21 October 1858, conducted by Offenbach.

The first of Offenbach’s full-length operettas, and a smash hit.

Revised as an opéra féerique in four acts and twelve scenes, with libretto by Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy.  Performed: Théâtre de la Gaité, Paris, 7 February 1874, conducted by Offenbach.

Dossier (with costume and set designs, illustrations, and musical structure)

Contemporary criticism


The opera is a parody of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and specifically of Gluck’s opera.

Orpheus, in this version, is not the greatest musician known to antiquity, but director of the Theban choral society, an employee of the municipal council of Thebes, who charges for his lessons.  And, far from lamenting the death of his wife Eurydice, he’s unhappily married, and would gladly be rid of her.  He much prefers the company of nymphs, while she’s rather taken with the shepherd Aristæus (a minor god of bee-keeping).  This scandalises Public Opinion, guardian of moral conventions, who, addressing the audience directly, says that the wife who deceives her husband, or the husband who’s unfaithful to his wife, had better watch out.  (Relax, though, she’s only talking about the characters in the play, not those in the audience!)

Orpheus may have invented hexameter verses, he may scrape away at his violin – but he is, in his wife’s eyes, the most boring man in existence.

Orpheus would get a divorce – if doing so wouldn’t hurt his worldly position.  He is, he tells her, a slave to public opinion – but he’ll defend his reputation as a husband.  He’s laid a trap for her lover in the wheat fields, so beware!

Aristæus appears, and sings of the simple pleasures of a shepherd’s life: watching the bees gather honey, the sheep frolic in the plains, and the shepherd take the shepherdess by surprise.

Eurydice is bitten by a serpent (Orpheus’ trap), and dies.  Death seldom stopped anyone in Greek mythology, though – particularly when her lover Aristæus is really Pluto in disguise.  Eurydice leaves her husband a message – “I’m leaving because I’m dead…  I’ve gone to the devil” – and goes to hell.

Orpheus is relieved to be a widower – but, just as he’s about to rush off to his nymphet, he hears Public Opinion approaching.  Orpheus can’t carry on like that, she tells him; he must petition Jupiter himself to restore his “beloved” Eurydice.  For the edification of posterity, we must have at least one example of a husband who wanted his wife back.

É._Morin_-_Orphée_aux_Enfers,_L'OlympeThe Classical gods – Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, and the rest – are asleep on Mount Olympus.  There’s little else to do, under Jupiter’s stultifying reign.  There follows a sort of variety show, as deities (including Cupid, Venus, Diana, and Mercury) present themselves.  Jupiter (notorious for his philandering) is determined to present a façade of moral rectitude – even if it means bumping off his children’s lovers.  “Gorblimey!” says the puissant king of the gods; “kiddos, the weak mortals have their eyes on us!  Let’s keep up appearances, at least!”  Particularly when the scandal-mongering journalists are writing nasty gossip columns.  The scandal of the hour is the disappearance of Eurydice.  Jupiter accuses Pluto of kidnapping the mortal.

The gods, fed up with Jupiter, revolt:

The piece has echoes of the strains of the Marseillaise, at that time a revolutionary anthem.  Siegfried Kracauer (Orpheus in Paris, trans. 1938) argues that the opera, under its comic exterior, is an angry, political work, attacking the corrupt régime of Napoleon III, and the complacent, bourgeois Second Empire.

Jupiter may pose as a paragon of all the virtues, but is his record so clean?  He’s seduced women disguised as their husband (which wouldn’t work for most of them), bulls, a shower of gold, and a swan (“Take me to your Leda!”).

Orpheus and Public Opinion arrive.  Jupiter orders the gods to stop fighting, and be on their best Sunday behaviour  – “Everything for decorum, and by decorum!”  Orpheus (quoting Gluck’s “Che farò senza Euridice”) appeals to the gods to let him go to Hades in search of his wife – and Jupiter, seizing on the distraction, announces that they’ll all go.

Hell, you see, is more fun than heaven.  In Olympus, the gods sit around snoozing, quaffing nectar and ambrosia – while hell is for people who like the other sorts of things.

Act II

Eurydice, though, is bored.  She’s been alone in Pluto’s boudoir for two days, with only a dumb servant for company.  And that servant, John Styx, has fallen in love with her.  He wasn’t always a servant, he tells her; once, he was the son of a great prince of Bœotia:


Jupiter tries to seduce Eurydice – disguised as a giant fly.  What other opera has the king of the gods disguised as a fly, or a duet with the lyrics “Bzzzzz!”?

Jupiter arranges to help Eurydice escape.  Pluto is holding a feast for the gods, Eurydice should attend in disguise, and then slip off when all the guests leave.  He then buzzes off.

600px-E._Morin_-_Orphée_aux_Enfers,_Les_enfersAt the feast, Eurydice, disguised as a Bacchante, entertains the gods by singing a hymn to the god of alcohol.  Everyone then dances a Galop infernal, better known as the Can-Can:

Pluto sees through Eurydice’s disguise – and reminds Jupiter that he’s promised to restore her to her husband.  Jupiter reluctantly agrees, but gives Orpheus one condition: he must lead her back to the mortal world without glancing back at her.  If he looks back, she will be lost to him.  Jupiter, though, cheats; he throws a thunderbolt at Orpheus, who leaps into the air, whirls, shouts “What!” – and glances back at his wife.  Who promptly vanishes.  Orpheus has lost her (a happy ending for him), and his wife becomes a bacchante.  “But that isn’t in mythology,” Pluto protests.  “Very well!  We’ll remake mythology!”


5 stars

Confession: I like Orphée aux enfers more than Gluck’s Orfeo.  That would have shocked many high-minded critics in nineteenth-century Paris, for whom Offenbach’s parody was a sort of sacrilege, an affront to both Gluck and the Greek gods.

The Greeks themselves, though, would have seen in Offenbach a successor to Aristophanes, their brilliant comic playwright who sent up both serious art (particularly the plays of Euripides) and mythology.

Orphée, with the good humour and cleverness of Asterix the Gaul or Terry Pratchett, turns the classics on their head.  He puts everyday people, with contemporary mores, into unreal, historical, or mythological situations, to poke fun at conventions.

Offenbach’s target is humbug and hypocrisy.  The most powerful force is Public Opinion, god of “but what will the neighbours say?”, before whom both gods and mortals quail.  Orpheus wants to divorce his wife, but the scandal would end his career; he pretends to be a devoted husband, to set an example to posterity.  The Olympians pretend to be a happy, well-adjusted family when Public Opinion comes calling, while Jupiter keeps up the appearance of respectability; if he is not virtuous, at least let him appear so.  Appearances are all.

The satire is set to one of Offenbach’s typically brilliant scores.  Offenbach proves himself one of opera’s great melodists, blessed with a gift for a tune that sticks in the ear, and a wit, deftness, and clarity that more “serious” composers lack.  (And who’s to say that seriousness is a virtue?)

Everybody knows the Cancan, which has come to symbolise Paris: racy, decadent, yet ever so much fun.  That would be enough to make Orphée a success, but the score is full of gems.  I often find myself humming the Rondeau des Métamorphoses or “Si j’étais roi de Béotie”.  Offenbach is as adept at more inward, lyrical numbers (Eurydice’s arias) as he is at Meyerbeerian ensembles, with their lignes brisées, counterpoint, and crescendi.

Offenbach revised the opera in 1874, turning it from a two-act opéra bouffon into a four-act opéra féerique, an extravaganza with twelve tableaux, ballets (of Fauns and Shepherds, Graces and Hours, and, in Aristophanic fashion, Flies), expanded numbers, and new arias.  The original is tighter, but who would object to another hour of Offenbach?  Several of the numbers are excellent, particularly the Rondo des Policemen, and the septet for the judges of the Underworld.


Minkowski OrphéeMarc Minkowski’s 1999 recording (EMI) is the original two-act version with additions from the revision.  Stars Natalie Dessay (Eurydice), Laurent Naouri (Jupiter), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Pluton), Yann Beuron (Orphée), Ewa Podleś (l’Opinion Publique), Patricia Petibon (Cupidon), Jennifer Smith (Diane), Véronique Gens (Vénus), and Steven Cole (John Styx), with the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Lyon,  Orchestre de chambre de Grenoble, and the Choeur de l’Opéra national de Lyon.  I’m less keen on the DVD of this production, which crosses the line between wit and crudity.

Plasson Orphée.jpg1874 version: Michel Plasson’s 1979 recording (EMI), with Mady Mesplé, Jane Rhodes, Jane Berbié, Michel Sénéchal, Charles Burles, and Michel Trempont, with the Orchestre et Choeurs du Capitole de Toulouse.

There’s also a witty, stylish production, sung in German:


33. Orfeo ed Euridice / Orphée et Eurydice (Christoph Willibald Gluck)


By Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto : Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 5 October 1762

Revised: Orphée et Eurydice, Académie Royale de Musique (seconde salle du Palais Royal), Paris, 2 August 1774, with a French text by Pierre Louis Moline.  Berlioz prepared another version in 1859, for the contralto Pauline Viardot (the first Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Prophète).




The opera is based on the Greek legend of the musician Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope, the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry.  Orpheus’s lyre-playing could charm the beasts and birds, the trees and rocks.  His wife Eurydice, fleeing from the shepherd Aristæus (in some versions, a satyr), was bitten by a snake, and died.  The distraught musician vowed to rescue her from the Underworld.  His music thawed even the cold hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to let her go – on the condition that he not look at her until they had returned to the world of mortals.

Orpheus - Greek vase

Orpheus led Eurydice through the gloomy caverns of Hades, she silently following.  At the last, with the gateway to the Earth in sight, he could not resist the temptation, and turned back.  He saw Eurydice, and she died – a second time, and forever.

In his grief, Orpheus forswore the company of women, and refused to worship any god except his father Apollo, the sun.  As he wandered disconsolately singing his lament, he was set upon by Mænads, the followers of Dionysus, and torn to pieces.  The women threw his remains into the river Hebrus, and his head and lyre floated downstream, still pouring out their song of grief.

Orpheus & maenads.jpg

Gluck’s opera has a happier ending.

Act I: In a forest of laurels and cypress trees, shepherds and nymphs mourn Eurydice.  Orpheus laments his wife’s death.

Cupid tells Orpheus that the gods have taken pity on him; he can descend into Hades and try to bring his wife back.  Orpheus resolves to make the attempt.

Act II: The underworld.  A frightening, rocky landscape.  In the distance, a thick, dark smoke rises, and flames burst out of the ground.

Gluck 1859

Orpheus approaches a group of terrifying spectres and spirits…

His music sways them, and they let him enter Hades.  He comes to the Elysian Fields, abode of the virtuous dead, where the Blessed Spirits enjoy the charms of the afterlife.  There, he comes face to face with his wife.

Act III: Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the underworld’s dark caverns and maze of twisty little passages.  Because her husband will not look at her, Eurydice fears that he does not love her.  Death, she feels, is preferable to a life of suffering.

Orpheus, unable to resist her tears, looks at her – and she falls dead.  He expresses his grief in the opera’s most famous aria:

He is about to stab himself when Cupid stops him.  Orpheus has proven his steadfastness and his faith, and so the god brings Eurydice back to life.  In a magnificent temple dedicated to love, all celebrate Eurydice’s return to life, and the victory of true love.


4 stars

Act II - Orphée and Furies.JPG

Orfeo is a classic.  (Or, given the Greek myth, a Classic.)  It’s the first of Gluck’s reform operas, the works that sounded the death knell of Metastasian opera, with its da capo arias, preening castrati, and subordination of drama to music.  Or, to put it differently, shows where virtuoso singers entertained the punters.

Gluck was serious about making opera serious.  Here, he:

  • Unifies the drama.  Instead of long formal arias and choruses, separated by recitative, Gluck mixes them all together (notably in the opera’s first scene).  This loosens the opera’s structure, so that it moves swiftly and easily.  Content, as Sondheim would say a couple of centuries later, dictates form.
  • Made recitatives more dramatic.  They’re part of the opera, rather than “as in the conventional style, mere padding to fill up the space between arias” (Ernest Newman).   The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra (stromentato), rather than just by the basso continuo (secco).  Iphigénie en Tauride will show just how innovative Gluck’s use of the orchestra can be, depicting the characters’ emotions rather than describing their actions.

These are hugely important historical developments (although critics say that Rameau and Lully influenced Gluck).  Mozart, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner will all build on Gluck.

So Orfeo is historically important. It’s also Gluck’s most popular work, probably due to “Che farò senza Euridice”, one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful arias in opera.  (The devil whispers that it’s also short – a mere hour and a quarter, compared to nearly three hours for Armide, and two hours each for Iphigénie en Aulide and en Tauride.)

It is, though, a long way from Gluck’s best work.  There are, besides “Che farò”, wonderfully imaginative passages: the lament that opens the opera; the whole Furies scene; and the serene Dance of the Blessed Spirits, as blissed-out as it is blessed.

But the opera is (whisper it low) undramatic.  This pastoral tale is a long cry from the two Iphigénie operas, which focus on conflict between human beings, between man and the gods, and between private passions and duty.  (I have yet to hear Armide, supposedly one of Gluck’s masterpieces.)

Here, there are no subplots, and little excitement.  As Newman says, “the dramatic interest was small; there were only two real personages and only one emotion”.  Newman doesn’t count Cupid, an allegorical representation of love, as a character; otherwise, the cast consists of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, who’s a) dead, and b) only appears halfway through.

Like many experiments, it’s halfway between the old style and the masterworks to come.  Both Berlioz and Newman, for instance, believed that Gluck hadn’t quite escaped from the customs of the time.  (O tempora, O moray, as the man said when the eel bit him.)

Like Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable or Beethoven’s early symphonies, it announces that here is a new way of composing, but one can still see the influence of the old style; it’s not until the master’s later works that his approach finds its true, full form.


Check out Gramophone’s Orfeo discography.

Orfeo - Gardiner

Vienna version (with counter-tenor): John Eliot Gardiner’s 1991 Philips / Decca recording, with Derek Lee Ragin (Orfeo), Sylvia McNair (Euridice), and Cynthia Sleden (Amor), with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.

Orfeo - Jacobs.jpgVienna version (with mezzo): René Jacobs’ 2001 Harmonia Mundi recording, with Bernarda Fink (Orfeo), Verónica Cangemi (Euridice), and Maria Cristina Kiehr (Amor), with the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor, Berlin.

Gluck - Orphée - Minkowski.jpgParis version: Marc Minkowski’s 2004 Archi CD recording, with Richard Croft (Orphée), Mireille Delunsch (Eurydice), Marion Harousseau, and Claire Delgado-Boge, with Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble.

32. Paride ed Elena – Christoph Willibald Gluck


Dramma per musica

By Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto: Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 3 November 1770


Gluck, let’s face it, has a reputation.  Noble, high-minded, austere, but also dull – as poised and as marmoreal as a Classical statue.  “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, / Dead perfection, no more” (as the poet says).

This reputation is, let it be said, misplaced.  Gluck’s works are intense, subordinating music to drama (anticipating and earning the approval of Wagner), and with memorable tunes to boot.  Nevertheless, his operas can be an acquired taste.  Those who think opera is passionate melodrama in Italian, ending with a dead soprano, may be nonplussed by Gluck’s eighteenth century treatment of Greek legends.

In the wrong hands, even Orfeo ed Euridice, his most popular work, can seem as remote and antiquated (if not downright antediluvian) as Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607.

You don’t have to make any allowances, though, for Paride ed Elena, a work as lovely and as warmly alive as its heroine.


Paris, Prince of Troy, has come to Sparta to win Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.  In most accounts, she’s the wife of Menelaus, Sparta’s king; here, she’s only betrothed to him.  Aphrodite, goddess of love, promised Paris Helen’s love, as a reward for giving her the golden apple.

Rubens - Judgement of Paris.jpg

“Here we are dealing with a young lover, who stands in contrast with the strange humours of a proud and virtuous woman, and who, with all the art of ingenuous passion, ends by triumphing over her.” – Gluck

Act I

The opera opens on the Spartan coast, where Paris’s followers are making offerings to Venus, imploring her to prosper Paris’s venture.

Paris enters, and describes his longing for Helen.

Eraste, Helen’s adviser, invites Paris to the palace.  He knows why Paris has come, and Venus herself will help him.  Of course he knows; Eraste is Cupid in disguise.

Act II

Paris and Helen’s first meeting, in the Spartan throne room.  Love at first sight?  Hardly; both are attracted, but Helen resists Paris’s flattery.

Paris starts to doubt his chances of winning Helen; only Venus’s promises still give him hope.


Paris and Helen watch the Spartan athletes perform gymnastics in the palace courtyard.  (Presumably this isn’t an authentic historical recreation; the Viennese censor would have raised objections to a nude chorus.)  Helen asks Paris to sing her a Trojan song, and Paris sings an early version of “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.

Helen realises that he’s serenading (and trying to seduce) her, and orders him to stop.  Paris collapses, and Helen sends Eraste for help.  As Paris recovers, Helen wonders whether she should stay with him or leave.  Ernest Newman considered the following duet, which “opposes Helen’s sense of duty to the passion of Paris”, “the finest psychological expression in the whole opera”.

Act IV

Paris persists in pestering the princess.  This time it’s through a letter, urging her to elope with him.  She writes a reproachful letter, which Eraste hands to Paris.  He presses his case in a trio and duet…

…but Helen, about to yield, orders him to leave and forget her.  Easy to say, replies Paris; has she looked at herself?

Alone, Helen is torn between love and duty, but resolves to be virtuous.

Act V

Eraste (who is, of course, Cupid in disguise) tells Helen that Paris has left.  Distraught, she warns women not to trust men’s tears and sighs.

This is a trick to make her reveal her feelings, and it works.  Paris appears, and Helen at last agrees to go with him to Troy.  Not even Pallas Athene, descending from heaven, can make them change their minds; not even the doom of Troy.


5 stars

Helen of Troy, legend says, was the most beautiful woman in the world – and Gluck’s opera is one of the most beautiful I know.

But it didn’t capture the heart of Paris.  Paris, in fact, never knew this Helen.  It was performed in Vienna; the Viennese were, apparently, nonplussed; and, unlike Alceste or Orfeo, it was never staged in nor retooled for France.

It’s hard to say why Gluck didn’t bring Helen to Paris.  It lacks, as Gluck himself admitted, the dramatic power of other works – no fathers sacrificing their children or wives dying to save their husbands – but for sheer musical pleasure, it stands in a class of its own among his works.

“It does not provide the composer,” Gluck wrote in the score’s dedication, “with those strong passions, those great images, those tragic situations which, in Alceste, move the spectators so deeply, and give such great opportunities for artistic effect.  So that in this music one must not expect to find the same force and energy; just as, in a picture representing a subject in full light, one would not expect the same effects of chiaroscuro, the same contrasts, as in a picture painted in half-light…”

The score is warm and expressive, full of 18th century grace.  The story is simple; it moves in a straight line, without any complications, yet holds the attention throughout.  Paris pursues, Helen resists, until she yields to his love at the end – but that love, we are told by Pallas (not so much the wise Athene, grey-eyed counsellor of gods and heroes, as the jealous goddess who destroyed Arachne), will lead to war.

The score clearly influenced Mozart (and can be compared to his operas without doing either a disservice).  The chorus “Vieni al mar” anticipates “Scenda amor” in Idomeneo, while the orchestral opening to the last scene sounds a lot like “Soave al vento”!  Likewise, one can hear Rossini’s opera seria in Paris’ lyrical wooing of Helen in Act III, where he melts her reserve by the pure beauty of the voice.

Anyone who hasn’t tried Gluck’s operas, or who is still unconvinced, will also be melted by Paride’s beauty, and fall in love with Elena and her creator.


McCreesh ParideMagdalena Kozená (Paride), Susan Gritton (Elena), Carolyn Sampson (Amore), and  Gillian Webster (Pallide), with the Gabrieli Consort and Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh.  Deutsche Grammophon 0289 477 5415 2.

31. Der Cid – Peter Cornelius


Lyrisches Drama in 3 Acts

Music and libretto by Peter Cornelius

First performed: Weimar, 21 May 1865, conducted by Carl Stor


3 stars.png

Peter Cornelius was one of those marginal figures who pops out of the woodwork at surprising moments.  He was a member of Wagner’s circle at Bayreuth; Lohengrin is a big influence on this opera, and Wagner gave him advice about how he could improve it (which Cornelius ignored).  Already on this blog, we’ve seen Cornelius writing to Smetana about a new sort of comic opera and to Berlioz about Béatrice and Bénédict.

He wrote two-and-a-half operas: Der Barbier von Bagdad, a failure in its time but since seen as the best German comic opera after Meistersinger (!); the unfinished Gunlöd, based (in proper Wagnerian style) on the Edda; and this.

Twenty years before Massenet’s Cid, Cornelius tackled the story of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the eleventh century warrior who fought (and also fought for) the Moors in Spain.  Cornelius uses the version familiar from Corneille’s 1636 play: Diaz kills his beloved Chimene’s father to avenge an insult to his father.  She demands that the king condemn him – but his country needs him to drive off the Moors, while she’s torn between honour and filial duty on the one hand, and love on the other.  Diaz is victorious, and the conquered Arabs name him El Cid (“the Lord”).  Chimene acknowledges that she loves him, and forgives him.

Cornelius was a devout Christian, and Chimene’s forgiveness takes on a spiritual dimension.  The bishop urges her to forgive, just as he persuades Diaz not to fight.  Mercy and love are greater than the warriors’ code of honour.

The opera is very rare – only one recording.  It was only performed twice in Cornelius’s life (21 and 31 May 1865).  A reorchestrated, “Wagnerised” version by other hands was performed sporadically towards the turn of the twentieth century (1891, 1893, 1899, 1900).  Cornelius’s original was staged in 1904, then performances in 1913 and 1938.  After that, silence.

How does he fare as an opera composer?  It’s hard to say.  I listened to it on YouTube, following it in the score, a close analysis in a thesis, and Google’s translation into eccentric French.  (For some reason, Google’s translations from German and Italian work better into French than into English.  More cross-linguistic traffic?)  I’m going to give my general impressions rather than a detailed critique.

It’s clearly the work of an intelligent, competent craftsman – but not an inspired one.  The music suffers by comparison with Lohengrin, one of Wagner’s best works.  Act I is modelled on Wagner’s, with its king trying a case brought before him, its herald, its choral interjections and its pageantry – but lacks Wagner’s melodic and orchestral imagination.  The tone is heroic and declamatory, verging on the strident; the Act I finale, in particular, reminds me of Rienzi, with its hero calling the people to arms against a foe in the name of freedom.

Massenet’s treatment of the story is better; here, the characters fail to come to life.  The opera seems a static series of processions, choruses and prayers (Acts I and III) bookmarking the more intimate middle act (modelled on the rather dull III, 1 of Lohengrin).  There’s little in the way of Spanish color or any arias as memorable as “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père” or “Pleurez mes yeux”.  The best pieces are a quartet in the first act and Chimene’s grand aria in the second act.

I repeat, though, that these are only my impressions.  The opera failed to hold my attention, but a native German speaker may enjoy it more.  Listening to it, rather than seeing it onstage, may also do it a disservice.  That said, it’s unlikely to replace Massenet’s version in anyone’s affections.


Gustav Kuhn’s 1993 recording, starring Albert Dohmen (Ruy Diaz, Graf von Vibar) and Gertrud Ottenthal (Chimene, Gräfin von Lozan).

30. Il trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi)


By Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano, completed by Leone Emanuele Bardare, based on Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez’s play El Trovador

First performed: Teatro Apollo, Rome, 19 January 1853



The backdrop of the opera is the Spanish wars of the early fifteenth century.  After Martin I of Aragon died in 1410 without surviving legitimate issue, the nobility elected Fernando de Antequera, prince of Castile, king through the Compromise of Caspe.  Ferdinand I of Aragon, named the Just, ruled from 1412 to 1416, but Jaume II d’Urgell, Count of Urgel, a rival claimant to the throne, refused to acknowledge his cousin as king.  Jaume was twice defeated in battle, besieged in the castle of Balaguer, and surrendered to Ferdinand in 1413.


We’re at the Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza, north-western Spain, stronghold of the Count of Luna, commander of Fernando’s army, who is in love with Leonora.  Leonora, though, loves a mysterious troubadour, Manrico, who serenades her every evening.  The Count has ordered his men to watch for the troubadour.

To while away the time, Ferrando, captain of the guard, tells the story of the Count of Luna’s younger brother Garzia.

trovatore 1One morning an old gypsy woman was found standing over Garzia’s cradle.  She claimed to be casting the baby’s horoscope, but the boy fell sick.  The old Count thought the gypsy had put a curse on the child, and had her burnt at the stake.  In revenge, the woman’s daughter stole the child – and a child’s half-burnt skeleton was found at the funeral pyre.  The old Count, though, believed his son was still alive, and, before he died, asked his son, the present Count (are you following this?), to search for his younger brother – to no avail.  The daughter vanished, and her mother’s ghost is believed to haunt the castle as a raven or an owl.  Those who see her die of fear.

Leonora is waiting for her lover, the troubadour – whom she first met at a tournament before the civil war.

While she goes to her rooms, the Count arrives, aflame with desire.  He hears the troubadour serenade Leonora’s window from the garden, and she comes down, eager to meet her lover.  She mistakes the Count for her lover; Manrico reveals himself as Urgel’s follower, a wanted man; and the two men go off to fight a duel.

trovatore 2.PNG

Between the two acts: Manrico spares the Count’s life, moved by a strange pity.  Later, at the battle of Pelilla, the two men fight again, and Manrico falls.  Azucena finds him and nurses him back to health.


Act I scene 2.JPEGA gypsy camp in the mountains of Biscay.  In the famous Anvil Chorus, the gypsies celebrate their life – particularly the gypsy maid (“la zingarella”).

Azucena, Manrico’s mother, stares into the campfire, and remembers when her own mother was burnt alive.


After the gypsy band have left, she tells Manrico the story of his grandmother’s death.  Her mother was falsely accused of bewitching the old Count of Luna’s son, and burnt at the stake.  Azucena followed her to the stake, cradling her baby in her arms.  “Avenge me!” her mother urged her, before she died.  Azucena stole the Count’s son and took him to the flames – but in her grief, she threw her own son into the fire.  Who then, Manrico wants to know, is he?  Her son, Azucena tells him; forget what she said; sometimes she gets confused.  She makes him swear to kill the Count.  A messenger tells Manrico that Leonora, believing him dead, will become a nun.  Ignoring Azucena’s attempts to restrain him, he rides off to the convent outside Castellor to rescue her.

The Count has also come to the convent; he intends to abduct her from the altar by force.  Before he can do so, however, the troubadour appears, and takes her away with him.


The Count’s army prepares to attack the fort of Castellor, where Manrico and Leonora have taken refuge.  The soldiers capture Azucena, who is skulking around the camp, looking for her son.  Ferrando recognizes her as the woman who burnt the Count’s son, and she reveals that she’s Manrico’s mother.  She is sentenced to be burnt alive, like her mother.

Inside the fort, Manrico and Leonora await the Count’s assault the next day.  Today, though, they will marry.  Before they can go down to the altar, another messenger tells Manrico that his mother has been captured.  He resolves to rescue her.

trovatore 5.PNG


Once again we’re at the Aliaferia palace, at night.  Manrico has been captured, and both he and his mother will be executed at dawn.  Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico’s freedom – but she takes poison concealed in her ring.  He will have her cold and lifeless.

In their prison cell, Manrico and Azucena await the dawn.  Azucena is terrified of the stake, and Manrico comforts her, singing her to sleep.

trovatore 6.PNG

Leonora tells Manrico that he is free to go – but he repulses her angrily when he learns the price she paid for his freedom.  She dies in his arms, as the Count watches.  Manrico is dragged off to the block.  Azucena wakes up.  “Where is my son?”  About to be executed, the Count tells her, and takes her to the window so she can see.  “He was your brother!” Azucena tells him; “Mother, you are avenged!”  “And I still live!” cries the Count.  Curtain.


4 stars

Il Trovatore is one of Verdi’s Big Three, the popular operas he composed in the early 1850s.  It’s also the odd one out.

The works on either side – Rigoletto (1851) and La traviata (1853) – are innovative, tightly dramatic and introduce naturalistic characterization.

Trovatore seems a throwback to the Verdi’s early galley operas.  It’s close to Ernani (1844) or I Masnadieri (1847) with its stereotypical romantic triangle, exiled tenor hero, brigands, swordfights, battles, and warring brothers fighting over the heroine.

Trovatore also has a reputation.  Great music, strong drama, bizarre and incomprehensible story.  “I think it’s the stupidest plot in all of opera,” a friend said when I told her it was next on my list.  Jokes about it abound; Gilbert and Sullivan parodied it, and the Marx Brothers memorably sent it up in A Night at the Opera (1935).

That was eighty-two years ago, and the opera is still played around the world.

It’s certainly not a foolproof opera.  Caruso said that it’s easy to stage, provided you have the four greatest singers in the world.  Some old-fashioned productions treat it as a vehicle for the voices – the singers sing, and to hell with the drama.  (The 1988 Met production with Pavarotti and Eva Marton does that, and the result is unconvincing.)  The recent fad is to update it to the Spanish Civil War, to make it more “relevant”, with mixed results.

The opera can work, and work well, if it’s played straight and acted with sincerity – babies, bonfires, and all.  The 1975 Berlin Staatskapelle production does this, and it works beautifully.

The key to appreciating Trovatore lies in understanding Verdi’s aesthetics.  Verdi wasn’t interested in naturalism, but in human nature.

To imitate the truth slavishly may be a good occupation, but to find the truth through one’s imagination is better, much better.  The words “to discover the truth through one’s imagination” are only seemingly a contradiction in terms; just try to look for the truth in the pope’s words – I mean to say in Shakespeare’s. Falstaff may have possibly crossed his path; but he has hardly ever met an archvillain of Iago’s sort and certainly never the angelic characters of Cordelia, Imogena, Desdemona – and how full of true feeling are these personalities!  To imitate the truth faithfully may be a beautiful occupation.  But it is then mere photography, not painting.

It’s striking that Verdi uses Imogen as an example.  Imogen is the heroine of Cymbeline, a play criticized for its convoluted plot, incongruities, and anachronisms.  The story involves stolen babies (as in Trovatore); a heroine falsely accused of infidelity, and who mistakes the headless corpse of her would-be rapist for her lover’s; a wicked queen, invading Romans, cross-dressing, and ghosts.  Jupiter comes down from heaven to resolve the plot.  The events might be fantastical, but the sentiments ring true.

That was what Verdi understood by imaginative drama: the mixture of the fantastic and the true that he found in Shakespeare.

The action of Trovatore is abrupt, the events bizarre, but the strong situations – however unlikely they may seem – allowed him to study emotions.  Azucena, torn between her mother’s dying command, “Avenge me!”, and her love for her son, no son.  The two enemy army commanders, rivals for the same woman, and, unbeknownst to them, brothers.

trovatore 3

One of the criticisms of the opera is that it is poorly motivated; the action may be exciting, but that action seems to arise out of nowhere.  Messengers appear, as in Greek tragedy, and announce that a battle has been lost, that Leonora is going to take the veil, or that Azucena has been captured and condemned to death.  Ferrando and Azucena talk about things that happened long ago – but the characters know little of why they fight and struggle.  They’re creatures of action, but they act blindly.  Manrico and the Count do not know they are brothers, Manrico does not know he is not Azucena’s son, Leonora does not know that her lover is the gypsy’s son.  The only person who knows the truth is Azucena, and her agenda is her own.  Is she Manrico’s loving mother, or is she using him to avenge her mother?

The opera, though, is less illogical than it appears.  Accept the basic premise – that Azucena threw the wrong baby on the fire – and everything else follows.  (As someone with a long experience of setting fire to small children, I can see how she might make the mistake; one tyke is much like another.)

By halfway through the second act, the audience should have worked out the tangled story.  Leonora mistakes the Count for Manrico.  This is what detective story writers would call a clue; she makes the mistake because the two men physically resemble each other.  Azucena admits that she threw the wrong baby on the fire; who, then, is Manrico?  Manrico could not kill the Count – because, subconsciously, he recognizes that they are brothers.

Through the opera runs a leitmotif of fire, lighting up the fantastical action with a lurid, hellish glare.   Azucena’s mother burnt alive at the stake.  Azucena hurling her own child into the flames.  The guards huddled around the fire, listening to a ghost story.  Azucena staring into the gypsy campfire, remembering her mother’s death.  Leonora’s passion for her unknown troubadour is “a dangerous flame”, while the Count’s “spurned and jealous love burns … with a terrible flame”.  Azucena sentenced to be burnt at the stake, as her mother died.  Manrico’s vow to rescue his mother from that pyre.

And those flames, like old sins, cast long shadows.


Erede Trovatore.jpgListen to: Alberto Erede’s 1956 recording starring Mario del Monaco (Manrico), Giulietta Simoniato (Azucena), Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), and Ugo Savarese (di Luna).

Watch: The 1975 Berlin production, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, starring Franco Bonisolli (Manrico), Viorica Cortez (Azucena), Raina Kabaivanska (Leonora), and Giorgio Zancanaro (di Luna).