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.

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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).

29. Carmen – Georges Bizet


Opéra-comique in 4 acts

By Georges Bizet

Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, after Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845)

First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 3 March 1875

Reception: Disastrous.  Now the third most popular opera in the world.

Dossier (characters, musical structure).

Contemporary reviews.


Spain travel poster.jpgCarmen is based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella about a Spanish soldier, Don José, who falls under the spell of the gypsy Carmen, deserts his regiment, becomes a brigand, and ends up killing her.

We’re in Spain, where sultry beauties dance the fandango on tavern tables, and where matadors prove their manhood in the bullring.  Spain, where passion blazes under a blazing sun.


A bustling square in Seville, with a tobacco factory on one side.  A company of dragoons watches people hurry by, go, come, meet, greet each other, and jostle each other.  Micaëla appears, an innocent country girl looking for a soldier.  Aha, thinks Morales, the brigadier, twirling his moustache – but he’s not the soldier she wants.  Her brigadier is called Don José.  He’s not in this company, but he’ll be along soon.  In the distance, we hear the sound of a military march, bugles and fifes.  It’s Don José’s company – and leading the way, a gang of little kids, trying to match the dragoons’ pace.  “Ta ra ta ta, ta ra ta ta!”

The tobacco factory’s bell rings, and the cigar makers – all of them women, most of them young and pretty – pour out.  Young men crowd the square to ogle the girls…but where is the Carmencita?  At last she appears.

13.JPEGMérimée describes her thus:

She wore a very short red petticoat that showed white silk stockings with more than one hole, and cute red morocco shoes tied with ribbons the colour of fire.  She spread her mantilla in order to show her shoulders and a large bouquet of cassia flowers that came out of her shirt.  She still had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, and she was advancing, swinging on her hips like a filly from the Cordova stud.  In my country, a woman in this costume would have forced everyone to make the sign of the cross.  In Seville, every one cheerfully complimented on her face; she answered each one with her fist on her hip, brazen as the true gypsy woman she was.

She has S.A. – and she knows it.  All the young men love her, but when, they want to know, will she love them?  “When will I love you?  …  I don’t know…  Maybe never, maybe tomorrow; but not today, for sure!”

She sings her famous Habanera.  Love is a wild bird, a gypsy child, that cannot be tamed.

6.JPEGThe only man who doesn’t crowd around Carmen is Don José, who’s more interested in making a chain for his pin.  “Your pin, really!” exclaims Carmen, piqued that he’s not paying attention to her.  “Your pin … the pinnacle of my soul!”  She tears off her cassia bouquet and throws it at him.  It falls at his feet, while everyone laughs, and the cigar makers mockingly sing the refrain of Carmen’s Habanera.  Don José picks up the flower, and inhales its perfume.  It struck him like a bullet between the eyes, he tells us, and if there ever was a witch, that woman was one.

Micaëla arrives, bearing presents from his mother: a letter, some money – and a loving kiss.  His mother, her guardian, wants him to return home and marry her.  The two sing a tender duet, and Micaëla leaves.

There’s a commotion from inside the tobacco factory: Carmen has slashed another woman’s face with a knife.  Don José is ordered to take her to prison, but the flower is working its magic.  He has fallen in love with her – which she uses to her advantage.  He tries to resist; he orders her not to speak, so she sings instead.  She’ll meet her lover – a brigadier – at Lillas Pastia’s inn near the ramparts of Seville.

Don José succumbs, and helps her to escape.  She flees, while he’s arrested for dereliction of duty.


A month later, at Lillas Pastia’s inn.  Gypsy men play the guitar while their women dance on the table or smoke cigarettes with soldiers.  Carmen is waiting; tonight Don José will be released from prison.  To entertain the crowd, Carmen sings a gypsy song, ending in a wild, fast dance.

A torch-lit procession enters the inn, celebrating Escamillo the toreador’s latest victory in the bullring.  The toreador himself arrives, and sings one of opera’s best-loved arias:

14.JPEGHe flirts with Carmen, but she’s not interested; he can love her, for all she cares, but he mustn’t think of her loving him.  The inn closes, and the gypsies discuss their business: smuggling.  To their surprise, Carmen won’t join them; she’s in love.

At last Don José arrives.  Why, Carmen wants to know, didn’t he use the file she smuggled into his cell to escape?  “I still have my soldier’s honor, and deserting would seem to me a great crime.”  His honor, alas, won’t last that evening.

Carmen danced that evening for the officers; now she dances for Don José, accompanying herself on the castanets.  While she’s dancing, bugles sound in the distance.  It is the retreat, and Don José explains that he must go back to barracks for rollcall.  Carmen is furious – but Don José explains that he loves her.  He still has the flower she threw at him, which reminded him of her all through his imprisonment.

Carmen isn’t satisfied; if Don José loved her, he would run away with her to the mountains, and become a smuggler.   They quarrel, and Don José starts to leave.  At that moment, his lieutenant arrives, and orders his underling to leave.  The two men fight, but the gypsies disarm the lieutenant, and tie him up.  (In Mérimée’s story, Don José kills his officer.)  Don José, forced to leave his regiment, becomes a smuggler.

Le ciel ouvert, la vie errante,

Pour pays l’univers, pour loi sa volonté,

Et surtout la chose enivrante,

La liberté ! la liberté !


11.JPEGIt’s a dark night.  The gypsies have made their camp in a picturesque and wild spot in the mountains.  Carmen is growing tired of Don José.  She wants to be free and to do what pleases her, but he’s jealous and controlling.  He isn’t suited for the life of a smuggler, and she suggests that he goes back to his mother.  He tells her that if she talks to him again about separating, and if he doesn’t behave the way he wants her to…  What, he’ll kill her?

Carmen turns her back on him, and joins the other gypsy women in reading their futures in the cards.  Two foretell happy futures (a handsome young lover, a rich husband who dies)—but she sees a diamond and a spade: death!  First for her, and then for him.  There’s no escape.

The gypsies leave to deal with a customs agent, leaving Don José to guard the camp.  Micaëla arrives, but she’s afraid to make herself known, and hides behind a boulder.

8.JPEGEscamillo also arrives; he tells Don José that he’s fallen in love with Carmen.  The two men draw their navajas (knives) and fight.  The gypsies, returning, break up the fight.  Escamillo invites them all to watch him in Seville, and goes.

The gypsies are also about to depart, when one spots Micaëla behind a rock.  She tells Don José that his mother is dying, and wants to see him.  He warns Carmen: “Be content, I’m leaving…but we will see each other again.”  While he and Micaëla make their way down the rocky path, Escamillo can be heard singing in the distance:

Toréador, en garde !

Et songe en combattant

Qu’un œil noir te regarde

Et que l’amour t’attend.

 Carmen listens and leans over the rocks, trying to see Escamillo again.


We’re in another square in Seville, outside the bull ring.  There’s a bullfight on to-day, and there’s excitement in the air.

Merchants sell water, oranges, fans, programmes, and lorgnettes.  The cuadrilla arrive; the public throw their sombreros into the air as the four toreros pass.  They cheer as the alguazils, the chulos and the banderillos, the picadors march by…and, at last, Escamillo.  Carmen tells him that she loves him, and will die if she ever loved anyone as much as him.  She’s right; she will.

Don José is at large, armed and dangerous.  The crowd pass into the arena, leaving the two former lovers alone.  He begs her to return to him; he’ll do anything…  Without avail.  She no longer loves him; she loves Escamillo.  While the audience celebrate Escamillo’s victory in the bullring, Don José, crazed with jealousy, stabs Carmen.  The crowd pour out of the arena – and see him standing over her body.  “You can arrest me,” he tells them; “I killed her.”  He throws himself onto the corpse.  “Ô ma Carmen! ma Carmen adorée! …”


Carmen is popular.  It’s the third most frequently performed opera, and the most performed French opera, in the world.  Its popularity, in fact, makes it easy to overlook just how good it is.

It’s a brilliant entertainment that ends in tragedy.  Much of the opera is light-hearted: choruses of soldiers, cigarette girls, and big crowds shouting “Olé!”; exhilarating Spanish dances, with castanets; quintets of smugglers praising women’s wiles; and Carmen herself, part seductress, part comedian, a flower between her teeth, her hips swaying sexily, while she laughs and sings.  Into this, it mixes the tender sentiment of Micaëla and Don José’s lost love, Don José’s obsessive jealousy, and a brutal murder.  While much of Carmen might be fun, it also has a sense of impending tragedy, of inevitable doom.

And the tunes are catchy, pouring out with almost inexhaustible fertility.  Half the world knows them.

Tintin - Toréador.jpgOpen Tintin.  There’s a museum guard singing the Toréador song.  Turn on the television, and Carmen is advertising everything from fast food to sports and printers.  It’s a stalwart of radio stations; at one point, Classic FM, Australia’s classical music network, played highlights from Carmen daily.

A bus station in town plays classical pops (probably to keep young people and criminals away); it’s often the Toréador Song or the Habanera.

It’s ironic, though, that Carmen should be used to keep down crime.  The opera failed because it put crims and lowlifes onstage, in a theatre that upheld decent family values.

When Bizet and his librettists Meilhac and Halévy suggested mounting Carmen, the director of the Opéra-Comique was horrified.

“Carmen!” exclaimed Adolphe De Leuven.  “The Carmen of Mérimée!  Wasn’t she murdered by her lover?  And the underworld of thieves, Gypsies, cigarette girls – at the Opéra-Comique, the theatre of families, of wedding parties?  You would put the public to flight!  No, no, impossible!”

And, worse, Carmen died.  “Death – at the Opéra-Comique!  This has never been seen, never!  Don’t make her die, my young friend, I pray you!”

(Nobody dies in an opéra-comique?  What about Auber’s Manon Lescaut?  Cherubini’s Medea?  What, never?  Well, hardly ever!)

The opera wasn’t such a radical break from French tradition; its roots are in opéra comique, grand opera, and the Offenbachiade.  Escamillo’s Toreador Song is in the rhyming couplets form familiar from many opéras-comiques (although Bizet himself dismissed the aria as a sop to public taste).  The gypsies are a more realistic version of the brigands and smugglers in Auber’s opéras-comiques, while the ensemble “A deux cuartos!” (start of Act IV) is in the line of the market scene in his Muette de Portici.  Bizet learnt his brilliant handling of the crowd scenes and choruses from the operas of Meyerbeer, whom he ranked with Beethoven and Mozart; the ensemble in Act I, for instance, is modelled on Act III of the Huguenots.  Micaëla is (as Robert Letellier points out) Alice from Robert le Diable.  She is the intercession of the mother, trying to reconcile her errant son to virtue.  The librettists wrote the books for Offenbach’s witty, racy operettas, some of which feature smugglers, gypsies and brigands, and independent women.

And the opera flopped.  Halévy, 30 years later, remembered the fiasco of the première on 3 March 1875:

The entry of Carmen was well received and applauded, as was the duet between Micäela and Don José.  As the first act ended there were many curtain calls.  Backstage, Bizet was surrounded, congratulated!

The second act, less enthusiasm.  It opened brilliantly.  The entrance of Escamillo was most effective.  But then the audience cooled…surprised, unhappy, ill-at-ease.  Backstage, fewer admirers, congratulations restrained.  No enthusiasm at all for the third act except for Micaela’s aria.  The audience was frigid during the fourth act.  Only a few devotees of Bizet came backstage.  Carmen was not a success.  Meilhac and I walked home with Bizet.  Our hearts were heavy.

Just as Carmen disrupts Don José’s orderly life, the opera’s realism shocked audiences.  “The libretto must be rewritten,” said the influential critic Félix Clément, “to take away the vulgarity, to remove the realism that doesn’t suit a lyrical work, to make Carmen a light-hearted gypsy and not a fille de joie, to make Don José bewitched with love, but not vile and odious!”

And Meilhac and Halévy had already sanitized the piece.  Mérimée’s original story was even less suitable.

Mérimée presented the story as truth, a traveller’s account of his experiences in Spain.  He inserts himself into the narrative, meets both Don José (whose life he saves from the police) and Carmen (who wants to cut his throat!), and visits Don José awaiting execution in prison for the murder, where Don José tells him the story that became the opera.

Don José is a notorious brigand who murders several people, including his superior officer and Carmen’s husband.  Carmen is a thief and witch.  Micaëla doesn’t appear, while Escamillo is based on a minor character, the bullfighter Lucas, one of Carmen’s lovers.  By the time Don José kills Carmen, she’s bored with both men and love, and accepts her death fatalistically.  People cheat, lie, steal and kill – and the whole story is treated as dispassionately as Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime fiction would depict the world of gangsters and their molls.

And the last chapter is a scholarly analysis of gypsy customs and linguistics.  Good luck putting that on stage!

Meilhac and Halévy turned Mérimée’s story into a tragicomedy showing a conventional man destroyed by his love for an unconventional woman.

Carmen is in love with liberty as much as she is with any man, and demands the right to love whom she chooses and do what pleases her.  Don José is the man who didn’t love her, wouldn’t look at her, wasn’t interested – and the flower she mockingly throws at him casts a spell that destroys them both.

She seduces Don José and – quite without malice or intent – destroys him.  At the start of the opera, he’s a respected soldier with a promising career and a nice girlfriend.  (If Carmen hadn’t entered his life, he would have happily married Micaëla, as the tender love duet in Act I shows.)  By the end of the opera, he’s betrayed his duty, deserted his regiment, become a smuggler, and killed the woman he loves.

12.JPEGShe gradually unmans him until he becomes less than a man: a beast.  Remember that Carmen wears red.  On one level, it represents her vitality, her passionate nature, and her open sexuality – but it’s also the red that infuriates a bull.

While Escamillo kills the bull in the arena (stabbing it through the heart), the square outside becomes a private arena where Don José – the maddened, goaded bull – kills his tormentor.  He becomes both bull and bullfighter.

Carmen’s true match is the bullfighter Escamillo.  Both are physically brave, and take risks; Don José is a passive character, acted upon rather than acting.  His falling in love with Carmen is as much outside his control as his killing her.

Even when he murders Carmen, he doesn’t want to; he wants her back.  He’s the one begging for his life – but begging is the last thing to attract her to a man.  It marks him in her eyes as a weakling, and she holds him in contempt.  “Strike me or let me pass,” she tells him; she is indifferent.  Does she love him?  No.  Does she love Escamillo?

Je l’aime, et, devant la mort même,
Je répèterais que je l’aime !

She won’t lie to him ; she will be true to herself, and to the liberty she loves.

Don José reaches the end of his tether, and – as other weak men have done – kills her.  Carmen – he discovers to his cost – is irresistible.


The French public, though, resisted.  Carmen reached 48 performances, often poorly attended, by February 1876 – and wasn’t seen again in Paris until 1883.  That time it caught on, and has stayed firmly in the repertoire.

That was ten years after the rest of Europe.  It was performed in Vienna in 1875, and was a hit.  The Germans loved it.  “Here at last for a change is someone with ideas, thank God!” – R. Wagner.  Brahms saw the opera 20 times, and “would have gone to the end of the earth to embrace the composer of Carmen”.  And Tchaikovsky (who saw it in Paris) thought it “a masterpiece in every sense of the word…one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch”.

Poor Bizet was dead by that time.  He suffered a fatal heart attack on 3 June, the day after the opera’s 33rd performance – without ever seeing his masterpiece accepted, or knowing that it would be one of the world’s favorite operas.



Listen to:

  • Élie Cohen’s 1928 recording, starring Raymonde Visconti (Carmen), Georges Thill (Don José), Marthe Nespoulous (Micaëla) and Louis Guénot (Escamillo), with the Chœur de l’Opéra-Comique and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris.  An old recording, but authentic.  Columbia Recording Cat: 27809; remastered on Pristine Audio.
  • André Cluytens’ 1953 recording, starring Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Martha Angelici and Michel Dens, with the Chœur et Orchestre de l’Opéra-Comique.  EMI mono CMS5 65318-2 and Naxos Historical 8.110238-39.
  • Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording, starring Victoria de los Ángeles, Nicolai Gedda, Janine Micheau and Ernest Blanc, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  A classic; the two leads aren’t native French speakers, but are idiomatic nonetheless.  EMI Classics Cat: CMS567357 2.
  • Georges Prêtre’s 1964 recording, starring Maria Callas, Nicolai Gedda, Andréa Guiot and Robert Massard, with the Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris.  EMI Classics.

28. Il pirata – Vincenzo Bellini


Opera seria in 2 acts

By Vincenzo Bellini

Libretto: Felice Romani

First performed: La Scala, Milan, 27 October 1827



Di mia vendetta ho pieno il mondo…
Ma indarno.  Il vile Ernesto,
Il mio persecutor, vive ed esulta
Dell’ingiusto mio bando e di mie pene…

BlackbeardPirates!  Who doesn’t love a good pirate story?  Wooden-legged men, cursed treasure, talking parrots, the Black Spot, battles at sea, and murderous rogues who set their beards on fire…

None of them are here.

We’re not yet in the Golden Age of Piracy; this is Sicily in the 13th century, and the pirate – Gualtiero by name – is a ruined Sicilian nobleman.  (Who ever heard of a pirate called Walter?  Pirates have proper pirate-y names like Captain Blood.)

Gualtiero, former Count of Montaldo, backed the wrong side in a war between King Manfredi and the house of Anjou.  Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, defeated him in battle; the victorious Angevins banished him from Sicily; and he became leader of a band of pirates.  Gualtiero vowed to wreak bloody revenge on his enemies.

Ten years later, Gualtiero’s fleet is destroyed in a sea battle off the Sicilian coast.  The opera begins in the aftermath.


While a storm rages overhead, the survivors row for the shore.  A chorus prays for their safety, and helps them to reach land.  (Verdi, more than half a century later, remembered this powerful scene when he wrote Otello.)

Gualtiero is among the survivors.  He tells his former tutor, now a hermit, that only his love for Imogene has sustained him over the last decade.

Unfortunately for him, Imogene has married Ernesto, his mortal enemy.  She may be Duchess of Caldora, but she still loves Gualtiero.  (Where would Italian opera be without a romantic triangle?)

Imogene arrives to help the survivors.  She’s afraid that Gualtiero might be dead; she’s had visions of seeing a bleeding corpse on a barren, deserted strand, but all nature is deaf to her tears and sorrow.  The mariners tell her that they’re innocent shipwrecked sailors (and certainly not bloodthirsty murdering pirates with peg legs and a parrot on each shoulder).  She invites the survivors to the castle, where they drink and make merry – rather than slaughtering everyone in the castle.

Only Gualtiero seems to have some idea of the proper behavior for a pirate.  He confronts Imogene, who tells him that Ernesto imprisoned her father and forced her to marry him.

Bah, says Gualtiero!  He whips out his cutlass and threatens to slice Imogene’s son in two – but he’s moved by her tears.  (He’s a softy at heart.)

Ernesto, Imogene’s villainous husband, arrives with his men – and he isn’t pleased to learn that his wife’s filled the castle with strange men.  Could they, he wonders, be pirates?  He interrogates Itulbo, Gualtiero’s lieutenant.  No, sir – (arrrr Jim lad, pieces o’ eight, pieces o’ eight) – no pirates here.  Ernesto isn’t convinced.  He threatens to lock them up until they can prove their bona fides, but Imogene persuades him to let them go.  Gualtiero, though, demands that the two former lovers meet, and threatens to kill her family unless she consents.  “This will be the last night for you, your husband, and your son!”  Imogene collapses.


This is Italian opera, so everybody ends miserably, but they sing beautifully.  Ernesto’s an unfeeling husband; he thinks Imogene’s sickness is only shamming.  (What can you expect from a husband whose idea of proposal is to throw his beloved’s father into a dungeon?)  More, he thinks she’s cheating on him – she loves Gualtiero!  Imogene reminds him that when she married him she loved Gualtiero, but she only loves Gualtiero’s memory.  (Something about threatening twice to kill her family might have cooled her feelings.)  And no, she hasn’t betrayed him.  Ernesto’s ready to believe her – until he learns Gualtiero is in the castle.  I’ll kill him – and you too, says Ernesto.  Not if he kills you first, retorts Imogene.

Gualtiero tries to persuade Imogene to flee with him, but she will be virtuous; she tells him to live and forgive.  Ernesto surprises them; Imogene urges Gualtiero to flee.  Flee?  I’ve wanted to kill your husband for ten years, Gualtiero retorts, and now I can!  The two men rejoice that the day of revenge and fury has arrived, and rush off, swords in hand.

Gualtiero kills Ernesto.  Rather than taking to the high seas, he surrenders to the Duke’s men, and is condemned to death.  Imogene goes mad.  Gualtiero’s men rush in to try to save him, there’s a pitched battle between the pirates and the knights (sounds like an idea for a Hollywood blockbuster!), and Gualtiero stabs himself while leaping off a bridge.


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For an opera called The Pirate, this isn’t very pirate-y.  Not a Jolly Roger in sight, only a melancholy Walter!

It’s an enjoyable melodrama, with plenty of opportunities for singers to show off their voices.  The opera abounds in the meltingly lovely, long melodic lines for which Bellini is famous; listen to the “Pietosa al padre!” section from Gualtiero and Imogene’s first duet, or Imogene’s mad scene.

The situation and characters may seem conventional, but Bellini and his librettist Romani introduced most of those conventions here.  This is the first true Italian Romantic opera.

It is one of the earliest historical costume melodramas focusing on a tenor / soprano / baritone love triangle.  Gualtiero, the brooding Byronic antihero, is the father of many of Verdi’s early tenor leads: a damned soul, with a tender side: “un magnanimo cor degenerato / Per avverso destin”.

Imogene is less interesting; she suffers passively, trapped in a loveless forced marriage but loving Gualtiero.  “Io stessa, io stessa / Inconsolabil vivo.”  But she sets the fashion for Italian prime donne for the next couple of decades by going mad in white satin.

The opera also marks the end of the age of Rossini.  The musical style is Rossinian, but hardly in sentiment.  The opera was written for three of the leading Rossini singers of the day; the singing style, as in Rossini’s serious operas, is florid, demanding agility of voice; and many of the pieces follow the Coda Rossini, the structure Rossini formalized in his operas.

Bellini, though, is a Romantic.  “Opera must make people weep, shudder and die through singing!”  Rossini is semi-Classical, even Baroque; his operas bridge the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, looking as far back as Handel with their armour-bearing contralti in travesti.  His music is full of brilliant vocal fireworks, and in his elaborate ensembles, he treats the voice more as instrument than as the expression of an individual’s soul.  Joyous, exhilarating, serenely beautiful – and fundamentally extraverted.

Bellini’s music is introspective in a way that Rossini’s seldom is; it paints inner emotions – particularly suffering and pathos; and it is dramatically expressive, closely moulded to the word.

Bellini was conscious of the novelty of his approach.  There’s a famous anecdote that he persuaded the tenor to act, rather than just sing.  Giovanni Battista Rubini was considered the greatest tenor in the world, with a chest range of two octaves, from C to G, carried up to F by “head notes”.  One thing Rubini didn’t do was act.

They started to rehearse the duet between Gualtiero and Imogene.  But soon they met with the same difficulties as before and exclaimed, “You don’t put half of the soul you’ve got into it!  Here, where you could easily move the public, you’re cold and languid.  Put some passion into it?  Have you never been in love?”

Rubini didn’t say a word to this, as he was very confused.  Then the maestro said, using a rather sweeter voice, “Dear Rubini, do you think you’re Rubini or Gualtiero?  Don’t you know that your voice is a goldmine not entirely discovered?  Listen to me, I beg you, and one day you’ll be grateful.  You are one of the best artists.  Nobody can be your equal in bravura singing.  But this isn’t enough!”

“I understand what you mean, but I cannot despair or enrage myself just for the sake of make-believe,” Rubini answered.

“The truth is that my music doesn’t please you because it doesn’t give you the usual opportunities.  But if I have in mind a new style and a music that can express completely the words and form a union of singing and drama, should I give it up because you don’t want to [work] with me?  In fact, you can co-operate with me, provided that you forget yourself and put yourself into the soul of the character that you represent.  Look how it should be done.”

So Bellini started to sing.  In spite of his undistinguished voice, inspired, he was moving to such an extent that he could have roused even the hardest of men.  Deeply moved, Rubini followed with his outstanding voice.

“Bravo, Rubini.  There you are, you have understood me!  I’m happy.  I will expect you to do the same tomorrow.  Above all, always remember to practice while standing and accompany yourself with gestures.”

(Stelios Galatopoulos.  Bellini: Life, Times, Music.  London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002, p. 65)

It’s surprising to learn that Rossinian singers weren’t expected to act.  Contemporary critics had praised the mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran’s acting; from the moment she stepped on stage, they wrote, she became Elizabeth I or Desdemona.  Many of Rossini’s later operas – particularly Ermione (a bel canto Elektra), the last act of Otello, the erotic Armida, and Semiramide, with its guilt-ridden queen, incest, and matricide – were psychologically intense, gripping music dramas.

I much prefer Rossini to Bellini, and don’t think Il pirata measures up to Rossini’s mature masterpieces – but Bellini’s close attention to conveying emotions and text through music influenced some of his greatest successors.

Verdi praised Bellini’s “truth and power of expression”, while Wagner wrote: “Bellini is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and intimately bound up with the words.  The music which I abhor, on the contrary, is that vague, indeterminate music that mocks libretto and situations.”

Il pirata’s storms, shipwrecks, and brooding seaman who has wandered the oceans for a decade, kept going by the hope of a woman’s love, surely also influenced The Flying Dutchman.

There’s also an interesting link to a great composer from the past.  Il pirata was Bellini’s breakthrough opera, and it was his first work performed in the US.  Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, translated the libretto for the performances in the 1830s.  It was, he said, “a splendid amusement”.

Melodramatic and full of beautiful music, Il pirata certainly is “a splendid amusement”.

As an opera about pirates, though, it gets the Black Spot.


The best recording I’ve heard is the 2003 Amsterdam performance, conducted by Giuliano Carella, starring Nelly Miricioiu (Imogene), Stefano Secco (Gualtiero), and Albert Shagidullin (Ernesto).  This is an unofficial recording, available from House of Opera.

Pirata - Opera RaraOf the commercial recordings, Parry’s 2012 recording for Opera Rara and Gavazzeni’s 1970 recording for EMI (with Montserrat Caballé) are both solid.

Pirata - Caballe