Opéra-comique en 1 acte
Bizet’s fourth opera, set in Egypt
Libretto : Louis Gallet, after Alfred de Musset’s poem Namouna (1832)
First performed : Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), 22 May 1872
For the dossier, see here.
LA PRINCESSE JAUNE
Opéra-comique en 1 acte
Saint-Saëns’s first performed opera, set in Japan
Libretto : Louis Gallet
First performed : Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 12 June 1872.
For the dossier, see here.
One of the joys of opera is its fascination with other cultures. Two one-act operas by Bizet and Saint-Saëns, both composed to libretti by Louis Gallet and premièred in 1872, show the French interest in the East.
Bizet’s Djamileh is a Middle Eastern fantasy of opium-smoking princes and slave girls. French opera was long acquainted with Middle Eastern stories, while Félicien David (Le désert) and Ernest Reyer (Le Sélam) had written symphonic odes inspired by their travels in North Africa and Palestine.
Saint-Saëns’s Princesse jaune riffs off the Japonoiserie of the time; the hero is a young Dutch scientist who downs a bottle of opium (!) and fancies himself transported to the Orient. “Japan,” Saint-Saëns wrote (‘Louis Gallet’, in Ecole buissonnière), “had recently been opened to Europe. Japan was in fashion; people talked only of Japan; it was a craze.”
Apart from their exotic settings, both have similar stories; they’re about men who overlook the love of a woman. Prince Haroun of Cairo buys a new slave each month; when the thirty days are up, he gives her liberty – but Djamileh wants to stay by his side. Kornélis is in love with a Japanese statuette of the Princess Ming, and completely unaware that his cousin Léna loves him. Both women become their doubles. Djamileh takes the place of Haroun’s newest acquisition, while the Japanese idol comes to life with Léna’s face. At the end, the men realise that love has been under their noses all this time, and all ends happily.
Ernest Reyer, who had inherited both Berlioz’s mantle as music critic for the Journal des débats and his progressive view of music, praised both works, and realized that the composers were presenting non-European music to a European audience in a way that is exotic and intriguing, but accessible.
He noted that Saint-Saëns had adapted “eastern-style themes … to accepted western notions of harmony and rhythm” (Nicholas Tarling, Orientalism and the Operatic World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 261). Bizet also suited Middle Eastern music to European taste.
“Here we have true Oriental music,” he wrote of Djamileh, “at least as it is understood by visitors to the countries of its origin… It is true, not through imitation of certain instrumental effects sui generis, nor by the use of a scale wholly diferent from ours, but by the accompaniment it gives to the landscape our imagination evokes, of the picture it spreads before our eyes. It is a slightly conventional, slightly dressed up truth, if you like, but a truth that takes into consideration our ears and the nature of the musical sensations to which we are accustomed. Besides, don’t we know that all music when it travels changes climate, loses its effectiveness by losing its poetry, and sometimes even changes character?” (Tarling, pp 161–62.)
Both scores evoke other cultures through music, and novel orchestral effects. La princesse jaune has a chorus sung in Japanese, while the first aria is a poem in Japanese and its translation into French; some of the music is written in the Japanese pentatonic scale. Djamileh has a strikingly modernist opening that anticipates Shostakovich or Prokofiev; it’s a spare, strongly rhythmic march, with figures on drums and bassoons, and a solo for clarinet. Later there are tambourines, a humming chorus (tenors and basses), and descending chromatic piano passages. There is a ghazel (an Arabic lyric poem that begins with a rhymed couplet whose rhyme is repeated in all even lines) and an almeh (belly dancing).
Djamileh is the stronger of the two. Although Bizet doubted whether the work was theatrical, he makes the audience care for the slave in love with her master; her “Lamento”, in particular, shows his gift for characterization that would bloom so gloriously in Carmen. La princesse jaune is slight, and the story unconvincing, but the music is exquisite. The overture is one of Saint-Saëns’s finest compositions; it uses themes from Kornélis’s aria “Oui, j’aime en son lointain mystère”, his evocation of Japan, and the chorus “Anata wa dô nasaï masita!”.
Both operas were flops; Djamileh held the stage for eleven performances, and the Princesse jaune for five performances. The problem? The dreaded Wagnerism! To a twenty-first century ear, they sound nothing like Wagner – certainly there’s less Wagner here than in Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine or Hélène, both avowedly Wagnerian, through-composed, “advanced” operas. The conservative French critics saw the creeping hand of Teutonic menace everywhere, particularly after the Franco-Prussian War; they saw it in Verdi’s Don Carlos, they even saw it in Carmen! Félix Clément, a normally reliable if conservative critic, thought Saint-Saëns had compromised his reputation in writing La princesse jaune, while Djamileh appalled him; he objected both to the plot (the characters were insane) and to the music (there isn’t any). Clément also wrote:
“What are the cavatines, the duos, which the Orient has sent us? What are the passionate or touching melodies that came to us from the land of harems and polygamy? It is to us Westerners that it falls to put to music the loves of these people, by supposing they have our way of feeling, our ideas, the caprices of our imagination, all things foreign to them.”
From one angle, this seems racist; from another, it’s an accurate critique: nineteenth century “exotic” music isn’t genuinely exotic, it’s a Western idea of other cultures. Different cultures, after all, see the world differently. Clément, for all his apparent racism, comes closest to modern cultural relativism. Europeans took the exotic trappings of other cultures – the externals of costume, dance and custom, the detailed recreations of buildings and landscapes – but assumed that certain ways of thinking were human universals, rather than being culturally conditioned; they read their attitudes into those cultures as norms.
Music, too, depends on culture. What we think of as beautiful or even normal music might appall other nations. A party of Burmese ambassadors visited the Paris Opéra in the 1850s. “The rattling in the throats of the male singers, the screaming of the lady vocalists, and the tempest raised by the orchestra, made a profound impression on their sensible hearts and they manifested an inclination to throw themselves at the feet of the Emperor.” (Paul Kildea, “Fashioning Faust”, Faust programme, 1998 Opera Australia) Conversely, kathakali or Chinese opera might seem alien or unfathomable to Westerners.
It took a later generation to appreciate the works; Fauré admired La princesse jaune, which was remounted nearly 30 times between 1909 and 1914, while Mahler and Strauss both liked Djamileh.
You can judge for yourself. I recommend this recording of Djamileh:
- Lucia Popp, Franco Bonisolli, and Jean-Philippe Lafont, with the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Lamberto Gardelli. Orfeo, 1983.
There’s also what seems to be a TV film in Hungarian. I couldn’t understand a word of it (except “opium”), but it’s delightful all the same. It’s an attractive production, in Arab costume (turbans and fezzes), with belly dancers, monkeys, and some nifty opium-sodden reverie sequences.
La Princesse jaune is available from Chandos, on a disc with the Suite algérienne:
- Maria Costanza Nocentini, Carlo Allemano Cantemus, with the Swiss Italian Orchestra conducted by Francis Travis. Chandos CHAN9837, 2000.
- Overture (Lamberto Gardelli, Munich RSO)
- “Nour Eddin, Roi de Lahore” (Denyce Graves)
- Lamento (Lucia Popp)
La princesse jaune