Dramma lirico in a prologue, 2 scenes, and an epilogue
Libretto : Luigi Illica
First performed : Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 11 March 1902
Reception: Franchetti’s most popular work. At its première, considered the “work of a great artist” – but the audience thought the opera emphasized the patriotic theme to the detriment of the love story.
For the dossier (characters, costume and stage designs), see here.
The recommended recording is the 2007 Montpellier recording, starring Gustavo Porta, Silvio Zanon, and Manuela Uhl, conducted by Renato Palumbo.
Tenor arias from the opera:
There is also a DVD of a Deutsche Oper Berlin performance, which I have not seen. Here’s the trailer:
And now for something truly obscure…
When I first encounter an unknown opera, I listen to it purely as music. When I heard Franchetti’s Germania, I was impressed. It’s STUNNING. Glorious choruses, post-Wagnerian symphonic writing, beautiful arias, and a strong sense of drama. It sounds like a cross between Puccini and Mahler. Feast your ears on this:
Why, then, did it vanish, along with Franchetti’s other operas?
Let’s take a step back. Franchetti was, for a time, Puccini’s main rival, and two of his operas, Asrael and Germania, were smash hits in Europe and the Americas. He was also, like Meyerbeer, a wealthy Jew, and Mussolini banned his operas under the Racial Laws of 1938.
What, though, was an Italian composer doing writing an opera about German nationalism and resistance to French tyranny?
Franchetti was a Germanophile. He studied in Munich and Dresden, where he wrote his first symphony, and held German citizenship (apparently to divorce his wife; divorce was illegal in the Catholic stronghold of Italy until 1970).
It’s also less about nationalism (in its jingoistic sense – my mother, drunk or sober, as Chesterton said) than about something far nobler: the love of country that inspires heroic deeds.
The opera focuses on three German students, all resisting Napoleon’s occupation of Germany in 1806. Worms, a liberal, and Federico Loewe, a radical, both love Ricke. She is engaged to Loewe, but Worms has seduced her. This is a classic triangle in the line of Donizetti or Verdi, complicated by the fact that all three are well-intentioned, high-minded, young idealists.
The love element is, however, less important than politics. The opera is about the ideal of fatherland – what makes people fight and die for the liberty of their homeland – rather than the intimate love triangle.
With scant regard for Aristotle, each scene is set months or years apart. It seems a series of set-pieces, like Verdi’s early historical pageants, rather than a concentrated narrative flow. Like Verdi, the emotional core of the situation is what matters; dramatic effect is more important than how to get there. It might be dramatic, but is this cogent drama? Yes, once one grasps that the opera is like a sprawling historical novel, unified by its political theme, rather than by the characters’ emotions.
Prologue: Worms and students, disguised as millers, plot resistance against France.
The bookseller Johann Philipp Palm is hiding in the mill; he is a political fugitive, charged with selling treasonable material: a pamphlet that urged Germans to take arms against the French. German philosophers, poets, and musicians – among them Weber (making him, with Mozart and Salieri, one of the few opera composers to appear as a character in an opera!) – and students from every corner of Germany visit Palm in hiding, and dream of a German nation.
They sing an anthem based on Weber’s Wilde Jagd. Palm is betrayed by the poor boy Jebbel, and led away by the police. (He was judicially murdered.)
Scene I: Only this intensely dramatic and beautiful scene is intimate character-driven drama in the traditional Italian sense. Ricke and Federico marry.
A love duet between the newlyweds is interrupted by the return of Worms, whom they think dead. What will this mean for their marriage? Will Ricke tell Federico that she has had an affair with Worms? Worms resolves to leave. When he has gone, Ricke decides to leave her husband, and, leaving her husband of an hour a note, sets out into the woods.
Federico realises the truth, and vows revenge. All this in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Scene II: The meeting of the Louise-Bund, a branch of the Tugendbund (League of Virtue), a secret society established to revive the Prussian national spirit after Napoleon defeated their armies at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Worms is now head of the society, dedicated to overthrowing the French. The pastor Stapps, who married Ricke to Federico, carries in the remains of his son, Friedrich, who tried to assassinate Napoleon in Vienna and was shot. Jebbel confesses to betraying Palm to the police, and is sentenced to die, but Ludwig Adolf Wilhelm von Lützow recruits Jebbel for his army; Jebbel will be given the chance to redeem himself on the battlefield. Federico appears, masked, and challenges Worms to a duel.
Worms is prepared to die, but Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen Consort of Prussia, suddenly appears, and reconciles the enemies.
“These two men, enemies in love, but brothers in patriotism, grasp the weapons once more, embracing, crying in tones rendered sublime by the emotion and enthusiasm of this great moment.” This effectively resolves the love triangle. In a majestic, hymnal ensemble, all present vow to “Die – die – die for Germany!”
Epilogue: The aftermath of the Battle of Leipzig (16–19 October 1813), also known as the Battle of the Nations, the largest pre-WWI battle, in which Napoleon was defeated for the first time. Ricke finds Federico dying; the two lovers are reunited.
Worms has died on the battlefield, clasping the standard; Ricke covers his body with it, forgiving him.
“The sun’s last rays throw a lurid light in the western sky, and reveal in deep shadow the impressive spectacle of an army in retreat.
“The Grenadiers pass in silence across the dying sun! No more the song of triumph floats round the victorious standards, the eagles of the standards, with outstretched wings, resembling a flight of terrified birds. One solitary figure rides quite alone, on whom the red sun, red with blood, dances, his fine head bowed in thought on his breast. It is Napoleon. Within this blood-red halo of sunset (sunset, indeed!) he rides, alone with his great glory and his great defeat; his generals follow in silence, with all that vast shadow of horses, heads, plumes, arms and standards, across this tragic sunset, like some huge fantastic cavalcade of spectres.
FEDERICO: Germany! Free!
“So Federico dies in the arms of Ricke, with a vision of his country set free.
“Without a tear she gently lays down the beloved dead; sinking beside him, she drops her head upon the lifeless heart and awaits the approaching night, for these two their first and eternal wedding night.
“And in the distance, fading away on the red horizon, still moves that blot, a joyless, songless army.”