Lyrisches Drama in 3 Acts
Music and libretto by Peter Cornelius
First performed: Weimar, 21 May 1865, conducted by Carl Stor
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).