Opéra in 4 actes and 5 tableaux
Composer: Léo Delibes, completed and orchestrated by Jules Massenet
Librettists: Henri Meilhac & Philippe Gille, after a short story by L. von Sacher-Masoch
First performed: Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique (salle du Châtelet), Paris, 24 Mars 1893, conducted by Jules Danbé.
(Check out Phil’s review)
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Here is an opera to warm the heart! Class war in Eastern Europe; a proletariat hero; a peasants’ revolution; the nobility banished; the violent death of a woman seduced by luxury; and happiness in a humble cottage – all inspired by the inventor of masochism.
Léo Delibes is best known for Lakmé (1883), his grittily realistic exposé of the Imperialist atrocities of the British Raj. (The opera also sheds an interesting light on the chemical properties of certain Indian plants.)
Kassya, Delibes’ last work, is even gloomier: a dark work about oppression and power.
It sank like a fish, and vanished for 115 years – until resurrected last week.
Based on the stories of Leopold Sacher-Masoch (who enjoyed being tormented by women in furs), Kassya takes place in Eastern Europe, an area the composer knew well.
He had visited the Carpathian mountains in the summer of 1885, in the company of the explorer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and studied the music of the region.
The opera, with a libretto by the authors of Carmen and Manon, was originally announced for the 1887-88 season of the Opéra-Comique. When the salle Favart caught fire on 25 May, Kassya was put on the back burner. (So to speak.)
Delibes died in January 1891, leaving the opera unfinished. He had written the piano/vocal score, but had only orchestrated the first act.
His colleague Jules Massenet, also on that trip east, completed the work, and turned the spoken dialogues into sung recitatives.
Despite the opera’s long gestation, it was not a success, and left the theatre after eight performances.
“The drama,” Arthur Pougin (Dictionnaire des opéras) wrote, “was colourful and picturesque, but the character was rather sombre, the tone rather violent, and the story not interesting enough.
“It was like a series of curious, animated, sometimes strange pictures, connected by a somewhat timid and tenuous story.
“This was a blow to the success of the work, which, from the musical point of view, contained pages worthy of the author of Lakmé and Le Roi l’a dit.”
Kassya was forgotten until performed in a concert version in Montpellier a week ago, with Véronique Gens and Cyrille Dubois, conducted by Michael Schønwandt.
This recording is available here: https://www.francemusique.fr/emissions/le-concert-du-soir/kassya-l-opera-inacheve-au-festival-radio-france-occitanie-montpellier-63444
- KASSYA, gypsy, 20 years old (soprano)
- SONIA, peasant girl, 18 years old (soprano)
- CYRILLE, young peasant, 25 years old (tenor)
- LE COMTE DE ZEVALE, 30 years old (baritone)
- KOTSKA, old peasant, Cyrille’s father (bass)
- KOLÉNOTI, Comte’s steward , 40 years old (baritone)
Galicia [border of modern-day Poland and Ukraine], 1846
A public square in the village of Zevale
The little Galician village is about to hold its Christmas fair. Cyrille, a young peasant, has been chosen to play one of the three Magi, apparently as a reward for seeing off rascals. Cyrille loves the gypsy girl Kassya, and is in turn loved by the peasant Sonia. A gypsy fortuneteller predicts honour and fortune for Kassya, and a humble life but happiness for Sonia. Cyrille names Kassya his Queen of the Fair – much to Sonia’s dismay.
- Cyrille’s recit: “C’était là-bas sous les aulnaies”
- Finale – andante: “Salut, fleur d’Occident”
A room in the Count of Zevale’s castle
The Count is also in love with Kassya. He tries to seduce her, but she holds out for marriage. While helping Cyrille hang up garlands, she tells him of the Count’s offer. Cyrille jealously threatens her with a hammer, but she tells him she loves him. The Count (a nasty piece of work) pressgangs Cyrille into the army, to the amusement of his noble cronies. Kassya begs the Count to spare him, but he’s adamant. She yields to his offer of marriage, but hears the soldiers marching off…
- Kassya’s (short!) Chanson slave: “O Nadja, dit le seigneur”
- The Duo de l’échelle
- Finale – Kassya’s prayer: “Je ne menace plus, j’implore”
The edge of a forest
Two years later, in the middle of winter. The Count and his new Countess (Kassya) Cyrille’s father terrorise the poor; they plunder, they crush, they extort, and they leave the peasants nothing. Cyrille’s father Kotska has been driven out of his home, accompanied by the ever-loyal Sonia. The pair are reunited with Cyrille, returning home with the army. Cyrille leads a peasants’ revolt, and marches on the castle.
- Choeur des Frileuses (shivering women): “Rentrons au logis”, with a lovely little soprano / mezzo-soprano duet
- Sonia’s Air de l’Hirondelle: “Il suffit d’attendre”
- Trio: “Cette douleur est trop amère”
- The Finale: “Marchez, fauchez, que l’herbe tombe”
A large room in the Castle of Zevale
The aristocrats, unaware Nemesis is approaching, celebrate in the castle. They dance a polonaise; Kassya sings a dumka; and they watch a ballet (obertas; Ruthenian dance; sumka; trepak). The peasants burst in, baying for blood. Cyrille stops them from killing the Count and Countess, who are banished.
Cyrille will marry Sonia. Kassya pleads with him to love her; despairing, she stabs herself. The fortuneteller’s prophecy has come true.
While the opera isn’t Lakmé, there’s much to enjoy.
It’s full of strong situations: a hero drafted into the army by his powerful rival; a woman torn between love and her desire for power and wealth; and a popular uprising, in the middle of a snowstorm.
(Revolts were a fixture of French opera since Guillaume Tell – see also Auber’s Muette de Portici, with volcano; Meyerbeer’s Prophète, with Anabaptist sermon and rising sun; Paladilhe’s Patrie!; and Lalo’s Jacquerie.)
There’s nothing quite on the earworm level of the Flower Duet or the Bell Song, but the score is elegant, often suave, sometimes menacing and powerful. The highlights include the Ladder Duet in Act II, the soldiers’ chorus, and Kassya’s moving prayer; in Act III, the chorus of shivering women (Pougin considered it the pearl of the score), Sonia’s Air de l’hirondelle (Pougin: “exquisite”), and the rousing of the peasants, waving sickles! The last act has a gripping confrontational duet, ending in Kassya’s suicide.
Véronique Gens (Kassya), Cyrille Dubois (Cyrille), Anne-Catherine Gillet (Sonia), and Alexandre Duhamel (Le Comte de Zevale), with the Orchestre and Choeur Opéra national Montpellier Occitanie and the Choeur de la Radio Lettone conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Montpellier, July 2018.