88. Le tribut de Zamora (Charles Gounod)

  • Opéra in 4 acts.
  • Composer: Charles Gounod
  • Libretto : Adolphe d’Ennery & Jules Brésil.
  • First performance : Théâtre de l’Opéra (Palais Garnier), 1 April 1881.  Remounted at the Opéra: 13 March 1885 (48th performance) – 50th & final performance 25 March 1885.

XAÏMASopranoJoséphine Daram
HERMOSA, a madwomanSopranoGabrielle Krauss
IGLÉSIA, Xaïma’s friendSopranoÉlisabeth Janvier
MANOËL, Xaïma’s fiancéTenorHenri Sellier
BEN-SAÏD, envoy of the caliph of CordobaBaritoneJean Lassalle
HADJAR, his brotherBassLéon Melchissédec
The KingBassAlfred Giraudet

SETTING: Spain, at the time of the Moorish occupation.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s been nearly a month since I last posted, my mate Phil tells me.

Today, we’re going to talk about Gounod’s last opera.

(Cause and effect?)

Tribut de Zamora

Le tribut de Zamora is set in Moorish Spain, and was originally intended for Verdi, who may have been better inspired by its conflict between Christians and Muslims, tributes of a hundred virgins, slave auctions, murders, battles, and a madwoman reunited with her long-lost daughter.

Act 1 place publique d'Oviedo
acte 2, entrée de Cordoue, d'après le décor de Lavastre
Acte 3, le palais de Ben Saïd, d'après le décor de Carpezat
acte 4, le jardin du palais de Ben Saïd, d'après le décor de Chaperon

Although the opera was favourably received on its premiere, and remounted for three performances in 1885, it soon vanished from the stage.

It has a bad reputation.  Félix Clément wrote:

Mediocre and banal, without interest, without novelty, without passion, without poetry, the libretto of this unwelcome work has little to inspire a musician.  It is astonishing that M. d’Ennery, so skillful in his trade and so experienced, could have been so mistaken as to think that such a subject, treated in this fashion, could capture an audience’s attention for a single instant.  And it is even more surprising that an artist of Gounod’s rank could get on with the thankless task of setting to music a vulgar melodrama.  It was his last dramatic work, and I regret to say that it was unworthy of his great name and his noble genius.  Le Tribut de Zamora owed its semblance of existence only to the marvelous performance of Mme Gabrielle Krauss, that admirable lyric actress.


le marché aux esclaves aux portes de Cordoue.JPEG
Act II: An Arab slave market

James Harding (Gounod, 1973) and Steven Huebner (The Operas of Charles Gounod, 1990) weren’t enthusiastic, either.  Huebner believed that Gounod’s style was poorly adapted to a libretto whose musico-dramatic potential was superior (although vulgar) to most of those he’d set to music.

Gérard Condé, meanwhile, thought it Gounod’s weakest opera; the composer superposed musical conventions onto dramatic conventions.  It’s certainly a conservative, unenthralling work.  Like Cinq-Mars and Polyeucte, it’s a throwback to Meyerbeer and Halévy‘s grands opéras, only not on their level.  Reyer and others recognised it as a riposte to French Wagnerism; it is, Gérard Condé says, “an aesthetic manifesto swimming against the tide”.

The opera received its first recording this year, recorded in Munich in January, and released as a CD / book by the Palazzetto Bru Zane, which does a sterling job of reviving obscure French opera, many unheard for decades.

I’ve been listening to Tribut for the last three weeks.

illustration de presse 1.JPEGIt’s better than Clément suggests, and justifies Timothy Flynn’s (Charles François Gounod: A Research and Information Guide, 2009) claim that the opera contains “some very fine music”.

There are, indeed, some wonderful things in it.  The best numbers include Xaima’s “Ce Sarassin disait” (recorded by Joan Sutherland), and the Act I finale, with the Marche de l’Ibérie (a real ear-worm!); an ensemble in Act II, “L’ange qui chaque nuit”; and the end of the mother / daughter duet in Act III.  Much of the score, though, is conventional.

Every time I sit down to listen to it with the libretto, though, my attention wanders.  Just listening to an opera with score is rather like trying to read the shooting script of a movie.  Opera of this vintage is meant to be seen, not just heard – and this was, Rémy Campos says, “an opera for the eyes”, full of harems, odalisques, and Berbers on horseback.  And armour, too!

4 thoughts on “88. Le tribut de Zamora (Charles Gounod)

    1. Cheers! I think we agree about this one. I feel kind of guilty kicking a Bru Zane production; they’re doing a fantastic job of unearthing operas that long since fell out of the repertoire – and it’s great to have all Gounod’s operas available, somehow. But it’s not a terribly good opera – the quintessence of conventionality!

      I’ve still got that damn march stuck in my head (when it’s not turning into the Chant du départ!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, just close your eyes and think of Gloire immortelle!

        I don’t blame Bru Zane, they are doing a great job, even here! The opera is well researched like all their productions (I used a variety of images from their well documented investigation into the work) and has been recorded for posterity. That is their mission: to explore the creature world and make far out there French operas available for opera safari big game hunters like us who then write our amusing blog posts about them. This is Gounod, the conventional amorphous blah phantom of the Palais Garnier. It isn’t Bru Zane’s fault that every opera isn’t La Juive!

        However, had they released Polyeucte, I would have had to call them out. I regret Gounod’s English landlady saving that thing from becoming ashes!


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