34. Orphée aux enfers (Jacques Offenbach)

1874 afficheORPHÉE AUX ENFERS

Opéra bouffon in two acts and four scenes

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto : Hector Crémieux

First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Paris, 21 October 1858, conducted by Offenbach.

The first of Offenbach’s full-length operettas, and a smash hit.

Revised as an opéra féerique in four acts and twelve scenes, with libretto by Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy.  Performed: Théâtre de la Gaité, Paris, 7 February 1874, conducted by Offenbach.

Dossier (with costume and set designs, illustrations, and musical structure)

Contemporary criticism


SYNOPSIS

The opera is a parody of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and specifically of Gluck’s opera.

Orpheus, in this version, is not the greatest musician known to antiquity, but director of the Theban choral society, an employee of the municipal council of Thebes, who charges for his lessons.  And, far from lamenting the death of his wife Eurydice, he’s unhappily married, and would gladly be rid of her.  He much prefers the company of nymphs, while she’s rather taken with the shepherd Aristæus (a minor god of bee-keeping).  This scandalises Public Opinion, guardian of moral conventions, who, addressing the audience directly, says that the wife who deceives her husband, or the husband who’s unfaithful to his wife, had better watch out.  (Relax, though, she’s only talking about the characters in the play, not those in the audience!)

Orpheus may have invented hexameter verses, he may scrape away at his violin – but he is, in his wife’s eyes, the most boring man in existence.

Orpheus would get a divorce – if doing so wouldn’t hurt his worldly position.  He is, he tells her, a slave to public opinion – but he’ll defend his reputation as a husband.  He’s laid a trap for her lover in the wheat fields, so beware!

Aristæus appears, and sings of the simple pleasures of a shepherd’s life: watching the bees gather honey, the sheep frolic in the plains, and the shepherd take the shepherdess by surprise.

Eurydice is bitten by a serpent (Orpheus’ trap), and dies.  Death seldom stopped anyone in Greek mythology, though – particularly when her lover Aristæus is really Pluto in disguise.  Eurydice leaves her husband a message – “I’m leaving because I’m dead…  I’ve gone to the devil” – and goes to hell.

Orpheus is relieved to be a widower – but, just as he’s about to rush off to his nymphet, he hears Public Opinion approaching.  Orpheus can’t carry on like that, she tells him; he must petition Jupiter himself to restore his “beloved” Eurydice.  For the edification of posterity, we must have at least one example of a husband who wanted his wife back.

É._Morin_-_Orphée_aux_Enfers,_L'OlympeThe Classical gods – Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, and the rest – are asleep on Mount Olympus.  There’s little else to do, under Jupiter’s stultifying reign.  There follows a sort of variety show, as deities (including Cupid, Venus, Diana, and Mercury) present themselves.  Jupiter (notorious for his philandering) is determined to present a façade of moral rectitude – even if it means bumping off his children’s lovers.  “Gorblimey!” says the puissant king of the gods; “kiddos, the weak mortals have their eyes on us!  Let’s keep up appearances, at least!”  Particularly when the scandal-mongering journalists are writing nasty gossip columns.  The scandal of the hour is the disappearance of Eurydice.  Jupiter accuses Pluto of kidnapping the mortal.

The gods, fed up with Jupiter, revolt:

The piece has echoes of the strains of the Marseillaise, at that time a revolutionary anthem.  Siegfried Kracauer (Orpheus in Paris, trans. 1938) argues that the opera, under its comic exterior, is an angry, political work, attacking the corrupt régime of Napoleon III, and the complacent, bourgeois Second Empire.

Jupiter may pose as a paragon of all the virtues, but is his record so clean?  He’s seduced women disguised as their husband (which wouldn’t work for most of them), bulls, a shower of gold, and a swan (“Take me to your Leda!”).

Orpheus and Public Opinion arrive.  Jupiter orders the gods to stop fighting, and be on their best Sunday behaviour  – “Everything for decorum, and by decorum!”  Orpheus (quoting Gluck’s “Che farò senza Euridice”) appeals to the gods to let him go to Hades in search of his wife – and Jupiter, seizing on the distraction, announces that they’ll all go.

Hell, you see, is more fun than heaven.  In Olympus, the gods sit around snoozing, quaffing nectar and ambrosia – while hell is for people who like the other sorts of things.

Act II

Eurydice, though, is bored.  She’s been alone in Pluto’s boudoir for two days, with only a dumb servant for company.  And that servant, John Styx, has fallen in love with her.  He wasn’t always a servant, he tells her; once, he was the son of a great prince of Bœotia:

600px-É._Morin_-_Orphée_aux_Enfers,_Un_roi_de_Béotie

Jupiter tries to seduce Eurydice – disguised as a giant fly.  What other opera has the king of the gods disguised as a fly, or a duet with the lyrics “Bzzzzz!”?

Jupiter arranges to help Eurydice escape.  Pluto is holding a feast for the gods, Eurydice should attend in disguise, and then slip off when all the guests leave.  He then buzzes off.

600px-E._Morin_-_Orphée_aux_Enfers,_Les_enfersAt the feast, Eurydice, disguised as a Bacchante, entertains the gods by singing a hymn to the god of alcohol.  Everyone then dances a Galop infernal, better known as the Can-Can:

Pluto sees through Eurydice’s disguise – and reminds Jupiter that he’s promised to restore her to her husband.  Jupiter reluctantly agrees, but gives Orpheus one condition: he must lead her back to the mortal world without glancing back at her.  If he looks back, she will be lost to him.  Jupiter, though, cheats; he throws a thunderbolt at Orpheus, who leaps into the air, whirls, shouts “What!” – and glances back at his wife.  Who promptly vanishes.  Orpheus has lost her (a happy ending for him), and his wife becomes a bacchante.  “But that isn’t in mythology,” Pluto protests.  “Very well!  We’ll remake mythology!”


COMMENTARY

5 stars

Confession: I like Orphée aux enfers more than Gluck’s Orfeo.  That would have shocked many high-minded critics in nineteenth-century Paris, for whom Offenbach’s parody was a sort of sacrilege, an affront to both Gluck and the Greek gods.

The Greeks themselves, though, would have seen in Offenbach a successor to Aristophanes, their brilliant comic playwright who sent up both serious art (particularly the plays of Euripides) and mythology.

Orphée, with the good humour and cleverness of Asterix the Gaul or Terry Pratchett, turns the classics on their head.  He puts everyday people, with contemporary mores, into unreal, historical, or mythological situations, to poke fun at conventions.

Offenbach’s target is humbug and hypocrisy.  The most powerful force is Public Opinion, god of “but what will the neighbours say?”, before whom both gods and mortals quail.  Orpheus wants to divorce his wife, but the scandal would end his career; he pretends to be a devoted husband, to set an example to posterity.  The Olympians pretend to be a happy, well-adjusted family when Public Opinion comes calling, while Jupiter keeps up the appearance of respectability; if he is not virtuous, at least let him appear so.  Appearances are all.

The satire is set to one of Offenbach’s typically brilliant scores.  Offenbach proves himself one of opera’s great melodists, blessed with a gift for a tune that sticks in the ear, and a wit, deftness, and clarity that more “serious” composers lack.  (And who’s to say that seriousness is a virtue?)

Everybody knows the Cancan, which has come to symbolise Paris: racy, decadent, yet ever so much fun.  That would be enough to make Orphée a success, but the score is full of gems.  I often find myself humming the Rondeau des Métamorphoses or “Si j’étais roi de Béotie”.  Offenbach is as adept at more inward, lyrical numbers (Eurydice’s arias) as he is at Meyerbeerian ensembles, with their lignes brisées, counterpoint, and crescendi.

Offenbach revised the opera in 1874, turning it from a two-act opéra bouffon into a four-act opéra féerique, an extravaganza with twelve tableaux, ballets (of Fauns and Shepherds, Graces and Hours, and, in Aristophanic fashion, Flies), expanded numbers, and new arias.  The original is tighter, but who would object to another hour of Offenbach?  Several of the numbers are excellent, particularly the Rondo des Policemen, and the septet for the judges of the Underworld.


RECORDINGS

Minkowski OrphéeMarc Minkowski’s 1999 recording (EMI) is the original two-act version with additions from the revision.  Stars Natalie Dessay (Eurydice), Laurent Naouri (Jupiter), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Pluton), Yann Beuron (Orphée), Ewa Podleś (l’Opinion Publique), Patricia Petibon (Cupidon), Jennifer Smith (Diane), Véronique Gens (Vénus), and Steven Cole (John Styx), with the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Lyon,  Orchestre de chambre de Grenoble, and the Choeur de l’Opéra national de Lyon.  I’m less keen on the DVD of this production, which crosses the line between wit and crudity.

Plasson Orphée.jpg1874 version: Michel Plasson’s 1979 recording (EMI), with Mady Mesplé, Jane Rhodes, Jane Berbié, Michel Sénéchal, Charles Burles, and Michel Trempont, with the Orchestre et Choeurs du Capitole de Toulouse.

There’s also a witty, stylish production, sung in German:

 

33. Orfeo ed Euridice / Orphée et Eurydice (Christoph Willibald Gluck)

ORFEO ED EURIDICE / ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE

By Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto : Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 5 October 1762

Revised: Orphée et Eurydice, Académie Royale de Musique (seconde salle du Palais Royal), Paris, 2 August 1774, with a French text by Pierre Louis Moline.  Berlioz prepared another version in 1859, for the contralto Pauline Viardot (the first Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Prophète).

Dossier.

Criticism.


SYNOPSIS

The opera is based on the Greek legend of the musician Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope, the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry.  Orpheus’s lyre-playing could charm the beasts and birds, the trees and rocks.  His wife Eurydice, fleeing from the shepherd Aristæus (in some versions, a satyr), was bitten by a snake, and died.  The distraught musician vowed to rescue her from the Underworld.  His music thawed even the cold hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to let her go – on the condition that he not look at her until they had returned to the world of mortals.

Orpheus - Greek vase

Orpheus led Eurydice through the gloomy caverns of Hades, she silently following.  At the last, with the gateway to the Earth in sight, he could not resist the temptation, and turned back.  He saw Eurydice, and she died – a second time, and forever.

In his grief, Orpheus forswore the company of women, and refused to worship any god except his father Apollo, the sun.  As he wandered disconsolately singing his lament, he was set upon by Mænads, the followers of Dionysus, and torn to pieces.  The women threw his remains into the river Hebrus, and his head and lyre floated downstream, still pouring out their song of grief.

Orpheus & maenads.jpg

Gluck’s opera has a happier ending.

Act I: In a forest of laurels and cypress trees, shepherds and nymphs mourn Eurydice.  Orpheus laments his wife’s death.

Cupid tells Orpheus that the gods have taken pity on him; he can descend into Hades and try to bring his wife back.  Orpheus resolves to make the attempt.

Act II: The underworld.  A frightening, rocky landscape.  In the distance, a thick, dark smoke rises, and flames burst out of the ground.

Gluck 1859

Orpheus approaches a group of terrifying spectres and spirits…

His music sways them, and they let him enter Hades.  He comes to the Elysian Fields, abode of the virtuous dead, where the Blessed Spirits enjoy the charms of the afterlife.  There, he comes face to face with his wife.

Act III: Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the underworld’s dark caverns and maze of twisty little passages.  Because her husband will not look at her, Eurydice fears that he does not love her.  Death, she feels, is preferable to a life of suffering.

Orpheus, unable to resist her tears, looks at her – and she falls dead.  He expresses his grief in the opera’s most famous aria:

He is about to stab himself when Cupid stops him.  Orpheus has proven his steadfastness and his faith, and so the god brings Eurydice back to life.  In a magnificent temple dedicated to love, all celebrate Eurydice’s return to life, and the victory of true love.


COMMENTARY

4 stars

Act II - Orphée and Furies.JPG

Orfeo is a classic.  (Or, given the Greek myth, a Classic.)  It’s the first of Gluck’s reform operas, the works that sounded the death knell of Metastasian opera, with its da capo arias, preening castrati, and subordination of drama to music.  Or, to put it differently, shows where virtuoso singers entertained the punters.

Gluck was serious about making opera serious.  Here, he:

  • Unifies the drama.  Instead of long formal arias and choruses, separated by recitative, Gluck mixes them all together (notably in the opera’s first scene).  This loosens the opera’s structure, so that it moves swiftly and easily.  Content, as Sondheim would say a couple of centuries later, dictates form.
  • Made recitatives more dramatic.  They’re part of the opera, rather than “as in the conventional style, mere padding to fill up the space between arias” (Ernest Newman).   The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra (stromentato), rather than just by the basso continuo (secco).  Iphigénie en Tauride will show just how innovative Gluck’s use of the orchestra can be, depicting the characters’ emotions rather than describing their actions.

These are hugely important historical developments (although critics say that Rameau and Lully influenced Gluck).  Mozart, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner will all build on Gluck.

So Orfeo is historically important. It’s also Gluck’s most popular work, probably due to “Che farò senza Euridice”, one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful arias in opera.  (The devil whispers that it’s also short – a mere hour and a quarter, compared to nearly three hours for Armide, and two hours each for Iphigénie en Aulide and en Tauride.)

It is, though, a long way from Gluck’s best work.  There are, besides “Che farò”, wonderfully imaginative passages: the lament that opens the opera; the whole Furies scene; and the serene Dance of the Blessed Spirits, as blissed-out as it is blessed.

But the opera is (whisper it low) undramatic.  This pastoral tale is a long cry from the two Iphigénie operas, which focus on conflict between human beings, between man and the gods, and between private passions and duty.  (I have yet to hear Armide, supposedly one of Gluck’s masterpieces.)

Here, there are no subplots, and little excitement.  As Newman says, “the dramatic interest was small; there were only two real personages and only one emotion”.  Newman doesn’t count Cupid, an allegorical representation of love, as a character; otherwise, the cast consists of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, who’s a) dead, and b) only appears halfway through.

Like many experiments, it’s halfway between the old style and the masterworks to come.  Both Berlioz and Newman, for instance, believed that Gluck hadn’t quite escaped from the customs of the time.  (O tempora, O moray, as the man said when the eel bit him.)

Like Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable or Beethoven’s early symphonies, it announces that here is a new way of composing, but one can still see the influence of the old style; it’s not until the master’s later works that his approach finds its true, full form.


RECORDINGS

Check out Gramophone’s Orfeo discography.

Orfeo - Gardiner

Vienna version (with counter-tenor): John Eliot Gardiner’s 1991 Philips / Decca recording, with Derek Lee Ragin (Orfeo), Sylvia McNair (Euridice), and Cynthia Sleden (Amor), with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.

Orfeo - Jacobs.jpgVienna version (with mezzo): René Jacobs’ 2001 Harmonia Mundi recording, with Bernarda Fink (Orfeo), Verónica Cangemi (Euridice), and Maria Cristina Kiehr (Amor), with the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor, Berlin.

Gluck - Orphée - Minkowski.jpgParis version: Marc Minkowski’s 2004 Archi CD recording, with Richard Croft (Orphée), Mireille Delunsch (Eurydice), Marion Harousseau, and Claire Delgado-Boge, with Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble.

29. Carmen – Georges Bizet

CARMEN

Opéra-comique in 4 acts

By Georges Bizet

Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, after Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845)

First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 3 March 1875

Reception: Disastrous.  Now the third most popular opera in the world.

Dossier (characters, musical structure).

Contemporary reviews.


SYNOPSIS

Spain travel poster.jpgCarmen is based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella about a Spanish soldier, Don José, who falls under the spell of the gypsy Carmen, deserts his regiment, becomes a brigand, and ends up killing her.

We’re in Spain, where sultry beauties dance the fandango on tavern tables, and where matadors prove their manhood in the bullring.  Spain, where passion blazes under a blazing sun.

ACT I

A bustling square in Seville, with a tobacco factory on one side.  A company of dragoons watches people hurry by, go, come, meet, greet each other, and jostle each other.  Micaëla appears, an innocent country girl looking for a soldier.  Aha, thinks Morales, the brigadier, twirling his moustache – but he’s not the soldier she wants.  Her brigadier is called Don José.  He’s not in this company, but he’ll be along soon.  In the distance, we hear the sound of a military march, bugles and fifes.  It’s Don José’s company – and leading the way, a gang of little kids, trying to match the dragoons’ pace.  “Ta ra ta ta, ta ra ta ta!”

The tobacco factory’s bell rings, and the cigar makers – all of them women, most of them young and pretty – pour out.  Young men crowd the square to ogle the girls…but where is the Carmencita?  At last she appears.

13.JPEGMérimée describes her thus:

She wore a very short red petticoat that showed white silk stockings with more than one hole, and cute red morocco shoes tied with ribbons the colour of fire.  She spread her mantilla in order to show her shoulders and a large bouquet of cassia flowers that came out of her shirt.  She still had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, and she was advancing, swinging on her hips like a filly from the Cordova stud.  In my country, a woman in this costume would have forced everyone to make the sign of the cross.  In Seville, every one cheerfully complimented on her face; she answered each one with her fist on her hip, brazen as the true gypsy woman she was.

She has S.A. – and she knows it.  All the young men love her, but when, they want to know, will she love them?  “When will I love you?  …  I don’t know…  Maybe never, maybe tomorrow; but not today, for sure!”

She sings her famous Habanera.  Love is a wild bird, a gypsy child, that cannot be tamed.

6.JPEGThe only man who doesn’t crowd around Carmen is Don José, who’s more interested in making a chain for his pin.  “Your pin, really!” exclaims Carmen, piqued that he’s not paying attention to her.  “Your pin … the pinnacle of my soul!”  She tears off her cassia bouquet and throws it at him.  It falls at his feet, while everyone laughs, and the cigar makers mockingly sing the refrain of Carmen’s Habanera.  Don José picks up the flower, and inhales its perfume.  It struck him like a bullet between the eyes, he tells us, and if there ever was a witch, that woman was one.

Micaëla arrives, bearing presents from his mother: a letter, some money – and a loving kiss.  His mother, her guardian, wants him to return home and marry her.  The two sing a tender duet, and Micaëla leaves.

There’s a commotion from inside the tobacco factory: Carmen has slashed another woman’s face with a knife.  Don José is ordered to take her to prison, but the flower is working its magic.  He has fallen in love with her – which she uses to her advantage.  He tries to resist; he orders her not to speak, so she sings instead.  She’ll meet her lover – a brigadier – at Lillas Pastia’s inn near the ramparts of Seville.

Don José succumbs, and helps her to escape.  She flees, while he’s arrested for dereliction of duty.

ACT II

A month later, at Lillas Pastia’s inn.  Gypsy men play the guitar while their women dance on the table or smoke cigarettes with soldiers.  Carmen is waiting; tonight Don José will be released from prison.  To entertain the crowd, Carmen sings a gypsy song, ending in a wild, fast dance.

A torch-lit procession enters the inn, celebrating Escamillo the toreador’s latest victory in the bullring.  The toreador himself arrives, and sings one of opera’s best-loved arias:

14.JPEGHe flirts with Carmen, but she’s not interested; he can love her, for all she cares, but he mustn’t think of her loving him.  The inn closes, and the gypsies discuss their business: smuggling.  To their surprise, Carmen won’t join them; she’s in love.

At last Don José arrives.  Why, Carmen wants to know, didn’t he use the file she smuggled into his cell to escape?  “I still have my soldier’s honor, and deserting would seem to me a great crime.”  His honor, alas, won’t last that evening.

Carmen danced that evening for the officers; now she dances for Don José, accompanying herself on the castanets.  While she’s dancing, bugles sound in the distance.  It is the retreat, and Don José explains that he must go back to barracks for rollcall.  Carmen is furious – but Don José explains that he loves her.  He still has the flower she threw at him, which reminded him of her all through his imprisonment.

Carmen isn’t satisfied; if Don José loved her, he would run away with her to the mountains, and become a smuggler.   They quarrel, and Don José starts to leave.  At that moment, his lieutenant arrives, and orders his underling to leave.  The two men fight, but the gypsies disarm the lieutenant, and tie him up.  (In Mérimée’s story, Don José kills his officer.)  Don José, forced to leave his regiment, becomes a smuggler.

Le ciel ouvert, la vie errante,

Pour pays l’univers, pour loi sa volonté,

Et surtout la chose enivrante,

La liberté ! la liberté !

ACT III

11.JPEGIt’s a dark night.  The gypsies have made their camp in a picturesque and wild spot in the mountains.  Carmen is growing tired of Don José.  She wants to be free and to do what pleases her, but he’s jealous and controlling.  He isn’t suited for the life of a smuggler, and she suggests that he goes back to his mother.  He tells her that if she talks to him again about separating, and if he doesn’t behave the way he wants her to…  What, he’ll kill her?

Carmen turns her back on him, and joins the other gypsy women in reading their futures in the cards.  Two foretell happy futures (a handsome young lover, a rich husband who dies)—but she sees a diamond and a spade: death!  First for her, and then for him.  There’s no escape.

The gypsies leave to deal with a customs agent, leaving Don José to guard the camp.  Micaëla arrives, but she’s afraid to make herself known, and hides behind a boulder.

8.JPEGEscamillo also arrives; he tells Don José that he’s fallen in love with Carmen.  The two men draw their navajas (knives) and fight.  The gypsies, returning, break up the fight.  Escamillo invites them all to watch him in Seville, and goes.

The gypsies are also about to depart, when one spots Micaëla behind a rock.  She tells Don José that his mother is dying, and wants to see him.  He warns Carmen: “Be content, I’m leaving…but we will see each other again.”  While he and Micaëla make their way down the rocky path, Escamillo can be heard singing in the distance:

Toréador, en garde !

Et songe en combattant

Qu’un œil noir te regarde

Et que l’amour t’attend.

 Carmen listens and leans over the rocks, trying to see Escamillo again.

ACT IV

We’re in another square in Seville, outside the bull ring.  There’s a bullfight on to-day, and there’s excitement in the air.

Merchants sell water, oranges, fans, programmes, and lorgnettes.  The cuadrilla arrive; the public throw their sombreros into the air as the four toreros pass.  They cheer as the alguazils, the chulos and the banderillos, the picadors march by…and, at last, Escamillo.  Carmen tells him that she loves him, and will die if she ever loved anyone as much as him.  She’s right; she will.

Don José is at large, armed and dangerous.  The crowd pass into the arena, leaving the two former lovers alone.  He begs her to return to him; he’ll do anything…  Without avail.  She no longer loves him; she loves Escamillo.  While the audience celebrate Escamillo’s victory in the bullring, Don José, crazed with jealousy, stabs Carmen.  The crowd pour out of the arena – and see him standing over her body.  “You can arrest me,” he tells them; “I killed her.”  He throws himself onto the corpse.  “Ô ma Carmen! ma Carmen adorée! …”


COMMENTARY

Carmen is popular.  It’s the third most frequently performed opera, and the most performed French opera, in the world.  Its popularity, in fact, makes it easy to overlook just how good it is.

It’s a brilliant entertainment that ends in tragedy.  Much of the opera is light-hearted: choruses of soldiers, cigarette girls, and big crowds shouting “Olé!”; exhilarating Spanish dances, with castanets; quintets of smugglers praising women’s wiles; and Carmen herself, part seductress, part comedian, a flower between her teeth, her hips swaying sexily, while she laughs and sings.  Into this, it mixes the tender sentiment of Micaëla and Don José’s lost love, Don José’s obsessive jealousy, and a brutal murder.  While much of Carmen might be fun, it also has a sense of impending tragedy, of inevitable doom.

And the tunes are catchy, pouring out with almost inexhaustible fertility.  Half the world knows them.

Tintin - Toréador.jpgOpen Tintin.  There’s a museum guard singing the Toréador song.  Turn on the television, and Carmen is advertising everything from fast food to sports and printers.  It’s a stalwart of radio stations; at one point, Classic FM, Australia’s classical music network, played highlights from Carmen daily.

A bus station in town plays classical pops (probably to keep young people and criminals away); it’s often the Toréador Song or the Habanera.

It’s ironic, though, that Carmen should be used to keep down crime.  The opera failed because it put crims and lowlifes onstage, in a theatre that upheld decent family values.

When Bizet and his librettists Meilhac and Halévy suggested mounting Carmen, the director of the Opéra-Comique was horrified.

“Carmen!” exclaimed Adolphe De Leuven.  “The Carmen of Mérimée!  Wasn’t she murdered by her lover?  And the underworld of thieves, Gypsies, cigarette girls – at the Opéra-Comique, the theatre of families, of wedding parties?  You would put the public to flight!  No, no, impossible!”

And, worse, Carmen died.  “Death – at the Opéra-Comique!  This has never been seen, never!  Don’t make her die, my young friend, I pray you!”

(Nobody dies in an opéra-comique?  What about Auber’s Manon Lescaut?  Cherubini’s Medea?  What, never?  Well, hardly ever!)

The opera wasn’t such a radical break from French tradition; its roots are in opéra comique, grand opera, and the Offenbachiade.  Escamillo’s Toreador Song is in the rhyming couplets form familiar from many opéras-comiques (although Bizet himself dismissed the aria as a sop to public taste).  The gypsies are a more realistic version of the brigands and smugglers in Auber’s opéras-comiques, while the ensemble “A deux cuartos!” (start of Act IV) is in the line of the market scene in his Muette de Portici.  Bizet learnt his brilliant handling of the crowd scenes and choruses from the operas of Meyerbeer, whom he ranked with Beethoven and Mozart; the ensemble in Act I, for instance, is modelled on Act III of the Huguenots.  Micaëla is (as Robert Letellier points out) Alice from Robert le Diable.  She is the intercession of the mother, trying to reconcile her errant son to virtue.  The librettists wrote the books for Offenbach’s witty, racy operettas, some of which feature smugglers, gypsies and brigands, and independent women.

And the opera flopped.  Halévy, 30 years later, remembered the fiasco of the première on 3 March 1875:

The entry of Carmen was well received and applauded, as was the duet between Micäela and Don José.  As the first act ended there were many curtain calls.  Backstage, Bizet was surrounded, congratulated!

The second act, less enthusiasm.  It opened brilliantly.  The entrance of Escamillo was most effective.  But then the audience cooled…surprised, unhappy, ill-at-ease.  Backstage, fewer admirers, congratulations restrained.  No enthusiasm at all for the third act except for Micaela’s aria.  The audience was frigid during the fourth act.  Only a few devotees of Bizet came backstage.  Carmen was not a success.  Meilhac and I walked home with Bizet.  Our hearts were heavy.

Just as Carmen disrupts Don José’s orderly life, the opera’s realism shocked audiences.  “The libretto must be rewritten,” said the influential critic Félix Clément, “to take away the vulgarity, to remove the realism that doesn’t suit a lyrical work, to make Carmen a light-hearted gypsy and not a fille de joie, to make Don José bewitched with love, but not vile and odious!”

And Meilhac and Halévy had already sanitized the piece.  Mérimée’s original story was even less suitable.

Mérimée presented the story as truth, a traveller’s account of his experiences in Spain.  He inserts himself into the narrative, meets both Don José (whose life he saves from the police) and Carmen (who wants to cut his throat!), and visits Don José awaiting execution in prison for the murder, where Don José tells him the story that became the opera.

Don José is a notorious brigand who murders several people, including his superior officer and Carmen’s husband.  Carmen is a thief and witch.  Micaëla doesn’t appear, while Escamillo is based on a minor character, the bullfighter Lucas, one of Carmen’s lovers.  By the time Don José kills Carmen, she’s bored with both men and love, and accepts her death fatalistically.  People cheat, lie, steal and kill – and the whole story is treated as dispassionately as Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime fiction would depict the world of gangsters and their molls.

And the last chapter is a scholarly analysis of gypsy customs and linguistics.  Good luck putting that on stage!

Meilhac and Halévy turned Mérimée’s story into a tragicomedy showing a conventional man destroyed by his love for an unconventional woman.

Carmen is in love with liberty as much as she is with any man, and demands the right to love whom she chooses and do what pleases her.  Don José is the man who didn’t love her, wouldn’t look at her, wasn’t interested – and the flower she mockingly throws at him casts a spell that destroys them both.

She seduces Don José and – quite without malice or intent – destroys him.  At the start of the opera, he’s a respected soldier with a promising career and a nice girlfriend.  (If Carmen hadn’t entered his life, he would have happily married Micaëla, as the tender love duet in Act I shows.)  By the end of the opera, he’s betrayed his duty, deserted his regiment, become a smuggler, and killed the woman he loves.

12.JPEGShe gradually unmans him until he becomes less than a man: a beast.  Remember that Carmen wears red.  On one level, it represents her vitality, her passionate nature, and her open sexuality – but it’s also the red that infuriates a bull.

While Escamillo kills the bull in the arena (stabbing it through the heart), the square outside becomes a private arena where Don José – the maddened, goaded bull – kills his tormentor.  He becomes both bull and bullfighter.

Carmen’s true match is the bullfighter Escamillo.  Both are physically brave, and take risks; Don José is a passive character, acted upon rather than acting.  His falling in love with Carmen is as much outside his control as his killing her.

Even when he murders Carmen, he doesn’t want to; he wants her back.  He’s the one begging for his life – but begging is the last thing to attract her to a man.  It marks him in her eyes as a weakling, and she holds him in contempt.  “Strike me or let me pass,” she tells him; she is indifferent.  Does she love him?  No.  Does she love Escamillo?

Je l’aime, et, devant la mort même,
Je répèterais que je l’aime !

She won’t lie to him ; she will be true to herself, and to the liberty she loves.

Don José reaches the end of his tether, and – as other weak men have done – kills her.  Carmen – he discovers to his cost – is irresistible.

10.JPEG

The French public, though, resisted.  Carmen reached 48 performances, often poorly attended, by February 1876 – and wasn’t seen again in Paris until 1883.  That time it caught on, and has stayed firmly in the repertoire.

That was ten years after the rest of Europe.  It was performed in Vienna in 1875, and was a hit.  The Germans loved it.  “Here at last for a change is someone with ideas, thank God!” – R. Wagner.  Brahms saw the opera 20 times, and “would have gone to the end of the earth to embrace the composer of Carmen”.  And Tchaikovsky (who saw it in Paris) thought it “a masterpiece in every sense of the word…one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch”.

Poor Bizet was dead by that time.  He suffered a fatal heart attack on 3 June, the day after the opera’s 33rd performance – without ever seeing his masterpiece accepted, or knowing that it would be one of the world’s favorite operas.

9


RECORDINGS

Listen to:

  • Élie Cohen’s 1928 recording, starring Raymonde Visconti (Carmen), Georges Thill (Don José), Marthe Nespoulous (Micaëla) and Louis Guénot (Escamillo), with the Chœur de l’Opéra-Comique and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris.  An old recording, but authentic.  Columbia Recording Cat: 27809; remastered on Pristine Audio.
  • André Cluytens’ 1953 recording, starring Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Martha Angelici and Michel Dens, with the Chœur et Orchestre de l’Opéra-Comique.  EMI mono CMS5 65318-2 and Naxos Historical 8.110238-39.
  • Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording, starring Victoria de los Ángeles, Nicolai Gedda, Janine Micheau and Ernest Blanc, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  A classic; the two leads aren’t native French speakers, but are idiomatic nonetheless.  EMI Classics Cat: CMS567357 2.
  • Georges Prêtre’s 1964 recording, starring Maria Callas, Nicolai Gedda, Andréa Guiot and Robert Massard, with the Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris.  EMI Classics.

24. Béatrice et Bénédict (Hector Berlioz)

Béatrice vocal scoreBÉATRICE ET BÉNÉDICT

Opéra-comique in 2 acts

Music and libretto by Hector Berlioz, after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

First performed: Theater Baden-Baden, Germany, 9 August 1862

Dossier

Contemporary criticism


COMMENTARY

4 stars

Shakespeare’s comedy about a merry war of wits mixes high comedy with pathos.  Hero and Claudio, about to marry, plot to bring the sparring Beatrice and Benedick together, while the bastard Don John mutters darkly in the background and convinces Claudio that Hero has betrayed him the night before the wedding.  Claudio accuses Hero at the altar, she collapses and seems to die, and Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio.

Berlioz keeps only the Béatrice et Bénédict love story, dropping the Ado of Don John’s scheme against Hero.  His opera is a light work, but not “nothing”.  For melodic invention, beauty and warmth, this “caprice written with the point of a needle” is Mozartean.

There was a star danced, and under that was Béatrice born.

The idea for adapting Shakespeare’s comedy first came to Berlioz in the 1830s, thirty years before he was commissioned to write an opera for the opening of the Theater Baden-Baden.

Berlioz was old, sick and disappointed when he composed Béatrice; none of his operas had been successful, and the Paris Opéra refused to mount Les Troyens, his historical epic based on Virgil.  With Béatrice, he could lose himself in his beloved Shakespeare, “the supreme creator, after the Almighty”.

“I’m really enjoying myself and composing the score con furia,” he told the German composer Peter Cornelius.  “It’s gay, caustic, occasionally poetic; it brings a smile to the eye and to the lips.”

The opera may also be his artistic testament – and a rebuttal to the Wagnerian movement.

At a time when the musical avant-garde saw Wagner as the future, Berlioz’s last opera is almost deliberately old-fashioned in its emphasis on music over drama.

Critics of the time lumped Berlioz with Wagner as a musician of the future.  Berlioz rejected the idea.  “Wagner,” he thought, “is obviously mad.”  The music of the future, with its “endless melody” and independence from form, went against his aesthetic principles; it was “the school of mayhem” (l’école du charivari).

“The hardest task,” he wrote while composing the Troyens, “is to find the musical form, this form without which music does not exist, or is only the craven servant of speech.  That is Wagner’s crime; he would like to dethrone music and reduce it to ‘expressive accents’, exaggerating the system of Gluck, who, fortunately, did not succeed in carrying out his ungodly theory.

“I am in favour of the kind of music you call free.  Yes, free and proud and sovereign and triumphant, I want it to grasp and assimilate everything, and have no Alps nor Pyrenees to block its way; but to make conquests music must fight in person, and not merely by its lieutenants; I should like music if possible to have free verses ranged in battle order, but it must itself lead the attack like Napoleon, it must march in the front rank of the phalanx like Alexander.”

He set out his views in an article in the Journal des Débats:

If the Futurists tell us: “One must do the opposite of what the rules prescribe; we are tired of melody, tired of melodic patterns, tired of arias, duets, trios and movements whose themes are developed regularly; we are surfeited with consonant harmonies, with simple dissonances prepared and resolved, with natural modulations skillfully contrived; one must take account only of the idea and forget about sensation; one must scorn the ear, strumpet that it is, one must brutalize it in order to master it; it is not the purpose of music to be pleasing to it; music must be made accustomed to anything and everything, to strings of ascending and descending diminished sevenths which resemble a knot of hissing serpents writhing and tearing each other, to triple dissonances which are neither prepared nor resolved, to inner parts forcibly combined without agreeing harmonically or rhythmically and rasping painfully against one another, to ugly modulations entering in one part of the orchestra before the previous key has made its exit; one should show no regard to the art of singing and give no thought to its nature or its requirements; in opera one must confine oneself to setting down the declamation, even if it means writing intervals that are outlandish, nasty and unsingable…

The witches in Macbeth are right: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” If that is the new religion, I am very far from professing it; I have never been part of it, I am not now and I never shall be.  I raise my hand and swear Non credo.  On the contrary, I firmly believe that fair is not foul and foul is not fair.  Certainly, it is not music’s sole purpose to be pleasing to the ear.  But music’s purpose is a thousand times less to be unpleasing to it, to torture and destroy it.

Béatrice celebrates musical form, “free and proud and sovereign and triumphant”.  All the traditional numbers of a French opéra comique are there, but Berlioz shows what they can become in the hands of a genius.  There are multi-section arias (complete with coloratura runs), duets and trios, with regularly developed themes.  There are “improvised” drinking choruses accompanied by guitars and trumpets, choruses sung from the wings, and an almost eighteenth century Marche nuptiale.

Berlioz emphasises the the art of singing, particularly in the exquisite Nocturne, a duet for soprano and contralto that is one of Berlioz’s loveliest pieces.  The melody slowly unfurls, and the women’s voices wrap around each other in “harmonies infinies”.

Berlioz also pokes fun at bêtises in French music, through the character of the music master Somarone (“ass”), his own addition to Shakespeare’s play.   He takes to task trite rhyming (“gloire et victoire, guerriers et lauriers”) and academic fugues (also parodied in La damnation de Faust).

Little fear of Berlioz writing something trite or academic.  “I think it is one of the most spirited and original [works] I ever wrote,” he wrote.  It may not be as rich as Cellini, as colourful and kaleidoscopic as Faust, as epic as Les Troyens, but this little work can hold its own among those masterpieces.


OTHER MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Héro’s aria “Je vais le voir”, where she looks forward to seeing her Claudio again:

The men’s trio “Me marier?” – Bénédict refuses Claudio and Don Pédro’s suggestion that he find a wife.

Béatrice’s aria “Dieu! que viens-je d’entendre?”  She discovers that Bénédict loves her – and acknowledges her own feelings for him.

The women’s trio “Je vais d’un cœur aimant”:


RECORDINGS

Béatrice - Davis

Béatrice - Nelson

23. Tromb-al-ca-zar – Jacques Offenbach)

TROMB-AL-CA-ZAR, OU LES CRIMINELS DRAMATIQUES

Bouffonnerie musicale in 1 act

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto: Charles-Désiré Dupeuty & Ernest Bourget

First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, 3 April 1856

Dossier


RECORDINGS

RTBF recording, conducted by Alfred Walter.  Starring Albert Voli (Beaujolais), Claudine Granger (Gigolette), Jacques Legrand (Ignace), and Yerry Mertz (Vert-Panné).

Libretto (in French).

 


 

Tromb-al-ca-zar.jpg

The prolific Offenbach wrote nearly 60 operas for the Bouffes-Parisiens, the small theatre he founded in 1855 to perform opéra bouffe and pantomime.  Many of the early pieces were limited by law to one-act works, with only four characters.  Some are brilliant, like the chinoiserie musicale Ba-ta-clan.  Others are too topical or suffer from slight plots.

Tromb-al-ca-zar is a case in point.  An innkeeper in the Basses-Pyrénées thinks that a theatrical troupe are really bandits and brigands.  That’s the plot.  The little opera is high-spirited; the music is witty music and the tunes catchy, as always with Offenbach, including a syllabic trio in honour of Bayonnais ham, with a flourish of (pig?) Latin…

… but a modern audience won’t get most of the jokes.

Quick!  Who were Buridan, Gastilbelza, Gaspardo, and Marco Spada?  Can you recognise a quote from Auber’s Sirène, Adam’s Chalet, and David’s “Hirondelles?  More – Anglophones: can you get jokes about the difference between rural dialect and theatrical fustian, malapropisms, and French puns about “pau”?

The opera parodies a sub-genre that’s no longer performed: French brigand operas and plays, with dashing heroes who murder their father, poison their mother, and strangle their brother-in-law.  They were performed throughout Europe, but today’s operagoer is only likely to encounter the Italian variety – Verdi’s Ernani (based on Hugo’s play that shocked the conservative Parisians and wowed the Romantic young Turks) and, more rarely, I masnadieri.

Offenbach would write a funnier opera about bandits 13 years later.  Les brigands contrasts honest criminals with corruption in the Second Empire  – but we don’t need to know the satirical target for this to be funny,.  Tromb-al-ca-zar is too specific a spoof.  That’s the problem with parody; it requires some knowledge of what is being parodied.

17. Les contes d’Hoffmann – Jacques Offenbach

LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN

By Jacques Offenbach

Opéra in a prologue, 3 acts, and an epilogue

Libretto: Jules Barbier, after Barbier and Michel Carré’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, based on Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann

Notes: Offenbach’s last opera.  There is no fixed score, and various versions exist, as Offenbach died before he could complete the work.  The Venice (Giulietta) act, for instance, wasn’t performed at the première, and the Antonia act was moved from Munich to Venice so they could use the famous Barcarolle.  Two of the finest pieces in the score – the aria “Scintille, diamant” and the Septet – weren’t composed for the opera.

First performed (without the Venice act): Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 10 February 1881

First complete performance: Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 13 November 1911

Dossier


REVIEW

5 stars

illustration.jpgOffenbach’s last work is astonishing.  It’s an opera of ideas rather than of feeling; it comments on the nature of opera and the creative artist’s imagination, while blending science fiction and fantasy with comedy.

And it features a drunken poet, a robot, mad scientists (one with a collection of eyeballs), a singing painting, a courtesan and a dwarf out of a Weimar cabaret, four devils, and the artist’s Muse.

Heady stuff for the 1880s.

Hoffmann is the protagonist of his own opera.  The conceit is that he tells his drinking cronies the stories of three women he loved: Olympia (in Paris), really an automaton; Giulietta (in Venice), who stole his reflection; and Antonia (in Munich), who sang herself to death.

He reveals at the end that all three women – the wind-up doll who sings mechanical coloratura, the heartless courtesan who fakes emotion, and the consumptive soprano who surrenders her life to her desire for fame and glory – are the same woman: the opera singer Stella.

The three heroines are (as the Seattle Opera Blog suggests) embodiments of opera:

  • Olympia, in the comic Paris act, is French coquetterie, a doll who’s trotted out to display her accomplishments for her wealthy admirers, just as many singers and ballerinas eked out their earnings by genteel prostitution;
  • The decadent Venetian courtesan Giulietta is Italian vocal virtuosity and faked emotion. Significantly, she has no aria of her own, but only sings in duets. If an aria is an expression of interiority, she has no self to express; she counterfeits emotion, and can only do so in duets or ensembles.
  • Antonia is the star singer’s ego. The villain appeals to her vanity, and makes her destroy herself by luring her into singing an Italianate cabaletta, a crowd-pleasing aria that shows off the soprano’s high notes.

Offenbach parodied grand opera – particularly Meyerbeer and Rossini – in his opéras bouffes.  Here, in a full-blown opera, he condemns opera itself as empty spectacle catering to singers’ vanity.

Hoffmann, like Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and Wagner’s Meistersinger, is also about the creative artist.  Berlioz and Wagner show the revolutionary Romantic genius triumphing over his bourgeois critics / rivals in love and getting the girl.  Hoffmann – dreamer, poet, and idealist – is unsuccessful in love; his art is his consolation.

His Muse, disguised as his friend Nicklausse, accompanies him on his adventures.  She is ambiguous, even sinister; she blocks Hoffmann, and even helps the Enemy (the villain in each episode, all played by the same baritone) thwart his efforts to find true love.  She needs Hoffmann to suffer to create stories.

(Is artistic inspiration a parasite?)

Hoffmann takes events, the raw material of truth, and turns them into literature.  Those stories are fictionalized versions – not memories – of what happened.  The bulk of the action – three whole acts – doesn’t take place.  (I can only think of one near-contemporary opera with a similar idea: Saint-Saëns’s Timbre d’argent, also by Barbier and Carré.)

This is sophisticated stuff, and anticipates twentieth century literature: an unreliable narrator and a narrative that calls attention to its own fictionality and critiques its form.

It is only a small step from Hoffmann to the absurdist, Modernist operas of the twentieth-century – to Strauss, Korngold, Weill and Hindemith.


RECORDINGS

Oeser edition: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Luciana Serra (Olympia), Jessye Norman (Giulietta), Rosalind Plowright (Antonia), José van Dam (Villains), Ann Murray (Nicklausse/the Muse), conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, Brussels Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, EMI 1988

Hoffmann Shicoff.jpg

Kaye-Keck edition: Roberto Alagna (Hoffmann), Natalie Dessay (Olympia), Sumi Jo (Giulietta), Leontina Vaduva (Antonia), José van Dam (Villains), Catherine Dubosc (Nicklausse), conducted by Kent Nagano, Opéra National de Lyon, Erato 1996

HOffmann Keck.jpg

Inauthentic, but well sung: Plácido Domingo (Hoffmann), Joan Sutherland (Heroines), Gabriel Bacquier (Villains), Huguette Tourangeau (Nicklausse), conducted by Richard Bonynge, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Decca 1971

Hoffmann Sutherland.jpg

DVD: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Gwendolyn Bradley (Olympia), Tatiana Troyanos (Giulietta), Roberta Alexander (Antonia), James Morris (Villains), conducted by Charles Dutoit, Metropolitan Opera of New York 1988

Imaginative performance, using a traditional score.  Watch it online at the Met’s website.


MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS

11. Stratonice – Étienne-Nicolas Méhul

STRATONICE

Opéra-comique in 1 act

By Étienne Nicolas Méhul

Libretto : François-Benoit Hoffman, after De Dea Syria (attributed to Lucan)

First performed : Théatre Favart, Paris, 3 May 1792

Reception: Méhul’s third opera.  A success – 200 performances during Méhul’s lifetime.  Cherubini thought it Méhul’s best work: “Stratonice lacks nothing; it is a work of genius.  Méhul’s masterpiece.”

For more information about the opera, including roles and numbers, see the dossier.

For 19th century criticism, see here.


REVIEW

3 stars

Méhul, almost forgotten now, was the leading French composer during the Revolution, and a favorite of Napoleon’s.  He composed the Chant du Départ, the “the brother of the Marseillaise”, and Wagner and Berlioz both admired his music.

Stratonice - Ingres.jpg
Ingres, La Maladie d’Antiochus (1840)

There is little passion in Stratonice, but it is a touching, high-minded work.  It’s rare to find an opera in which everyone is good.  Opera characters are usually selfish or obsessive; they are, as Peter Conrad argues, pure Id.  Méhul’s opera shows characters willing to sacrifice their happiness and their lives for others.  Antiochus loves his father Séleucus’s betrothed, but would rather die than admit it, or ruin his father’s happiness; Stratonice loves him, but is honor bound to love her husband-to-be; and Séleucus chooses the love of a father over the love of a spouse.

It’s a very eighteenth century attitude: reason and benevolence triumphing over self-interest and passion.  In its depiction of a king who chooses the good of others over his own happiness, and the general forgiveness with which the opera ends, could Stratonice be hoping that the monarchy and the Revolution could be reconciled?  The opera was performed in May 1792, nearly a year after Louis XVI and his family had tried to flee France; the National Convention condemned the king to death six months after Méhul’s opera, in January 1793.  Méhul himself composed an openly monarchist Jeunesse de Henri IV, meant to be performed in 1792, but unperformable at the time (Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, 2010).


MUSIC

Stratonice CDThe recommended recording is William Christie’s 1996 recording starring Yann Beuron (Antiochus), Étienne Lescroart (Séleucus), Karl Daymond (Erasistrate) and Patricia Petibon (Stratonice).

Antiochus has an excellent aria at the start, where he resolves to take his feelings to the tomb; and there is an impressive ensemble that starts as a duet, becomes a trio, and then a quartet.  Surprisingly, Stratonice, although the title role, has no aria of her own; she takes part in the ensembles in the middle and at the end of the opera.

Highlights:

The complete opera is on YouTube, beginning here: