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


Contemporary criticism


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.


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”:


Béatrice - Davis

Béatrice - Nelson

Tromb-al-ca-zar (Jacques Offenbach)


Bouffonnerie musicale in 1 act

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto: Charles-Désiré Dupeuty & Ernest Bourget

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



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

Libretto (in French).




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.

Les contes d’Hoffmann – Jacques Offenbach


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



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.


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.



Stratonice – Étienne-Nicolas Méhul


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.


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).


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.


The complete opera is on YouTube, beginning here:

Hérodiade – Jules Massenet


Opéra in 3 or 4 acts

By Jules Massenet

Libretto: Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont (Georges Hartmann), after Gustave Flaubert’s “Hérodias”

First performed: Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, 19 December 1881, in original version of 3 acts and 6 scenes

Reception: A success!  Hundreds of Parisian artists, journalists and music-lovers headed north to Brussels for the première.  The Parisian critics, the Brussels press and the foreign journals, Massenet’s early biographer Schneider wrote, consecrated dithyrambic article to Massenet and his music. Yet the work was not performed in Paris in French until 1903.

First performed in Paris: Théâtre Italien, 1 February 1884 (in Italian)

For the dossier (roles, set designs, musical structure), see here.

Parts of this article are adapted from my article on Massenet’s operas, published on MusicWeb International.


Massenet’s opera is a hothouse of Middle Eastern exoticism, eroticism and religious fervor.  It deals with the conflict between earthly and profane love, a theme Massenet would return to throughout the late nineteenth century.

Like Strauss’s Salome, Massenet’s tale concerns the relationship between John the Baptist, the Jewish maiden Salome, Herod Antipas her uncle, and Salome’s mother Herodias, Herod’s second wife and former sister-in-law.  Massenet’s opera lacks the hysterical nastiness of Strauss’s early masterpiece, the sense, as Strauss’s father put it, that insects were crawling about inside his clothes.

Massenet’s version is in the line of French grand opera: a four act historical costume drama, mixing private passions, public scenes and spectacle.

Marthe Duvivier (Salomé) lors de la création à Bruxelles.jpg
Marthe Duvivier as Salomé, Brussels

His Salome is a sweet innocent, almost a flower child of the ’60s sitting at the feet of her guru, not Strauss’s feral princess who does a striptease for her stepfather and makes love to the severed head of John the Baptist on a silver charger.


Tamer than Salome, Massenet’s opera was almost as shocking as Strauss’s.  Here were Biblical characters, among them Christ’s precursor, in love with Salomé!  Cardinal Caverot, Archbishop of Lyon, excommunicated Massenet and his librettists; scandal was always good publicity.

Massenet, in only his second mature composition, shows the imagination and sensitivity to text that would make him the greatest French-born opera composer of the nineteenth century.  For all its musical riches, however, the opera is not one of Massenet’s best.  Contemporary critics suggested that he needed better librettists, one with more idea of how to structure an opera.  The action is diffuse.  What, after all, is the story of the opera?

His other grand opéras – Le roi de Lahore (1877), set in mediaeval India; Le Cid (1885), based on Corneille’s tragedy of Spanish chivalry; and Le mage (1891), a fanciful retelling of the founding of Zoroastrianism – set up the drama in the first act.  Le Cid, for instance, is about the conflict between love and duty; the hero must kill his sweetheart’s father, to avenge an insult to his father.

Monnaie illustrations.JPEG
Illustrations of the Brussels première.

Halfway through Act II, little has happened.  Hérodiade offers several reflective arias that tell the audience how the characters feel: Salomé loves Jean (“Il est doux, il est bon”), Hérode lusts after Salomé (“Vision fugitive”), and Hérodiade is jealous of Salomé, fears that Hérode will abandon her, and wants Jean dead (“Venge-moi, ne me refuse pas”).


What’s missing is a narrative thread.  Part of the problem is that the relationships have changed; Hérodiade abandoned her daughter to marry Hérode, and Hérodiade and Salomé do not recognize each other as mother and daughter until the very end of the opera—whereupon Salomé stabs herself.  The finale is unconvincingly abrupt, inadequately prepared for, and the two women’s relationship is underdeveloped.

The only video recording doesn’t help.

It treats the opera as a vehicle for voices.  Superb voices – Montserrat Caballé as Salomé and José Carreras as Jean.  As music theatre, it’s in the worst, old-fashioned approach.  The singers stand on the spot, and, without making eye contact, deliver their lines into the audience.  Occasionally they raise an arm.

It doesn’t suit French opera at all.  French opera should be riveting drama; it was meant to be theatrically immediate as well as musically beautiful or powerful.  Critics judged libretti on their literary merits, as if they were plays, and singers were expected to act as well as sing.  Massenet, with his concern for naturalism, intimacy and theatrical effect, would have been dismayed.

Maurice Renaud (Hérode), Théâtre de la Gaîté, 1903.jpg
Maurice Renaud (Hérode), Théâtre de la Gaîté, 1903

The production also turns Jean and Salomé into conventional lovers, as if they’re Lucia and Edgardo.  Salomé, as someone said, loves Jean; Jean loves God.  The duet at the end of Act I makes this clear.  Jean tries to teach Salomé about God, but she has eyes only for him.  His love is divine, hers is mortal.

Edmond Vergnet (Jean) lors de la création à Bruxelles.jpg
Edmond Vergnet (Jean), at the Brussels première


[ Ah ! je t’écoute ! je t’adore ! (Ah, I hear you ! I adore you!)

[ L’éclat de tes yeux,               (The brilliance of your eyes)

[ Plus resplendissant que l’aurore,      (More glorious than the dawn)

[ Illumine les cieux !               (Illuminates the heavens !)

[ Je t’écoute, je t’adore !                      (I hear you ! I adore you !)

[ Je t’aime, je t’adore !             (I love you !  I adore you !)

[ Je t’appartiens !                                 (I belong to you !)


[ JEAN (chanté en même temps)        (singing at the same time)

[ Enfant, c’est la foi nouvelle et la vie !          (Child, it is the new faith and life !)

[ C’est la foi nouvelle et l’immortalité !          (It is the new faith and immortality !)

[ Regarde cette aurore !          (Look at that dawn !)

[ Regarde cette aurore !          (Look at that dawn !)

[ Ô vérité !      (O truth !)

(Jean se délivre des bras de Salomé qui tombe à genoux, extasiée ; il s’éloigne en lui montrant le ciel.)

(Jean extricates himself from Salomé’s arms ; she falls to her knees, in ecstasy ; he moves away, showing her the sky.)


In the Barcelona production, the lovers embrace at the end of Act I.  They’re in the same pose at the end of Act II, looking into each other’s eyes.  Hérode isn’t, and he should be.  The directions are clear: “The Canaanites surround Jean.  Hérodiade and Vitellius enter the palace.  Phanuel leads Herod away, who cannot tear his eyes away from Salomé.”  The implication is that Hérode is so obsessed by Salomé that he is blind to the political situation.  Hérode follows Vitellius and Hérodiade into the palace.  A character detail has been fumbled.

Hérodiade Plasson.jpgThe recommended CD is Michel Plasson’s 1995 Toulouse recording, featuring Cheryl Studer, Nadine Denize, Ben Heppner, Thomas Hampson and José van Dam. Georges Prêtre’s 1963 recording has a largely Francophone cast — Régine Crespin, Rita Gorr, Albert Lance, Michel Dens and Jacques Mars — but offers highlights rather than the complete work.




Le postillon de Lonjumeau – Adolphe Adam


Opéra Comique en 3 actes

By Adolphe Adam

Libretto : Adolphe de Leuven & Léon Brunswick

First performed : Théâtre Royal de l’Opéra-Comique (salle de la Bourse), 13 October 1836

For plot synopsis, roles and musical structure, see here.

For contemporary reviews, see here.

Acte 1er.JPEGWe’re so used to a diet of Norse gods, metaphysical love deaths, and consumptive heroines that we’ve forgotten that in its day opera was often the equivalent of the mid-century musical: popular entertainment with a hit song.

Adolphe Adam’s Postillon de Lonjumeau, a light opera about a coachman turned opera star, is a case in point.

The coachman Chappelou leaves his bride Madeleine on his wedding day to become a tenor at the Paris Opéra, and live the life of a grand seigneur.  The action picks up ten years later.  Chappelou, now calling himself Saint-Phar, is a star, and Madeleine, calling herself Mme de Latour, has inherited a fortune from an aunt.   Chappelou marries Mme de Latour, without knowing he’s marrying his first wife in disguise; he also thinks the marriage is a sham.  He realizes that he’s committed bigamy, and worries that he’s going to be hanged – but, as always in this sort of opera, he’s reunited with his wife—both of them.

And here’s the hit song, sung by Nicolai Gedda:

That may be why the opera has largely vanished, bar the occasional German resurrection.  The plot’s too frivolous for most opera houses, but the aria is too demanding for most amateur or provincial companies – and why would a tenor who can sing high Ds bother with the opera when he could sing something sturdier?

The music’s light, but it’s also lightweight.  I prefer the music Adam wrote later in his career: le Toréador, a little one-act gem, with its clever variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”), or Le farfadet with its windmill scene (“Hou, hou, hou!”).  It’s also not as good as some of the opéras-comiques of the time; it lacks Auber’s fizz and wit (Fra Diavolo, Le cheval de bronze) or Boieldieu’s tunefulness (La dame blanche).

Mariage du postillon de Lonjumeau.JPEG

Verdi and Puccini would seize on the idea of a woman abandoned by her husband and plotting revenge for ten years, and milk it for dramatic effect.  But there’s little sense of emotion here.  To demand psychological realism, though, is to miss the point.  This is frothy fun, to be enjoyed as such.


The recommended recording is Jules Gressier’s 1952 recording for the RTF, starring Henri Legay and Janine Micheau.  It’s an authentically French performance, in the old style.

I’m not so fond of Thomas Fulton’s 1985 Monte Carlo recording starring John Aler and June Anderson; it’s not French enough.  You can hear some of the highlights below:

Mariage du postillon de Lonjumeau.JPEG

Djamileh – Georges Bizet / La princesse jaune – Camille Saint-Saëns


Opéra-comique en 1 acte

By Georges Bizet

Bizet’s fourth opera, set in Egypt

Libretto : Louis Gallet, after Alfred de Musset’s poem Namouna (1832)

First performed : Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), 22 May 1872

For the dossier, see here.

For contemporary criticism, see here.



Opéra-comique en 1 acte

By Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns’s first performed opera, set in Japan

Libretto : Louis Gallet

First performed : Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 12 June 1872.

For the dossier, see here.

For contemporary criticism, see here.


One of the joys of opera is its fascination with other cultures.  Two one-act operas by Bizet and Saint-Saëns, both composed to libretti by Louis Gallet and premièred in 1872, show the French interest in the East.

Djamileh libretto.jpgBizet’s Djamileh is a Middle Eastern fantasy of opium-smoking princes and slave girls.  French opera was long acquainted with Middle Eastern stories, while Félicien David (Le désert) and Ernest Reyer (Le Sélam) had written symphonic odes inspired by their travels in North Africa and Palestine.

Saint-Saëns’s Princesse jaune riffs off the Japonoiserie of the time; the hero is a young Dutch scientist who downs a bottle of opium (!) and fancies himself transported to the Orient.  “Japan,” Saint-Saëns wrote (‘Louis Gallet’, in Ecole buissonnière), “had recently been opened to Europe.   Japan was in fashion; people talked only of Japan; it was a craze.”

Apart from their exotic settings, both have similar stories; they’re about men who overlook the love of a woman.  Prince Haroun of Cairo buys a new slave each month; when the thirty days are up, he gives her liberty – but Djamileh wants to stay by his side.  Kornélis is in love with a Japanese statuette of the Princess Ming, and completely unaware that his cousin Léna loves him.  Both women become their doubles.  Djamileh takes the place of Haroun’s newest acquisition, while the Japanese idol comes to life with Léna’s face.  At the end, the men realise that love has been under their noses all this time, and all ends happily.

Ernest Reyer, who had inherited both Berlioz’s mantle as music critic for the Journal des débats and his progressive view of music, praised both works, and realized that the composers were presenting non-European music to a European audience in a way that is exotic and intriguing, but accessible.

He noted that Saint-Saëns had adapted “eastern-style themes … to accepted western notions of harmony and rhythm” (Nicholas Tarling, Orientalism and the Operatic World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 261).  Bizet also suited Middle Eastern music to European taste.

“Here we have true Oriental music,” he wrote of Djamileh, “at least as it is understood by visitors to the countries of its origin…  It is true, not through imitation of certain instrumental effects sui generis, nor by the use of a scale wholly diferent from ours, but by the accompaniment it gives to the landscape our imagination evokes, of the picture it spreads before our eyes.  It is a slightly conventional, slightly dressed up truth, if you like, but a truth that takes into consideration our ears and the nature of the musical sensations to which we are accustomed.  Besides, don’t we know that all music when it travels changes climate, loses its effectiveness by losing its poetry, and sometimes even changes character?” (Tarling, pp 161–62.)

Both scores evoke other cultures through music, and novel orchestral effects.  La princesse jaune has a chorus sung in Japanese, while the first aria is a poem in Japanese and its translation into French; some of the music is written in the Japanese pentatonic scale.  Djamileh has a strikingly modernist opening that anticipates Shostakovich or Prokofiev; it’s a spare, strongly rhythmic march, with figures on drums and bassoons, and a solo for clarinet.  Later there are tambourines, a humming chorus (tenors and basses), and descending chromatic piano passages.  There is a ghazel (an Arabic lyric poem that begins with a rhymed couplet whose rhyme is repeated in all even lines) and an almeh (belly dancing).Princesse jaune score.jpg

Djamileh is the stronger of the two.  Although Bizet doubted whether the work was theatrical, he makes the audience care for the slave in love with her master; her “Lamento”, in particular, shows his gift for characterization that would bloom so gloriously in Carmen.  La princesse jaune is slight, and the story unconvincing, but the music is exquisite.  The overture is one of Saint-Saëns’s finest compositions; it uses themes from Kornélis’s aria “Oui, j’aime en son lointain mystère”, his evocation of Japan, and the chorus “Anata wa dô nasaï masita!”.

Both operas were flops; Djamileh held the stage for eleven performances, and the Princesse jaune for five performances.  The problem?  The dreaded Wagnerism!  To a twenty-first century ear, they sound nothing like Wagner – certainly there’s less Wagner here than in Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine or Hélène, both avowedly Wagnerian, through-composed, “advanced” operas.  The conservative French critics saw the creeping hand of Teutonic menace everywhere, particularly after the Franco-Prussian War; they saw it in Verdi’s Don Carlos, they even saw it in Carmen!  Félix Clément, a normally reliable if conservative critic, thought Saint-Saëns had compromised his reputation in writing La princesse jaune, while Djamileh appalled him; he objected both to the plot (the characters were insane) and to the music (there isn’t any).  Clément also wrote:

“What are the cavatines, the duos, which the Orient has sent us?  What are the passionate or touching melodies that came to us from the land of harems and polygamy?  It is to us Westerners that it falls to put to music the loves of these people, by supposing they have our way of feeling, our ideas, the caprices of our imagination, all things foreign to them.”

From one angle, this seems racist; from another, it’s an accurate critique: nineteenth century “exotic” music isn’t genuinely exotic, it’s a Western idea of other cultures.  Different cultures, after all, see the world differently.  Clément, for all his apparent racism, comes closest to modern cultural relativism.  Europeans took the exotic trappings of other cultures – the externals of costume, dance and custom, the detailed recreations of buildings and landscapes – but assumed that certain ways of thinking were human universals, rather than being culturally conditioned; they read their attitudes into those cultures as norms.

Music, too, depends on culture.  What we think of as beautiful or even normal music might appall other nations.  A party of Burmese ambassadors visited the Paris Opéra in the 1850s.  “The rattling in the throats of the male singers, the screaming of the lady vocalists, and the tempest raised by the orchestra, made a profound impression on their sensible hearts and they manifested an inclination to throw themselves at the feet of the Emperor.”  (Paul Kildea, “Fashioning Faust”, Faust programme, 1998 Opera Australia)  Conversely, kathakali or Chinese opera might seem alien or unfathomable to Westerners.

It took a later generation to appreciate the works; Fauré admired La princesse jaune, which was remounted nearly 30 times between 1909 and 1914, while Mahler and Strauss both liked Djamileh.


You can judge for yourself.  I recommend this recording of Djamileh:

  • Lucia Popp, Franco Bonisolli, and Jean-Philippe Lafont, with the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Lamberto Gardelli. Orfeo, 1983.

There’s also what seems to be a TV film in Hungarian.  I couldn’t understand a word of it (except “opium”), but it’s delightful all the same.  It’s an attractive production, in Arab costume (turbans and fezzes), with belly dancers, monkeys, and some nifty opium-sodden reverie sequences.

La Princesse jaune is available from Chandos, on a disc with the Suite algérienne:

  • Maria Costanza Nocentini, Carlo Allemano Cantemus, with the Swiss Italian Orchestra conducted by Francis Travis. Chandos CHAN9837, 2000.Princesse jaune CD.jpg



La princesse jaune