35. Mona Lisa (Max von Schillings)


Opera in 2 acts

By Max von Schillings (Op. 31)

Libretto: Beatrice Dovsky


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Schillings’ opera is an intense shocker inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, and which plays with ideas of reincarnation and the eternal mysteries of Woman. It was a success in its day, performed throughout Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia from its première in 1916 until WWII, and staged at the New York Met in 1923.

It may have lost much of its popularity, but it’s a powerful work that deserves more attention. (It has been commercially recorded three times, and revived in the German-speaking world in 1953, 1983, 1994, and 1996.)

The historical Mona Lisa, Lisa del Giocondo (1479–1542), was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a prosperous Florentine cloth and silk merchant. The marriage appears to have been successful; Francesco, in his will, wrote of “the affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife … [and] the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife…”

There’s not enough for an opera, so Schillings’ Mona Lisa is, like so many operatic heroines, unhappily married. Her father made her marry Francesco, here a jewel merchant, rather than the man she loved, young Giovanni de’ Salviati, in the Pope’s service. Mona Lisa and Giovanni meet again, Francesco discovers that they love each other, and all ends tragically.

This is a stock situation; we’ve seen it, for instance, in Bellini’s Pirata. What makes it theatrically effective is the gruesome double murder.

Francesco keeps his treasures in a secret chamber, a box within a box, hidden behind a tapestry. Giovanni hides inside the box – and Francesco locks him inside to suffocate, while he makes love to his wife outside, both knowing that Giovanni is dying.  Mona Lisa collapses, while her husband triumphs.

The second act opens with Mona Lisa coming to her senses.  At first, she believes that the harrowing events of the night before were only a dream – but soon realises they were all too real.

In the second act, Mona Lisa has her revenge; she tricks Francesco into entering the treasure chamber, then shuts him inside to die.

The plot is as gripping as the famous second act of Puccini’s Tosca, which it resembles: baritone tortures soprano’s lover to make her yield, soprano kills baritone.

Two scenes set in the present day frame the story. An old man and his young wife visit the house of the Certosa Monks, formerly Francesco’s house. A lay brother tells them the story of the murders. We’re in no doubt that these people from the early twentieth century are Francesco, Mona Lisa, and Giovanni reborn; they’re played by the same singers, the young wife has Mona Lisa’s fondness for flowers, the husband has Francesco’s obsession with pearls, and the lay brother recognizes the wife as Mona Lisa at the end. Will the same drama play out, three and a half centuries later?

The framing story adds an eerie, metaphysical element to the drama, typical of the theatrical sophistication of the early twentieth century.

The score is post-Wagnerian, halfway between Strauss and Puccini. It’s through composed, without any “big tunes”, but the music is always appropriate to the action.  It reaches lyrical heights in Mona Lisa and Giovanni’s love duet; the two murders are dramatic, the first act ending on a grim curtain; and Mona Lisa’s two big arias are intense.

Mona Lisa herself is one of those operatic beauties who fascinates yet disturbs mere men. She seems to embody the eternal female, enigmatic and unfathomable. The lay brother, about to tell the story, finds women baffling:

Woman is a riddle past all solving.
Within her soul, unknown to her, there sleep
A thousand possibilities… And she is soft as wax,
She bends to every hand,
And is Fate’s plaything…
She shrinks back from an unkind word,
And bears unheard-of torture with a smile…
She cannot bear to break a flower,
And then, again, grows drunk with cruelty
Which a man’s mind would scarce know to conceive.
Love makes her strong…and hate unconquerable!
The heart of woman in its depths conceals
The lust of Eve for the forbidden fruit;
The sinful, wanton longing of the Magdalen,
And all the wondrous power of her remorse;
The thirst for blood and vengeance of the Baptist’s murd’ress,
The Virgin’s purity, her gentleness and mercy!
According as the dice of life may roll
So does that enigmatic creature, woman, change!

Mona Lisa’s smile perturbs Francesco. He gazes at Leonardo’s painting, and muses:

That smile! Ah, yes!
(With increasing agitation)
That look, you say? Mysteriously delusive…
And yonder mouth, whose smile seems one so yielding.
My wife, who never smiles and never thrills
Is like a shadow – and this picture lives!
Thus Eve once smiled in Eden’s garden,
Thus Helen smiled and dark Semiramis,
Bath-Sheba and Cleopatra!
The senses captivating, mystically,
With consciousness of power, entrancingly!
And I must solve the mystery of her smile!

Both men see her as incarnations of the sensuous, mysterious woman who destroys men; both, tellingly, see her as Eve and the Baptist’s murderess Herodias. That list of names also recalls Kundry’s reincarnations in Parsifal; she, the primeval devil-woman, the rose of hell, was once Herodias and Gundryggia. So, too, Mona Lisa, Eve, Helen, Semiramis, Bath-Sheba, and Cleopatra may all be incarnations of Woman.

To see Mona Lisa as the eternal female, though, is to fall into her husband and the lay brother’s error of objectifying her, rather than seeing her as a person.

“We are human beings who have lost our way,” she tells Giovanni. “We are human beings born to suffer – And happiness, alas, I long since have renounced!”

The audience understands that she is not a temptress, but a woman unhappily married to a brutal husband: a rapist who “likes it when a woman would deny herself, As well you know it heightens my desire…”, and a collector.

Francesco prizes Mona Lisa as a beautiful thing he owns, esteeming her beauty as much as he does the pearls he makes her wear to “cure” (restoring their lost glow) or the jewels in his treasure room where Giovanni dies. He is, in his aestheticism and jealousy (the collector’s mania), a cousin of Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, who felt his wife smiled too much – and made sure she smiled only for him.

The Duke gave orders, and all smiles stopped – but the Mona Lisa smiles her enigmatic smile forever.

Suggested recording

Starring Inge Borkh, conducted by Robert Heger, Berlin, 1953.

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


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).




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.

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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.


4 stars

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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.


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.

32. Paride ed Elena – Christoph Willibald Gluck


Dramma per musica

By Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto: Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 3 November 1770


Gluck, let’s face it, has a reputation.  Noble, high-minded, austere, but also dull – as poised and as marmoreal as a Classical statue.  “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, / Dead perfection, no more” (as the poet says).

This reputation is, let it be said, misplaced.  Gluck’s works are intense, subordinating music to drama (anticipating and earning the approval of Wagner), and with memorable tunes to boot.  Nevertheless, his operas can be an acquired taste.  Those who think opera is passionate melodrama in Italian, ending with a dead soprano, may be nonplussed by Gluck’s eighteenth century treatment of Greek legends.

In the wrong hands, even Orfeo ed Euridice, his most popular work, can seem as remote and antiquated (if not downright antediluvian) as Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607.

You don’t have to make any allowances, though, for Paride ed Elena, a work as lovely and as warmly alive as its heroine.


Paris, Prince of Troy, has come to Sparta to win Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.  In most accounts, she’s the wife of Menelaus, Sparta’s king; here, she’s only betrothed to him.  Aphrodite, goddess of love, promised Paris Helen’s love, as a reward for giving her the golden apple.

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“Here we are dealing with a young lover, who stands in contrast with the strange humours of a proud and virtuous woman, and who, with all the art of ingenuous passion, ends by triumphing over her.” – Gluck

Act I

The opera opens on the Spartan coast, where Paris’s followers are making offerings to Venus, imploring her to prosper Paris’s venture.

Paris enters, and describes his longing for Helen.

Eraste, Helen’s adviser, invites Paris to the palace.  He knows why Paris has come, and Venus herself will help him.  Of course he knows; Eraste is Cupid in disguise.

Act II

Paris and Helen’s first meeting, in the Spartan throne room.  Love at first sight?  Hardly; both are attracted, but Helen resists Paris’s flattery.

Paris starts to doubt his chances of winning Helen; only Venus’s promises still give him hope.


Paris and Helen watch the Spartan athletes perform gymnastics in the palace courtyard.  (Presumably this isn’t an authentic historical recreation; the Viennese censor would have raised objections to a nude chorus.)  Helen asks Paris to sing her a Trojan song, and Paris sings an early version of “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.

Helen realises that he’s serenading (and trying to seduce) her, and orders him to stop.  Paris collapses, and Helen sends Eraste for help.  As Paris recovers, Helen wonders whether she should stay with him or leave.  Ernest Newman considered the following duet, which “opposes Helen’s sense of duty to the passion of Paris”, “the finest psychological expression in the whole opera”.

Act IV

Paris persists in pestering the princess.  This time it’s through a letter, urging her to elope with him.  She writes a reproachful letter, which Eraste hands to Paris.  He presses his case in a trio and duet…

…but Helen, about to yield, orders him to leave and forget her.  Easy to say, replies Paris; has she looked at herself?

Alone, Helen is torn between love and duty, but resolves to be virtuous.

Act V

Eraste (who is, of course, Cupid in disguise) tells Helen that Paris has left.  Distraught, she warns women not to trust men’s tears and sighs.

This is a trick to make her reveal her feelings, and it works.  Paris appears, and Helen at last agrees to go with him to Troy.  Not even Pallas Athene, descending from heaven, can make them change their minds; not even the doom of Troy.


5 stars

Helen of Troy, legend says, was the most beautiful woman in the world – and Gluck’s opera is one of the most beautiful I know.

But it didn’t capture the heart of Paris.  Paris, in fact, never knew this Helen.  It was performed in Vienna; the Viennese were, apparently, nonplussed; and, unlike Alceste or Orfeo, it was never staged in nor retooled for France.

It’s hard to say why Gluck didn’t bring Helen to Paris.  It lacks, as Gluck himself admitted, the dramatic power of other works – no fathers sacrificing their children or wives dying to save their husbands – but for sheer musical pleasure, it stands in a class of its own among his works.

“It does not provide the composer,” Gluck wrote in the score’s dedication, “with those strong passions, those great images, those tragic situations which, in Alceste, move the spectators so deeply, and give such great opportunities for artistic effect.  So that in this music one must not expect to find the same force and energy; just as, in a picture representing a subject in full light, one would not expect the same effects of chiaroscuro, the same contrasts, as in a picture painted in half-light…”

The score is warm and expressive, full of 18th century grace.  The story is simple; it moves in a straight line, without any complications, yet holds the attention throughout.  Paris pursues, Helen resists, until she yields to his love at the end – but that love, we are told by Pallas (not so much the wise Athene, grey-eyed counsellor of gods and heroes, as the jealous goddess who destroyed Arachne), will lead to war.

The score clearly influenced Mozart (and can be compared to his operas without doing either a disservice).  The chorus “Vieni al mar” anticipates “Scenda amor” in Idomeneo, while the orchestral opening to the last scene sounds a lot like “Soave al vento”!  Likewise, one can hear Rossini’s opera seria in Paris’ lyrical wooing of Helen in Act III, where he melts her reserve by the pure beauty of the voice.

Anyone who hasn’t tried Gluck’s operas, or who is still unconvinced, will also be melted by Paride’s beauty, and fall in love with Elena and her creator.


McCreesh ParideMagdalena Kozená (Paride), Susan Gritton (Elena), Carolyn Sampson (Amore), and  Gillian Webster (Pallide), with the Gabrieli Consort and Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh.  Deutsche Grammophon 0289 477 5415 2.

31. Der Cid – Peter Cornelius


Lyrisches Drama in 3 Acts

Music and libretto by Peter Cornelius

First performed: Weimar, 21 May 1865, conducted by Carl Stor


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Peter Cornelius was one of those marginal figures who pops out of the woodwork at surprising moments.  He was a member of Wagner’s circle at Bayreuth; Lohengrin is a big influence on this opera, and Wagner gave him advice about how he could improve it (which Cornelius ignored).  Already on this blog, we’ve seen Cornelius writing to Smetana about a new sort of comic opera and to Berlioz about Béatrice and Bénédict.

He wrote two-and-a-half operas: Der Barbier von Bagdad, a failure in its time but since seen as the best German comic opera after Meistersinger (!); the unfinished Gunlöd, based (in proper Wagnerian style) on the Edda; and this.

Twenty years before Massenet’s Cid, Cornelius tackled the story of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the eleventh century warrior who fought (and also fought for) the Moors in Spain.  Cornelius uses the version familiar from Corneille’s 1636 play: Diaz kills his beloved Chimene’s father to avenge an insult to his father.  She demands that the king condemn him – but his country needs him to drive off the Moors, while she’s torn between honour and filial duty on the one hand, and love on the other.  Diaz is victorious, and the conquered Arabs name him El Cid (“the Lord”).  Chimene acknowledges that she loves him, and forgives him.

Cornelius was a devout Christian, and Chimene’s forgiveness takes on a spiritual dimension.  The bishop urges her to forgive, just as he persuades Diaz not to fight.  Mercy and love are greater than the warriors’ code of honour.

The opera is very rare – only one recording.  It was only performed twice in Cornelius’s life (21 and 31 May 1865).  A reorchestrated, “Wagnerised” version by other hands was performed sporadically towards the turn of the twentieth century (1891, 1893, 1899, 1900).  Cornelius’s original was staged in 1904, then performances in 1913 and 1938.  After that, silence.

How does he fare as an opera composer?  It’s hard to say.  I listened to it on YouTube, following it in the score, a close analysis in a thesis, and Google’s translation into eccentric French.  (For some reason, Google’s translations from German and Italian work better into French than into English.  More cross-linguistic traffic?)  I’m going to give my general impressions rather than a detailed critique.

It’s clearly the work of an intelligent, competent craftsman – but not an inspired one.  The music suffers by comparison with Lohengrin, one of Wagner’s best works.  Act I is modelled on Wagner’s, with its king trying a case brought before him, its herald, its choral interjections and its pageantry – but lacks Wagner’s melodic and orchestral imagination.  The tone is heroic and declamatory, verging on the strident; the Act I finale, in particular, reminds me of Rienzi, with its hero calling the people to arms against a foe in the name of freedom.

Massenet’s treatment of the story is better; here, the characters fail to come to life.  The opera seems a static series of processions, choruses and prayers (Acts I and III) bookmarking the more intimate middle act (modelled on the rather dull III, 1 of Lohengrin).  There’s little in the way of Spanish color or any arias as memorable as “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père” or “Pleurez mes yeux”.  The best pieces are a quartet in the first act and Chimene’s grand aria in the second act.

I repeat, though, that these are only my impressions.  The opera failed to hold my attention, but a native German speaker may enjoy it more.  Listening to it, rather than seeing it onstage, may also do it a disservice.  That said, it’s unlikely to replace Massenet’s version in anyone’s affections.


Gustav Kuhn’s 1993 recording, starring Albert Dohmen (Ruy Diaz, Graf von Vibar) and Gertrud Ottenthal (Chimene, Gräfin von Lozan).

27. Der Trompeter von Säkkingen – Viktor Nessler


Oper in 3 Acts, with a Prologue

By Viktor Nessler

Libretto: Rudolf Bunge, after Joseph Viktor von Scheffel’s poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen

First performed: Carola Theater (Stadttheater), Leipzig, 4 May 1884


Next in our line-up of comic operas: one of the most popular German works of the late nineteenth century.


The opera is based on a popular poem by Joseph Victor von Scheffel (1826-86).  A New York Met programme from 1887 called it “one of the most charming poetic works of modern German literature … with its beautiful pictures of mediaeval life and its quaint philosophy and its love story that have charmed two generations of Germans”.

The opera takes place in the seventeenth century, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.

Prologue: Werner Kirchhofer, a law student at Heidelberg, is expelled for causing a disturbance outside the window of the Electress Palatinate.  He and the other students join the Landsknecht troopers, Werner as its trumpeter.

Act I: The town of Säckingen is celebrating the feast day of St Fridoline, the Irish missionary who founded Säckingen Abbey in the sixth or seventh century.  Peasants dance and sing, but they are also on the eve of revolt against the nobility.  Werner saves Maria, his commanding officer’s pretty daughter, and her aunt, the Gräfin von Wildenberg, from the Hauenstein peasants.  Maria falls in love with him, while the Gräfin is reminded of her long-lost son, kidnapped by gypsies.

The rest of the opera takes place at the Freiherr’s castle.

The Freiherr von Schönau, Maria’s father, grumbles about his gout, for which the best cure is good wine.  He receives a letter from the Graf von Wildenberg, who wants his son Damyan to marry Maria.  This will close a breach between the two families; the Graf and Gräfin separated after the loss of their son.  The Freiherr, on Maria’s suggestion, hires Werner as his bugler at the castle.

Act II: The Gräfin surprises Werner making love to Maria while he should be teaching her music.  (Shades of The Barber of Seville!)  Reluctantly, the Graf fires his bugler, who rejoins the regiment, bidding a sad farewell to Maria.  This is the once famous aria “Behüt’ dich Gott, es war so schön gewesen”, with a lovely solo on (of course!) the trumpet:

Act III: The peasants attack the castle, but Werner bravely repels them.  Damian (who has arrived with his father) scarcely covers himself in glory; he runs away from the enemy.  Maria certainly doesn’t want to marry Damian, who is an idiot and a coward – but the Graf doesn’t want her to wed a commoner, even one who’s brave and has been to Heidelberg.  Ah, but Werner isn’t a commoner at all!  He’s the Gräfin’s son, kidnapped by gypsies as a baby.  (As the audience guessed early on.)  She recognizes him, in the time-honoured way, because he has a strawberry birthmark on his arm.


3 stars

Trompeter - Victrola.jpg
Victrola Book of the Opera (1917)

Der Trompeter, Nessler’s ninth opera, was an extraordinary success.  It was performed several thousand times in Germany within a few years  – more than 900 times in 1888 alone.

The critics were baffled.  “The most remarkable thing in this unprecedentedly successful opera,” wrote Eduard Hanslick, “is precisely its success.” The work itself, he thought, was “a musical mediocrity”.  Grove (Dictionary of Music and Musicians) thought it and Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), his other big hit,  “owe their popularity to an easy superficiality of style, which commends itself to the less musical portion of the German public”. Gustav Mahler thought it was “dreadful”, but still had to conduct the work often.

What the critics objected to was its musical conventionality.  The opera appeared in 1884, three years after Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1881).  Wagner had revolutionized opera; in his epic, quasi-symphonic operas he had jettisoned conventional opera forms (trios, duets) and replaced them with “endless melody” (heightened recit).  Now Wagner, the titan of German opera, was dead, and the musical world trembled at his passing.  What would the next generation of composers do?

Nessler carried on writing quaintly romantic number operas in the tradition of Lortzing and Flotow, with their gentle love stories and picturesque German folklore.  And the public loved them.

Pace the critics, it’s easy to see why the German public liked it. The best tunes stick in the ear, particularly “Behüt’ dich Gott, es war so schön gewesen” – deservedly a favorite baritone concert aria.

Yes, the plot is sentimental and familiar from dozens of operas: the lovers who can’t marry because he’s of the wrong social class, and her father wants her to marry someone else.  And all is sorted out when he’s reunited with his parents.  In fact, it’s the same basic story as Smetana’s Bartered Bride.  But Nessler handles the plot skilfully, with several good choruses and plenty of charm.

The audience would also have liked seeing one of their favorite poems brought to life.  Then, too, there is the opera’s Germanness: students carousing at Heidelberg; Landsknechte; peasants dancing the church; and the May Procession, with dancers portraying King May, Princess May Blossom, Prince Woodlord, and various German rivers.

TNessler Trompeterhere’s only one recording of the opera: Helmuth Froschauer’s 1994 recording, starring Hermann Prey (Werner).

26. Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Komisches Singspiel in 3 acts

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto: Johann Gottlieb Stephanie der Jüngere, after Christoph Friederich Bretzner’s play Belmont und Konstanze

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 16 July 1782



We’re in Turkey, in the mid-16th century, at the palace of the Pasha Selim, the regional governor.

Act I: A square in front of the Pasha Selim’s palace

Belmonte, a young Spanish nobleman, has come to rescue his fiancée Konstanze (same name as the future Frau Mozart) and their servants Pedrillo and his girlfriend Blonde, who have been captured by pirates and sold as slaves to the Pasha.  First he has to get past the Pasha’s overseer, the “stupid, surly, malicious” Osmin, who wants to behead, disembowel, hang, impale and immolate any European who comes calling.  The Pasha and Konstanze arrive, accompanied by janissaries (Turkish soldiers).

The Pasha tries to persuade Konstanze to love him.  She tells him that she respects him, but her heart belongs to Belmonte.  With the help of a little fast-talking from Pedrillo, the Pasha engages Belmonte as an architect, and the two Spaniards slip past Osmin into the palace.

Act II: Garden in the Pasha’s palace

Blonde stands up for Women’s Lib, 16th century style; she may have been given to Osmin as his slave, but she’s a free-born Englishwoman!  Konstanze tells Blonde how miserable she is.  The Pasha threatens to force her to love him, but she is resolute.

Pedrillo tells Blonde that Belmonte has arrived; the escape is on for that night.  Hurrah! thinks Blonde.  Pedrillo gets Osmin roaring drunk; now that the overseer’s unconscious, they’ll be able to escape.

The two couples are reunited.  The women reassure the two men that they haven’t two-timed them with the Turks, and the act ends in a joyful quartet.

Act III: Square in front of the Pasha’s palace

The escape attempt goes wrong.  Osmin captures the four fugitives, and rejoices; they’ll be sliced and diced, burnt and beheaded, and other things they won’t enjoy but he will.

Osmin drags them before the Pasha, who sentences them to death when he discovers that Belmonte’s father is his worst enemy, the Governor of Oran (a coastal city in Algeria).  The Pasha relents at the end.  He releases his prisoners, because he will not stoop to his enemy’s barbarity.  He resolves to be better than his enemies, and to be reasonable and compassionate.  The Muslim is more civilised than the European would have been.   The four Europeans and the Turks (except the furious Osmin) praise his clemency.


4 stars

The Abduction had everything to please the public: bravura arias, rousing choruses, comedy, and a mixture of Turkish exoticism and lofty Enlightenment idealism.

“Turquerie” in architecture, art and music was “in” in 1780s Vienna.   Mozart himself had begun work in 1780 on Zaïde, a first draft of the Abduction about captured slaves in Turkey, while he based his Rondo alla turca on janissary music.

Turkey had once been the enemy; the Ottoman Empire had besieged Vienna in 1529, 1683 and 1739.  Now, as the Ottoman Empire lost its power, Turkey had become a fascinating symbol of the exotic East.

Vienna opened diplomatic relations with Constantinople in the eighteenth century.  Many Turkish businessmen and merchants lived in Vienna, while the city’s Oriental Academy trained scholars to work in the Ottoman Empire.  (See https://blogs.eui.eu/maxweberprogramme/the-orient-in-eighteenth-century-vienna/)

In the Pasha, the opera shows a formerly Catholic, Spanish nobleman who has converted to Islam.  The idea wasn’t peculiar; “the action,” Julian Rushton writes, “evokes an earlier period when … crossing between religions was not uncommon.”  Respect for Islam, and the idea of different faiths understanding each other, was an Enlightenment tenet.  In 1779, four years before Mozart’s opera, for instance, Lessing’s Nathan der Weise presented Christianity, Islam and Judaism as equals and called for greater understanding and harmony between the Abrahamic faiths.  (For more information about the West’s positive view of Islam, see Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West.)

The Abduction was a smash hit in Vienna, and Mozart’s greatest stage success throughout Europe during his lifetime.  It is, though, weaker than his later operas.

There’s a story that after the first performance, Joseph II turned to the composer, and said: “Too beautiful for our ears, and an enormous number of notes, my dear Mozart.”

“Only as many as are needed, Your Majesty,” Mozart replied.

The music, the Emperor suggested, was too elaborate, too beautiful, for the vehicle.  Mozart’s opera was a Singspiel, a popular opera in German, with spoken dialogue rather than sung recit – but some of the numbers, such as Konstanze’s bravura aria “Martern aller Arten”, with its long orchestral introduction, were elaborate Italianate pieces more familiar from opera seria.  Mozart suggests that this genre, considered populist, is just as worthy as Italian opera.  While the Viennese preferred more sophisticated Italian opera, the humble Singspiel could become something special, as Joseph intended when he established the National Singspiel, a court-supported company to perform German opera and to unify the people, in 1778.  Singspiel was in the audience’s own language; it was down to earth; it was funny; and it was human in a way that Metastasian opera seria rarely was, with its heroic or mythical figures singing da capo arias.  And Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio and Freischütz will show just how high the genre can rise.

There’s another version of the story where the Emperor tells Mozart: “Too beautiful for our ears, and monstrous many notes.

The story may be apocryphal, but it reflects what a lot of critics since have felt.  The music may be inspired, but the opera itself drags.  Denis Forman, in the Good Opera Guide, for instance, called it a gamma plot with alpha music, while Félix Clément, in the 1860s, wrote that the libretto was an unlikely, almost puerile canvas – but the music was graceful.

Some pieces are among Mozart’s most beautiful or spirited, and no number is not at least charming.

Much of the opera, though, seems like a concert, because of its heavy reliance on arias.  Belmonte has two arias in the first act alone, while six of Act II’s nine numbers are arias, two of them for Konstanze, one of which lasts more than ten minutes.  All the arias are tuneful, and gracefully written for the voice; they skilfully depict character and emotions – but they leave the story unchanged.  The opera is as static as the old opera seria: a series of lovely arias linked together by a weak plot.  It’s like that section in of Don Giovanni after the sextet where the drama comes to a standstill for half an hour while the minor characters get their second arias, and the audience is impatient to get to the statue scene.

The saving grace, though, is Mozart’s music.  Opera was, for Mozart, a vehicle for music, as he wrote while composing the opera:

“In my view, the poetry must be completely the obedient daughter of the music.  Why do Italian comic operas please people everywhere, despite their miserable libretti, even in Paris where I myself witnessed their success?  Precisely because in them the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it one forgets everything else.”

He also suggested, though, that the composer and the librettist should work together to create music drama:

“The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, the true phoenix; in that case, no fears need to be entertained as to the applause – even of the ignorant.”

Mozart would find that able poet in Lorenzo da Ponte.  Their collaborations balanced music with tightly plotted, well-characterised stories.  The Marriage of Figaro is deft and brisk, almost Wodehousian in its complex farce leading to a happy ending.  Don Giovanni, despite an uneven second act, mixes tragedy and comedy, high and low characters, with the supernatural to astonishing effect.  And the bittersweet Così fan tutte, once considered a problem play, treats complex emotions through a schematic comedy of manners, analysing human beings with all the precision of a scientist.

Mozart knew what he wanted; he hadn’t found his ideal collaborator when he wrote the Abduction.


Listen to:

Entfuhrung Beecham.jpg

Thomas Beecham’s 1956 recording for Columbia.  Lois Marshall (Konstanze), Ilse Hollweg (Blonde), Léopold Simoneau (Belmonte), Gerhard Unger (Pedrillo), and Gottlob Frick (Osmin).

21. Friedenstag – Richard Strauss


Oper in 1 act

Op. 81, TrV 271

By Richard Strauss

Librettist: Joseph Gregor, after Stefan Zweig

First performed: Nationaltheater, Munich, 24 July 1838



4 stars

The rarely performed, often maligned Friedenstag is one of Strauss’s most underrated works: a powerful testament to the horrors of war and a plea for peace, first performed in Nazi Germany.

The opera takes place on 22 October 1684, the last day of the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest European religious war in history, pitting Catholics against Protestants.  A Catholic town is besieged by the Protestant Holsteiner army.  The Kommandant of the citadel has sworn never to surrender the town, and intends to blow up the citadel rather than let it fall into enemy hands.  The Holstein army advances – but it turns out that they are not attacking.  The armistice has been signed, and the decades-long war is over.

The powerful one-act work has some of Strauss’s most impressive choral and orchestral writing: the starving townsfolk demanding bread; the bells sounding for the first time in years, announcing peace; and the radiant C-major finale, Fidelio for a post-Mahlerian age.

Why, then, is Friedenstag so little known?  One problem may be that it doesn’t what do Strauss’s operas are supposed to do.  Most of his operas are either elegant, witty and wry, or hothouse shockers, as decadent and luxuriant as a Rafflesia.  This serious, rather earnest, treatment of war is a far cry from the Rococo Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier and the metafictional Ariadne auf Naxos, or the nightmarish Salome and Elektra.

Some critics have also accused Strauss of trying to curry favour with the Nazis with this opera.  It was the first major opera composed under National Socialism, and they point to the fact that the appeal to peace as a call to arms, the notion of a unified Germany, and the mythologizing of the Thirty Years’ War were all part of Hitlerian propaganda.  This interpretation is unlikely.

Strauss (who detested the Nazis [see below]) and his librettists – the writer Stefan Zweig, a Jewish pacifist and internationalist, and, after Zweig fled to London, his replacement Joseph Gregor – considered the opera “a hymn to the reconciliation of nations” and “a work extolling the union of peoples” – a stance at odds with the Nazis, who banned the work from stage performance after 1939.

It shows the miseries of war, which, to the ordinary people, is “murder and hatred”.  Their children die, and their grandchildren whine for bread.  The townsfolk starve, and are forced to eat rats to survive.  Churches are blown up, and houses burnt.  War breeds suspicion and fear – but the enemy are suffering fellow human beings.  “I have seen the foe,” says the town mayor; “they are men like us.  They suffer distress in their trenches, just like us.  When they are kicked, they groan like us – and when they pray, they pray to the same God!”

War is dehumanizing.  “Was ist das: Friede?” asks a musketeer.  The soldiers don’t know; they’ve been fighting since they were children.  They have lost any compassion for the people they are meant to protect.  Even when they see a farm set on fire, they only wonder what it means about the enemy’s movements – “nothing”.  They don’t care about the peasant whose home and crops have been destroyed.

The Kommandant is a man of war.  “I know nothing of peace!  …  The Emperor’s will ordered me to persevere, and achieve victory!”  He would rather blow himself and his soldiers up than surrender – but he obeys orders.  He is almost deaf to the appeal of love or compassion.  “War, glorious idea, war, wherever your mighty head rises, then all low impulses/emotions bow down before obedience, and life itself becomes the prize of men’s honour.”

The heart of the opera is the Kommandant’s wife Maria.  She obviously appealed to Strauss’s sympathy, and he wrote one of his typically lyrical soprano arias for her.

She is the only named character in the opera – but, like the Madonna, whose name she bears, she is a spiritual intercessor.  She is the comforter of war’s sufferers and the poor people; and she intervenes when the commanders of the two armies are about to come to blows, launching the opera’s finale.

That choral finale is glorious.

All the people – Maria, the two commanders, their armies, the townspeople, the church – come together in one surging sea of humanity and sing an exultant hymn to peace, as the citadel tower sinks into the stage and sunlight floods the theatre.


No, Strauss wasn’t a Nazi, or a Nazi sympathizer.  This old accusation still gets trotted out.

Yes, Strauss accepted the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, partly because he thought he could secure better copyright arrangements for composers, and he wanted to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.  He soon fell out of favor, and was ordered to resign when the Nazis intercepted a letter to Zweig criticizing the regime.

Zweig wrote the libretto for Strauss’s comic opera Die schweigsame Frau.  The Nazis pulled the opera after three performances, when Strauss, to his credit, refused to remove the Jewish Zweig’s name from the programme.

Strauss later wrote, in a secret memorandum:

“I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence, the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.”


Friedenstag Sawallisch.jpgListen to: Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1988, with Bernd Weikl, Sabine Hass, Jaako Ryhänen, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering.  EMI.  A fine cast, clear orchestration, and apparently more complete than Giuseppe Sinopoli’s 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording.

Fans of archival recordings may want to check out the 1939 Vienna recording, starring the original Kommandant (Hans Hotter) and Maria ( Viorica Ursuleac).