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 my review, see here.
For the dossier, see here.
“The booklet, taken from Alfred de Musset’s poem, Namouna, was not favorable to music. It is the fate of all the libretti borrowed from this poet, the least natural of all poets, in spite of the materialism which forms the basis of his affabulations. Drama in general, especially dramatic music, cannot dispense with the feelings of human nature, and, though concealed and disguised by bad prose or bad verse, they often suffice to inspire the musician and, in any case, they give some interest to the piece. Messrs. Louis Gallet and Bizet will doubtless have been led, by the welcome given to their collective work, to reflect on its faults and to modify their itinerary. What can be interesting about this young Egyptian, Haroun, who changes his mistress, that is to say, a slave, every month, who is skeptical, enervated, in a word who possesses the moral and physical qualities of what they call on the boulevard “un petit crevé”? Djamileh, his last slave, judges him more favorably, and at the moment of receiving her leave, conceives for him a passion which I may rightly call insane. Haroun does not send her back. The young woman stands firm and obtains from the slave-dealer that, under a disguise, she will again be presented to her master. Touched by such ardor, Haroun finally decides to love this creature; he says it at least and the curtain falls. On this occasion, it was thought to do something agreeable to the public by offering him on the stage a reproduction of M. Giraud’s painting, Un marchand d’esclaves; as if the real dilettanti and the people of taste cared to see this gracious, spiritual and poetic stage of the Opéra-Comique transformed into a market of human flesh!
With regard to this libretto, I will observe that music lends its language to love, to passion, to tenderness, as also to coquetry and gallantry, which are forms of grace; that it is too often also served in the bouffe genre, to ragged ideas and to the gaudriole; but I will add that she cannot express carnal voluptuousness and gross impressions of physical love, because these things are outside her domain; because there are no feelings, no ideas, no mind, no heart. 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. The music that M. Georges Bizet has written on this libretto is so extraordinary, so bizarre, in a word so disagreeable, that one would say that it is the result of a wager. Lost in the footsteps of Mr. Richard Wagner, he surpassed his model in quirkiness and strangeness. Let the melody be absent; it is the fault of the muse that blows where she wants: Spirat ubi vult. But that the succession of sounds and chords, and that the harmonic processes of accompaniment do not belong to any known and classified system of composition, is a very regrettable error of judgment in such a skillful musician as M. Georges Bizet. The rhythmic form of the opening is of the most known and most modern; but the concordance of the sounds is so singular that the music heard in the time of Ramses and Sesostris would not appear more extraordinary in modern ears. In the course of the work, we can scarcely quote a phrase from the men’s duet: Que l’esclave soit brune ou blonde; another phrase in the trio: Je voyais au loin la mer s’étendre; the chorus: Quelle est cette belle? and some gleams of melody and expression in the final duet. The rest appeared to me to bristle with dissonances and harmonic cacophonies, in comparison with which Berlioz’s boldness was only child’s play. Distribution: Djamileh, Mme. Prelly; Haroun, Duchesne; Splendiano, Potel; a slave trader, Julien. “