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.

28. Il pirata – Vincenzo Bellini

IL PIRATA

Opera seria in 2 acts

By Vincenzo Bellini

Libretto: Felice Romani

First performed: La Scala, Milan, 27 October 1827

Dossier.


SYNOPSIS

Di mia vendetta ho pieno il mondo…
Ma indarno.  Il vile Ernesto,
Il mio persecutor, vive ed esulta
Dell’ingiusto mio bando e di mie pene…

BlackbeardPirates!  Who doesn’t love a good pirate story?  Wooden-legged men, cursed treasure, talking parrots, the Black Spot, battles at sea, and murderous rogues who set their beards on fire…

None of them are here.

We’re not yet in the Golden Age of Piracy; this is Sicily in the 13th century, and the pirate – Gualtiero by name – is a ruined Sicilian nobleman.  (Who ever heard of a pirate called Walter?  Pirates have proper pirate-y names like Captain Blood.)

Gualtiero, former Count of Montaldo, backed the wrong side in a war between King Manfredi and the house of Anjou.  Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, defeated him in battle; the victorious Angevins banished him from Sicily; and he became leader of a band of pirates.  Gualtiero vowed to wreak bloody revenge on his enemies.

Ten years later, Gualtiero’s fleet is destroyed in a sea battle off the Sicilian coast.  The opera begins in the aftermath.

ACT I

While a storm rages overhead, the survivors row for the shore.  A chorus prays for their safety, and helps them to reach land.  (Verdi, more than half a century later, remembered this powerful scene when he wrote Otello.)

Gualtiero is among the survivors.  He tells his former tutor, now a hermit, that only his love for Imogene has sustained him over the last decade.

Unfortunately for him, Imogene has married Ernesto, his mortal enemy.  She may be Duchess of Caldora, but she still loves Gualtiero.  (Where would Italian opera be without a romantic triangle?)

Imogene arrives to help the survivors.  She’s afraid that Gualtiero might be dead; she’s had visions of seeing a bleeding corpse on a barren, deserted strand, but all nature is deaf to her tears and sorrow.  The mariners tell her that they’re innocent shipwrecked sailors (and certainly not bloodthirsty murdering pirates with peg legs and a parrot on each shoulder).  She invites the survivors to the castle, where they drink and make merry – rather than slaughtering everyone in the castle.

Only Gualtiero seems to have some idea of the proper behavior for a pirate.  He confronts Imogene, who tells him that Ernesto imprisoned her father and forced her to marry him.

Bah, says Gualtiero!  He whips out his cutlass and threatens to slice Imogene’s son in two – but he’s moved by her tears.  (He’s a softy at heart.)

Ernesto, Imogene’s villainous husband, arrives with his men – and he isn’t pleased to learn that his wife’s filled the castle with strange men.  Could they, he wonders, be pirates?  He interrogates Itulbo, Gualtiero’s lieutenant.  No, sir – (arrrr Jim lad, pieces o’ eight, pieces o’ eight) – no pirates here.  Ernesto isn’t convinced.  He threatens to lock them up until they can prove their bona fides, but Imogene persuades him to let them go.  Gualtiero, though, demands that the two former lovers meet, and threatens to kill her family unless she consents.  “This will be the last night for you, your husband, and your son!”  Imogene collapses.

ACT II

This is Italian opera, so everybody ends miserably, but they sing beautifully.  Ernesto’s an unfeeling husband; he thinks Imogene’s sickness is only shamming.  (What can you expect from a husband whose idea of proposal is to throw his beloved’s father into a dungeon?)  More, he thinks she’s cheating on him – she loves Gualtiero!  Imogene reminds him that when she married him she loved Gualtiero, but she only loves Gualtiero’s memory.  (Something about threatening twice to kill her family might have cooled her feelings.)  And no, she hasn’t betrayed him.  Ernesto’s ready to believe her – until he learns Gualtiero is in the castle.  I’ll kill him – and you too, says Ernesto.  Not if he kills you first, retorts Imogene.

Gualtiero tries to persuade Imogene to flee with him, but she will be virtuous; she tells him to live and forgive.  Ernesto surprises them; Imogene urges Gualtiero to flee.  Flee?  I’ve wanted to kill your husband for ten years, Gualtiero retorts, and now I can!  The two men rejoice that the day of revenge and fury has arrived, and rush off, swords in hand.

Gualtiero kills Ernesto.  Rather than taking to the high seas, he surrenders to the Duke’s men, and is condemned to death.  Imogene goes mad.  Gualtiero’s men rush in to try to save him, there’s a pitched battle between the pirates and the knights (sounds like an idea for a Hollywood blockbuster!), and Gualtiero stabs himself while leaping off a bridge.


COMMENTARY

3 stars.png

Rubini_as_Gualtiero-IL_PIRATA_-Oct_1827

For an opera called The Pirate, this isn’t very pirate-y.  Not a Jolly Roger in sight, only a melancholy Walter!

It’s an enjoyable melodrama, with plenty of opportunities for singers to show off their voices.  The opera abounds in the meltingly lovely, long melodic lines for which Bellini is famous; listen to the “Pietosa al padre!” section from Gualtiero and Imogene’s first duet, or Imogene’s mad scene.

The situation and characters may seem conventional, but Bellini and his librettist Romani introduced most of those conventions here.  This is the first true Italian Romantic opera.

It is one of the earliest historical costume melodramas focusing on a tenor / soprano / baritone love triangle.  Gualtiero, the brooding Byronic antihero, is the father of many of Verdi’s early tenor leads: a damned soul, with a tender side: “un magnanimo cor degenerato / Per avverso destin”.

Imogene is less interesting; she suffers passively, trapped in a loveless forced marriage but loving Gualtiero.  “Io stessa, io stessa / Inconsolabil vivo.”  But she sets the fashion for Italian prime donne for the next couple of decades by going mad in white satin.

The opera also marks the end of the age of Rossini.  The musical style is Rossinian, but hardly in sentiment.  The opera was written for three of the leading Rossini singers of the day; the singing style, as in Rossini’s serious operas, is florid, demanding agility of voice; and many of the pieces follow the Coda Rossini, the structure Rossini formalized in his operas.

Bellini, though, is a Romantic.  “Opera must make people weep, shudder and die through singing!”  Rossini is semi-Classical, even Baroque; his operas bridge the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, looking as far back as Handel with their armour-bearing contralti in travesti.  His music is full of brilliant vocal fireworks, and in his elaborate ensembles, he treats the voice more as instrument than as the expression of an individual’s soul.  Joyous, exhilarating, serenely beautiful – and fundamentally extraverted.

Bellini’s music is introspective in a way that Rossini’s seldom is; it paints inner emotions – particularly suffering and pathos; and it is dramatically expressive, closely moulded to the word.

Bellini was conscious of the novelty of his approach.  There’s a famous anecdote that he persuaded the tenor to act, rather than just sing.  Giovanni Battista Rubini was considered the greatest tenor in the world, with a chest range of two octaves, from C to G, carried up to F by “head notes”.  One thing Rubini didn’t do was act.

They started to rehearse the duet between Gualtiero and Imogene.  But soon they met with the same difficulties as before and exclaimed, “You don’t put half of the soul you’ve got into it!  Here, where you could easily move the public, you’re cold and languid.  Put some passion into it?  Have you never been in love?”

Rubini didn’t say a word to this, as he was very confused.  Then the maestro said, using a rather sweeter voice, “Dear Rubini, do you think you’re Rubini or Gualtiero?  Don’t you know that your voice is a goldmine not entirely discovered?  Listen to me, I beg you, and one day you’ll be grateful.  You are one of the best artists.  Nobody can be your equal in bravura singing.  But this isn’t enough!”

“I understand what you mean, but I cannot despair or enrage myself just for the sake of make-believe,” Rubini answered.

“The truth is that my music doesn’t please you because it doesn’t give you the usual opportunities.  But if I have in mind a new style and a music that can express completely the words and form a union of singing and drama, should I give it up because you don’t want to [work] with me?  In fact, you can co-operate with me, provided that you forget yourself and put yourself into the soul of the character that you represent.  Look how it should be done.”

So Bellini started to sing.  In spite of his undistinguished voice, inspired, he was moving to such an extent that he could have roused even the hardest of men.  Deeply moved, Rubini followed with his outstanding voice.

“Bravo, Rubini.  There you are, you have understood me!  I’m happy.  I will expect you to do the same tomorrow.  Above all, always remember to practice while standing and accompany yourself with gestures.”

(Stelios Galatopoulos.  Bellini: Life, Times, Music.  London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002, p. 65)

It’s surprising to learn that Rossinian singers weren’t expected to act.  Contemporary critics had praised the mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran’s acting; from the moment she stepped on stage, they wrote, she became Elizabeth I or Desdemona.  Many of Rossini’s later operas – particularly Ermione (a bel canto Elektra), the last act of Otello, the erotic Armida, and Semiramide, with its guilt-ridden queen, incest, and matricide – were psychologically intense, gripping music dramas.

I much prefer Rossini to Bellini, and don’t think Il pirata measures up to Rossini’s mature masterpieces – but Bellini’s close attention to conveying emotions and text through music influenced some of his greatest successors.

Verdi praised Bellini’s “truth and power of expression”, while Wagner wrote: “Bellini is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and intimately bound up with the words.  The music which I abhor, on the contrary, is that vague, indeterminate music that mocks libretto and situations.”

Il pirata’s storms, shipwrecks, and brooding seaman who has wandered the oceans for a decade, kept going by the hope of a woman’s love, surely also influenced The Flying Dutchman.

There’s also an interesting link to a great composer from the past.  Il pirata was Bellini’s breakthrough opera, and it was his first work performed in the US.  Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, translated the libretto for the performances in the 1830s.  It was, he said, “a splendid amusement”.

Melodramatic and full of beautiful music, Il pirata certainly is “a splendid amusement”.

As an opera about pirates, though, it gets the Black Spot.


RECORDINGS

The best recording I’ve heard is the 2003 Amsterdam performance, conducted by Giuliano Carella, starring Nelly Miricioiu (Imogene), Stefano Secco (Gualtiero), and Albert Shagidullin (Ernesto).  This is an unofficial recording, available from House of Opera.

Pirata - Opera RaraOf the commercial recordings, Parry’s 2012 recording for Opera Rara and Gavazzeni’s 1970 recording for EMI (with Montserrat Caballé) are both solid.

Pirata - Caballe

27. Der Trompeter von Säkkingen – Viktor Nessler

DER TROMPETER VON SÄKKINGEN

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

Dossier


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

SYNOPSIS

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.


COMMENTARY

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

DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO)

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

Dossier


SYNOPSIS

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.


COMMENTARY

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.


RECORDINGS

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).

25. Prodaná nevĕsta (The Bartered Bride) – Bedřich Smetana

PRODANÁ NEVĔSTA (THE BARTERED BRIDE)

Comic opera in 3 acts

By Bedřich Smetana

Libretto: Karel Sabina

First performed: Provisional Theatre, Prague, 30 May 1866

Dossier (characters and structure)


COMMENTARY

4 stars

For a small country, the Czech Republic punches above its weight musically.  Dvořák’s Rusalka and Janáček’s operas are in the repertoire of many opera houses worldwide.

The founding father of Czech music is Bedřich Smetana, whose comedy The Bartered Bride was the first Czech opera to reach 100 performances within his lifetime, and became a fixture of the National Theatre in Prague.

The Bartered Bride is his second opera.  Smetana wanted to compose opera that would speak to the Czech people, as Glinka did for the Russians with A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila.

Most of Smetana’s nine operas draw on Czech history (popular uprisings, prophecies of the founding of Prague), legend, or rural life.

His first opera, Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia), was a success, a serious historical opera about the Holy Roman Empire’s occupation of Bohemia.  His contemporaries, though, considered him a dangerous modernist, part of the Liszt/Wagner circle.

Smetana composed The Bartered Bride “to spite those who accused me of being Wagnerian and incapable of doing anything in a lighter vein” – and, like Peter Cornelius (composer of Der Barbier von Bagdad), write a modern comic opera as a contrast to Wagner’s mythical epics.

The opera is set in a small Czech village, where peasants dance and drink beer, and the arrival of a circus – complete with bear and American Indian – is a major event.

Mařenka’s father, the peasant Krušina, signed a contract promising his daughter to the landowner Mícha’s son Vašek, a stammering booby – but she loves Jeník, much to the consternation of the Kecal, the marriage broker.  Why, though, does Jeník give up his claim on Mařenka for 300 gulden, on the proviso that she can only marry Mícha’s son, and why is he so pleased with the deal?

The opera is a delight, combining catchy tunes with distinctively Smetanian orchestration: brilliant writing for strings (particularly in the famous Overture), unusual use of percussion and folk instruments (drums, cymbals, triangles, tambourines).  In this, Smetana proves his early ambition to be “a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition”.

Rossini and Mozart hover in the background; the Kecal is a Rossinian buffo, while Mařenka is a Czech cousin of Rossini’s clever, independent young misses.  The comic duet where the Kecal tries to buy Jeník off, promising him a wealthy widow (with plenty of ducats!), is one of the opera’s highlights, and my favourite piece in it.

There’re melancholy and tenderness, too – Mařenka and Jeník’s duet at the start of the opera, where he tells her how he left his father’s home after his mother died…

…and Mařenka’s aria in Act III, when she learns that Jeník bartered her

Elsewhere, Smetana’s music is beautifully lyrical – in the one-sided love duet in Act II, where Mařenka (in disguise) tells Jeník to beware his new bride, who plans to kill him…

…and the sextet in Act III.

The score is full of toe-tapping dances: the chorus that opens and the polka that closes the first act, the furiant, and the Dance of the Comedians (which Victor Borge used for one of his sketches).

Dance rhythms, Smetana wrote, gave the score “a popular character, because the plot…is taken from village life and demands a national treatment”.

It’s surprising that the opera, with its wealth of melody and engaging story, struggled to achieve popularity both in Prague and in the rest of the world.  The first performance was a failure, partly because many people were out of town, and because the Austro-Prussian War had broken out; those who remained were in no mood for a comedy on a swelteringly hot evening when German troops might invade Bohemia at any moment.

Smetana revised the opera over the next few years.  For the final version, he turned the two-act work into a three-act opera, with sung recitative replacing the original dialogue.  Czech audiences enthusiastically welcomed the new version, but the rest of the world was less convinced.  The opera was performed in Russia in 1871, but critics preferred Offenbach.  It wasn’t until after Smetana’s death, in the 1890s, that the opera entered the repertoire of foreign opera houses, often in German translation.  Mahler championed the work; he introduced it to Hamburg, Vienna and New York, and quoted the overture in his First Symphony.

Smetana played down the opera’s success, calling it “a toy…  Composing it was mere child’s play, written straight off the reel.”  He sold himself short; The Bartered Bride is a little gem of an opera.

This Czech certainly won’t bounce (all the more reason not to defenestrate him!).

Smetana’s music is easy to fall in love with, and I look forward to hearing more of his operas.


RECORDINGS

Watch:

1981 film, starring Gabriela Beňačková-Čápová (Mařenka), Peter Dvorský (Jeník), Miroslav Kopp (Vašek) and Richard Novák (Kecal), conducted by Zděnek Košler.  This is the version you want: it’s in Czech, it’s well sung and acted, and the production is charming.

Bartered Bride CD.jpg

This production is also available on CD.  If you’re after a recording in translation, there are versions in German (Rudolf Kempe for EMI) and English (Charles Mackerras for Chandos).

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.