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).

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


Comic opera in 3 acts

By Bedřich Smetana

Libretto: Karel Sabina

First performed: Provisional Theatre, Prague, 30 May 1866

Dossier (characters and structure)


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.



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


Contemporary criticism


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.


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

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

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

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


Béatrice - Davis

Béatrice - Nelson

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


Bouffonnerie musicale in 1 act

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto: Charles-Désiré Dupeuty & Ernest Bourget

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



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

Libretto (in French).




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

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

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

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

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

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

22. La forza del destino – Giuseppe Verdi


Opera in 4 acts

By Giuseppe Verdi

Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave, after Ángel de Saavedra’s
Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835)

First performed: Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 10 November 1862.

Revised version: La Scala, Milan, 27 February 1869.

Reception: The premiere in St Petersburg was only a muted success, and Verdi, unhappy with the work, revised it for Italy.  It did well enough for much of the later nineteenth century, but hit low ebb in the early twentieth century, when Wagnerian aesthetics dominated.  Since then, it’s become regularly performed.  It’s supposed to be cursed, though.  Pavarotti refused to perform in it, and clutched his testicles whenever it was mentioned, in case the scenery collapsed on him or (as happened to one baritone) he dropped dead onstage.



4 stars

Alexandre_Charles_Lecocq_-_Giuseppe_Verdi_-_La_forza_del_destino.jpgLa forza del destino is a vast, even unwieldy, opera – and one of Verdi’s most difficult works.  He mixes scenes, moods and operatic styles in an opera that takes place over nearly a decade, and, its critics say, violates every notion of dramatic unity and common sense.

Don Alvaro (tenor) – an Incan prince in disguise – accidentally kills his girlfriend Leonora’s (soprano) father, the Marquis of Calatrava.  He throws down his gun, which promptly goes off and shoots the old man, who hangs onto life just long enough to curse his daughter.  Don Carlo di Vargas, her brother (baritone), vows to find both her and her lover, and kill her.  Leonora puts on a monk’s robe and becomes a hermit living in a cave.  We don’t see her again until the end.

Don Carlo enlists in the Spanish army, and swears an oath of friendship with another officer – who turns out to be Don Alvaro!  The two fight a duel.  Don Alvaro becomes a monk, but Don Carlo pursues him to the monastery, and goads him into another duel by calling him racist names.  Don Alvaro fatally wounds him – outside a hermit’s cell.  The hermit appears – it’s Leonora!  Don Carlo kills her, and then dies.  (In the opera’s original version, composed for St Petersburg, Don Alvaro then hurled himself off a cliff.)

Act IV.png

And the opera is full of gypsy girls, beggars, pedlars, and monks.  And the soprano doesn’t appear for half the opera!

“It is hard to decide,” Michael Forman (The Good Opera Guide, 1994) writes, “whether Verdi was just out of practice, wasn’t really trying, or had temporarily lost his marbles.”

If one views the play from a Classical perspective, as many critics seem to do, the work necessarily seems a mess.  But it’s not Classical; it’s a Romantic opera, written under the influence of Victor Hugo.

Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, the play on which Verdi based his opera, was written by the Duke of Rivas, a liberal man of letters and devotee of Hugo.  The opera, as one early review recognized, puts the principles of Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell, effectively the Romantic manifesto, into practice: mixing high-born and low-born characters, comedy and tragedy, the ugly and the beautiful, to show the world in all its complexity.

The opera doesn’t violate the Aristotelian unities of time and place so much as ignore them; it’s not interested in them.  Instead, the opera’s aesthetics are based on kaleidoscopic variety.

Scene follows scene in dizzying array: aristocratic mansions; taverns in Spanish villages; monasteries; battlefields and military encampments during the War of Austrian Succession.  Smaller roles proliferate: Preziosilla the gypsy girl (a cousin to Carmen) singing French opéra comique-style arias; and the grumpy monk Fra Melitone, a Rossinian buffo bass.

Other sections of the score nod to opera and symphonic music.  The overture has often been called Beethovenian, the monks’ curse and prayer is French grand opéra (modelled on Meyerbeer’s Blessing of the Swords), and Leonora’s arias are Bellinian in their long lines.

Verdi uses the chorus as a protagonist in its own right, as Meyerbeer did in his grand operas (notably in Les Huguenots and Le prophète) and Mussorgsky did in Boris Godunov (clearly influenced by both Meyerbeer and Forza).  In Verdi’s earlier operas, the chorus was often a faceless group; block-like assemblies of types (bandits, soldiers, sailors), who sing en masse, and mainly exist to provide musical backing to the lead singers.  Here the chorus are crowds of individuals: guests at a Spanish tavern, watching dances, and praying as pilgrims pass by; soldiers in a military encampment, gambling and drinking; war victims asking for food from a monastery.  They are humanity celebrating and suffering.

All of this was necessary for Verdi to write what he called “an opera of ideas”.  Like Meyerbeer and Wagner, he used the broader dimensions of grand opera for a philosophical work.

Forza is an opera about the role chance (or fate) plays in our lives, despite our good intentions – and how we deal with this.

We can never fully control our lives, Verdi suggests, because they are changed by outside forces.  The chance firing of a pistol, thrown down by a man trying to avert bloodshed, ruins the lives of the Calatrava clan, sending them into a years-long spiral of pursuit, hatred, revenge and fratricide.  On a larger scale, we are caught up in the events of history.  Larger events and social forces – politics, war, poverty, starvation – affect the masses.  We may not be able to control our lives, but, as the Padre Guardiano tells the monk Melitone, we can have compassion for those who suffer.

The St Petersburg version is nihilistic.  It ends with a stage littered with corpses, and Don Alvaro’s howl of despair against the universe as he leaps to his death: “I am a messenger from hell!  Let the earth open!  May hell swallow me!  May the heavens fall!  And may mankind perish!”

Verdi was unhappy with the original ending, and changed it after meeting the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a saint.

The second version ends on a note of Christian resignation, with Alvaro and the Padre Guardiano (Father Superior) kneeling by Leonora’s corpse.  Leonora may have died, but, she promises Alvaro, they will meet again in heaven.  Mankind, the opera suggests, cannot understand the ineffable; God (or, for the agnostic Verdi, the universe) moves in ways we cannot fathom, but there is a purpose to every action, even if we cannot grasp it.


The opera is theatrically effective, but listening to it on CD can be dispiriting, because it’s less tuneful than Verdi’s other mature operas.  Much of the opera is in functional arioso (heightened recitative), but there are a couple of great arias and some impressive set-pieces.

“Madre, pietosa Vergine!” – Leonora flees to the monastery for refuge from her brother, who plans to kill her.

“Il santo nome di Dio …  La vergine degli angeli” – The Padre Guardiano tells Leonora that she can become a hermit – but anyone who approaches her will be cursed.

The finale that ends the opera:


Forza DVD.jpgWatch: The 1984 Met performance, starring Leontyne Price (Leonora), Leo Nucci (Don Carlo) and Giuseppe Giacomini (Don Alvaro), conducted by James Levine.

Listen to: The 1955 Decca recording, starring Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), Mario Del Monaco (Don Alvaro), and Ettore Bastianini (Don Carlo), conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

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).