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George P. (George Putnam) Upton.

The standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers online

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GIACOMO MEYERBEER, the eldest son of Herz
Beer, was born in Berlin, September 5, 1794. He
was named Jacob Meyer Beer, but afterwards called him-
self Giacomo Meyerbeer. His early studies were pursued
with the pianist Lauska and Bernard Anselm Weber, chief
of the Berlin orchestra. At fifteen he became the pupil
of Vogler in Darmstadt, with whom he displayed such
talent in composition that he was named Composer to the
Court by the Grand Duke. At eighteen, his first dra-
matic work, "The Daughter of Jephtha," was performed
at Munich. He then began his career, and made his
debut in Vienna as a pianist with great success. His first
opera, "The Two Caliphs," met with complete failure, as
it was not written in the Italian form. He at once trans-
formed his style and brought out " Romilda e Costanza,"
a serio-comic opera, with great success, at Padua. In
1820 "Emma di Resburgo " appeared at Venice, and
from this period his star was in the ascendant. " The
Gate of Brandeburg," " Margherita d'Anjou," " Esule di
Granata," and "Almanzar" followed in quick succession,
and were well received, though with nothing like the furor
which " II Crociato in Egitto " created in Venice in 1824.
His next great work, "Robert le Diable," was produced
in Paris, November 21, 1 831, the unparalleled success of
which carried its fame to every part of the civilized world.
In 1836 "The Huguenots," unquestionably his master-
piece, was brought out, and it still holds its place as one
of the grandest dramatic works upon the lyric stage. In
1838 Scribe furnished him the libretto of " L'Africaine,"



186 THE STANDARD OPERAS

but before the music was finished he had changed the
text so much that Scribe withdrew it altogether. He was
consoled, however, by Meyerbeer's taking from him the
libretto of " Le Prophete," this opera being finished in
1843. During the following year he wrote several miscel-
laneous pieces besides the three-act German opera, " Ein
Feldlager in Schlesien," in which Jenny Lind made her
Berlin debut. In 1846 he composed the overture and in-
cidental music to his brother's drama of "Struensee," and
in 1847 he not only prepared the way for Wagner's " Flying
Dutchman " in Paris, but personally produced " Pvienzi,"
— services which Wagner poorly requited. In 1849 " Le
Prophete" was given in Paris; in 1854, " L'Etoile du
Nord " ; and in 1859, "Dinorah"; but none of them
reached the fame of "The Huguenots." In i860 he
wrote two cantatas and commenced a musical drama
called " Goethe's Jugendzeit," which was never finished.
In 1862 and 1863 he worked upon " L'Africaine," and at
last brought it forward as far as a rehearsal, but it was not
performed until two years after his death.

The Huguenots

" Les Huguenots," grand opera in five acts, words by
Scribe and Deschamps, was first produced at the Academie,
Paris, February 29, 1836, with the following cast of the
principal parts :

Valentin Mile. Falcon.

Marguerite de Valois Mme. Dorus-Gras.

Urbain Mile. FLECHEUX.

Count de St. Bris M. Lerda.

Count de Nevers M. Derivis.

Raoul de Nangis M. NoURRlT.

Marcel M. LEVASSEUR.

At its first production in London in Italian, as "Gli
Ugonotti," July 20, 1848, the cast was even more




Nilsson as Valentin



MEYERBEER 187

remarkable than that above. Meyerbeer especially adapted
the opera for the performance, transposed the part of the
page, which was written for a soprano, and expressly com-
posed a cavatina to be sung by Mme. Alboni, in the scene
of the chateau and gardens of Chenonceaux, forming the
second act of the original work, but now given as the
second scene of the first act in the Italian version. The
cast was as follows :

Valentin Mme. Pauline Viardot.

Marguerite de Valois Mme. Castellan.

Urbain Mile. Alboni.

Count de St. Bris Sig. Tamburini.

Count de Nevers Sig. Tagliafico.

Raoul de Nangis Sig. Mario.

Marcel Sig. Marini.

The action of the opera passes in 1572, the first and
second acts in Touraine, and the remainder in Paris. The
first act opens on a scene of revelry in the salon of Count
de Nevers, where a number of noblemen, among them
Raoul de Nangis, a Protestant, accompanied by his faithful
old Huguenot servant, Marcel, are present, telling stories of
their exploits in love. Marguerite de Valois, the betrothed
of Henry IV, for the sake of reconciling the dispute be-
tween the two religious sects, sends her page to De Nevers's
salon and invites Raoul to her chateau. When he arrives,
Marguerite informs him of her purpose to give him in mar-
riage to a Catholic lady, daughter of the Count de St. Bris.
Raoul at first consents ; but when Valentin is introduced to
him and he discovers her to be a lady whom he had once
rescued from insult and who had visited De Nevers in his
salon, he rejects the proposition, believing that her affec-
tions have been bestowed upon another, and that his ene-
mies are seeking to entrap him. St. Bris challenges Raoul
for the affront, but the Queen disarms the angry comba-
tants. Valentin is now urged to marry Count de Nevers,
and begs that she may pass the day in prayer in the chapel



188 THE STANDARD OPERAS

Meanwhile Count de St. Bris, who has been challenged by
Raoul, forms a plot for his assassination, which is overheard
by Valentin from within the chapel. She communicates
the plot to Marcel, who lies in wait with a party of Hugue-
nots in the vicinity of the duel, and comes to Raoul's rescue
when danger threatens him. A general combat is about to
ensue, but it is suppressed by Marguerite, who suddenly
appears upon the scene. Raoul thus discovers that he owes
his life to Valentin, and that her visit to De Nevers was to
induce him to sever the relations between them, as she was
in love with Raoul. The announcement comes too late,
for the marriage festivities have already begun. Raoul
visits her for the last time. Their interview is disturbed by
the approach of De Nevers, St. Bris, and other Catholic
noblemen, who meet to arrange the details of the plot con-
ceived by Catherine de Medicis for the slaughter of the
Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's Eve. Valentin hurriedly
conceals Raoul behind the tapestries, where he overhears
their plans and witnesses the conjuration and the blessing
of the swords, as well as the refusal of the chivalrous De
Nevers to engage in murder. • After the conspirators have
departed, Raoul and Valentin have a long and affecting
interview, in which he hesitates between love and honor,
Valentin striving to detain him lest he may be included in
the general massacre. Honor at last prevails, and he joins
his friends just before the work of slaughter begins. He
rushes to the festivities which are about to be given in
honor of the marriage of Marguerite with the King of Na-
varre, and warns the Huguenots of their danger. He then
makes his way to a chapel where many of them are gath-
ered for refuge. He finds Marcel, who has been wounded,
and who brings him the tidings of the death of De Nevers.
The faithful Valentin joins them to share their fate. Amid
the horrors of the massacre Marcel blesses and unites them.
They enter the church and all perish together.



MEYERBEER 189

The first act opens with the brilliant chorus of the revel-
lers (" Piacer della mensa "), which is full of courtly grace.
Raoul tells the story of the unknown fair one he has en-
countered, in the roraanza, " Piu bianca del velo." When
Marcel is called upon, he hurriedly chants the hymn, " O
tu che ognor," set to the Martin Luther air, " Ein feste
Burg," and heightened by a stirring accompaniment, and
then bursts out into a graphic song (" Finita e pe' frati "),
emphasized with the piff-paff of bullets and full of martial
fervor. In delightful contrast with the fierce Huguenot
song comes the lively and graceful romanza of Urbain
(" Nobil donna e tanto onesta"), followed by a delightful
septet. The scene now changes, and with it the music.
We are in the Queen's gardens at Chenonceaux. Every
number, the Queen's solo ("A questa voce sola "), the deli-
cate "Bathers' Chorus," as it is called ("Andiam, regina,
in questo amene sponde "), the brilliant and graceful alle-
gretto sung by Urbain (" No, no, no, no "), the duet be-
tween the Queen and Raoul, based upon one of the most
flowing of melodies, and the spirited and effective finale in
which the nobles take the oath of allegiance (" Per la fe,
per 1' onore "), — each and every one of these is colored
with masterly skill, while all are invested with chivalrous
refinement and stately grace.

The second act opens with a beautiful choral embroidery
in which different choruses, most striking in contrast, are
skilfully interwoven. It is a picture, in music, of the old
Paris. The citizens rejoice over their day's work done.
The Huguenots shout their lusty rataplan, while the Papist
maidens sing their solemn litany ("Ave Maria") on their
way to chapel ; and as they disappear, the quaint tones of
the curfew chant are heard, and night and rest settle down
upon the city. It is a striking introduction to what follows,
— the exquisite duet between Marcel and Valentin, the
great septet of the duel scene, beginning (" De dritti miei



190



THE STANDARD OPERAS



ho V alma accesa ") with the tremendous double chorus
which follows as the two bands rush upon the scene. As
if for relief from the storm of this scene, the act closes with
brilliant pageantry music as De Nevers approaches to escort
Valentin to her bridal.

The third act is the climax of the work, and stands
almost unrivalled in the field of dramatic music, for the
manner in which horror and passion are illustrated. After
a dark and despairing aria by Valentin ("Eccomi sola
ormai"),and a brief duet with Raoul, the conspirators
enter. The great trio, closing with the conjuration, " Quel
Dio," the awful and stately chant of the monks in the
blessing of the unsheathed daggers (" Sia gloria eterna e
onore"), and the thrilling unisons of the chorus ("D' un
sacro zel 1' ardore "), which fairly glow with energy, fierce-
ness, and religious fury, — these numbers of themselves
might have made an act ; but Meyerbeer does not pause
here. He closes with a duet between Raoul and Valentin
which does not suffer in comparison with the tremendous
combinations preceding it. It is filled with the alternations
of despair and love, of grief and ecstasy. In its movement
it is the very whirlwind of passion. In the Italian version
the performance usually closes at this point ; but there is
still another striking and powerful scene, that in which
Raoul and Valentin are united by the dying Marcel. Then
the three join in a sublime trio, and for the last time chant
together the old Lutheran hymn, and await their fate amid
the triumphant harpings that sound from the orchestra and
the hosanna they sing to its accompaniment.

The Star of the North

"L'Etoile du Nord," opera in three acts, words by
Scribe, was first performed at the Opera Comique, Paris,
February 16, 1854, and in Italian as "La Stella del Nord,"
at Covent Garden, London, July 19, 1855. In English it





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MEYERBEER 191

has been produced under the title of "The Star of the
North." The opera contains several numbers from the
composer's earlier work, " Feldlager in Schlesien," which
was written for the opening of the Berlin opera house, in
memory of Frederick the Great, and was subsequently
(February 17, 1847) performed with great success in
Vienna, Jenny Lind taking the role of Vielka. The
" Feldlager," however, has never been given out of
Germany.

The action of the opera transpires in Wyborg, on the
Gulf of Finland, in the first act, at a camp of the Russians
in the second, and at the palace of the Czar Peter in the
third. In the first, Peter, who is working at Wyborg, dis-
guised as a carpenter, makes the acquaintance of Danilo-
witz, a pastry cook, and Catharine, a cantiniere, whose
brother George is about to marry Prascovia. Catharine
brings about this marriage ; and not only that, but saves
the little village from an invasion by a strolling horde of
Tartars, upon whose superstition she practises successfully,
and so conducts herself in general that Peter falls in love
with her, and they are betrothed, though she is not aware
of the true identity of her suitor. Meanwhile the con-
scription takes place, and to save her newly wedded
brother she volunteers for fifteen days in his place, disguis-
ing herself as a soldier. In the next act we find Catharine
going her rounds as a sentinel in the Russian camp on
the Finnish frontier. Peter and Danilowitz are also there,
and are having a roistering time in their tent, drinking and
making love to a couple of girls. Hearing Peter's voice
she recognizes it, and curiosity leads her to peep into the
tent. She is shocked at what she beholds, neglects her
duty, and is found by the corporal in this insubordinate
condition. He remonstrates with her, and she answers
with a slap on his ears, for which she incurs the penalties
of disobedience to orders as well as insulting behavior to



i 9 2 THE STANDARD OPERAS

her superior officer. Peter at last is roused from his
drunkenness by the news of an insurrection among his own
soldiers and the approach of the enemy. He rushes out
and promises to give the Czar into their hands if they will
obey and follow him. At last, struck with his bearing and
authority, they demand to know who he is, whereupon he
declares himself the Czar. The mutiny is at once quelled.
They submit, and offer their lives as warrant for their
loyalty. The last act opens in the Czar's palace, where
his old companion, Danilowitz, has been installed in high
favor. Catharine, however, has disappeared. George and
Prascovia arrive from Finland, but they know nothing of
her. The faithful Danilowitz finds her, but she has lost her
reason. Her friends try to restore it by surrounding her
with recollections of home, and Peter at last succeeds by
playing upon his flute the airs he used to play to her in
Finland. Her senses come back, and thus all ends hap-
pily ; for Catharine and Peter are at last united amid the
acclamations of the people.

In the first act the character of Peter is well expressed
in the surly, growling bass of his soliloquy (" Vedra,
vedra"). It is followed by a characteristic drinking-
chorus ("Alia Finlanda, beviam "), a wild, barbaric minor
rhythm, which passes into a prayer as they invoke the
protection of Heaven upon Charles XII. In the eighth
scene occur the couplets of Gritzensko as he sings the wild
song of the Kalmucks. In charming contrast, in the next
scene, Catharine sings the gypsy rondo, which Jenny Lind
made so famous (" Wlastla la santa "), which is character-
ized by graceful coquetry ; and this in turn is followed by
a striking duet between Catharine and Peter, in which the
individual characteristics of the two are brought out in
genuine Wagnerian style. In the thirteenth scene occurs
the bridal song of Prascovia (" Al suono dell' ora "), with
choral accompaniment, of a delicate and coquettish cast,



MEYERBEER 193

leading up to the finale, beginning with the soldiers' chorus
("Onor che a gloria "), with an accompaniment of drums
and fifes, again passing to a pathetic prayer (" Veglia dal
ciel su lor ") sung by Catharine amid the ringing of bells
as the bridal wreath is placed upon Prascovia's head, and
closing with a florid barcarole (" Vascel che lasci ") as she
sails away.

The second act opens with ballet music, full of Eastern
color, and then ensues one of those choral combinations,
like that in the second act of "The Huguenots," in which
Meyerbeer so much delighted, — a cavalry chorus ("Bel
cavalier del cuor d' acciar"), followed by the Grenadier's
song, accompanied by chorus (" Granadier di Russia es-
perti "), the chorus taking up the " tr-r-r-um " refrain in
imitation of the drum. In the eighth scene we have the
orgy in the tent in the form of a very spirited dramatic trio,
in which Peter sings a blithe drinking-song (" Vedi al par
del rubino ") ; this in turn resolving into a quintet
(" Vezzose vivandiere "), and again into a sextet, as
IsmailofT enters with a letter for the Czar. The finale is a
superb military picture, made up of the imposing oath of
death to the tyrant, the stirring Dessauer march, the
cavalry fanfare, and the Grenadiers' march, interwoven
with the chorus of women as they cheer on the marching
soldiers.

The third act opens with a romanza ("Dal cor per
iscacciare "), very tender and beautiful, in which the
rugged Czar shows us the sentimental side of his character.
In the third scene occurs a long buffo trio between Peter,
Gritzensko, and Danilowitz, which is full of humor. In
the finale we have Catharine in the mad scene, singing the
scena, " L' aurora alfin succede," with bits of the old music
running through the accompaniment; and in the final
scene, as her reason returns, breaking out in the florid
bravura, " Non s' ode alcun," accompanied by the first and

13



194 THE STANDARD OPERAS

second flutes, which is a triumph of virtuosity for the voice. ■
This number was taken from "The Camp in Silesia," and
was given by Jenny Lind with immense success, not only
in the latter work, but upon the concert stage. The opera
as a whole abounds in humor, its music is fresh and bril-
liant, and its military character makes it especially
attractive.

Robert the Devil

"Robert le Diable," grand opera in five acts, words
by Scribe and Delavigne, was first produced at the Acad-
emie, Paris, November 21, 1831, with the following cast :

Alice Mile. Dorus.

Isabella Mme. Cinti-Damoreau.

The Abbess Signora Taglioni.

Robert M. Nourrit.

Bertram M. Levasseur.

Raimbant M. Lafont.

In the following year two versions in English, both of
them imperfect, were brought out by the rival theatres,
Covent Garden and Drury Lane. On the 20th of Febru-
ary it appeared at Drury Lane under the title of "The
Demon; or, the Mystic Branch," and at Covent Garden
the next evening as " The Fiend Father, or Robert Nor-
mandy." Drury Lane had twenty-four hours the start of
its rival, but in neither case were the representations any-
thing but poor imitations of the original. On the nth of
the following June the French version was produced at the
King's Theatre, London, with the same cast as in Paris,
except that the part of Alice was taken by Mme. De
Meric, and that of the Abbess by the danseuse Mile.
Heberle. On the 4th of May, 1847, the first Italian
version was produced at Her Majesty's Theatre, with
Jenny Lind and Staudigl in the cast. Gruneisen, the
author of a brief memoir of Meyerbeer, who was present,
says : " The night was rendered memorable, not only by



MEYERBEER 195

the massacre attending the general execution, but also by
the debut of Mile. Lind in this country, who appeared as
Alice. With the exception of the debutante, such a dis-
graceful exhibition was never before witnessed on the
operatic stage. Mendelssohn was sitting in the stalls, and
at the end of the third act, unable to bear any longer the
executive infliction, he left the theatre."

The libretto of " Robert the Devil" is absurd in its
conceptions and sensational in its treatment of the story,
notwithstanding that it came from such famous dramatists
as Scribe and Delavigne ; and it would have been still
worse had it not been for Meyerbeer. Scribe, it is said,
wished to introduce a bevy of sea-nymphs, carrying golden
oars, as the tempters of Robert ; but the composer would
not have them, and insisted upon the famous scene of the
nuns, as it now stands, though these were afterwards made
the butt of almost endless ridicule. Mendelssohn himself,
who was in Paris at this time, writes : " I cannot imagine
how any music could be composed on such a cold, formal
extravaganza as this." The story runs as follows : The
scene is laid in Sicily, where Robert, Duke of Normandy,
who by his daring and gallantries had earned the sobriquet'
of "the Devil," banished by his own subjects, has arrived
to attend a tournament given by the Duke of Messina. In
the opening scene, while he is carousing with his knights,
the minstrel Raimbaut sings a song descriptive of the mis-
deeds of Robert. The latter is about to revenge himself
on the minstrel, when Alice, his foster-sister and the be-
trothed of Raimbaut, appears and pleads with him to give
up his wicked courses, and resist the spirit of evil which
is striving to get the mastery of him. Robert then con-
fides to Alice his hopeless passion for Isabella, daughter of
the Duke. While they are conversing, Bertram, " the un-
known," enters, and Alice shrinks back affrighted, fancy-
ing she sees in him the evil spirit who is luring Robert on



196 THE STANDARD OPERAS

to ruin. After she leaves, Bertram entices him to the
gaming-table, from which he rises a beggar, — and worse
than this, he still further prejudices his cause with Isabella
by failing to attend the tournament, thus forfeiting his
knightly honor.

The second act opens upon an orgy of the evil spirits in
the cavern of St. Irene. Bertram is present, and makes a
compact with them to loose Robert from his influence if
he does not yield to his desires at once. Alice, who has
an appointment with the minstrel in the cavern, overhears
the compact, and determines to save him. Robert soon
appears, mourning over his losses and dishonor ; but Ber-
tram promises to restore everything if he will visit the
ruined Abbey of St. Rosalie, and carry away a mystic
branch which has the power of conferring wealth, happi-
ness, and immortality. He consents ; and in the next
scene Bertram pronounces the incantation which calls up
the buried nuns. Dazed with their ghostly fascinations,
Robert seizes the branch and flees. His first use of it is
to enter the apartments of Isabella, unseen by her or her
attendants, all of whom become immovable in the pres-
ence of the mystic talisman. He declares his intention of
carrying her away ; but moved by her entreaties he breaks
the branch, which destroys the charm. In the last act
Bertram is at his side again, trying to induce him to sign
the fatal compact. The strains of sacred music which he
hears, and the recollections of his mother, restrain him.
In desperation Bertram announces himself as his fiend-
father. He is about to yield, when Alice appears and
reads to him his mother's warning against the fiend's
temptation. As he still hesitates, the clock strikes, and
the spell is over. Bertram disappears, and the scene
changes to the cathedral, where Isabella in her wedding
robes awaits the rescued Robert.

From the musical point of view "Robert le Diable " is



MEYERBEER 197

interesting, as it marks the beginning of a new school of
grand opera. With this work, Meyerbeer abandoned the
school of Rossini and took an- independent course. He
cut loose from the conventional classic forms and gave the
world dramatic music, melodies of extraordinary dramatic
force, brilliant orchestration, stately pageants, and theatri-
cal effects. " Robert le Diable " was the first of the sub-
sequent great works from his pen which still further
emphasized his new and independent departure. It is
only necessary to call attention to a few prominent num-
bers, for this opera has not as many instances of these
characteristics as those which followed and which are
elsewhere described. The first act contains the opening
bacchanalian chorus ("Versiamo a tazza plena"), which
is very brilliant in character ; the minstrel's song in the
same scene ("Regnavaun tempo in Normandia "), with
choral accompaniment ; and a very tender aria for Alice
(" Vanne, disse, al figlio mio "), in which she delivers his
mother's message to Robert. The second act opens with
a spirited duet between Bertram and Raimbaut, leading
up to a powerful and characteristic chorus of the evil
spirits (" Demoni fatali"). An aria for Alice (" Nel las-
ciar la Normandia"), a duet between Bertram and Alice
("Trionfo bramato"), and an intensely dramatic trio be-
tween Bertram, Alice, and Robert (" Lo sguardo immo-
bile"), prepare the way for the great scena of the nuns,
known as " La Temptation," in which Meyerbeer illus-
trates the fantastic and oftentimes ludicrous scene with
music which is the very essence of diabolism, and in its
way as unique as the incantation music in " Der Frei-



Online LibraryGeorge P. (George Putnam) UptonThe standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers → online text (page 14 of 37)