George P. (George Putnam) Upton.

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

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great work was " Hamlet," first produced March 9, 1868,
the success of which gained him the position of director
of the Conservatory in 187 1. After that time he wrote
the operas " Gille et Gillotin " (1874); " Francoise de
Rimini," performed April 14, 1882, and the ballet, " La
Tempete." In 1880 he was made a member of the
Legion of Honor. He has also written several pieces
of chamber music, masses, motets, and many charming
four-part male choruses.


" Mignon," opera comique in three acts, text by Barbier
and Carre, the subject taken from Goethe's " Wilhelm




I' a

"I. ::

* X






Meister," was first produced at the Opera Comique, Paris,
November 17, 1866, with the following cast :

Mignon Mme. Galli-M arie.

Wilhelm Meister M. Achard.

Laertes M. Conders.

Lotario M. Bataille.

Filina Mme. Cabel.

The scene of the first two acts is laid in Germany, and
of the third in Italy. Mignon, the heroine, in her child-
hood was stolen by gypsies. She is of noble birth. The
mother died shortly after her bereavement, and the father,
disguised as the harper Lotario, has wandered for years
in quest of his daughter. The opera opens in the yard
of a German inn, where a troupe of actors, among them
Filina and Laertes, are resting, on their way to the castle
of a neighboring prince, where they are to give a per-
formance. A strolling gypsy band arrives about the same
time, and stops to give an entertainment to the guests.
Mignon, who is with the band, is ordered to perform
the egg dance, but, worn out with fatigue and abusive
treatment, refuses. Giarno, the leader, rushes at her,
but the old harper interposes in her behalf. Giarno then
turns upon Lotario, when the wandering student, Wilhelm
Meister, suddenly appears and rescues both Mignon and
the harper. To save her from any further persecution he
engages her as his page, and follows on in the suite of
Filina, for whom he conceives a violent and sudden pas-
sion. Touched by his kind attentions to her, Mignon
falls in love with Wilhelm, who, ignorant of his page's
affection, becomes more and more a prey to the fas-
cinations of Filina. At last the troupe arrives at the
castle, Wilhelm and Mignon with them. Wilhelm enters
with the others, leaving Mignon to await him outside.
Maddened with jealousy, she attempts to throw herself
into a lake near by, but is restrained by the notes of


Lotario's harp. She rushes to him for counsel and pro-
tection, and in her despair invokes vengeance upon all
in the castle. As the entertainment closes, Filina and
her troupe emerge, joyful over their great success. She
sends Mignon back for some flowers she has left, when
suddenly flames appear in the windows. Maddened by
his own grief and Mignon's troubles Lotario has fired
the castle. Wilhelm rushes into the burning building
and brings out the unconscious Mignon in his arms.

The last act opens in Lotario's home in Italy, whither
Mignon has been taken, followed by Wilhelm, who has
discovered her devoted attachment to him, and has freed
himself from the fascinations of Filina. Through the
medium of a long-concealed casket containing a girdle
which Mignon had worn in her childhood, also by a
prayer which she repeats, and the picture of her mother,
Lotario is at last convinced that she is his daughter,
and gives his blessing to her union with Wilhelm.

The overture recites the leading motifs of the work.
The first act opens with a fresh and melodious chorus
of the townspeople over their beer in the inn yard (" Su
borghesi e magnati ")• During their singing a character-
istic march is heard, and the gypsy band enters. The
scene is a charming one, the little ballet being made
still more picturesque by the fresh chorus and a song of
Filina's in waltz time. The scene of the encounter with
Giarno and Mignon's rescue follows, and leads up to a
very spirited quintet, which is followed by a graceful
trio between Wilhelm, Filina, and Laertes, the actor.
In the next scene Wilhelm questions Mignon as to her
history, and at the end of their pathetic duet, when he
says, "Were I to break thy chains and set thee free, to
what beloved spot wouldst thou take thy way?" she re-
plies in the beautiful romanza, " Non conosci il bel suol,"
more familiarly known in Goethe's own words, u Kennst


du das Land," — a song full of tender beauty and rare
expression, and one of the most delightful inspirations of
any composer. It is said that much of its charm comes
from the composer's study of Ary Scheffer's picture of
Mignon. Be this as it may, he has caught the inner
sense of the poem, and expressed it in exquisite tones.
It is followed almost immediately by a duet between
Mignon and Lotario ("Leggiadre rondinelle") of almost
equal beauty, known as the Swallow Duet. After a some-
what uninteresting scene between Laertes, Filina, and
Frederick, who is also in love with Filina, the finale be-
gins with the departure of the actors to fulfil their en-
gagement, in which Filina, in a graceful aria ("Grazie
al gentil signor"), invites Wilhelm to be of the number.
The second act opens in Filina's boudoir, where she is at
her toilet, arraying herself for her part as Titania in the
forthcoming performance of the " Midsummer Night's
Dream " at the castle. As Wilhelm and Mignon enter the
apartment, a very dramatic conversation ensues between
them in the form of a terzetto (" Ohim£ quell' acre riso ").
Mignon is in despair at the attention Wilhelm pays Filina,
and the latter adds to her pangs by singing with him a gay
coquettish aria ("Gai complimenti"). As they leave the
room Mignon goes to the mirror and begins adorning her-
self as Filina had done, hoping thereby to attract Wilhelm,
singing meanwhile a characteristic song (" Conosco un zin-
garello ") with a peculiar refrain, which the composer him-
self calls the "Styrienne." It is one of the most popular
numbers in the opera, and when first sung in Paris made a
furor. At the end of the scene Mignon goes into a cabinet
to procure one of Filina's dresses, and the lovelorn Fred-
erick enters and sings his only number in the opera, a be-
witching rondo gavotte (" Filina nelle sale "). Wilhelm
enters, and a quarrel between the jealous pair is pre-
vented by the sudden appearance of Mignon in Filina's


finery. She rushes between them, Frederick makes his
exit in a fume, and Wilhelm announces to Mignon his
intention to leave her, in the aria " Addio, Mignon, fa
core," one of the most pathetic songs in the modern
opera. In the next scene she tears" off her finery and
rushes out expressing her hatred of Filina. The scene
now changes to the park surrounding the castle where the
entertainment is going on. Mignon hears the laughter and
clapping of hands, and overcome with despair attempts to
throw herself into the lake, but is restrained by Lotario,
and a beautiful duet ensues between them ("Sofferto hai
tu ? "). In the next scene Filina, the actors, and their train
of followers emerge from the castle, and in the midst of
their joy she sings the polacca (" Ah ! per stassera"), which
is a perfect feu de joie of sparkling music, closing with a
brilliant cadenza. The finale, which is very dramatic, de-
scribes the burning of the castle and the rescue of Mignon.
The last act is more dramatic than musical, though it
contains a few delightful numbers, among them the chorus
barcarole in the first scene (" Orsu, sciogliam le vela "), a
song by Wilhelm (" Ah ! non credea "), and the love duet
(" Ah ! son felice ") between Wilhelm and Mignon, in
which is heard again the cadenza of Filina' s polacca.
" Mignon " has always been a success, and will unquestion-
ably always keep its place on the stage, — longer even than
the composer's more ambitious works, " Hamlet " and
" Francoise de Rimini," by virtue of its picturesqueness
and poetic grace, as well as by the freshness, warmth, and
richness of its melodies. In this country opera-goers will
long remember " Mignon" by the great successes made by
Miss Kellogg as Filina, and by Mme. Lucca and Mme.
Nilsson in the title role.


" Hamlet, " grand opera in five acts, text by Carre and
Barbier, after Shakespeare, was first produced at the Opera,
Paris, March 9, 1868, and in London, in Italian, as " Am-
leto," June 19, 1869. The cast of the three principal roles
at the first performance included Christine Nilsson as
Ophelia, M. Faure as Hamlet, and Mme. Guaymat as the
Queen. The composer has divided his work into five acts,
but a more natural division would be into seven parts.
The first includes the celebration of the marriage of the
Queen to the late king's brother, Hamlet's soliloquy there-
upon, Ophelia's declaration of love, her farewell to Laertes,
and Marcellus and Horatio's announcement of the appear-
ance of the ghost ; second, of the ghostly apparition upon
the ramparts, and Hamlet's decision to execute his plan ;
third, Hamlet's struggle between duty and love, the inter-
view with Ophelia and the scheme of the play ; fourth, the
paraphrase of the play scene and denunciation of the King
before the court; fifth, Hamlet in the Queen's apartments,
his famous soliloquy and the awakening of the Queen's guilty
conscience ; sixth, the death of Ophelia and the grave-
digger's scene ; seventh, the funeral and the appointment of
Hamlet as king. The librettists have taken many liberties
with the original text and story and sometimes in a manner
that verges upon the ludicrous. Not the least of these liber-
ties are the introduction of a ballet in a tragedy and the
manner in which Ophelia's mad scene is treated. In the
denouement, also, the King is killed, Hamlet is proclaimed
his successor, the Queen lives to repent, and Laertes and
also Polonius live. The graceful and at times very dramatic
character of the music atones for any inconsistencies in the
libretto. The most conspicuous numbers in the opera are
the fanfare and march behind the scenes leading up to the
first scene, a chorus of the courtiers (" Iuini lieti "), to the


march accompaniment. This is immediately followed by a
graceful aria for Ophelia ("Angli eterni"), followed by a
lively duet for Hamlet and Ophelia, which in turn is fol-
lowed by a song for Laertes (" Per patrio "), the scene
ending with the sprightly chorus (" Banda alio via mesti-
zia "). In the second and third acts, the striking numbers
are Ophelia's brilliant scena, Hamlet's impressive address
to the ghost, a simple but beautifully written drinking-song
(" O liquore"), the play scene, Hamlet's soliloquy (" Es-
sere o no "), accompanied by trombones in unison, Ophe-
lia's tender solo (" A questa pie "), and the dramatic trio
for the Queen, Ophelia, and Hamlet (" Deh ! vanne a un
chiostro"). The dance music for peasantry in the fourth
act, incongruous as it appears, is charming, and few more
beautiful numbers have been written than Ophelia's song in
the mad scena, bound together by a waltz rhythm, and her
apostrophe to the sirens, a native Swedish melody, as she
is enticed by them to the waters upon which the song grad-
ually dies away as she disappears. The best music in the
fifth act is to be found in Hamlet's aria, the funeral music,
and the closing chorus (" Povero fior ").


Votkinsk in the government of Viatka, Russia, May 7,
1840, and died in St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893. He
first contemplated the study of the law, but abandoned it
in 1862, and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory as a
student. Four years later he was instructor in harmony in
the same institution, and remained as such until 1877.
After that year he devoted himself to composition, and has
been recognized as the foremost of Russian and one of the
most distinguished of modern composers. His sympho-
nies, the symphonic poems, " The Tempest," " Francesca da
Rimini," "Manfred," and "Hamlet," his numerous over-
tures and marches, as well as his chamber music and songs,
have made his name familiar on concert programmes the
world over. His operas are not so well known outside of
Russia as his other works, though one or two of them have
met with success in Germany. The list of his principal
dramatic works is as follows : " Voyevoda " (1869) ; " Oprit-
chnik" (1874); "Vakoula, the Smith" (1876); "Jev-
genjie," or " Eugen Onegin" (1877); "The Maid of
Orleans " (1881) ; " Mazeppa " (1882) ; " Tcharavit-
chki" (1886); "Tcharodjeika" (1887); "Pique Dame"
(1890); and " Iolanthe " (1893).

Eugen Onegin

" Eugen Onegin," grand opera in three acts, text by M.
Kashkin, after M. Poushkin's novel in verse by the same
title, was first produced in St. Petersburg in May, 1877.
An introduction founded upon themes in the opera gives


the substance of the musical material of the work. The
first act opens in the gardens of the Levins's country house
and discloses Madame Levin engaged in domestic duties,
and her two daughters, Olga and Tatiana, seated by a win-
dow. The opening number is a charming duet for the sis-
ters, based upon an old folk song ("Hearest thou the
Nightingale?") through which is heard the chatter of the
servants. After a quartet, the peasants enter with birthday
congratulations, following which comes a pretty ballad for
Olga ("I have no Mind for Languor or for Sadness").
The scene develops that Olga has a lover, Lenski, who
now makes his appearance, bringing with him his friend,
Eugen Onegin. The latter entertains Tatiana with some
expressive recitative and they wander away into the garden.
After they are gone, Lenski sings an impassioned love song
(" I love you, Olga"). The next scene discloses Tatiana
in her chamber, visited by the old nurse. The latter easily
discovers that Tatiana has lost her heart to the young
stranger. A very emotional scene occurs, especially the
nurse's tale of love, which is in the style of the folk song,
followed by Tatiana's confession of love for Eugen in the
song, " Nay, though I be undone." The rest of the scene
is an orchestral description of her emotions, as she writes a
letter which she entrusts to the nurse to deliver to Onegin.
The closing scene, opening with a chorus of peasant girls,
is in the garden where Tatiana meets Eugen. He thanks
her for the letter, but in a most nonchalant manner in-
forms her he has only a brotherly regard for her, and then
leaves her overcome with shame.

The second act opens with a ball-scene at the house in
honor of Tatiana's birthday, in which a very effective
waltz is heard. Onegin is there and rouses Lenski's jeal-
ousy by flirting with Olga and taking her away for a dance.
In the same scene, Triquet, a Frenchman, sings couplets,
based upon an old French chanson, to Tatiana, after which


a mazurka takes the place of the waltz, and Olga is again
seen dancing with Eugen. Lenski, losing his temper, chal-
lenges his friend, which makes a powerful concerted close
to the scene. The last scene is a winter landscape in the
early morning. Lenski, while awaiting Eugen's arrival,
sings a sentimental song (" My Days of Youth, where have
they fled? "). Then ensues the duel, and Lenski is killed.
The third act, after a supposed lapse of five years, opens
in a handsome house in St. Petersburg, and guests are
moving about to the music of a polonaise. Eugen is seen
in a melancholy mood, the victim of remorse, which he
describes in long and gloomy recitative. While thus en-
gaged, he observes a familiar face and inquiring of a friend,
Prince Gremin, who she is, finds she is the wife of the lat-
ter. He now falls hopelessly in love with Tatiana. The
closing scene is in Princess Gremin's apartments. Eugen
bursts in upon her with a declaration of love and tries to in-
duce her to fly with him. A very dramatic duet follows
between them, but even while acknowledging she still loves
him, she breaks away from him, leaving him alone. His
last words are, "Despised, rejected, O what Misery is
mine ! "


GIUSEPPE VERDI was born at Roncole, Italy, Oc-
tober 9, 1813, and died at Busseto, January 27, 1902.
He displayed his musical talent at a very early age ; indeed,
in his tenth year he was appointed organist in his native
town. He then studied for a time at Busseto, and after-
wards, by the help of a patron, M. Barezzi, went to Milan.
Curiously enough he was refused a scholarship on the
ground that he displayed no aptitude for music. Nothing
daunted, he studied privately with the composer Lavigne,
and five years afterwards commenced his career as an oper-
atic writer. His first opera, "Oberto," was given at La
Scala, Milan, with indifferent success. He was not fairly
recognized until his opera " I Lombardi " was performed.
In 1844 "Ernani" was received with great enthusiasm.
" Attila" (1846) was his next great triumph; and then fol-
lowed in rapid succession a large number of operas, among
them: "I Masnadieri " (1847), written for the English
stage, with Jenny Lind, Lablache, and Gardoni in the cast ;
"Luisa Miller" (1849); " Stiffelio " (1851) ; " Rigoletto "
(1851); "II Trovatore," Rome (1853); "La Traviata,"
Venice (1853); " I Vespri Siciliani," Paris (1855); "Si-
mon Boccanegra," Venice (1857); "Un Ballo in Mas-
chera," Rome (1859) ; " La Forza del Destino," St.
Petersburg (1862); "Don Carlos," Paris (1867); "Aida,"
(1871) ; "Othello " (1887) ; and " Falstaff" (1893). Verdi
has also written several pieces of chamber music, songs, and
cantatas, a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria (1880), and the
" Requiem," composed in memory of the patriot Manzoni,
and produced at Milan in 1874, on the occasion of the
anniversary of his death.



" Ernani," opera in four acts, text by F. M. Piave, the
subject taken from Victor Hugo's tragedy of " Hernani,"
was first produced at the Teatro Fenice, Venice, March 9,
1844. The earlier performances of the opera gave the com-
poser much trouble. Before the first production the police
interfered, refusing to allow the representation of a con-
spiracy on the stage, so that many parts of the libretto, as
well as much of the music, had to be changed. The blow-
ing of Don Silva's horn in the last act was also objected to
by one Count Mocenigo, upon the singular ground that it
was disgraceful. The Count, however, was silenced more
easily than the police. The chorus " Si ridesti il Leon di
Castiglia " also aroused a political manifestation by the Ven-
etians. The opera was given in Paris, January 6, 1846, and
there it encountered the hostility of Victor Hugo, who de-
manded that the libretto should be changed. To accom-
modate the irate poet, the words were altered, the characters
were changed to Italians, and the new title of" II Proscritto"
was given to the work.

The action of the opera takes place in Aragon, Spain,
and the period is 15 19. Elvira, a noble Spanish lady, be-
trothed to the grandee Don Gomez de Silva, is in love with
the bandit Ernani, who forms a plan to carry her off. While
receiving the congratulations of her friends upon her ap-
proaching marriage with Silva, Don Carlos, the King of Spain,
enters her apartment, declares his passion for her, and tries
to force her from the castle. She cries for help, and Ernani
comes to her rescue and defies the King. The situation is
still further complicated by the sudden arrival of Silva, who
declares he will avenge the insult. Finding, however, that
it is the King whom he has challenged, he sues for pardon.
In the second act, as the nuptials are about to be solem-
nized, Ernani enters, disguised as a pilgrim, and believing


Elvira false to him, throws off his disguise and demands
to be given up to the King, which Silva refuses, as he can-
not betray a guest. Discovering, however, that Elvira and
Ernani are attached to each other, he determines on ven-
geance. The King eventually carries off Elvira as a hostage
of the faith of Silva, whereupon the latter challenges Ernani.
The bandit refuses to fight with him, informs him that the
King is also his rival, and asks to share in his vengeance,
promising in turn to give up his life when Silva calls for it,
and presenting him with a horn which he is to sound when-
ever he wishes to have the promise kept. In the third act,
the King, aware that the conspirators are to meet in the
catacombs of Aquisgrana, conceals himself there, and when
the assassins meet to decide who shall kill him, he suddenly
appears among them and condemns the nobles to be sent to
the block. Ernani, who is a duke, under the ban of the
King of Castile, demands the right to join them, but the
King magnanimously pardons the conspirators and consents
to the union of Ernani and Elvira. Upon the very eve of
their happiness, and in the midst of their festivities, the
fatal horn is heard, and true to his promise Ernani parts
from Elvira and kills himself.

The first act opens with a spirited chorus of banditti and
mountaineers (" Altegri, beviami ") as they are drinking
and gambling in their mountain retreat. Ernani appears
upon a neighboring height and announces himself in a
despondent aria (" Come rugiada al cespite "). A brief
snatch of chorus intervenes, when he breaks out in a sec-
ond and more passionate strain (" Dell' esilio nel dolore "),
in which he sings of his love for Elvira. The third scene
opens in Elvira's apartments, and is introduced with one of
the most beautiful of Verdi's arias, " Ernani, involami," with
which all concert-goers have become acquainted by its fre-
quent repetition. A graceful chorus of her ladies bearing
gifts leads to a second and more florid number ("Tutto

Sembrich as Elvira

Copyright, Aime Dupont



sprezzo che d' Ernani "). Don Carlos enters, and in the
seventh scene has an aria (" Bella come un primo amore ")
in which he declares his passion for Elvira, leading up to
a very dramatic duet between them (" Fiero sangue d' Ara-
gona "). This is followed in turn by a trio between the two
and Ernani. The finale commences with an impressive and
sonorous bass solo (" Infelice ! e tuo credevi ") by Silva,
and closes with a septet and chorus of great power.

The second act, like the first, opens with a chorus, this
time, however, of mixed voices, the power of which is am-
plified by a military band on the stage. After three scenes
of dramatic dialogue, an impassioned duet (" Ah ! morir
potessi adesso ! ") occurs between Ernani and Elvira, fol-
lowed by a second, of great dramatic intensity, in the
seventh scene ("La vendetta piu tremenda "). The finale
begins with a spirited appeal by Silva and Ernani for ven-
geance against the King (" In arcione, cavalieri ") which is
met by a stirring response from their followers (" Pronti
vedi li tuoi cavalieri "), sung by full male chorus and closing
the act.

The third act is devoted to the conspiracy, and in the
second scene Don Carlos has a very impressive and at
times thrilling soliloquy (" Gran Dio ! costo sui sepolcrali
marmi "). The conspiracy then begins with very charac-
teristic accompaniments, closing with the chorus in full
harmony (" Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia "), which at the
performance of the work in Venice roused such a fury
among the Venetians. The finale commences with the
appearance of Don Carlos among the conspirators, and
closes with the great sextet and chorus, " O Sommo Carlo."
Opening with a barytone solo it is gradually worked up in a
crescendo of great power and thrilling effect. The number
is very familiar from its English setting under the title,
" Crowned with the Tempest."

The fourth act rapidly hurries to the tragic close, and is

2 3



less interesting from a musical point of view, as the climax
was reached in the finale of the third. The principal num-
bers are the chorus of masks in the first scene (" O come
felici "), accompanied by military band, and the great duet
between Elvira and Ernani (" Cessaro i suoni ") which
passes from rapturous ecstasy to the despair of fate (" Per
noi d' amore il talamo ") as the horn of Silva is heard, re-
minding Ernani of his promise. Though one of the earliest
of Verdi's works, " Ernani " is one of his strongest in dra-
matic intensity, in the brilliancy and power of its concerted
finales, and in the beauty of its chorus effects.


" Rigoletto," opera in three acts, text by Piave, the sub-
ject taken from Victor Hugo's tragedy, " Le Roi s'amuse,"

Online LibraryGeorge P. (George Putnam) UptonThe standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers → online text (page 25 of 37)