George P. (George Putnam) Upton.

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

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duced at Dresden, October 20, 1842, with the following
cast of leading parts :

Rienzi Herr Tichatschek.

Irene Frl. Wust.

Colonna Herr Detmer.

Adriano Mme. Schroder-Devrient.

Orsiui Herr Wachter.

The opera was first produced in the United States
February 5, 1886. "Rienzi" was designed and partly


completed during Wagner's stay in Riga as orchestra
leader. In his Autobiography the composer says that he
first read the story at Dresden in 1837, and was greatly
impressed with its adaptability for opera. He began it in
the Fall of the same year at Riga, and says : " I had com-
posed two numbers of it, when I found, to my annoyance,
that I was again fairly on the way to the composition of
music a la Adam. I put the work aside in disgust."
Later he projected the scheme of a great tragic opera in
five acts, and began working upon it with fresh enthusiasm
in the Fall of 1838. By the Spring of 1839 ^ e fi rst two
acts were completed. At that time his engagement at
Riga terminated, and he set out for Paris. He soon found
that it would be hopeless for him to bring out the opera
in that city, notwithstanding Meyerbeer had promised to
assist him. He offered it to the Grand Opera and to
the Renaissance, but neither would accept it. Nothing
daunted, he resumed work upon it, intending it for Dres-
den. In October, 1842, it was at last produced in that
city, and met with such success that it secured him the
position of capellmeister at the Dresden opera house.

The action of the opera passes at Rome, towards the
middle of the fourteenth century. The first act opens at
night, in a street near the Church of St. John Lateran.
and discovers Orsini, a Roman patrician, accompanied by
a crowd of nobles, attempting to abduct Irene, the sister
of Rienzi, a papal notary. The plot is interrupted by the
entrance of Colonna, the patrician leader of another fac-
tion, who demands the girl. A quarrel ensues. Adriano,
the son of Colonna, who is in love with Irene, suddenly
appears and rushes to her defence. Gradually other
patricians and plebeians are attracted by the tumult,
among the latter, Rienzi. When he becomes aware of
the insult offered his sister, he takes counsel with the Car-
dinal Raimondo, and they agree to rouse the people in


resistance to the outrages of the nobles. Adriano is placed
in an embarrassing position, — his relationship to the
Colonnas urging him to join the nobles, while his love
for Irene impels him with still stronger force to make
common cause with the people. He finally decides to
follow Rienzi, just as the trumpets are heard calling the
people to arms and Rienzi clad in full armor makes his
appearance to lead them.

The struggle is a short one. The nobles are overcome,
and in the second act they appear at the Capitol to ac-
knowledge their submission to Rienzi : but Adriano, who
has been among them, warns Rienzi that they have plot-
ted to kill him. Festal dances, processions, and gladia-
torial combats follow, in the midst of which Orsini rushes
at Rienzi and strikes at him with his dagger. Rienzi is
saved by a steel breastplate under his robes. The nobles
are at once seized and condemned to death. Adriano
pleads with Rienzi to spare his father, and moved by his
eloquence he renews the offer of pardon if they will swear
submission. They take the oath only to violate it. The
people rise and demand their extermination. Rienzi
once more draws the sword, and Adriano in vain appeals to
him to avert the slaughter. He is again successful, and on
his return announces to Adriano that the Colonnas and
Orsinis are no more. The latter warns him of coming
revenge, and the act closes with the coronation of Rienzi.

The fourth act opens at night near the church. The
popular tide has now turned against Rienzi, because of a
report that he is in league with the German Emperor to
restore the pontiff. A festive cortege approaches, escort-
ing him to the church. The nobles bar his way, but dis-
perse at his command ; whereupon Adriano rushes at him
with drawn dagger, but the blow is averted as he hears the
chant of malediction in the church, and sees its dignitaries
placing the ban of excommunication against Rienzi


upon its doors. He hurries to Irene, warns her that her
brother's life is no longer safe, and urges her to fly with
him. She repulses him, and seeks her brother, to share
his dangers or die with him. She finds him at prayer in
the Capitol. He advises her to accept the offer of Adriano
and save herself, but she repeats her determination to die
with him. The tumult of the approaching crowd is heard
outside. Rienzi makes a last appeal to them from the
balcony, but the infuriated people will not listen. They
set fire to the Gapitol with their torches, and stone Rienzi
and Irene through the windows. As the flames spread
from room to room and Adriano beholds them enveloping
the devoted pair, he throws away his sword, rushes into
the burning building, and perishes with them.

The overture of " Rienzi " is in the accepted form, for
the opera was written before Wagner had made his new
departure in music, and takes its principal themes, notably
Rienzi's prayer for the people and the finale to the first
act, from the body of the work. The general style of the
whole work is vigorous and tumultuous; The first act
opens with a hurly-burly of tumult between the contend-
ing factions and the people. The first scene contains a
vigorous aria for the hero (" Wohl an so mog es sein "),
which leads up to a fiery terzetto ("Adriano du? Wie
ein Colonna ! ") between Rienzi, Irene, and Adriano,
followed by an intensely passionate scene (" Er geht und
lasst dicht meinem Schutz ") between the last two. The
finale is a tumultuous mass of sound, through which are
heard the tones of trumpets and cries of the people. It
opens with a massive double chorus (" Gegriisst, gegriisst "),
shouted by the people on the one side and the monks
in the Lateran on the other, accompanied by an andante
movement on the organ. It is interrupted for a brief
space by the ringing appeal of Rienzi (" Erstehe, hohe
Roma, neu "), and then closes with an energetic andante,


a quartet joining the choruses. This finale is clearly
Italian in form, and much to Wagner's subsequent disgust
was described by Hanslick as a mixture of Donizetti and
Meyerbeer, and a clear presage of the coming Verdi.

The second act opens with a stately march, introducing
the messengers of peace, who join in a chorus of greeting,
followed by a second chorus of senators and the tender
of submission made by the nobles. A terzetto between
Adriano, Orsini, and Colonna, set off against a chorus of
the nobles, leads up to the finale. It opens with a joyful
chorus (" Erschallet feier Klange "), followed by rapid dia-
logue between Orsini and Colonna on the one hand and
Adriano and Rienzi on the other. A long and elaborate bal-
let intervenes, divided into several numbers, — an Intro-
duction, Pyrrhic Dance, Combat of Roman Gladiators and
Cavaliers, and the Dance of the Apotheosis, in which the
Goddess of Peace is transformed into the Goddess Protec-
tor of Rome. The scene abruptly changes, and the act
closes with a great ensemble in which the defiance of the
conspirators, the tolling of bells, the chants of the monks,
and the ferocious outcries of the people shouting for
revenge are mingled in strong contrasts.

The third act is full of tumult. After a brief prelude,
amid the ringing of bells and cries of alarm, the people
gather and denounce the treachery of the nobles, leading
up to a spirited call to arms by Rienzi (" Ihr Romer,
auf "). The people respond in furious chorus, and as the
sound of the bells and battle-cries dies away Adriano en-
ters. His scene opens with a prayer (" Gerechter Gott ")
for the aversion of carnage, which changes to an agitated
allegro ("Wo war ich?") as he hears the great bell of
the Capitol tolling the signal for slaughter. The finale
begins with a massive march, as the bells and sounds of
alarm are heard approaching again, and bands of citizens,
priests and monks, the high clergy, senators and nobles,


pass and repass in quick succession, followed at last by
Rienzi, which is the signal for the great battle hymn,
which is " to be sung with great fire and energy, accom-
panied by great and small bells ringing behind the scenes,
the clash of swords upon shields, and full power of chorus
and orchestra." A dialogue follows between Adriano and
Rienzi, and then the various bands disappear singing the
ritornelle of the hymn. A great duet (" Lebwohl, Irene ")
ensues between Adriano and Irene, which in its general
outlines reminds one of the duet between Raoul and Val-
entin in " The Huguenots." At its conclusion, after a
prayer by the chorus of women, the battle hymn is heard
again in the distance, gradually approaching, and the act
closes with a jubilee chorus ("Auf! im Triumpf zura
Capitol"), welcoming the return of the conquerors.

The fourth act is short, its principal numbers being the
introduction, terzetto and chorus (" Wer war's der euch
hierher beschied?"), and the finale, beginning with a
somewhat sombre march of the cortege accompanying
Rienzi to the church, leading to the details of the con-
spiracy scene, and closing with the malediction of the
monks (" Vae, vae tibi maledicto "). The last act opens
with an impressive prayer by Rienzi (" Allmacht'ger
Vater"), which leads to a tender duet ("Verlasst die
Kirche mich") as Irene enters, closing with a passionate
aria by Rienzi (" Ich liebte gluhend "). The duet is then
resumed, and leads to a second and intensely passionate
duet (" Du hier Irene ! ") between Adriano and Irene.
The finale is brief, but full of energy, and is principally
choral. The denouement hurries, and the tragedy is
reached amid a tumultuous outburst of voices and instru-
ments. Unlike Wagner's other operas, set melody domi-
nates in " Rienzi," and the orchestra, as in the Italian
school, furnishes the accompaniments. We have the regu-
lar overture, aria, duet, trio, and concerted finale ; but

2 5


after " Rienzi " we shall observe a change, at last becom-
ing so radical that the composer himself threw aside his
first opera as unworthy of performance.

The Flying Dutchman

"Der Fliegende Hollander," romantic opera in three
acts, text by the composer, the subject taken from Hein-
rich Heine's version of the legend, was first produced at
Dresden, January 2, 1843, with Mme. Schroder-Devrient
and Herr Wachter in the two principal roles. It was also
produced in London in 1870 at Drury Lane as " L' Ollan-
dose dannato," by Signor Arditi, with Mile. Di Murska,
Signori Foli, Perotti, and Rinaldini, and Mr. Santley in the
leading parts ; in 1876, by Carl Rosa as " The Flying Dutch-
man," an English version ; and again in 1877 as "11 Vas-
cello Fantasma." In this country the opera was introduced
in its English form by Miss Clara Louise Kellogg in 1886.

Wagner conceived the idea of writing " The Flying
Dutchman " during the storm which overtook him on his
voyage from Riga to Paris. He says in his Autobiography :
" ' The Flying Dutchman,' whose intimate acquaintance I
had made at sea, continually enchained my fancy. I had
become acquainted, too, with Heinrich Heine's peculiar
treatment of the legend in one portion of his ' Salon.'
Especially the treatment of the delivery of this Ahasuerus
of the ocean (taken by Heine from a Dutch drama of the
same title) gave me everything ready to use the legend as
the libretto of an opera. I came to an understanding
about it with Heine himself, drew up the scheme, and
gave it to M. L6on Pillet [manager of the Grand Opera],
with the proposition that he should have a French libretto
made from it for me." Subsequently M. Pillet purchased
the libretto direct from Wagner, who consented to the trans-
action, as he saw no opportunity of producing the opera
in Paris. It was then set by Dietsch as " Le Vaisseau


Fantome," and brought out in Paris in 1842. In the
meantime, not discouraged by his bad fortune, Wagner
set to work, wrote the German verse, and completed the
opera in seven weeks for Dresden, where it was finally per-'
formed, as already stated. Unlike " Rienzi," it met with
failure both in Dresden and Berlin ; but its merits were
recognized by Spohr, who encouraged him to persevere in
the course he had marked out.

The plot of the opera is very simple. A Norwegian ves-
sel, commanded by Daland, compelled by stress of weather,
enters a port not far from her destination. At the same
time a mysterious vessel, with red sails and black hull,
commanded by the wandering Flying Dutchman, who is
destined to sail the seas without rest until he finds a
maiden who will be faithful unto death, puts into the
same port. The two captains meet, and Daland invites
the stranger to his home. The two at last progress so
rapidly in mutual favor that a marriage is agreed upon
between the stranger and Senta, Daland's daughter. The
latter is a dreamy, imaginative girl, who, though she has an
accepted lover, Eric, is so fascinated with the legend of
the stranger that she becomes convinced she is destined to
save him from perdition. When he arrives with her father
she recognizes him at once, and vows eternal constancy to
him. In the last act, however, Eric appears and reproaches
Senta with her faithlessness. The stranger overhears them,
and concludes that as she has been recreant to her former
lover, so too she will be untrue to him. He decides to
leave her ; for if he should remain, her penalty would be
eternal death. As his mysterious vessel sails away Senta
rushes to a cliff, and crying out that her life will be the
price of his release, hurls herself into the sea, vowing to be
constant to him even in death. The phantom vessel sinks,
the sea grows calm, and in the distance the two figures
are seen rising in the sunlight never to be parted.


The overture characterizes the persons and situations
of the drama, and introduces the motives which Wagner
ever after used so freely, — among them the curse resting
upon the Dutchman, the restless motion of the sea, the
message of the Angel of Mercy personified in Senta, the
personification of the Dutchman, and the song of Daland's
crew. The first act opens with an introduction represent-
ing a storm, and a characteristic sailors' chorus, followed
by an exquisite love-song for tenor (" Mit Gevvitter und
Sturm "), and a grand scena for the Dutchman (" Die Frist
ist um "), which lead up to a melodious duet between the
Dutchman and Daland. The act closes with the sailors'
chorus as the two vessels sail away.

After a brief instrumental prelude, the second act opens
in Daland's home, where the melancholy Senta sits sur-
rounded by her companions, who are spinning. To the
whirring accompaniment of the violins they sing a very
realistic spinning song (" Summ' und brumm du gutes
Madchen"), interrupted at intervals by the laughter of
the girls as they rally Senta upon her melancholy looks.
Senta replies with a weird and exquisitely melodious ballad
(" Johohae ! trafift ihr das Schiff im Meere an "), in which
she tells the story of the Flying Dutchman, and anticipates
her own destiny. The song is full of intense feeling, and
is characterized by a motive which frequently recurs in the
opera, and is the key to the whole work. A duet follows
between Eric and Senta, the melodious character of which
shows that Wagner was not yet entirely freed from Italian
influences. A short duet ensues between Senta and her
father, and then the Dutchman appears. As they stand and
gaze at each other for a long time, the orchestra meanwhile
supplying the supposed emotions of each, we have a clue
to the method Wagner was afterwards to employ so success-
fully. A duet between Senta and the Dutchman ("Wie
aus der Feme ") and a terzetto with Daland close the act.


The third act opens with another sailors' chorus (" Steuer-
mann, lass die Wacht "), and a brisk dialogue between them
and the women who are bringing them provisions. The
latter also hail the crew of the Dutchman's vessel, but get
no reply until the wind suddenly rises, when they man the
vessel and sing the refrain with which the Dutchman is
continually identified. A double chorus of the two crews
follows. Senta then appears, accompanied by Eric, who
seeks to restrain her from following the stranger in a very
dramatic duet ("Wass muss ich horen?"). The finale is
made up of sailors' and female choruses, and a trio be-
tween Senta, Daland, and the Dutchman, which are woven
together with consummate skill, and make a very effective
termination to the weird story. There are no points in
common between "The Flying Dutchman " and " Rienzi,"
except that in the former Wagner had not yet clearly freed
himself from conventional melody. It is interesting as
marking his first step towards the music of the future in
his use of motives, his wonderful treatment of the orchestra
in enforcing the expression of the text, and his combina-
tion of the voices and instrumentation in what he so aptly
calls "The Music-Drama."


" Tannhauser und der Sangerkrieg auf Wartburg "
("Tannhauser and the Singers' Contest at the Wartburg"),
romantic opera in three acts, text by the composer, was
first produced at the Royal Opera, Dresden, October 20,
1845, with the following cast :

Tannhauser Herr Tichatschek.

Wolfram Herr Mitterwurzer.

Walther Herr Schloss.

Beterolf Herr Wachter.

Elizabeth Frl. Wagner.

Venus Mme. Schroder-Devrient.


Its first performance in Paris was on March 13, 1861 ;
but it was a failure after three presentations, and was
made the butt of Parisian ridicule, even Berlioz joining in
the tirade. In England it was brought out in Italian at
Covent Garden, May 6, 1876, though its overture was
played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1S55,
Wagner himself leading. Its first performance in New
York was on April 4, 1859.

In the Spring of 1842 Wagner returned from Paris to
Germany, and on his way to Dresden visited the castle of
Wartburg, in the Thuringian Valley, where he first con-
ceived the idea of writing " Tannhauser." The plot was
taken from an old German tradition, which centres about
the castle where the landgraves of the thirteenth century
instituted peaceful contests between the Minnesingers and
knightly poets. Near this castle towers the Venusberg, a
dreary elevation, which, according to popular tradition,
was inhabited by Holda, the Goddess of Spring. Pro-
scribed by Christianity, she took refuge in its caverns,
where- she was afterwards confounded with the Grecian
Venus. Her court was filled with nymphs and sirens,
who enticed those whose impure desires led them to its
vicinity, and lured them into the caverns, from which they
were supposed never to return. The first act opens in
this court, and reveals Tannhauser, the knight and minstrel,
under the sway of Venus. In spite of her fascinations he
succeeds in tearing himself away, and we next find him at
the castle of Wartburg, the home of Hermann the Land-
grave, whose daughter Elizabeth is in love with him. At
the minstrel contest he enters into the lists with the other
Minnesingers, and, impelled by a reckless audacity and
the subtle influence of Venus, sings of the attractions of
sensual pleasures. Walter, of the Vogelweide, replies with
a song to virtue. Tannhauser breaks out in renewed
sensual strains, and a quarrel ensues. The knights rush














upon him with their swords, but Elizabeth interposes and
saves his life. He expresses his penitence, makes a pil-
grimage to Rome and confesses to the Pope, who replies
that, having tasted the pleasures of hell, he is forever
damned, and, raising his crosier, adds : " Even as this
wood cannot blossom again, so there is no pardon for
thee." Elizabeth prays for him in her solitude, but her
prayers apparently are of no avail. At last he returns
dejected and hopeless, and in his wanderings meets Wolf-
ram, another minstrel, also in love with Elizabeth, to
whom he tells the sad story of his pilgrimage. He deter-
mines to return to the Venusberg. He hears the voices
of the sirens luring him back. Wolfram seeks to detain
him, but is powerless until he mentions the name of Eliza-
beth, when the sirens vanish and their spells lose their
attraction. A funeral procession approaches in the dis-
tance, and on the bier is the form of the saintly Elizabeth.
He sinks down upon the coffin and dies. As his spirit
passes away his pilgrim's staff miraculously bursts out into
leaf and blossom, showing that his sins have been forgiven.
The overture to the opera is well known by its frequent
performances as a concert number. It begins with the
music of the Pilgrims' Chorus, which, as it dies away, is suc-
ceeded by the seductive spells of the Venusberg and the
voices of the sirens calling to Tannhauser. As the whir-
ring sounds grow fainter and fainter, the Pilgrims' Song is
again heard, and at last closes the overture in a joyous
burst of harmony. The first act opens with the scene in
the Venusberg, accompanied by the bacchanale music,
which was written in Paris by Wagner after the opera
was finished and had been performed. It is now known
as "the Parisian Bacchanale." It is followed by a volup-
tuous scene between Tannhauser and Venus, a long dia-
logue, during which the hero, seizing his harp, trolls out a
song (" Doch sterblich, ach ! "), the theme of which has


already been given out by the overture, expressing his
weariness of her companionship. The second scene trans-
ports us to a valley, above which towers the castle of
Wartburg. A young shepherd, perched upon a rock,
sings a pastoral invocation to Holda (" Frau Holda kam
aus dem Berg hervor"), the strains of his pipe, an oboe
obbligato, weaving about the stately chorus of the elder
Pilgrims ("Zu dir wall' ich, mein Herr und Gott ") as
they come along the mountain paths from the castle.
The scene, which is one of great beauty, closes with the
lament of Tannhauser (" Ach ! schwer druckt mich der
Siinden Last"), intermingled with the receding song of
the Pilgrims, the ringing of church-bells in the dis-
tance, and the merry notes of hunters' horns as the
Landgrave and his followers approach. The meeting
with Tannhauser leads to an expressive septet, in which
Wolfram has a very impressive solo (" Als du in kiihnem
Sange ").

The second act opens in the singers' hall of the Wart-
burg. Elizabeth, entering joyfully, greets it in a recitative
(" Froh gruss ich dich, geliebter Raum "), which is char-
acterized by a joyous but dignified dramatic appeal, re-
calling the scenes of her youth. The interview between
Tannhauser and Elizabeth, which follows, gives rise to a
long dialogue, closing with a union of the two voices in
the charming duet, " Gepriesen sei die Macht." Then
follows the grand march and chorus (" Freudig begriissen
wir die edle Halle ") announcing the beginning of the song
contest. The stirring rhythm and bold, broad outlines of
this march are so well known that it is needless to dwell
upon it. The scene of the contest is declamatory through-
out, and full of animation and spirit; its most salient
points being the hymn of Wolfram (" O Himmel lasst
dich jetzt erflehen ") in honor of ideal love, and Eliza-
beth's appeal to the knights to spare Tannhauser (" Zuriick


von ihm "), which leads up to a spirited septet and choral
ensemble closing the act.

In the third act we are once more in the valley of the
Wartburg. After a plaintive song by Wolfram (" Wohl
wusst' ich hier sie im Gebet zu finden"), the chorus of
the returning Pilgrims is heard in the distance, working
up to a magnificent crescendo as they approach and cross
the stage. Elizabeth, who has been earnestly watching
them to find if Tannhauser be of their number, disap-
pointed, sinks upon her knees and sings the touching
prayer, " Allmacht'ge Jungfrau, hor mein Flehen." As
she leaves the scene, Wolfram takes his harp and sings the
enchanting fantasy to the evening star (" O, du mein
holder Abendstern ") — a love song to the saintly Eliza-
beth. Tannhauser makes his appearance. A long declam-
atory dialogue ensues between himself and Wolfram, in
which he recites the story of his pilgrimage. The scene is

Online LibraryGeorge P. (George Putnam) UptonThe standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers → online text (page 28 of 37)