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Spring 2019 Concert – L’Amore e la Vita

I VESPRI SICILIANI (1855)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

“A te, ciel natio”
The Chorus with Thomas Hollow and Mauricio A. Palma II

“Si celebri alfine”
The Chorus

ERNANI (1844)
Giuseppe Verdi

“Oh de’ verd’anni miei”
Roberto Perlas Gómez

DON PASQUALE (1843)
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

“Che interminabile andirivieni”
The Chorus

“Tornami a dir che m’ami”
Jamie Chamberlin and Nathan Granner

L’ELISIR D’AMORE (1832)
Gaetano Donizetti

“Bel conforto al mietitore”
Danielle Marcelle Bond and the Chorus

“Saria possibile?”
Ms. Bond and the Women’s Chorus

“La ra, la ra, la lera!…Esulti pur la Barbara”
Ms. Chamberlin and Mr. Granner

Act I Finale: “Adina, credimi”
Ms. Chamberlin, Mr. Granner, Ms. Bond, Mr. Gómez, and the Chorus

INTERMISSION

LA FILLE DU REGIMENT (1840)
Gaetano Donizetti

“L’ennemi s’avance”
Ms. Bond with Andrew Walker, Elias Berezin, and the Chorus

“Rataplan”
Raed Saade and the Men’s Chorus

“Ah! Mes amis”
Mr. Granner

LAKMÉ(1883)
Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

“A l’heure accoutumée”
Mr. Gómez, Ms. Chamberlin, and the Chorus

“Sous le dome épais”
Ms. Chamberlin and Ms. Bond

LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES (1863)
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

“Au fond du temple saint”
Mr. Granner and Mr. Gómez

LA RONDINE (1917)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Opening scene and “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”
Ms. Chamberlin and Manfred Anaya with Sarah Salazar, Charlotte Bash, Ariana Stultz, Mr. Palma, and the Chorus

“Fiore Freschi!”
The Chorus with Ms. Salazar, Ms. Bash, Ms. Stultz, and Mr. Berezin

“Nella dolce carezza”
Ms. Chamberlin, Mr. Granner, Ms. Bond, Mr. Gómez, and the Chorus

“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”
Ms. Chamberlin, Mr. Granner, Ms. Bond, Mr. Gómez, Tiffany Ho, Mr. Anaya, and the Chorus

Jamie Chamberlin

Soprano

Danielle Marcelle Bond

Mezzo-Soprano

Nathan Granner

Tenor

Roberto Perlas Gómez

Baritone

I VESPRI SICILIANI

Giuseppe Verdi’s I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) followed his astonishing 1851-1853 triumvirate of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata. Premiered in 1855 at the Opéra in Paris, it was Verdi’s first fully realized effort to compose a grand opera in the French style (his initial foray into Parisian grand opera, Jerusalem, having been an adaptation of I Lombardi). Verdi was wary of the requirements of grand opera in Paris, which usually lasted five hours and demanded huge choruses, great spectacle, and lengthy ballets, all of them diametrically opposed to the artistic direction of believable characters and economy of drama to which Verdi had been directing his efforts. He nonetheless felt that he couldn’t reject the prestigious commission for the Great Exhibition of 1855, a decision that he was soon to regret. The libretto was assigned to the prolific French dramatist Eugène Scribe , whose work Verdi found abysmal. Much to Verdi’s surprise, Les vêpres siciliennes was a striking success, both with the public and with critics. Verdi rapidly set to work on an Italian translation by Ettore Caimi. It is as I vespri siciliani that it is most often presented since the initial French production.

 

I vespri siciliani is based on a true incident in which Sicilians rebelled against their French rulers. The choice of subject was a curious one both for Paris and for Verdi, as it not only showed the triumph of the Sicilians over their French overlords, but portrayed the Italian rebels in a hackneyed and less than favorable light. The rebellion, which began at a church outside Palermo as Vespers (evening prayers) were ending, was the first step in Sicily’s successful rebellion against the French king who had been imposed on them by the Vatican, and initiated the end of the Anjou empire outside of France. As he did so often, Verdi focuses on the personal relationships of his characters against the background of more expansive historical and political concerns.

 

In Palermo in 1282, the Sicilians resent the rule of their French masters and secretly hope to overthrow them. The Duchess Elena is the sister of the Duke of Austria, who was executed by the French for treason. She tries to rouse her countrymen to rebel against the French Governor of Sicily, Guido di Montforte. The young Sicilian Arrigo has just been released from prison and his fiery rhetoric impresses Montforte, who tries to enlist him on the French side. Arrigo angrily refuses and Montforte warns him to stay away from the rebellious Elena. Arrigo ignores the warning and goes to profess his love for Elena, who returns his love and promises to marry him if he will avenge her brother. Thinking to join the two sides and eliminate the threat of rebellion, Montforte arranges their marriage. Elena tries to withdraw when she realizes that their wedding bells have been set as the signal for the Sicilians to revolt. Even though she is unwilling to celebrate her wedding at the expense of Montforte’s life, the Governor goes ahead and declares them married and, as the church bells ring out to celebrate their union and the beginning of Vespers, the Sicilians attack and massacre the French.

 

In the opening scene of the opera, the French soldiers lounge in the great square in Palermo, carousing and ogling the women of the town. They long for the sky of their native land (“A te, ciel natio”), and with sweet desire their thoughts return to it amid their songs and drinking. The French hope for laurel wreaths, wine, and gold as the reward for their bold gallantry.  Meanwhile the hostile Sicilians grumble that the French insult their native land with their wicked desires and their songs and drinking. They want revenge, and the day of revenge must hasten itself. They pray for it to waken valor in the hearts of the conquered.

 

Act V begins with the guests arriving at the Governor’s palace for the wedding of Elena and Arrigo. In contrast to the bitter conflict that imbues most of the opera, the guests are full of joy. The French knights exclaim that at last they can celebrate their union and the end of so many sorrows (“Si celebri alfine”) with songs and flowers. They rejoice in the rainbow of peace and the pledge of love that have kindled the torch in the lover’s hearts. The French ladies of the court who are dressing Elena tell her that she has all the splendor of a bright star and that she is as pure and beautiful as a snow-white flower.  The love that she inspires seduces every heart! Long live the glory of love!

ERNANI

Following the success of three of his first four operas for La Scala, Verdi hoped to reach a wider audience and accepted a commission from Teatro La Fenice in Venice. He chose as his vehicle the French play Ernani by Victor Hugo (which became a major stalwart of Sarah Bernhardt’s repertoire). Hugo based much of his hit play on the true story of a Robin Hood-type figure in Spain during the reign of Don Carlos I (later crowned Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and the grandfather of the title character in Verdi’s later opera Don Carlos). Verdi chose for his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who, for the next two decades, was to become one of his most frequent collaborators. Ernani scored a great success in Venice, as well as establishing Verdi’s career outside of Italy, although at 30 he was a relative newcomer.

 

Ernani is the alias of a Spanish nobleman, Juan de Aragón, whose family has been banished. Ernani has joined a band of rebels and outlaws fighting against Don Carlo, King of Spain. Ernani is in love with Elvira, a young noblewoman whom he hopes to free from her elderly uncle, Silva, who intends to marry Elvira against her wishes. Unbeknownst to any of them, Don Carlo is also enamored of Elvira and takes her hostage. Ernani and Silva join forces to rescue Elvira and murder Don Carlo. When Don Carlo is elected Holy Roman Emperor (as Charles V), he pardons Ernani and permits him to marry Elvira. However, on their wedding night, the embittered Silva forces Ernani to fulfill his pledge of death at whatever time Silva chooses. Ernani stabs himself and Elvira faints on his body as Silva exults in his revenge.

 

The Electors of the Holy Roman Empire have assembled in the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle to elect a new Emperor following the death of Maximilian I. Don Carlo hopes to be chosen Emperor but is also informed of a plot to assassinate him. He hides himself within the tomb of Charlemagne to listen to their plans. As he waits the arrival of the conspirators, he contemplates his destiny. Great God! (“Gran Dio!”) These people sharpen their daggers on the marble tombs to slaughter me. Scepters! Wealth! Honor! Beauty! Youth! What are you? Ships floating on a sea of years, which the waves batter with incessant worries until, reaching the rock of the tomb, your name crashes with you into nothingness! Oh, dreams and lying ghosts of his green years (“Oh de verd’ann miei”), if he believed too much in you, the enchantment has now disappeared. If now he is called to the most sublime throne, he will rise like an eagle on the wings of virtue. Ah, he will make his name as the victor of centuries.

DON PASQUALE

Domenico Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo in 1797 to a poor family with no musical background,but he went on to become one of the most successful of 18th Century Italian bel canto composers. Early in his career, he wrote a variety of music such as church music, string quartets, and orchestral works, but interest in one of his early operas led to his devoting himself almost exclusively to composing operas, of which he wrote an astonishing number (over 70 in a short 12 years). Skilled in both serious opera such as his tragic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor, and comic opera such as Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment, and L’elisir d’amore, his works have held the world stage for almost 200 years. Beginning his trajectory in Rome, Naples, and Milan, he was soon to be an important force not only in Italy, but in Paris and Vienna, the two other important centers of his time.

 

One of Donizetti’s final works among his remarkable output and his last great success before his health began to fail him completely, Don Pasquale is not only among his most popular and enduring operas since its wildly successful 1843 Paris premiere, but among the handful of classic operatic comedies which continue to have wide appeal. Drawing on familiar characters of commedia dell’arte, the libretto by Giovanni Ruffini and Donizetti himself (who rewrote so much of Ruffini’s text that the librettist disavowed its authorship) is based directly on an earlier Italian opera, Ser Marcantonio.

 

Don Pasquale is an aging, wealthy bachelor who is outraged that his nephew Ernesto wishes to marry for love rather than accept the suitable match that his uncle has arranged. Don Pasquale decides to take a bride for himself and disinherit Ernesto and is aided in his plan (he thinks) by his old friend Dr. Malatesta, who suggests a marriage between Pasquale and his devout and beautiful “sister” (in reality Norina, the young woman whom Ernesto loves). Delighted by his good fortune, Pasquale enters into marriage (or so he believes, since Malatesta has orchestrated a fake ceremony). His new wife “Sofronia” (Norina’s alias) instantly turns into a hellish, extravagant shrew and makes Pasquale’s life miserable. Desperate to escape the marriage, Pasquale is bamboozled by a note that Norina has conveniently dropped, which details an assignation with another man in the garden of Pasquale’s house. Seeing an opportunity to free himself, he enlists Malatesta to help him catch the lovers and divorce Norina. Malatesta agrees – and tricks Pasquale into agreeing to allow Ernesto to marry his beloved and reinstate his nephew as his heir. Having secured Pasquale’s promise, Malatesta reveals Norina’s true identity, and Pasquale recognizes that he has been a foolish old man. Forgiving the lovers and his friend for their plot, Pasquale gives his blessing to the marriage and is relieved to be rid of his shrewish “wife.”

 

In Act II, “Sofronia” has firmly established her rule in the house and overridden Don Pasquale’s objections as a steady stream of gowns, hats, and jewels arrive (accompanied by a mountain of bills). The coup de grâce, when Sofronia boxes her husband’s ears before going off to the theater in spite of his protests, has left Don Pasquale desolate and humiliated. Sofronia has also greatly increased the household staff and doubled their wages. The servants excitedly gossip about the domestic uproar and the interminable comings and goings (“Che interminabile andirivieni!”). Kept jumping by the constant ringing of bells to summon them, they can never get a moment’s peace. But nonetheless, it’s a grand house, and they marvel at the spending and squandering that is going on. No sooner is lunch finished than the master and mistress make another scene, with the husband insisting that the wife stay home, and the wife doing as she wishes, as she always overcomes his objections. And that nephew seems a piece of work! He doesn’t care for his uncle’s wishes either, and it appears the mistress dotes on the young man too fondly. The servants hush each other as they hear the nephew coming – they must stay quiet and appear as if everything is just as it should be.

 

Sofronia slips out of the house to unlock the gate for her mysterious lover – in reality, Ernesto in disguise and in on the plot to deceive Pasquale. The two young lovers beg one another to again say that they love each other and belong to each other (“Tornami a dir che m’ami”). Life is magnified when the beloved’s voice calls. That voice so dear revitalizes the oppressed heart – secure when they are together, they tremble when they are apart.

L’ELISIR D’AMORE

Donizetti wrote an extraordinary number of operas in the 1810’s and 20’s (almost 30 of them) and achieved a fair measure of success in Italy, but it was the Milan premiere of Anna Bolena in 1830 that brought him international fame. This was closely followed by the great success of L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), which also had its premiere in Milan in 1832. Donizetti dedicated L’elisir to “the fair sex” of Milan in a letter to his publisher. The libretto is by Felice Romani, based on a libretto by the prolific French playwright Eugène Scribe for Daniel Auber’s 1831 opera Le philtre. Along with Don Pasquale, L’elisir has remained one of the most enduring and popular opere buffe.

 

L’elisir d’amore is set in a small village in Basque country circa 1830. The bashful and inept young peasant Nemorino is hopelessly in love with a wealthy young widow, Adina, who appears unmoved by his passion. The elixir of love named in the title is first introduced as a theme in the opening scene, in which Adina, the owner of a large farm, mockingly reads the story of Tristan and Isolde (long before its serious treatment by Wagner) to her workers as they celebrate the harvest. Adina doesn’t believe in such potions, but Nemorino does. A troop of soldiers headed by the handsome and conceited Sergeant Belcore arrives in town, and Belcore immediately sets out to win Adina, who is amused and flattered by his attentions. The arrival of the soldiers is closely followed by that of “Doctor” Dulcamara, who extolls the virtues of his medications to all the assembled soldiers and villagers. Nemorino begs him for a love potion that will make Adina love him, and Dulcamara obliges with what he says is the same elixir as that used by Isolde. (in reality, a bottle of ordinary wine). Having drained the bottle at once, the now confident Nemorino pretends indifference. The vexed Adina impulsively agrees to marry Belcore. The troops are ordered to return to their garrison immediately, and Belcore demands that Adina honor her promise of marriage at once before the soldiers depart. Nemorino frantically begs her to delay for at least a day (at which time he has been assured the elixir will work its magic). Still annoyed with Nemorino, Adina consents to the marriage. On the following day, as everyone is gathered for the wedding and Adina now strives to put off signing the marriage contract, Nemorino entreats Dulcamara for another bottle of the elixir. As he has no money, Nemorino’s only recourse to pay for it is to enlist with Belcore’s troop. Adina’s heart is softened and she buys back his enlistment papers and admits that she returns his love.

 

In the opening scene, the young peasant Giannetta and Adina’s other workers are relaxing in the shade of a tree as they celebrate the end of the harvest. They comment how comforting it is to the reapers (“Bel conforto al mietitore”) when the sun is no longer high and burning, as they rest and catch their breath under a beech tree at the foot of the hill. The burning sun of midday is tempered by the shade and the running stream. Nonetheless, the burning heat of love can’t be lessened by either shade or stream. How fortunate are the reapers that can resist the power of love!

 

In Act II, Nemorino goes to enlist and misses the news that his uncle left him a great fortune. The young peasant Giannetta is full of the news, however, and can’t resist sharing it with the other village women. They find it hard to believe that it’s possible (“Saria possibile?”), but Giannetta assures them it’s true. When the other women demand that she tell them the details and where and from whom she heard it, she shushes them, telling them not to make an uproar. They shouldn’t spread the word because it’s still a secret. Ginannetta can’t resist displaying her superior knowledge, however, and says that she heard it from the village haberdasher, who told her in confidence. The women exclaim that if she heard it from the haberdasher, then of course it must be true! What exciting news! She again cautions the women not to tell anyone, and they swear they won’t. They can’t help speculating that now that Nemorino is a millionaire, he’ll become a civic leader, a man of worth…and a good match for the lucky woman who marries him.

 

In Act I, Nemorino has bought his first dose of the elixir from Dulcamara, who has insisted that he not take it until the following day (by which time Dulcamara will be long gone). However, Nemorino is so excited about his acquisition that he decides he cannot wait another day – and taking one sip, then another, he quickly finishes the bottle. His spirits lifted by the magic potion, Nemorino begins singing wildly. Adina enters and wonders who the madman is who’s carrying on so. Realizing that it’s Nemorino, she wonders why he is suddenly so happy. Nemorino sees her, but decides he won’t approach her right away – she’s tired of his sighing right now, but tomorrow her ruthless heart will have to adore him when the elixir takes hold, so he carries on singing (“La ra, la ra, la lera!) Adina is surprised and incensed that he is ignoring her. How he has changed! She doesn’t know if his happiness is pretence or real, and Nemorino can see she still does not love him. Adina in turn begins to laugh at Nemorino, who is upset by her cruel indifference (“Esulti pur la barbara”), but eager for the change that tomorrow will bring. Adina tells herself that he is trying to break the chains that hold him, but the harder he tries, the heavier he will find them. Adina congratulates Nemorino for learning his lesson and giving up his love for her, and Nemorino says it’s true, he’s giving it a try. Adina asks about his suffering and he replies that it has been extinguished a little, and in just one day, his heart will be cured. Adina says that’s a relief to her, but that they’ll see if it’s true. Nemorino knows she is mocking him, but is secure in the knowledge that in only one more day, she will love him.

 

Still annoyed by Nemorino’s feigned nonchalance, Adina agrees to marry Sergeant Belcore and sets the date for a week later. Nemorino is unworried because the potion will take effect in one day. However, his plan is threatened by the news that the troops have been ordered to leave the next day. Belcore insists that Adina marry him right away. As she notices that Nemorino looks worried, she impulsively agrees to the hasty marriage. Nemorino begs that she at least wait, just for one more day. He says that she must believe him (“Adina, credimi”) that a short delay will save her from making a painful mistake. Belcore berates him as a baboon and a madman, or overtaken by wine. Threatening to strangle or beat him, he orders Nemorino to go away instantly. Adina tells Belcore to pity him as he’s just an unwise boy, and a little crazy because he believes that she should love him. To herself, Adina says she’ll pay Nemorino back for his ignoring her, as Nemorino calls out to the Doctor for help. The villagers are dumbfounded that the Nemorino they regard as a simpleton has the strange presumption to think he can win Adina from a man of the world like the Sergeant. Belcore continues to harangue the hapless Nemorino as Adina relishes having him at her mercy. She tells Belcore to inform the notary that they can marry right away. Nemorino becomes increasingly frantic, and now all of them begin to laugh that he really is crazy. Adina invites them all to a banquet, and Belcore adds that there will be dancing. The guests are thrilled at the idea. How could they refuse? They will happily pass the evening with the joyful brigade at the party. Only Nemorino is desolate that the others scorn him and make him a laughingstock. As he continues to cry out in vain for the doctor, the others are unable to control their mirth, as all but the wretched Nemorino are carried away by laughter.

LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT

Following great success in Italy but having suffered the tragic loss of his wife and three children, Donizetti moved to Paris (as had Rossini and Bellini late in their careers) in 1838. Donizetti prepared a French version of Poliuto and oversaw French versions of other operas as well. La fille du régiment was his first work set to a French libretto, by the prolific librettists and playwrights Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard, and premiered at the Opera Comique in February 1840. As with several of Donizetti’s enduring works, the opening performance verged on disaster, led by an off-pitch tenor, but also by the festering resentment against Italian composers’ successes in Paris opera houses, which Berlioz described as a “veritable invasion.” However, the piece soon found its place in the French repertoire and became a huge success, reaching an amazing 500 performances by 1871 and 1,000 by 1908. It remains one of the most popular comic operas in the repertory.

 

The story, the second of Donizetti’s operas with a tenor who joins the army to win his beloved (as in L’elisir d’amore), features Marie, an infant found on a battlefield by the 21st Grenadiers of the French army, who adopt Marie as their daughter. As she grows into a young woman, she becomes a vivandiere who does the battalion’s laundry and runs their canteen. She meets a young Tyrolean peasant named Tonio and they fall in love with each other. Marie had vowed that she would only marry a member of the 21st and her “fathers” – the entire regiment – hold her to that, so Tonio enlists in the army. However, the Marquise of Berkenfield discovers that Marie is her “niece” (in reality, her illegitimate daughter) and insists on taking Marie to her castle to be educated as a lady. On the verge of Marie being forced into marriage to the son of the Duchess of Krackenthorp, the entire 21st arrives at the castle led by Tonio, who informs the Duchess of Marie’s background. The Duchess promptly rejects a canteen girl marrying her son, and the Marquise allows Marie to marry her true love.

 

La fille is set in the Tyrolean mountains near the Swiss border with France at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In the opening scene, Tyrolean peasants have armed themselves with farm tools and anxiously prepare to confront the French troops on the village green. Meanwhile the terrified Marquise of Berkenfield sits on a bench at the edge of the square as her butler Hortensius administers smelling salts. The enemy advances (“L’ennemi s’avance”) – friends, let us arm ourselves! In silence let us prepare. The village women kneel in prayer before a statue of the Madonna and ask her to protect them. Hortensius begs his mistress to compose herself, but she is shocked to see the enemy. Alas! this is worse than death! As the men declare that life doesn’t matter if honor is at stake, all of them fall to their knees to pray to their sweet patron the Madonna. Suddenly a lookout calls to them that the French have left the mountain and they are safe! The women express their happiness at the wonderful news. The Marquise bemoans that for a woman of her rank (“Pour une femme de mon nom”), what times these are, alas! – the times of war. One hardly thinks of nobility…nothing is sacred to the cannon! Truly she can barely survive, she is wasting away, with the vapors and a migraine, since, alas! the enemy respects nothing! The French, everyone assures her, are a troop of brigands. If one has a nice figure, they become enterprising rogues. She shudders to think of it! She knows only too well her fate – beauty, manners, innocence – those people respect nothing! No, nothing! The villagers heartily agree with her but are interrupted by the lookout announcing that the enemy has gone far away and they can cease being afraid. They are gone – what joy! Hortensius and the villagers cheer this news as the Marquise prays that they never return. No more fears! On to pleasure! The spell of the French arms will soon fade away. The people can taste the sweetness of beloved peace. At last happiness will dawn again in their country! The Marquise gives thanks to her ancestors as they all celebrate.

 

Marie has been persuaded by the Marquise that it is her duty to go with her aunt, as her father instructed in a letter just before his death. Marie is heartbroken at leaving all of her “fathers” and insists that she must see them all before she leaves. The Corporal sends for the troops and they assemble at the sound of the drums. Mimicking the drums (“Rataplan”), they give Marie a rousing chorus. Rataplan! When the delightful sound of the drum summons them to the regiment, every heart at that moment joins with a gentle beat to accompany the rolling drums. Hooray for war and its alarms! And for victory and battles! Hail to death, when met by a brave armed soldier in battle.

 

Tonio has no idea that Marie will be leaving the regiment and returns from enlisting, bursting with pride and dressed in his new uniform. He salutes the regiment as his friends (“Ah! Mes amis”). What a day for celebration! I’ll march under your flags. Love, which has turned my head, henceforth, henceforth, will make me a hero. Ah! What happiness – yes, my friends, I’ll march under your flags. Yes, she for whom I breathe has deigned to smile upon my vows. And this sweet hope of happiness agitates my reason and my heart! Ah, my friends, what a day for celebration!

LAKMÉ

Léo Delibes entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1847 at the age of eleven and studied composition under Adolphe Adam. He began his career as an accompanist at the Théâtre-Lyrique and as a chorus master at the Paris Opéra. Having written his first operetta at the age of nineteen, he went on to become professor of composition at the Conservatoire and a member of the French Institute. His early experience gave him a sophisticated insight into the demands of the stage, and he became a prolific and popular composer of operetta (frequently at Offenbach’s Bouffes-Parisiens) and ballet, notably Coppélia and Sylvia. Delibes was perhaps the first notable composer to write music for the ballet, influencing such composers as Tchaikovsky and Debussy.

Based on a French short story and a novel and set to a libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Phillippe Gille, Lakmé is the last of Delibes’ operas to be completed by the composer and remains his most popular. It was first performed in 1883 at the Opéra Comique in Paris and achieved great success.

Set in India under British colonial rule in the 19th century, the opera focuses on the story of Lakmé, the daughter of the Brahmin high priest Nilakantha and a priestess herself, who falls in love with an English officer and sacrifices her life in order to save his. Remarkable for its prescience a full forty years before Gandhi’s movement to free India of colonial rule, Lakmé is unlike many of the other “exotic” operas of the period in that the clash between two very different cultures is almost as much a part of the opera as its love story, and the non-Western culture of the Hindus is neither incidental nor presented as inferior, but simply at odds with the beliefs and practices of the British rulers.

In the opening scene, dawn is breaking in a garden sacred to the Hindu men and women who come to worship at a hidden temple. They arrive at the usual hour (“A l’heure accoutumée”) when the fragrant plain, enflamed by the dawn, welcomes the newborn day. They pray that their prayers will unite to calm Brahma’s menacing wrath. The firebrand priest Nilakantha praises their devotion and promises that they will exhaust their hated conquerors, who have chased their gods from the temples. He promises his followers that Brahma will revenge their shame and free them. In his house today he saw the power of Brahma shining, and his soul soared to the god as he heard his daughter praying. His daughter Lakmé approaches and the people join her in prayer. She invokes the gods, fair Dourga, pale Shiva, and mighty Ganesh (“Blanche, Dourga”), as the faithful join her in praising them and ask them to calm Brahma and protect them.

Nilakantha leaves Lakmé and her slave Mallika to guard the sacred garden. Lakmé bids Mallika to join her (“Viens, Mallika”) as she prepares to bathe in a nearby stream. The flowering vines are throwing their shadow over the sacred brook, awakened by the rowdy song of the birds. Mallika is happy to see her mistress smiling because at these times, she may read Lakmé’s normally hidden heart. They sing of the dome of white jasmine overhead (“Sous le dome épais”) and the roses that cover the river banks in the fresh morning. Ah! They want to glide along the flying current on the trembling waves, reaching out to the bank where the birds sing with them, calling them all together. But Lakmé is seized by sudden dread – whenever her father travels alone to the cursed town, she trembles in fear. Mallika says that Ganesha protects him, and suggests they go to the pond where swans with white wings frolic so they may gather some blue lotus. As they depart, they sing again of the lovely dome of white jasmine.

LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES

Georges Bizet was born into a world of music in 1838 in Paris and remained immersed in it throughout his brief life. Bizet’s father was a sometime singing teacher and composer, and his mother was a talented pianist and the sister of a famous singing teacher. Both parents noted Bizet’s talent as early as age four, and he was groomed to become a composer. In spite of being too young to be officially admitted (at the age of nine) to the Paris Conservatory of Music, his talent so impressed the faculty that he was granted admittance in short order just before he turned ten. Among the faculty under whom he studied, he became particularly close to Charles Gounod and Jacques Halévy (best known today for his opera La Juive), whose daughter he would later marry and whose nephew was one of the librettists for Carmen. Having finished three years of study and composition in Italy after winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at age 19, Bizet returned to Paris where he remained for the rest of his life. Following moderate success with earlier works, he was devastated by the initial negative response in 1875 to his masterpiece, Carmen. He died at 36 of a heart attack only three months after its opening, never knowing that Carmen would become one of the most enduring and popular works in the operatic repertory.

 

Bizet was also noted for his superb skills as a pianist, once astonishing Franz Liszt by playing at sight a piece Liszt thought no other pianist but himself capable of performing. Bizet feared that his instrumental skills would interfere with his composing, however, and he usually refused to play in public except for charity concerts. The young composer was as drawn to literature and theater as he was absorbed in music (his parents hid his books so that precious practice time would not be wasted in reading), and he always had a keen eye, as well as an ear, for theatrical possibilities. He was said to have told his friend Saint-Saëns that he required the theater rather than the concert hall to fulfill his talents. Since, at the time, composing for the opera was far better paid than other forms of music, he had an extra incentive to follow his natural inclination. However, the world of Parisian opera was rife with mismanagement, greed, and a fear of the unconventional, all of which caused Bizet no end of professional problems, up to and including his final masterpiece, Carmen.

 

Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), produced at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863, when Bizet was merely 24, was his first major opera and proved no exception as far as the difficulties of dealing with opera impresarios and librettists with which he always had to contend. Originally set in Mexico, the setting was changed to Ceylon, and the libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon fluctuated wildly well into the rehearsal period. Even one of the librettists later admitted that had they recognized Bizet’s genius, they would have been embarrassed to have submitted their work to him. The opera suffered other production problems as well, and its reception by the audience on the first night was only moderate. As would happen repeatedly, the mainstream music critics sniffed at Bizet’s musical experimentation, and alternately assailed Bizet for attempting to imitate Wagner and for not following in Wagner’s footsteps. One notable exception, however, was the composer and critic Hector Berlioz (who endured the same critical resistance to his innovations as did Bizet). In his last article as a paid critic, Berlioz praised the opera warmly, calling it replete with rich, colorful scenes and beautiful, expressive music.

 

In return for the pearl fishers’ promise that they will obey him in all things, Zurga has acceded to their plea to serve as leader of their expedition. His old friend Nadir has returned to the village after a long absence. Zurga asks if Nadir has kept their mutual promise of long ago, and Nadir says he has. Zurga says they should forget the past and celebrate this sweet hour as brothers and friends for life, but Nadir says that peace will never come to them. Even when they have reached the age when their past dreams have vanished, they will remember their journey to the temple at Candi. The two men recall their love for an unknown priestess years ago. In the cool evening air, she had entered a holy temple (“Au fond du temple saint”). As the worshippers in the temple knelt before her, imagining they were seeing an actual goddess, her veil had parted briefly. Zurga and Nadir can remember her face as if it were yesterday. The crowd had murmured that the goddess herself had come among them, and Nadir and Zurga agreed. Yes, it is she! It is the goddess, even more charming and beautiful, who has come down among them. Each had recognized that love had taken their hearts by force and would turn them into enemies. Vowing that nothing would part them and neither would pursue her in order to preserve their friendship, they had sworn to remain friends until death, united by their love of the goddess.

LA RONDINE

On a trip to Vienna in 1912, on the heels of the success of La fanciulla del West, Puccini was offered a large sum by an Austrian publisher to write a light opera in the Viennese style. At first Puccini refused, but the persistent producers increased their offer and Puccini agreed, insisting however that he would not write an operetta but a “lyrical comedy.” The onset of World War I caused the cancellation of the contract, but Puccini decided to proceed with the libretto that had been translated for him into Italian by Giuseppe Adami (also Puccini’s librettist for Il Tabarro and Turandot, as well as Puccini’s biographer after his death). La rondine (The Swallow) was a success at its premiere in neutral Monte Carlo in 1917, but subsequent Italian productions floundered, and the opera has remained one of Puccini’s least-produced mature works (although in recent years there has been a revival of interest in it).

Magda de Civry is a beautiful demimondaine maintained in luxury in 1850’s Paris by the banker Rambaldo Fernández. Ruggero, the son of an old friend of Rambaldo’s on his first visit to Paris, arrives with a letter of introduction. Unaware of her relationship with Rambaldo, Ruggero falls in love with Magda, who leaves Rambaldo to live with Ruggero on the Riviera. After several months of happiness, Ruggero writes to his family to obtain their permission to marry Magda. When he shows her a letter from his mother rejoicing in her son’s newfound love and urging him to bring Magda to meet them, Magda confesses her past to Ruggero. She tells him that she was willing to remain his mistress, but his family would never be able to accept her as a wife. Despite his desperate pleas and her love for him, Magda insists on leaving him so that he can make a suitable marriage, and she returns to her life in Paris with Rambaldo.

La Rondine opens in Magda’s elegant salon, where the wealthy Rambaldo is hosting a party at which the poet-musician Prunier is the center of attention. The guests are laughing at his theory, but Prunier insists that it’s the truth: the new rage in elegant society is love. Magda’s maid Lisette derides this sentimental tale because everyone is in a hurry. “You want me? I want you – that does it.” Prunier takes offense at Lisette, but Magda advises him to forgive her and encourages Prunier to go on. He continues that romance is the fashion – blushing glances, furtive hugs, kisses, sighs, but nothing more! The other young women continue to tease him, pretending to languish and die, but Magda is intrigued and asks to hear more. He says the malady is massacring the female world – one delicate microbe that is whirling everywhere; It takes all by surprise and the heart has no defense, even Doretta’s. At this, the young ladies mocking him are eager to know who Doretta is. He replies that she is his latest heroine, a dear character who is seized by this illness. She will be immortal when he finishes his new song about her. The ladies beg him to play it, but Prunier protests that they won’t enjoy it. Magda calls for silence, and presents Prunier as the glory of the nation, who will deign to perform his latest song. Rambaldo asks the subject, and Prunier replies: “It’s love.” Prunier begins, “Who can guess the beautiful dream of Doretta?” (“Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”). In the dream, one day the king approaches the young girl and tells her that if she believes in him, if she surrenders to him, she will be rich. He tells the lovely creature, the sweet enchantress, not to be afraid, “your tears should disappear.” Doretta replies that she isn’t crying, but she will remain as she is, for gold won’t bring happiness. As Prunier pauses, Magda asks why he doesn’t continue, and he replies that he lacks a finale – if she can find one, he’ll cede his glory to her. Magda says it is simple. She takes up where the poet left off: One beautiful day a student kissed Doretta, and his kiss was a revelation – it was true passion. Mad love, mad embraces! Who could resist the subtle caress of a kiss so ardent? The others are moved by Magda’s ending. She asks why riches matter if at last happiness can blossom? Oh, what a dream to be able to love like that.

In Act II, disguised as a young working-class woman, Magda has followed Ruggero to Bullier’s ballroom, where flower girls offer their wares (“Fiori freschi!”). The young crowd of students, artists, actresses, and tourists try to attract the attention of the waiters to get drinks and argue about who will pay. A number of the grisettes (young working women) have things on their mind besides dancing and proclaim their various attractions to the passing men. Some of the patrons are already dancing in the garden as other young couples flirt and pair off, and young men try to persuade reluctant young women to join them on the balcony or in the garden. “Without you, life would be too bitter, but with you, life may be too expensive!” Some of them beg for a kiss, as others vow to drink until the break of day. Rivers of champagne flow as the revelers toast youth and eternal laughter. As some young ladies pursue one young man and hope that he is rich, others approach Ruggero, who shows no interest. They begin to mock him sitting alone, so gloomy and depressed. He’s a lily, a mimosa, timid and not bothering to give them a smile or a look. Maddened by his silence, they demand to know his name, to no avail. He must be a prince that travels incognito. Abandoning him, one lady asks her friend for a little powder – she has a red nose!

Unaware of her true identity, Ruggero asks Magda to dance with him. They sing of the sweet caress of the dance (“Nella dolce carezza”) where they can close their eyes and dream. Everything seems far away and nothing can disturb them, the past seeming to vanish. The other dancers join in. What can torment them when love makes them happy, when they share one heart, when their kisses burn with equal ardor? They sing of mad kisses, trembling and vibrant, that are the life of lovers. “Give me life in your kiss, and live to kiss me!” Magda and Ruggero sing of their sweet intoxication, their enchantment, their eternal dream. The others delight in the soft perfume of the April night, the air full of spring and yearning.

Although Magda’s friend, the rather supercilious poet-musician Prunier, claims to have lofty standards for his desired mate, he is actually in love with Magda’s maid, Lisette, whom he has brought to Bullier’s (dressed in Magda’s clothes, which she regularly borrows without her mistress’ knowledge). Lisette is sure she recognizes Magda, who pretends to be a working woman named Paulette. Unaware of this underplay, Ruggero leads the two couples in a toast. He drinks to Magda’s fresh smile (“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”) and her deep gaze, to her lips when they say his name. Magda says her heart is conquered, and he replies that he has given her his heart, his tenderness, his sweet love. She must guard his heart jealously, for it will always be hers. Magda says that all her dreams are coming true! If only she can hope! Prunier and Lisette declare their love as well: Prunier, because each of her kisses is a verse, Lisette, because his words are like embroidery. As the two couples sing of their love for each other (and their very different views of love), the other patrons surreptitiously join them, enjoying their vows of love and bringing garlands of flowers with which to festoon the young lovers.

Notes by Tony Arn
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