“Spuntato ecco il di”
The Chorus with Laura Liebreich-Johnsen
“Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor”
Todd Wilander and Roberto Perlas Gómez
“Fuoco di gioia!”
“Stride la vampa”
“Dieu d’Israël” … “Arrêtez, ô mes frères!”
Mr. Wilander and the Chorus
“Hymne de joie”
Mr. Gómez and the Men’s Chorus
“Voici le printemps”
The Women’s Chorus
“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”
Ms. Babcock and Mr. Wilander
Act III Finale: “Viens, Dalila”
Ms. Babcock, Mr. Wilander, Mr Gómez, and the Chorus
Act I, 2nd Tableau: Intermezzo, Act II, 2nd Tableau: Dance
Laraine Ann Madden, pianist, with the Chorus and Joseph Gárate Featuring Misuda Cohen
"No puede ser”
“Amor, vida de me vida”
“La cloche a sonné” …“Dans l’air nous suivon des yeux”
The Men’s Chorus and the Women’s Chorus
Ms. Babcock and the Chorus
“Les tringles des sistres”
Ms. Babcock, Anne-Marie Reyes, Megan Gillespie, and Ms. Cohen
“Je vais danser en votre honneur” … “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”
Ms. Babcock and Mr. Wilander
“Écoute, écoute, compagnons”
Ms. Babcock, Mr. Wilander, VanNessa Hulme, Ms. Gillespie, Stephen Anastasia, Christopher Hunter, and the Chorus
Mr. Gómez, Ms. Babcock, Mr. Wilander, Ms. Cohen, Dominic Delzompo, Ms. Hulme, Ms. Gillespie, and the Chorus
With the versatility of which perhaps only Giuseppe Verdi was capable, he presents three different versions of fire in both its beauty and its destructive terror. In a scene from Don Carlo, Verdi personifies the potential horror of fire as heretics and political rebels are about to be burned at the stake. The fascination and beauty of fire is realized in the scene from Otello as the townspeople celebrating the hero’s victory admire their bonfire, recognizing that fire, like love, burns bright and then fades away. Finally, in Azucena’s scene from Il trovatore, we return to the personal horror and cruelty of fire, as she recalls how as a young woman cradling her own baby, she watched her mother dragged from their home by soldiers to be burned to death as a witch in front of a howling mob.
The spice in our concert is exemplified in some of the varied settings of tonight’s operas, ranging from the voluptuous decadence of the Philistines in Samson et Dalila to the passionate rhythms and Moorish influence to be found in La vida breve and the zarzuela selections, not to mention the many pieces with gypsy characters. (Although the preferred term for “gypsy” is Roma, we have adhered to the historical originals describing them as “gypsy” or “Bohemian.”)
Both fire and spice come from our two leading women, Dalila (in our version, as in the original, a completely unmitigated villain) and Carmen, a complex and independent character who makes her own rules in a world controlled by men.
Don Carlo, written for the Paris Opéra and premiered in 1867, was based on Friedrich von Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos and was originally set to a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry. The drama begins during a truce between Spain and France in 1558. The title character is the son and presumed heir of Phillip II, King of Spain, who had annulled his son’s betrothal to the French princess Elizabeth and married the much younger Elizabeth himself, although Carlo and Elizabeth remain deeply in love. The familial conflicts take place amidst the sweep of a revolt against the Spanish occupation in Flanders (the Netherlands) and the height of the Spanish Inquisition. When the Opéra asked Verdi to compose a new work for them, among their proposals were King Lear, a libretto about Cleopatra, and Schiller’s play. King Lear had long tempted Verdi, but although there is some evidence that he sketched out a few scenes, he wrote at the time that he saw too many difficulties to successfully adapt it. However, along with Shakespeare, Schiller was a favorite author of Verdi’s (the works of both were likely to be found at his bedside), and many of both authors’ plays had been translated by Verdi’s admired friend Count Andrea Maffei. Prior to Don Carlo, Verdi had already written operas based on three Schiller plays: Giovanna d’Arco, I masnadieri, and Luisa Miller. It was not only the theatrical appeal of Schiller’s play which interested him, however. The Italian Risorgimento, seeking to restore Italy’s autonomy and stature in the world, was at its height. In fact, as Verdi was writing Don Carlo, war between Italy and Austria broke out and he was forced to leave his beloved home, where he preferred to work. The underlying political conflict in Don Carlos, the struggle of the Netherlands to be free of Spanish rule, appealed powerfully to a composer who chafed at being under the sway of the Austrians. Likewise, the idealistic and essentially anticlerical nature of the work also attracted him, and it was his own inspiration to have the terrifying character of the Grand Inquisitor transformed into a blind and ancient man, neatly encapsulating his view of religious figures. Entitled Don Carlos at its Paris premiere, the Italian version, Don Carlo, was to become Verdi’s most frequently revised work, partly due to his dissatisfaction with the original version in which he had had to adhere to the stringent demands of grand opera in Paris, where the emphasis on grandeur and superfluous ballets clashed with his desire for dramatic truth.
In Act II, Scene 2, a vast crowd gathers to witness an auto-de-fé – a ritual burning at the stake of heretics and political dissenters condemned by the Inquisition (a scene not in Schiller’s original play). The crowd exults that the day of rejoicing has dawned (“Spuntato ecco il di”) and praises the honor of Philip, the greatest of all kings. His people believe in him and the world is prostrate at his feet. Their love will follow him everywhere and never diminish, for his name is the pride of Spain and must live forever. Monks lead the condemned across the square, saying the fatal day, the day of terror, has arrived and they must die. God’s severity is just, but on the day of judgement, the voice of heaven will forgive their sins if they repent at this final hour. As the excited mob again praises the glory of the king, a celestial voice is heard telling the condemned to let their souls fly to heaven to enjoy the peace of the Lord.
In Act I, Scene 1, as dawn breaks, Don Carlo stands outside a monastery where his grandfather Charles V is buried and bemoans his fate because his father King Philip has claimed Don Carlo’s beloved as his own wife. Don Carlo greets his long-time friend Rodrigo, the Marquis di Posa, and admits to di Posa that he and his stepmother Elizabeth are secretly in love. Di Posa tells the prince that he should relinquish his hopeless love and help the oppressed people of Flanders, whom di Posa supports. Knowing that his boyhood friend supports a peaceful solution to Spain’s war on the Flemish rebels fighting for independence, Di Posa urges Carlo to ask heaven for strength. Together they ask God, who instilled love and hope in their souls (“Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor”), to kindle a desire for liberty in their hearts. They swear that they will live and die together, on earth and in heaven. God’s goodness will unite them. Their last cry will be “Liberty!”
Following Aïda’s successs in 1871, Verdi claimed to be retired from writing for the stage and resisted all attempts to change his mind. Knowing that only a great libretto would entice the composer, his long-time publisher Giulio Ricordi took advantage of Verdi’s enduring love of Shakespeare. Rather than trying to revive Verdi’s interest in the long-abandoned libretto of King Lear with which he had struggled for years, Ricordi planted the idea in Verdi’s mind of Shakespeare’s Othello (shrewdly initiating a conversation blaming a librettist for ruining Rossini’s operatic version of the same play). Ricordi suggested that Arigo Boito, considered an Italian authority on Shakespeare, was interested in writing the libretto. In spite of his demurs, Verdi was clearly intrigued, and the seed for what is perhaps his dramatic masterwork was sown – although it was slow to grow. Boito’s successful reworking of the libretto of Simon Boccanegra encouraged Verdi to consider him as a collaborator. (Remarkably, Boito was preparing the premiere production of his own Mefistofele simultaneously with his work on Otello.) Boito would write not only the libretti of Otello and of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, but become a close friend who was with him during his last illness and death. It took 16 years from Aïda’s premiere (eight years after Ricordi’s suggestion and Boito’s initial scenario) until Otello’s triumphant premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1887. Verdi had completed his last tragic opera and supervised its production at the age of 72.
Verdi had always been interested in “la parolla dramatica” – the dramatic word – as a crucial part of his work, and not just a frame on which to hang splendid melodies. As both his fame and his skills increased, he became a consummate man of the theater and developed a firm hand in all matters having to do with his work. (For Otello, he dispatched the proposed designer to Venice to study the works of Bellini and Carpaccio in order to properly prepare the sets and costumes.) As with Aïda, Verdi was very demanding of his librettist in matters that affected not just the verse, but the atmosphere, the dramatic structure, everything that made an opera a piece of theater rather than a concertizing work. Verdi and Boito adhered to the major plot points of Shakespeare’s original, and Verdi, dubbed the “father of the chorus,” heightened the effect of the soldiers, courtiers, and Cypriot populace to great dramatic effect. George Bernard Shaw puckishly claimed, “The truth is that instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.” Regardless, there is no doubt that Shakespeare’s great tragedy was a brilliant match for Verdi’s mature genius. In ”Fuoco di gioa,” he clearly delights in playing with words evoking fire and its flashing, sparkling, crackling, and flaring up, and then how it gradually subsides and dies out.
As the returning soldiers and the townspeople celebrate victory, they admire the joy of the bonfire they have built (“Fuoco di goia”). The cheerful blaze drives away the night with its splendor, flashing, sparkling, crackling, and flaring up, flooding their hearts with fire as well. Looking first like young girls, then like butterflies, vague shapes dance in the burning palms and sycamores. But the golden flames burn as quickly as the fire of love, pulsing, then growing dark, the last sparks flashing and dying.
Premiered in Rome in 1853 (the same remarkable year that saw the premiere of La traviata), Il trovatore (The Troubadour) had a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist of several other Verdi operas as well as of Lucia di Lammermoor. Cammarano fell ill before it was completed and his friend Emanuele Bardare undertook the task, generously refusing any printed credit as co-author. Based on the popular 1836 Spanish play El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez (also the playwright of the original Simón Bocanegra), Il trovatore is set in war-torn 15th century Spain. Even by the standards of the day, the plot has notable improbabilities, but it provided the sort of intensified action and high emotion which Verdi could dramatize so well. It is the story of two lovers, the troubadour Manrico and Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the princess of Aragon, who are dogged by the young Aragonese nobleman Count di Luna, a fearsome rival for the heroine’s affections. The love triangle is caught up in a civil war between the Court of Aragon and a pretender to the throne. In addition to the familiar soprano-tenor-baritone triangle, Verdi – always on the lookout for innovative ideas – enlarged on the character of the gypsy Azucena. In an early draft, Verdi clearly intended Azucena to be the main role; he planned to title the opera La zingara (The Gypsy). It was at Verdi’s direction that Bardare provided a new aria for Azucena in the second act (“Stride la vampa!”) and Verdi provided the author with clear directions for the aria, going so far as to write some of the lyrics himself.
Act II is entitled “The Gypsy” and is set in an encampment at the foot of a mountain in Biscay, in northern Spain. A huge bonfire still burns at daybreak as the gypsies set to work, but Azucena sits apart from them, gazing at the bonfire, lost in her memories of another fire. The flames roar! (“Stride la vampa!”) The untamed mob runs to the fire, looking merry. Their howls of joy echo all around. A woman is led forward, surrounded by hired thugs. The dismal flame shines on their horrible faces and rises to the heavens. The flames roar! The victim arrives, dressed in black, disheveled and barefoot. A ferocious death cry rises up and echoes from cliff to cliff as the sinister light shines on their horrible faces.
Camille Saint-Saëns started his long musical career as a child prodigy who began studying the piano in 1837 at age two and composed and performed his first concert at the age of five. He made his professional debut in Paris in 1845 at the age of ten, playing Beethoven and Mozart among others, and for his encore offered to play any of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas from memory. He earned his early living as a church organist of considerable fame, and his second symphony at the age of eighteen inspired Berlioz, who was to become a good friend, to quip that, “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” He composed in almost every musical genre and produced symphonies, concertos, tone poems, choral music, chamber music, numerous songs, and thirteen operas. He is remembered today chiefly for Le Carnaval des Animaux, which was not published in full until after his death, and a variety of concertos and sonatas, as well as for Samson et Dalila. Not just an eclectic composer, Saint-Saëns was a famous polymath, known as a member of the Astronomical Society of France, a mathematician, a poet, a philosopher, and, under a pseudonym, a popular travel writer. He spent the last thirty years of his life traveling extensively as well as composing and writing, and when he died in Algiers in 1921, his body was brought back to Paris for a state funeral.
Although of his other operas only Henry VIII and Ascanio are still occasionally presented in France, Samson et Dalila remains a staple among late nineteenth-century French operas that are still much performed, along with Carmen, Gounod’s Faust, and Massenet’s Manon and Werther. As had his contemporaries Bizet in Les pêcheurs de perles and Delibes in Lakmé, Saint-Saëns injected a flavor of the east into the score and drew on music he had heard on his travels to Algiers to represent the bacchanalian ceremonies of the Philistines.
The familiar biblical tale of Samson and Dalila has long been a rich source of inspiration for painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers ranging from Thomas Milton in Samson Agonistes to the staff writers of The Simpsons. Saint-Saëns originally intended it as an oratorio inspired by Voltaire’s libretto for Rameau’s unproduced opera Samson. Beginning work on it in 1867, Saint-Saëns asked a relative of his wife’s to compose the libretto – the poet and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire – who persuaded him that it would be more effective as an opera. Having completed most of the second and third acts by 1869, Saint-Saëns’ work was rejected by the leading Paris theaters in spite of his already considerable reputation, partly because it was considered gloomy and “Wagnerite,” but also because of French distaste for biblical subjects being presented on stage. He ceased working on it, but in 1872 Saint-Saëns’ friend and mentor Franz Liszt offered to produce it at Weimar, where it premiered in a successful German version in 1877, succeeded by productions in Brussels and Hamburg in the next few years. It was not until 1890 that it was performed in France, first in Rouen and seven months later in Paris. Upon finally reaching the stage of the Opéra in 1892, it assumed its continuing place as one of the most performed French operas.
Lemaire’s libretto adheres in general to the biblical version found in the Old Testament Book of Judges, unlike many later iterations which attempt to show Dalila in a redemptive light after she repents of betraying Samson. In Samson et Dalila, she scorns the reward offered by the Philistines but nonetheless actively pursues Samson’s destruction, partly because she herself is a priestess of the Philistine god Dagon, but also in revenge for Samson’s having previously abandoned her. The chorus, portraying both the enslaved Hebrews and the decadent Philistines, are almost as important as characters in the opera as Samson and Dalila.
At the beginning of the opera, the Hebrews are in slavery under the Philistines as punishment for having abandoned their God and worshipping others. Samson leads the Hebrews in a successful revolt and in desperation the Philistines turn to Dalila to discover the secret of his overwhelming strength. Succumbing to Dalila’s wiles, Samson finally reveals his secret. Shorn of his hair and blinded by the Philistines, Samson and the Hebrews are again conquered and imprisoned. Samson is paraded before the enemy in the temple of Dagon to be beaten and mocked. Praying for God to restore his strength for one final act, Samson brings down the temple over their heads, killing the Philistines and himself in the process.
The first scene of Samson et Dalila opens on the square in Gaza, where the desolate Hebrews sit chained outside the Philistines’ temple of Dagon. They pray to the God of Israel (“Dieu d’Israël”) to hear the prayer of His children who implore Him on their knees. They ask Him to take pity on His people and their misery. Let their misery disarm His wrath!
Samson tells his brethren to cease their lamentations (“Arrêtez, ô mes frères!”) and to bless the name of the holy God of their fathers, for the hour of pardon has perhaps arrived. Yes, he hears in his heart a voice from on high! It is the voice of God who speaks through his mouth, that God full of goodness who, touched by their prayer, promises their freedom. Samson exhorts them to break their chains and to raise again the alarm of the only God of Israel. The Hebrews cry that his words are vain! Where would they find the arms to march into combat? How can they arm themselves, who have nothing but their tears? Samson asks if they have forgotten Him whose strength was their ally? He who, full of mercy, so often spoke to them through His oracles and rekindled their faith with the fire of His miracles? He who cleared a passage through the sea for their fathers fleeing a shameful slavery? The Hebrews despair that those times are gone, when the God of their fathers protected His children and listened to their prayers. Samson commands the unfortunate souls to be silent – their doubt is blasphemy! They must get on their knees to implore the God who loves them and restore to His hands the care of their glory. Then they can gird their loins, certain of victory He is the God of battle! He is the Lord of armies! He will arm them with invincible swords! At last roused from their despair, the Hebrews exclaim that God’s breath has entered into Samson’s soul. They will drive away the vile terror from their hearts. They will march with Samson to their deliverance. Jehovah guides them and gives them hope!
Samson has overcome the Philistine leader and slain him, which is the signal for the Hebrews to revolt against their captors. The Philistine soldiers flee in disarray and the Hebrews take control of the city. As the sun rises, a group of elderly Hebrew men raise their voices in thanks. They ask their hymn of joy (“Hymne de joie”) to rise to the Eternal. He has deigned in his power to rescue Israel. Through Him the feeble have become the masters of the mighty who oppressed them. He has vanquished the proud and the traitors whose voice insulted Him! An aged Hebrew says that God had struck them in His anger because they had defied His laws. When their faces were in the dust, they had lifted their voices to Him. He said to His beloved tribe, “Rise up and march into battle! I am the Lord of armies, I am the strength of your arms!” The old men rejoice that God has come to them in their distress because his sons are dear to Him. May the universe thrill with happiness! God has broken their chains!
As the Hebrews finish their praise, the Philistine women headed by Dalila come out of the Temple of Dagon to beguile them. They greet the spring (“Voici le printemps”) which brings them flowers to adorn the brows of the conquering warriors. They mingle their notes with the perfume of roses barely open. They sing with the birds! Their beauty is the gift of heaven, the springtime of their days, sweet charm to the eye, love’s hope. May it enter their hearts and fill their souls with its sweet flames. May they love, may they always love!
The aged Hebrew had warned Samson against Dalila’s blandishments and threatened him with the wrath of heaven, but Samson is unable to resist her and their past love, and comes to her house in the valley away from the city. He curses his passion for her but can’t stop himself from going in. Dalila greets him rapturously and tries to overcome his resistance. She tells him that a god more powerful than his speaks through her mouth – her love, the god of love. Samson had vowed to always love her, but has abandoned her. Samson can bear it no longer. She is mad (“Insensée!”) to dare accuse him when everything speaks of his love for her. Yes, even though lightning should strike him, even though he should perish in its flame! His love for her is so great that he dares to love her in spite of God himself. Yes, even though he will die for it one day, he loves her. She tells him that her heart opens to his voice (“Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”) like flowers open to dawn’s kisses. She begs her beloved, the better to dry her tears, to let his voice speak again. He must tell Dalila that he has returned forever! Let him repeat to her his words of an earlier time, his vows that she loved! Respond to her love – fill her with ecstasy! Just as one sees blades of wheat rippling in a gentle breeze, so does her heart flutter, ready to be consoled by his voice which is so dear to her. The arrow is slower at carrying death than is his lover Dalila to fly into his arms. Samson says he longs to dry her tears with his kisses and drive away the fear from her heart. Ah, he loves her!
Having obtained from Samson the secret of his strength and cut his hair as he slept, Dalila has turned him over to the Philistine soldiers, who blind him and imprison him with the rest of the Hebrews whom they have quickly overcome. In the Finale of the opera, Samson has been brought from prison to the Temple of Dagon to be mocked by the Philistines, the High Priest, and Dalila. The High Priest summons Dalila (“Viens, Dalila”), telling her to give thanks to their gods who make Jehovah tremble in the skies. They will consult the oracles of Dagon and pour for him the wine of sacrifice. The High Priest and Dalila give glory to Dagon the conqueror. He aided Dalila’s weakness, inspiring strength and artfulness in her heart. May their god, the greatest among all, who made the earth where they live, may his spirit live among them, the master of gods and men! The Philistines ask that Dagon mark with his symbol their flocks, ripen their vines on the hillsides, and return to their plains the harvest which in his hatred Samson burned. The High Priest and Dalila ask Dagon to receive on their altars the blood of their victims which they offer to expiate their crimes, and to show to the eyes of his holy priests the future which is hidden from other mortals. The Philistines pray that Dagon will be propitious to their destiny. Let justice give glory to the Philistines in battle, and let victory follow their steps! They exult that Dagon reveals himself in the new flame born from the ashes on the altar as the god shows his power. The High Priest commands Samson to join them at the altar. Samson prays that the Lord will not abandon him and tells the boy leading him to guide him to the pillars of marble. As the Philistines exult at their power before which Israel’s insolence disappears, they cry out to Dagon. Samson begs God to remember His servant from whom they have taken his sight, and to deign for an instant to give him back his former power. As he cries out to God to let him avenge himself and God by destroying them in the temple, he pushes apart the columns and the temple collapses, killing Samson and all of the Philistines.
Born in 1876 in Cádiz, Manuel de Falla studied music in Madrid. Following some early compositions (including several zarzuelas), he achieved his initial success in 1905 with his prize-winning first opera, La vida breve (The Short Life), when he was 28. However, the Madrid performance of the opera promised to the competition winner never transpired and de Falla moved to Paris to advance his career. The encouragement and advice of new acquaintances such as Debussy, Ravel, and Dukas finally led to the opera’s premiere in Nice in 1913, followed a year later by a great success at its Paris premiere. The libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw (already the author of successful zarzuelas) tells the tragic story of Salud, a young gypsy woman in love with Paco, who betrays her to marry someone from his own elite class. With strong references to de Falla’s beloved Andalusian influences, the opera is almost a ballet-opera, with dance featured as much as singing.
In the second tableau of Act I, in the small, poor quarter of Granada where Salud lives with her uncle and grandmother, the day is ending and night is falling on a panoramic view of Granada (Intermezzo).
In the second scene of Act II at the grand home of Carmela, Paco’s wealthy bride, well dressed men and women are gathered to celebrate Paco’s marriage. The guests dance and sing (Dance) in the courtyard of Carmela’s house.
The zarzuela is an enduring form of musical theater which originated in early 17th-century Spain (and later in Latin America) and continued for over 300 years. Named for the Zarzuela, the royal hunting lodge of King Philip IV, the genre continued in a variety of forms until the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Zarzuelas were largely eclipsed by the dominance of Italian opera by the end of the 18th century, but achieved a rebirth during the second half of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th – zarzuela’s golden age. Mixing arias and choruses, along with verse and prose, popular song, and broad comedy, the zarzuela generally assumed two basic forms: the género grande, with well-developed and complex plots, and the género chico, one-act farces, usually much more rambunctious, and generally set in less respectable neighborhoods in Madrid. Zarzuela differed notably from operetta (aside from the latter’s devotion to the waltz) in its reliance on dance, particularly specific styles of Spanish dance such as the habanera, the seguidilla, the jota, etc. At the height of the craze for Viennese operetta and American musical revues in the early 20th century, which was furthered in Spain by composers such as Luna, other Spanish composers such as Federico Moreno Torroba retaliated by looking back to what they considered the more romantic time of Madrid in the 19th century.
Pablo Sorozábal was born in the Basque countryside in 1897, and after his childhood as a musical prodigy, he had a long musical career until his death in 1988. After studies in Madrid, Leipzig, and Berlin, he made his debut as a conductor in Germany, and conducting remained the center of his musical career. He was a prolific and varied composer of works ranging from the concert hall to the ballet and to the stage. Of his stage works (more than twenty), La taberna del puerto was one of the most famous. Using a libretto by the prominent Spanish librettists Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernández-Shaw, this nautical romance is set in Basque country in a fishing port and premiered at the Teatro Tívoli in Barcelona in 1936. It tells of a young sailor, Leandro, who has fallen in love with a mysterious tabernera (tavern keeper), Marola. She appears to be the paramour of Juan, a much older pirate who has set her up in the tavern. In reality, Juan is Marola’s father and is trying to force her to involve Leandro in a scheme to smuggle cocaine. When Leandro is informed of the plot, he is downcast that his love would do this to him. He wonders if it can really be true (“No puede ser”). He is sure she can’t be a wicked woman – she is just unhappy. She can’t be a cheap siren trying to poison his life – he has seen her pray, and love, and cry. Those eyes that cry can’t be lying. He saw two tears trembling in her eyes, and he hopes they tremble for him. He prays she’ll take pity on his love, because he can’t pretend, he can’t be silent, he can’t live without her.
The Mexican singer, actor, and composer Agustín Lara was born in Veracruz, Mexico in 1897 and in his youth moved to Mexico City with his family. Having begun his professional career as a songwriter and accompanist in cabaret, starting in 1930 he began to make his mark in both radio and movies, both as an actor and composer. By the 1940s he had become popular in Spain as well as the rest of South America. By the time of his death in 1970, he had composed over 700 songs.
Perhaps his most famous song, Granada is about the Spanish city and has become a standard not only in popular music but in classical recitals. The singer calls Granada the land of dreams, and song becomes gypsy-like when it is for her – a song made of fantasy, a melancholy flower. Granada is blood-stained earth on bullfight afternoons. It is a woman who preserves the magic of Moorish eyes, a rebellious gypsy dream covered in flowers, with a scarlet mouth like a juicy apple that speaks of love affairs. Except for singing lovely ballads, the singer has nothing else to give Granada than a bouquet of fragrant roses. Granada is a land full of beautiful women of blood and sun.
Federico Moreno Torroba had a lengthy career composing, conducting, and producing. Besides writing many symphonic and instrumental pieces, he composed for opera and ballet before his success at zarzuela, of which he wrote over eighty. The most famous of them all, the zarzuela grande Luisa Fernanda, had a libretto (by Romero and Shaw) set in the 1868 Republican Revolution. Torroba premiered his zarzuela Maravilla, with a libretto by Luis Fernández Ardavín, in Madrid in 1941. It is a romantic tale of life in the world of opera, centering on the diva Maravilla, whose daughter Elvira is in love with her mother’s producer, Faustino. Elvira is loved in turn by Rafael, who is to play opposite Maravilla in her next performance. Rafael pours out his heartache that Elvira has rejected him and mocked his passion for her. She said goodbye, so his life has gone. She goes away laughing and he is dying! His sadness is knowing that she cannot weep. He bids farewell to his love, the life of his life (“Amor, vida de me vida”). How sad it is to say goodbye to their youthful love, which she will never be able to recover. She laughs when she feels the need to cry. To think that he loved her heart and soul, and now she wants to mock his grief. He can’t suppress the love that he dreamed of. She lied to him a thousand times about her love, and now he can only say goodbye to love.
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 herself 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 with 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. Following 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.
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. He had had six operas produced by the time of Carmen, which became not only his most famous work, but one of the most enduring (and presented) of all operas. He died tragically young of a heart attack (at 36) on the night of the 33rd performance of Carmen, just as it was poised to bring him worldwide fame, eclipsing the disappointing critical response it received at its premiere.
Carmen was based on a short novel by Prosper Mérimée with a libretto by the French librettists and playwrights Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The Spanish gypsy Carmen lives only for sensuality. Attracted by the young military officer Don José, she beguiles him into helping her escape arrest after she is embroiled in a brawl with some of her fellow workers at a cigarette factory. Don José is then sentenced to jail himself for his dereliction. Searching Carmen out after his release, Don José finds his passion is in conflict with Carmen’s fierce independence. Jealously fighting with one of her suitors, his own lieutenant Zuniga, he is forced to flee to the mountains with Carmen and her smuggler cohort. Ultimately rejected by Carmen, who has left him for the famous toreador Escamillo, Don José stabs her.
In the first act, the men wait outside a tobacco factory in 19th century Seville. Noting that the bell has rung (“La cloche a sonné”), they watch for the women to return to the factory. They will follow the dark-haired cigarette makers, murmuring words of love to them. Look at them! With impudent glances and flirtatious looks, all of them with cigarettes between their teeth. The factory women appear, smoking and following the smoke through the air with their eyes (“Dans l’air nous suivons des yeux”). As the fragrant smoke gently rises to the heavens, how sweetly it goes to their heads and fills their souls. And the sweet talk of lovers is smoke, their raptures and their vows – that is smoke! The men look for Carmen. As she enters, they crowd around her and tell her to be kind – she must tell them what day she will love them. In the Habanera, Carmen replies that she doesn’t know – perhaps never, perhaps tomorrow – but certainly not today. Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame, and in vain do you call him to come if he refuses. Nothing helps, neither threat nor prayer. One man talks well, the other is silent, and she prefers the other. He’s silent but the one she likes. Love is a Bohemian child and has never known any law. If you don’t love Carmen, perhaps she’ll love you. And if she loves you, then you should watch out for yourself!!
Act 2 opens in the tavern of Lillas Pastia by the walls of Seville, a meeting place for both smugglers and off-duty soldiers who come to meet gypsy women, and where Carmen had whispered to Don José that she would wait for him. Carmen watches the dancers and ignores Captain Zuniga, Don José’s superior, who is wooing her. Inspired by the sound of the sistrum (an Egyptian percussion instrument somewhere between a tambourine and a rattle), she suddenly begins a gypsy song, joined by her friends Frasquita and Mercedes. The rods of the sistrum (“Les tringles des sistres”) jingled with a metallic brilliance and at this strange music the gypsy girls rose. The Basque drums and the frenzied guitars ground out under obstinate hands the same song, the same refrain. Copper and silver rings gleamed on dusky skin as cloth striped in orange and red floated in the wind. Dance was wed with song. Uncertain and timid at first, then livelier and faster, it mounted and mounted! The Bohemian men played their instruments with a vengeance and the dazzling noise bewitched the women. Under the rhythm of the song, burning, mad, fevered, intoxicated, they let themselves be swept away by the whirlwind.
Don José has come directly to the tavern after being released from two months’ imprisonment for having let Carmen escape. He is incensed that Carmen has been dancing for his officers in the tavern. Carmen tells him that she’ll dance for him in his honor (“Je vais danser en votre honneur.”) Don José is transfixed by her dance until he suddenly hears the bugles sound his company’s retreat. He tells Carmen to stop for a moment…yes, it’s the buglers sounding retreat! Doesn’t she hear them? Carmen says she did her best without music, but it’s gloomy to dance without an orchestra. She thanks heaven for sending her the music of the trumpets and begins to dance again. As the trumpets draw nearer, Don José says that the trumpets means he must return to his quarters for roll-call. Carmen is furious that he would return to his quarters. She really was too stupid for taking so much trouble to amuse the gentleman. She sang, she danced! God forgive her, she thinks she did a little more – she loved him! Ah – there’s the bugle calling again. He’s leaving – he’s left – fly away, canary! She says to take his hat and his sword and get out, back to his barracks. Don José tells her she’s cruel to mock him. It pains him to leave, because never, never has any woman before her so profoundly troubled his heart. Carmen continues to mock his retreat – oh my God, oh my God, it’s retreat! He’s going to be late, he loses his head, he runs! And this is his love! Don José begs her to believe in his love, to listen to him, but Carmen won’t be appeased. He takes from his uniform the flower that Carmen had tossed to him when they first encountered each other.
He tells Carmen that the flower that she threw to him (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetèe”) stayed with him in prison. Withered and dry, it kept its sweet fragrance and for hours its scent would make him drunk with the memory of her, and during the night he would see her! He began to curse her, to hate her, to ask himself why fate had put her in his path. Then he accused himself of blasphemy and felt within himself only one desire – to see her again! She had only to appear, to cast one glance at him, to take possession of his entire being.
Don José has drawn his sword on his commanding officer Zuniga in a quarrel over Carmen, whose smuggling cohorts side with Don José and drive off Zuniga. Forced to flee the army, Don José joins Carmen and the other smugglers to smuggle English contraband. At the beginning of Act 3 at their hideout near a mountain pass, the smugglers are joined by Don José, Carmen, Mercedes, Frasquita, and the smuggler kingpins Dancairo and Remendado. The comrades exhort each other to listen closely (“Ecoute, ecoute, compagnons”), as fortune lies ahead. But they must take care not to make any mistakes. The ringleaders say their calling is a good one (“Notre métier est bon””) but they must have strong spirits, for peril is ahead of them and behind them. They will proceed careless of the torrent, careless of the soldiers that wait and watch for them below. But beware of taking a false step!
In Act II, at Lillas Pastia’s tavern where Carmen is relaxing (while Don José languishes in jail), a crowd cheers the arrival of the toreador Escamillo after another triumph in the ring. Escamillo returns their toast (“Votre toast”) and says soldiers and bullfighters can understand each other – their pleasure is in combat. He describes his feat: The bull ring is full and the spectators are losing their heads, calling to each other in a great fracas. Taunts and rowdy cries drive them into a fury, for this is the day of courage – this is the day for men with heart. Toreador, on guard! And think that as you fight, dark eyes watch you and love awaits you! Suddenly it falls silent – what is happening? No more cries, this is the moment. The bull springs forward, leaping from his pen! He comes, he strikes, bringing down the picador. “Bravo, Toro,” yells the crowd. The bull goes, then returns and strikes again. Shaking the banderillas, full of fury, he runs. The ring is full of blood and everyone flees, climbing over the fences. And now it is the toreador’s turn – on guard! And think of the dark eyes that watch you and the love that is waiting for you. Mercedes and Frasquita woo Escamillo, but none can compete with Carmen.