“Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside”
Garden Scene: “Nel giardin del bello”
Janelle DeStefano and the Women’s Chorus
“Non pianger, mia compagna”
Julie Makerov and the Chorus
“Dio che nell'alma infondere”
Mr. Wilander and Gabriel Manro
“Son lo Spirito che nega sempre”
“Ah! su! riddiamo, riddiamo”
“L’altra notte in fondo al mare”
The Chorus and Mr. Wilander, Mr. Manro, Ms. Makerov, and Ms. DeStefano
“Dieu d’Israël!” and “Nous avons vu nos cités renversées”
“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”
Ms. DeStefano with Mr. Wilander
“Entro la folla che intorno s’aggira”
“Ebben? Ne andrò lontana”
“Drig! Drig! Drig!”
The Men’s Chorus
“Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach!”
Mr. Wilander and the Chorus
Ms. Makerov, Ms. DeStefano, and the Chorus
“Hélas mon coeur”
Mr. Wilander, Mr. Manro, Ms. Makerov, Ms. DeStefano, and the Chorus
“Des cendres de ton coeur”
Ms. DeStefano, Ms. Makerov, Mr. Wilander, Mr. Manro, and the Chorus
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and his first great success, opening at La Scala in Milan in 1842. The composer himself was to write in later years, “With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” The premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of “Va, pensiero,” a chorus that has remained one of Verdi’s most beloved pieces. Unusually, the choruses were singled out for acclaim in the reviews of Nabucco. An early pupil and assistant of Verdi, Emanuele Muzio, wrote that following the immense popularity of Nabucco and I Lombardi, Verdi was known as “il padre del coro” (the father of the chorus). Verdi had a particular facility for vivifying the choruses in his operas. He treated the populace not just as decorative props who commented on the action, but frequently made them a central character – often the people oppressed by the power, wealth, and tyranny of the leading characters. Verdi’s early career was quite difficult, professionally and emotionally. His first opera, Oberto, was a mild success, but his second, Un giorno di regno, was miserably received and canceled after only one performance. In the period between Oberto and the completion of Un giorno, Verdi suffered from financial difficulties and had one of the frequent bouts of ill health that would plague him throughout his life. Even worse, during these years, both of his children died very young, and he lost his beloved wife to rheumatic fever – hardly the ideal circumstances for creating a comic opera. In spite of his grief and his desire to abandon his career, the libretto for Nabucco inspired him to write his first great triumph. Verdi told the newspaper critic Stafford of the Daily Graphic in January, 1893, years after Nabucco’s premiere, of the difficult circumstances of its La Scala premiere: “The artists were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations to the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the Va, pensiero, but before they had got through half a dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church. The men had left off their work one by one, and they were sitting about on ladders and scaffolding listening! When the number was finished, they broke out into the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.” That future included 75 performances at La Scala alone in the opera’s first year, followed by success throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. Its first two years alone saw more than 50 different productions, including a performance conducted in Vienna by Donizetti, who had championed the work even before its premiere.
Nabucco had another significant role to play in Verdi’s life. The La Scala star for whom he specifically wrote the role of Abigaille – perhaps the most exciting (and exacting) role in the opera – was Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi was a renowned singer at the time and an enthusiastic supporter of Nabucco, urging the management to give it a good position in the season. She was soon to become a friend and advisor, then Verdi’s mistress, and finally his wife of 38 years.
Nabucco (originally entitled Nabucodonosor) is based on the biblical history of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon (referred to in the libretto as “Assyria”). It is set in Jerusalem and then Babylon during the reign of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 B.C.), who destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.). As Nabucco begins, the Assyrian army is about to capture Jerusalem. Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is a captive of the Hebrews, who threaten to kill her if their city is taken. Fenena is in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the Jewish king, after rescuing him from imprisonment when he was Jerusalem’s ambassador to Assyria. Abigaille, Fenena’s sister, also loves Ismaele and threatens revenge on both of them for Ismaele’s rejection of her. After overcoming the Hebrews, Nabucco destroys their temple and takes them into captivity in Assyria. During Nabucco’s absence at other wars, Abigaille attempts to usurp the throne. Nabucco returns in time to thwart her plan but is struck by lightning and driven out of his senses when he claims that he is God. Abigaille assumes the crown and plans with the Assyrian priests to have all the Hebrews executed (including Fenena, who has converted to their faith). Nabucco regains his sanity and reclaims power. Recognizing that their God is supreme, he releases the Hebrews from captivity and promises to erect a new temple, while the repentant Abigaille begs for forgiveness as she dies from poison she has taken.
In later years, Verdi claimed that La Scala’s producer Merelli forced Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Nabucco on him in spite of Verdi having determined to give up his career. As Verdi threw the manuscript onto a table, the libretto fell open at the page with the opening lines of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” inspired by Psalm 137 lamenting the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Unable to resist reading the rest of the libretto immediately, he then reread it several times that evening. Whether Verdi’s mythologizing in later life is true or not, the premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of “Va, pensiero” (in spite of the Austrians’ having banned encores in Italian theaters during the Austrian occupation, fearing any spontaneous political demonstrations). The chorus has remained one of the most beloved pieces of music in Italy. Sung by the captive Jews as they labor by the banks of the Euphrates, awaiting death at the hands of their Babylonian captors, the chorus – described by the composer Rossini as a grand aria sung by sopranos, contraltos, tenors, and basses – resonated deeply with an Italian public under the yoke of Austrian occupation. The Hebrew slaves send their thoughts on golden wings (“Va, pensiero,”) to rest on the slopes and hills scented with the sweet air of their native land. Let them greet the banks of the Jordan and the fallen towers of Zion. O fatherland, so beautiful and so lost! O memory, so dear and so fatal! Why does the golden harp of the prophets hang mute on the willow? They ask for their memories to be rekindled in their hearts and speak to them of the time that has been. O, like Solomon, draw forth a song of cruel lamentation from their fates so their Lord may inspire them with the strength to endure.
Verdi had declined an invitation to write a celebratory hymn for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, although his longtime friend and assistant Muzio had directed the music for the Canal’s opening as well as Rigoletto for the opening of the new Cairo Opera House. The Egyptian leaders persisted, however, and Verdi agreed to write a new opera for Cairo provided it would have an Egyptian story and setting. The prominent French archeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette promptly provided a scenario, and Verdi engaged Antonio Ghislanzoni (the librettist of the revised La forza del destino) as librettist. As he insisted for all of his libretti, Verdi constantly reminded Ghislanzoni that he wanted the “theatrical words” – i.e., the words that would develop characters or story, and not just high poetry arranged in a conventional way. (As usual, Verdi didn’t hesitate to rewrite the words when he felt the need. If he found a lyric too highly wrought, he would sharpen it to a more direct statement suited to the character.) Staging and rehearsals were undertaken in Paris rather than Cairo so that suitable singers could be engaged and production values closely monitored. The long siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War delayed the opening of the production in Egypt until 1871, when it proved a great success. This was followed by Aïda’s premiere at La Scala in 1872, vigorously overseen by Verdi, fiercely resisting all management attempts to “strangle” the premiere by haste or false economy and relentlessly insisting on attention to ensemble work and staging. In spite of Verdi’s usual pessimism, the Milan premiere proved everything he could have hoped for, and he was rewarded with an extraordinary personal ovation upon his return to a city and an opera house he had avoided for years.
Based on a number of sources, the story of Aïda suited the intense interest in Egyptian history aroused by the archeological finds of the 19th century (presaging the Egyptian mania later produced by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb) as well as the opening of the Suez Canal. Seemingly the quintessence of grand opera due to the majesty of the setting and intense historical struggle of the principals, Verdi outdid himself in using the elaborate musical and theatrical frame to focus on the intense personal drama of the leading characters. The daughter of Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, Aïda has been captured by the Egyptians, who are ignorant of her royal status. She is now the slave-girl of Amneris, the daughter and heir of the Egyptian king. Amneris loves the young officer Radamès, unaware that Aïda is a princess and that she and Radamès are secretly in love. Discovering their love, Amneris vows to overcome her rival. Radamès triumphs over the Ethiopian army, returning with booty and prisoners. Aïda is shocked to see that her royal father Amonasro is one of the captured. Amonasro persuades his captors that he is only an Ethiopian general and that the king died in battle. To honor Radamès’ valor, the Pharaoh spares the prisoners’ lives and grants Amneris to Radamès as his bride. Aïda submits to Amonasro’s demands that she save her country and betray Radamès by obtaining his plan to crush the Ethiopian army once and for all. Rather than defend himself against the subsequent charge of treason, Radamès goes to his death to find that Aïda has secretly joined him in what will be their living tomb, leaving Amneris to repent her jealousy and mourn her loss.
In the Finale to Act II, the Pharaoh and his court have come to Thebes to greet the triumphant Radamès following his victory over the Ethiopians. As the captured soldiers are brought forward, Aïda has inadvertently exclaimed, “My father!” Amonasro signals Aïda not to betray his royal status and informs the Egyptians that he is indeed Aïda’s father, a soldier in the service of the Ethiopian king, and that the king was killed in battle. The people hail the glory of Egypt (“Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside”), their sacred protector Isis, and their king, and cheer the conquering hero as they lay laurel and flowers in his path. The women twine laurel wreaths for the army as they call on the young girls to dance like the stars in the sky. The priests give thanks to their army and the gods who have brought this lucky day. To the sound of Verdi’s famous Triumphal March, Radamès enters the city gates. The assembled throng cheers him and his victorious warriors, thanking the gods for their victory and returning them safely to their country.
Earlier in Act I, the Ethiopians are preparing to attack Egypt. In the palace at Memphis, the Egyptian high priest Ramphis has advised Radamès that the goddess Isis has selected a new commander of the Egyptian troops, and Radamès prays that he is the one chosen. His dreams of glory inspire a paean to his heavenly Aïda (“Celeste Aïda”), crowned with light and flowers, the queen of his thoughts, the splendor of his life. If he returns triumphant, he will return her to the beautiful sky and sweet breezes of her native land and raise for her a throne close to the sun.
Written for the Paris Opéra and premiered in 1867, Don Carlo was based on Friedrich von Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos and 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 Elisabetta and married the much younger Elisabetta himself, although Carlo and Elisabetta 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 Don Carlos. 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 to be found at his bedside), and many of their 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 that appealed to 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 Carlos, 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 Netherlands’ struggle to be free of Spanish rule — appealed powerfully to a composer who chafed at being under the Austrians’ sway. Likewise, the idealistic and essentially anticlerical nature of the work also appealed to 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 stringent demands of grand opera in Paris.
In the second scene of Act I, we are introduced to Elisabetta’s ladies in waiting, including the Princess Eboli, who leads the ladies in a favorite song, which tells of the gardens (“Nei giardin del bello”) of a beautiful Saracen palace where a lovely dancing girl covered in her veil gazed at the stars. The Moorish king praises her tender beauty and says he will give up his queen for her. The ladies join in the refrain that damsels should weave veils when the sun is in the sky, for it is veils that are dearest to love when the stars shine. The king asks the beautiful maiden to lift her veil, and again offers to give up his queen for her – and is shocked to discover that the maiden is the queen.
Since breaking his son’s engagement to Elisabetta of Valois of France in order to marry her himself, King Phillip II has been suspicious that she and his son are romantically involved and has ordered that she must never be alone without one of her ladies-in-waiting in attendance. However, in the second scene of Act I, Carlo has begged for an audience with her and she dismisses her attendants. After Carlo leaves her, the King is incensed to discover her alone in the gardens and angrily exiles Countess Arenberg, the friend and confidant from France that should have remained with her. Told that she must return to France at daybreak the next day, the unhappy Countess breaks down in tears. Elisabetta is furious that Philip has insulted her and tries to comfort her friend. She tells her dear friend not to cry (“Non pianger, mia compagna”) and to soothe her pain. She is banished from Spain, but not from Elisabetta’s heart. With her, the Queen could still recall her youth. She should return to their homeland, and Elisabetta’s heart will follow. Giving her a ring, she says it is a last token of all her favor. The Countess must conceal the terrible insult for which the Queen is still blushing. On her return to France, she must not tell of the Queen’s tears or of her cruel sorrow, but return to the homeland with Elisabetta’s heartfelt vows.
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 Elisabetta 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!”
Arrigo Boito was a respected poet, critic and novelist, as well as a leading member of the Italian avant garde and the companion of Eleonora Duse. Although trained as a composer, he is perhaps best known as a librettist, notably for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Mefistofele was Boito’s first opera (the only one performed in his lifetime) with the distinction of being the first opera performed at La Scala for which the libretto was written by the composer. His second opera, Nerone, was premiered at La Scala in 1924, six years after his death. Aside from these, he composed little else, although he apparently completed but destroyed another opera, Ero and Leandro. In spite of the brilliance of his libretti for Verdi, we have good reason to lament that he wrote no other operas aside from the two mentioned above, based on the genius displayed in Mefistofele. The opera was premiered unsuccessfully at La Scala in 1868 (when Boito was only 26); its premiere aroused riots and duels over its supposed “Wagnerism” and perceived anti-religious viewpoint, and it was closed by the police after two performances. However, Boito condensed and extensively rewrote the opera (six hours in length at its premiere), including transforming Faust from a baritone to a tenor. It met great success upon the premiere of the revised version in Bologna in 1875.
The enduring legend of Faust, in which a learned man sells his soul to the devil, inspired the plays Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe’s two part play in verse, Faust, as well as a number of operas: Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust, Busoni’s Doktor Faust, and the most famous of all, Gounod’s Faust. Boito drew on Goethe’s work when he wrote his own libretto for Mefistofele and set it in a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue. Unlike the other operas based on Goethe’s Faust, which draw almost exclusively on Goethe’s Part 1, Boito’s libretto uses both Parts 1 and 2 as the basis for his story, and adheres more closely to the philosophical and spiritual viewpoints of the Goethe play. Faust is an aged scholar who yearns to comprehend all experience, and promises his immortal soul to Mefistofele in order to do so. In the process, he will find love and then abandon the innocent young Margherita, and, once again an old man, mourn his past life. Faust appeals to heaven to save him from Mefistofele, and he dies to a triumphant song of the celestial choir, as Mefistofele loses his wager with heaven.
Following the Prologue in which Mefistofele wagers with God that he can turn Faust to a life of evil, Act I opens on Easter Sunday as a crowd of peasants gathers in the town square to celebrate (“Juhé! Juhé!”). They sing of the young men who have come to the fest with ribbons in their doublets and hats crowned with flowers. Under the poplars the young women and the masters throw themselves into the dance in a mad gallop! All of them go higgledy-piggledy against the music, singing and pounding their feet on the ground in a circle. The women laugh as they wheel about, their skirts flying about in the wind, both brunette and blonde holding tight to one another in flight.
Hoping to corrupt Faust, Mefistofele transports him to the highest summit of the witches’ hill to observe the orgies of the Witches’ Sabbath as they pay tribute to their master Mefistofele. The witches and warlocks dance wildly around them, laughing and encouraging Faust to join them (“Ah! su! riddiamo, riddiamo”) as they cavort on the ancient splinters of the doomed world. The dreadful night of the Sabbath resounds with their infernal reel as they dance themselves into a frenzy.
Abandoned by Faust, Marguerite is accused of drowning their child and also suspected of poisoning her mother with a sleeping potion that Faust provided so they could pursue their illicit affair without interference. Imprisoned and losing hold of her senses, she is alone in her prison cell. She mourns that her child was drowned the other night in the depths of the sea (“L’altra notte in fondo al mare”), and now to drive her mad, people say that she did it herself. The air is cold and the cell is dark, but she will let her soul stray like a sparrow in the wood, flying away. She begs for pity. Now her mother also lies dead and to add to her horror, they charge that Marguerite poisoned her.
In the Epilogue, Faust is again an old man. As he sits in his laboratory reminiscing about his life, Mefistofele hovers, gloating about Faust’s approaching death. Outside can be heard the voices of penitents. With their tears and their song for salvation from the blind world below, they appeal to the queen of heaven (“Salve Regina”) and pray for the dying. They are comforted by a celestial choir of cherubim, who describe the dance of the angels that they perform on behalf of those in the hour of need, flying like blazing flames through the air. The penitents, cherubim, and celestial spirits join in a chorus of praise to the Lord. Faust is moved by their holy song and Mefistofele is alarmed as Faust becomes transfixed by the sight of the Bible, finally realizing that this is the beautiful thing he had pursued. Mefistofele vainly tries to divert him as the chorus of cherubim proclaim God’s glory and Faust prays to be taken from this mocking demon. As Faust cries out that this is the single perfect moment he has sought, he falls dead. Mefistofele bitterly realizes that he has no power against the strength of heaven. The angels proclaim that Faust’s spirit is rising to heaven and Mefistofele admits that the Lord has triumphed over him.
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 Dalilah 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, the poet and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire, to compose the libretto. Lemaire 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 role 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! They have seen their cities overthrown and the Gentiles profane His altar. Under their yoke, the tribes have been dispersed and everything lost, even the name of Israel. Are you no longer the God of deliverance that freed our tribes from Egypt? Lord! Have you broken our holy alliance, the divine oaths received by our ancestors?
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!
An elder 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 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 which 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!
Alfredo Catalani was born in Lucca, also the birthplace of Puccini, with whose uncle Catalani studied before continuing his education in Paris and Milan. He achieved some success with a number of operas as well as becoming professor of composition at the Conservatory in Milan. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 39, a year after reaching the height of his success following the premiere of La Wally at La Scala in 1892. La Wally is Catalani’s most famous work. Based on the German novel Die Geyer-Wally (The Vulture Wally) by Wilhelmine von Hillern, it is set to a libretto by Luigi Illica.
The story is set in a Tyrolean village and opens on the birthday of Stromminger, the father of La Wally (known in the novel as “the vulture” because she rescued a vulture chick from the mountains and gave it to her father – a symbol of the young woman’s fierce, independent spirit). Wally has fallen in love with the hunter Hagenbach, unaware of her father’s enmity for Hagenbach’s family. Attempting to thwart their romance, Stromminger orders Wally to marry his friend Gellner. Defying her father, she decides to run away. Upon her father’s death a year later, Wally returns to the village. She insults Hagenbach’s new fiancée and in turn is insulted by Hagenbach. Persuading Gellner to kill Hagenbach in return for her promise of marriage, Wally is stricken by conscience. Singlehandedly rescuing Hagenbach from the ravine into which Gellner has pushed him, Wally sends him back to his fiancée. However, Hagenbach returns and admits that Wally is the woman he loves. Seemingly on the verge of happiness, their idyll is shattered when an avalanche carries Hagenbach into an abyss. Wally throws herself after him into the abyss, and to her death.
La Wally averts a near-brawl between her slightly tipsy father and the arrogant Hagenbach. When she refuses to marry Gellner, Stromminger tells her to leave his house. Well, then, she will go far away (“Ebben? Ne andró lontana”), like the echo of the church bell, among the white snow and clouds of gold, where hope becomes regret and sorrow. Leaving her mother’s cheerful house, La Wally is going to go away, perhaps never to return nor to see it again. Never again, never again!
Jacques Offenbach was famed in his lifetime for his light operas, bringing the form of what we now call operetta to the peak of its popularity and style. Founding his own theater in 1855, he combined social and political satire while sometimes parodying grand opera. Described by Rossini as the “Mozart of the Champs-Elysées,” Offenbach wrote almost 100 light operas, of which Orpheus in the Underworld, La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and La Périchole remain popular 150 years later. (He was so driven to compose that even his carriage was equipped with a writing desk, inkwell, and candles.) Following financial disaster at his theater after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Second Empire’s collapse, he went on tour in the U.S. to recoup his losses.
On his return to Europe, he dedicated himself to composing his most enduring masterpiece. He did not live, however, to see the success of Les contes d’Hoffmann, a “serious opera” on which he had justly placed so much hope for posterity. Having famously said that he would die with a melody at the end of his pen, Offenbach had in fact just completed Hoffmann’s piano score and was at work on the orchestration when he died, only four months before the Paris premiere in October, 1880. The orchestration and final version were prepared by Ernest Guiraud and the premiere was everything Offenbach could have hoped. Achieving over 100 performances in Paris alone in its first year, it was followed by a worldwide recognition that has never faded.
Recent musicological research, aided by Offenbach’s heirs who allowed access to over a thousand pages of additional material by the composer, has provided a more accurate view of Offenbach’s intentions for the final shape of Hoffmann. The Verdi Chorus presents some of these important changes, especially in the fully restored finale to the Venice act (“Hélas, mon coeur”) as well as the opera’s original ending as Offenbach had intended it (“Des cendres de ton coeur”).
Using a libretto by Jules Barbier (also the librettist for Gounod’s Faust) and his brother Pierre, Hoffmann is based on the “memoirs” of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German writer, composer, and painter best known for mysterious stories featuring supernatural characters and devices, including the tale that became The Nutcracker. Mixing fantasy and realism, the three acts with epilogue and prologue tell of four of Hoffmann’s love affairs, which he recounts to a group of students in a Nuremberg tavern.
The tavern fills with students (“Drig! Drig! Drig!”) who call on the tavern master Luther to give them beer and wine, and to keep filling their glasses until morning. They tease Luther as they bang their pewter mugs on the tables and improvise increasingly silly verses to a rowdy drinking song. Saying that Luther is a good man with a good cellar and his wife a true daughter of Eve, nonetheless tomorrow they will thrash him, ransack his cellar, and abduct his wife. Luther ignores these sallies as he tries to provide drinks for all of them.
The poet Hoffmann enters with his ubiquitous friend Nicklausse (a trousers role for mezzo-soprano), who is also his Muse in disguise and who protects him throughout the opera. The students demand that Hoffmann amuse them with a story. Hoffmann obliges them with the legend of Kleinzach, a dwarf in the court of Eisenach (“Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”). The woeful Kleinzach had legs that went “clic clac,” had a hump for a stomach, a nose black with tobacco, and a head that went “crick crack.” The reveling students echo his ludicrous descriptions.
As Hoffmann is describing Kleinzach’s features, the music and tempo change as Hoffmann falls into a reverie. He describes a beautiful face that he sees once more, remembering how he followed this woman, leaving his father’s house like a madman to pursue her across the countryside. He rhapsodizes about her dark hair, her beautiful blue eyes, and the sweet and vibrant voice which still resonates in his heart. Lost in his memories, he is startled out of them by the demand that he finish the story of Kleinzach.
In each of Hoffmann’s encounters with a woman, including the Prologue and Finale, there is a malevolent nemesis who thwarts his happiness. In the Giulietta act, the bass-baritone who sings all four of these roles is named Dappertutto. Supernatural powers are a frequent plot device in the actual tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann, three of whose stories were used in devising the libretto. Dappertutto uses his dark arts to charm Giulietta into stealing Hoffmann’s reflection with a magical mirror. He induces Giulietta to do so by offering her a ring she can’t resist. He addresses the diamond, telling it to sparkle (“Scintille, diamant”), like a mirror that captures a lark, to fascinate and entice her. Either a lark or a woman fly with its wings or her heart to this conquering bait. One leaves its life there, the other loses her soul.
One of Hoffmann’s tales is set in Venice at the courtesan Giulietta’s palace overlooking the Grand Canal. Giulietta and Niklausse join in the famous Barcarolle. They sing of the lovely night, the night of love (“Belle nuit”) and ask the night to smile upon them and bestow its kisses, as time flies and carries away their tender thoughts. The night is sweeter than the day.
In the scene that ends the act set in Venice, Hoffmann despairs of his love for Giulietta. Alas, his heart has again gone astray (“Hélas mon coeur.”) He curses the love that consumes him, but cannot calm his reason. With her face and gaze as clear as dawn, he hates her and adores her! The demonic Dappertutto mocks Hoffmann for being in love in vain again, and taunts him that the beautiful courtesan has sold her kisses to all of the men present. Giulietta laments that while she adores Hoffmann, she can’t resist Dappertutto’s spell and the diamond ring with which he has bribed her to steal Hoffmann’s reflection. Nicklausse knows that his friend burns with love again, and fears his heart will break. Giulietta’s guests, including a betrayed former lover and her current paramour, alternately deride Hoffmann and commiserate with him. The guests pity the lovesick poet and observe that Giulietta captures hearts only to break them. Warning Hoffmann that whoever adores her is cursed and will die from her kiss, they urge him to calm his heart, ending with a despairing “alas.”
Following his third and final story of failed love, Hoffmann is back in the tavern, dead drunk. The woman whom he hoped to be his fourth love, the actress Stella, enters after her performance, but he is too drunk to notice her presence. Hoffmann’s nemesis, this time in the person of Lindorf, escorts Stella away. In the Finale, Hoffmann’s Muse reclaims him as her own. From the ashes of his heart (“Des cendres de ton coeur”), his genius will be rekindled and serenity will smile on his sorrows. His Muse will soothe his blessed suffering. Hoffmann regains consciousness and hears the Muse, Stella and Lindorf, invisible to him, proclaim that while he has been ennobled by love, even greater is his growth as a result of his tears.
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