Let me begin by saying that I have heard this recording twice already, and I really enjoy it. This is a forgotten gem among operas, and unfortunately suffers from massive neglect, mostly because of sexism. It is that rare opera, written by a female composer. The libretto is beyond reproach, Victor Hugo himself wrote it as an adaptation of his world famous novel Notre-Dame de Paris, the only time he ever wrote an operatic adaptation for any of his works, which is saying something considering how so many of his works were turned into operas (Lucrezia Borgia, Ruy Blas, Ernani, Maria Tudor, Le roi s’amuse, Angelo) all of which would either retain their original names or become Rigoletto, La Gioconda, Dejanice. But enough of the man, let us turn to the woman. Bertin was the daughter of a wealthy newspaper owner and this, in part, was a contributing factor both in the opera’s lavish premiere production, and the fact that it was never produced complete again until the 21st century. The premiere involved so much “audience participation” that when the one undeniably great number, Quasimodo’s act 4 aria “Air des cloches”, was finished Alexandre Dumas himself shouted that it was written by Berlioz! The production later seemed to be cursed, with the prima donna Cornelie Falcon, who had sung the title role in the premiere of Halevy’s La Juive, losing her voice completely just six months later and the tenor singing Phoebus, the celebrated Adolphe Nourrit, committing suicide in March of 1839. In spite of all of this tragedy, the opera itself is actually quite good, and none of what I have just said about how terrible the first production was should deter the listener. This is a very good opera, not on par with La Traviata or La Boheme certainly, but it is vastly better than a work that would actually deserve the neglect it has suffered for nearly 183 years and is also a worthy triumph for women composers. Also, it isn’t that long in spite of it’s four acts, just a bit over two hours. Also the videos (2 this time) are well tracked out so it is easy to follow among with the musical numbers and know where you are and who is singing, that is si vous ne parlez pas francais. Please have a listen! The image above is of Cornelie Falcon in the title role.
La Esmeralda (Grand Opera in 4 Acts, Running Time: 129 minutes)
PLOT: It is Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, but the focus of this opera is on the relationship between Esmeralda and Phoebus, not Quasimodo. The latter is there, and is curiously sung by a tenor, but the main action involves the gypsy girl, the chevalier she loves and is accused later of killing (spoiler alert for those who don’t already know: the deed was done by the jealous Frollo), and to a lesser extent his wealthy young fiancee named Fleur-de-Lys.
Acts 1&2: (For acts 3 &4 scroll down to act 3 in the description below).
ACT 1: The Court of Miracles (36 minutes)
0: The Overture, starts out sounding like Rossini, or is it Meyerbeer? Anyway, it commences with a rather typical bang, brooding quiet, bang, then a development on the brooding theme. There is a sense of foreboding. A good mood setter *.
3: Fast paced sort of Offenbach-ish opening chorus of thieves, beggars, and in general rabbling peasantry *, although Offenbach obviously could not have written it. Frollo interrupts their scheming. Watch the choral crescendo at minute five **.
6: A choral waltz, Esmeralda dances for the crowd, Frollo lusts after her (and he is a man of the clothe too!). A rather beguiling and dreamy number **.
9: Quasimodo arrives in the March of the Pope of Fools. A jumpy piece although at first a bit standard and boring, and the chorus sound a bit more like Delibes than something Meyerbeerian. Frollo scolds Quasimodo, the latter apologies. Then the music turns a lot more tuneful, especially for Quasi and the chorus **. Frollo is boring but everyone else is rather delightful. The crescendo is a little miracle as the thieves and beggars defend Quasi, they don’t like Frollo. Clopin rescues the deacon and they embark on a, wait for it, recitative, sort of a let down, but it tells us that the introduction is over. The entire sequence is well structured by Bertin, with each part of the introduction a compact segment of around 3 minutes each, neither too short nor too long for any of the parts to become tedious.
17: Frollo’s broodingly dark aria, asking heaven to free him from his lust for Esmeralda is dramatically effective and has this odd phrasing going on with the woodwinds (oboe and flute especially). It has no obvious melody, but it isn’t bad either * The finale begins (already!) with a recitative-like exchange between Quasi and Frollo plotting to kidnap Esmeralda. There isn’t much of a scuffle to the kidnapping and she is rescued by Phoebus.
27: The first Esmeralda-Phoebus duet begins with a sense of both doom and whimsy at the same time. A bit of coloratura for both ** is very tuneful. Phoebus ponders the girl (he has given her a scarf, plot point here!). The chorus that ends the act is a bit menacing at first but then goes into a dancing tune that just evaporates into nothing.
ACT 2 (25 minutes)
Scene 1: The Place de Greve (6 minutes)
0: The people put Quasimodo in the stocks for his part in the failed abduction of Esmeralda. The scene has the dramatic power needed to pull it off, but it is melodically all over the place, flowing from one tune to another in rapid succession. The finale is very Rossinian as Esmeralda takes pity on him and in pantomime gives him water to drink **.
Scene 2: A magnificent room in the home of Fleur-de-Lys de Gonderlaurier (19 minutes)
Mother and daughter discuss the future wedding with Phoebus, while the young man ponders Esmeralda, all in a standard recitative that wants to break out into full blown arioso. This is really just plotting along until for four minutes until Phoebus goes off into 10: a cute patter song about how ravishing the gypsy girl is. It is all over the place though, but serviceable * and flows well into the start of the finale which takes about a minute to 16, 17: warm up before it turns full blown Weberian on us **. Esmeralda is heard singing and dancing outside, the mother-daughter make comments while Phoebus defends the gypsy girl which quickly becomes an almost totally open declaration of his love for her.
18, 20: Now things really heat up, Phoebus has a gorgeous tenor line that is taken up by Fleur-de-Lys and then the chorus pattering away with her, two minutes of magic ***. The scarf from the previous act becomes important here, as Fleur-de-Lys recognizes it as the one she gave Phoebus. Then there is a five minute musical explosion as Fleur discovers that she has been betrayed and everyone turns on Phoebus. This finale is on par with anything else written at the time, in fact, it may even be better, certainly it is worthy of anything Donizetti wrote at the same time ***.
Act 3 (24 minutes)
Scene 1: Outside of a Tavern. (14 minutes)
0: This opening chorus sounds a lot like early Verdi *** and is possibly one of the most jovial tunes in the opera. Six minutes in, with Phoebus above it all thinking of his rendez-vous with Esmeralda the chorus is really good ***.
7: What follows is a long recitative and duet between Phoebus and Frollo, the latter warning the former against Esmeralda, saying she is a witch. Phoebus does not really buy it though, *.
11: The music starts to be take over and there is a strong melodic line here than earlier in the duet **. This is much better.
Scene 2: A room in the tavern (10 minutes)
14: A lot happens very quickly in this scene. First Clopin and Frollo plot to hide in the room so the latter can spy on the lovers. Then Esmeralda and Phoebus come in and the music switches from doom to sweet duet lovey things, with an underlay of Frollo reminding us he is hiding out *.
19: Esmeralda has a nice rondo here, taken up by Phoebus in duet form ***. It has an interesting foreboding nature to it while also being very evocative of romance, Frollo still growling and hiding below but Esmeralda is finally dominating the music with a high soprano line. Phoebus is rather submissive musically here, he is Esmeralda’s support. Things become sinister in the last minute: Frollo comes out of hiding and stabs Phoebus, Esmeralda screams, and bam it is all over. There is something rather dramatically advanced about this number and it is worth studying.
Act 4 (44 minutes)
Scene 1: A prison (16 minutes)
0: Entr’acte appropriate for a prison scene, bleak and sad, a great mood setter again. Esmeralda fills us in on the trial in recitative: Phoebus is dead, the court has convicted her of the murder even though she knows she is innocent and it was Frollo who did it, and she is to be executed the following morning *.
4: She loves Phoebus and wants to be with him in heaven ***. There is a heart-wrenching power to this scene and it is not just the violin, there is a sweet sensual power to the music. This is a woman writing a song in which a woman declares her love.
8,30: Frollo arrives and Esmeralda recognizes him within a minute and goes off like an enraged wild animal on him. Frollo then addresses her in a most Weberian sounding way as his declares that he loves her. Then she tried to use in a rather sweet coloratura sounding way to get him to admit what he has done to the authorities and save her life without her having to become his mistress **.
Scene 2: A square outside Notre-Dame (28 minutes)
16: A little musical miracle: Quasimodo’s aria to the bells. This is one of the most tuneful tenor arias that no one has ever heard of. Four minutes of pure operatic gold ***. Plot wise, it is a plot filler before Esmeralda is led to her execution, and to remind us that it is his opera too, but it is amazing filler.
20: Frollo and Clopin relate one really important tidbit of information: Phoebus is alive! Albeit mortally wounded. Also, they plan on abducting Esmeralda before the execution, no star.
22: The 22 minute finale, seriously the last one this time, but it is also an amazing 22 minutes. A jolly and vigorous chorus on the way to the execution. This is a little weird but it is incredibly tuneful **. Watch for the violin at 25 minutes and then an orchestral interlude as Esmeralda comes in with a series of leitmotif-ish recaps of many of the melodies from earlier in the opera, especially the overture **.
28: A religious men’s chorus **. Bertin does everything musically possible to set up this execution. The women come in exclaiming, dramatically very effective, like a requiem.
32: Esmeralda prays for Phoebus. Frollo, Clopin and the chorus join her not so much in the prayer as in the harmony, very effective ***.
34: Esmeralda recognizes Frollo and he tells her about the abduction plan. She isn’t all that agreeable to it, but the recitative is.
36: Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda and takes her into the Cathedral, the chorus does its nut to a Meyerbeerian-style waltzing tune **. Frollo decides to not make everyone happy and tries to kill Esmeralda.
38: The last six minutes ** start with a sad chorus, women taking the melody, men pattering about below quietly for a minute. Quasimodo is protective of Esmeralda until Phoebus comes on and tells everyone to stop, he is alive, no murder yet, and if he does die it is Frollo who is the guilty one not Esmeralda. “The Priest!” the chorus exclaims. Three minutes into this Esmeralda exclaims her joy at Phoebus being alive, but he starts to die of his wound. He is starting to see heaven, dies. Esmeralda cries out, Frollo is guilty, the chorus agrees, so does the orchestra. Then again with a few bangs it is over.
For more information on this opera visit the wikipedia entry which is available in English, French, and Spanish. For my comments, read below:
Bertin had a unique musical style that I can not fully grasp, although I know I like it. There is obvious influence from Meyerbeer and Weber in her work but in some ways she is more innovative than either of them and to some extent speaks to some future concepts used in operas decades later. Dumas’ accusation, or rather slander, that the Air de Cloches was written by Berlioz makes some sense in that the music as written by Bertin is so modern sounding. The act finales are not extravagant and seem similar to the subdued technique used by Verdi in Falstaff, itself a musical fall back. Bertin’s characters are uneven musically, and this is not so much because of the libretto, but her own style. The female characters are musically stronger than the males. Phoebus, although in theory the hero is secondary and even submissive to the female characters, Fleur-de-Lys and her mother much less Esmeralda. The title character dominates, but only when she is on stage, which is surprising not that often and for much of the time (act 1, the execution scene) she is dancing and mute. Much of act 1 is dominated by Frollo and Quasimodo, and they are much stronger characters than Phoebus. Quasimodo could be considered the starring tenor role if not for the fact that he is barely in the opera apart from the first act and the finale tableau of act four. Fleur-de-Lys could have been more developed as she does come off strongly for a secondary character, but this might reflect the character in Hugo’s novel. I don’t know if I can complain really about this since this was the only time an opera based on a Hugo novel or play was adapted by the author, he obviously knew what he was doing. Clopin is the only other character who isn’t basically a walk-on and because of the emphasis on Esmeralda’s relationship with Phoebus he has little to do other than act as Frollo’s henchman, a role in which he is little better than Quasimodo, and certainly musically an inferior part than the latter. Overall, this is a good opera, and should certainly be performed more often than it is. Bertin knew how to write a completely tuneful score, and even engaged in a little pre-Wagnerian leitmotif action. She also seems to have used chromatic scales in parts of Esmeralda’s vocal line also well as in the religious chorus in act 4 which starts off sounding a little, just a little, like Gesualdo. I would recommend this opera to anyone and I find it to be a fine example of an opera by a female composer, a really nice thing for me to say for a change. It frankly needs a good airing out and I think it is a contender for a revised rep including long forgotten masterpieces. So over all it is an A for Esmeralda!