Grand Opera in 4 acts and six tableaux. Running Time (including ballet) 2 hours 49 minutes. This is a French revised, condensed, expanded, better version of Verdi’s 1843 opera I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. Removed is the Italian nationalism, much but not all of the Islamophobia, less of the saccharine sweet hyper-Christianity, and the two competing major tenor roles of the original. It does boast most of the best music from the original, and a lot of through-composed new material, although fans of the original opera might be surprised with what ends up where in the revision. That said, it isn’t performed very often for a Verdi opera, nor in comparison to Lombardi, thus it ended up here. The image is of Gilbert Duprez’s costume as Gaston for the premiere in 1847. When applicable I will include scene references from I Lombardi.
This review is of the 1999 release of the first ever complete recorded version of the opera which I do not believe is available online except via amazon.com for prime music users.
PLOT: Toulouse and in and around Jerusalem, 1095 and 1099. A peace treaty between the family of Gaston and the father of his lover Helene, the Count of Toulouse is almost instantly destroyed by an assassination attempt by the Count’s brother, of Gaston, when the hitmen stab the Count instead.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A terrace of the castle of the Count of Toulouse connecting to a chapel. (49 minutes)
8: The four and a half minute overture, a mostly low temp brooding piece, is okay setting music but not really worth looking out for. After brief recitative exchanges between Gaston and Helene (including a micro-duet accompanied by a solo horn) and then Helene and her maid Isaure, Helene delivers a nice prayer for Gaston *. (This is the Salve Maria from act 1 scene 2 of Lombardi).
12: Suddenly in 2 minutes Verdi depicts the sunrise **. It is an expansion on the dawn sequence in the second scene of the prologue of Attila.
23: Now we are full swing into the opera with French takes on the opening choruses in Lombardi as the knights and dames arrive for the peace. The Count promises Helene to Gaston which infuriates her uncle Roger who has incestuous interest in her. Helene claims that heaven is just, little does she know of what will happen before the end of the act. The first chorus (there are 4 in succession) has a cheery orchestral accompaniment but the best is the third which is a rousingly tuneful Crusade propaganda piece * (served the same purpose in Lombardi). The fourth, this time just females, is about as good here as it was there, which is serviceable. It basically acts as a transition to Roger revealing everything to us, he will have Gaston set upon in the chapel because he wants Helene, his niece, for himself (female chorus returns briefly).
32: Roger’s plot aria has a rather nice accompaniment that doesn’t really match the sentiment *. He then explains to the hitmen (soldiers) who to kill and expressly makes a point of telling them not to harm his brother, whom he loves. To tell the two men apart, as they are at pray, he describes his brother’s mantle, which he does not know the Count has given to Gaston.
37: Other soldiers sing about wine and how Christianity will bring it to the Muslims, women’s chorus pops in again. Roger has some thoughts of about being evil and killing off one’s romantic rival. The soldiers are really excited about wine and the tune of the aria and the chorus this time is a little bit better * although again it doesn’t really match what Roger is saying. (This and the previous number are from act 1 scene 1 of Lombardi).
46: People scream murder and Roger thinks his vengeance has been swift, but no, Gaston comes out of the chapel and declares that it was the Count who has been stabbed. The soldiers who have been caught claim that it was Gaston who paid them to kill the Count, Helene, Isaure and Gaston’s valet Raymond are not having any of it but everyone else (except Roger naturally) is convinced that the assassins are not lying. The entire scene is lifted from the act 1 finale of Lombardi and is a combination of rousing climaxes and moments of total silence. The last ensemble is rather loud and vengeful with everyone either in disbelief or cursing Gaston *.
ACT 2 (49 minutes)
Scene 1: In a mountain range in Palestine near the city of Ramla, a monk’s cave nearby (30 minutes).
0: Roger goes on about how sorry he is about his brother’s assassination, he is now a monk living incognito in a cave in Palestine *. Raymond, Gaston’s valet comes on the scene in a state of dehydration, he is saved by Roger and reveals that there are others with him in similar distress and then they leave, Raymond for the cave, Roger in the opposite direction. (Reference: Act 2 Scene 2 of Lombardi).
12: Helene arrives with Isaure while traveling through the mountain pass. She thinks Gaston is dead, Isaure warns not to go off too far from the Crusader camp and her father (well, well, he is alive!). Raymond returns from the cave and encounters the women, revealing that Gaston is not dead but captured by the Muslims and held in the city of Ramla. Helene is overjoyed by the news that Gaston is alive ** in a Polonaise lifted from act 4 scene 1 of Lombardi.
15: It’s chorus time again, this time ten minutes of thirsty Christian pilgrims roaming about the desert happy to be in misery. It’s okay, but it isn’t Va pensiero (which it desperately tries to emulate) *. After 6 minutes of this the Count slowly comes on to a nice orchestral march *.
27: In five minutes we are given absolute proof that the Count isn’t dead (he is on stage, alive), the Crusaders anticipate their objective (Jerusalem, duh), and Roger discovers that his brother isn’t dead after all and (remaining incognito to everyone) decides to become a camp follower of the Crusaders. The scene ends with a Crusader military song with a rousing finale * lifted from act 2 scene 2 of Lombardi.
Scene 2: A room in the palace of the Emir of Ramla (19 minutes).
30: Gaston finally gets an aria (after both Helene and Roger have had two already), and although at first very sad it becomes rather lovely **. (Reference: act 2 scene 1 of Lombardi).
38: Helene is brought in and interrogated by the Emir (learns little although he seems impressed with her), he decides to leave Gaston and Helene together with a guard posted to spy on them to get some dirt on them. The duet that ensues (and moves us to the end of the act) is rather lovely (slow) and dramatically effective **. The finale is rushed as the lovers are shaken from their rapture by the sounds of the weaponizing Muslim army and their brief and futile attempt at escaping. (The duet is from act 3 scene 1 of Lombardi).
ACT 3: (48 minutes)
Scene 1: The Gardens of the Harem of the Emir of Ramla. (34 minutes)
3: The act starts with a harem chorus lifted directly from Act 2 Scene 3 of Lombardi and serves no purpose other than as an introduction to the ballet and telling us how upset Helene is. The ballet *: 20 minutes long and divided into four unequal parts: You can skip this but if you do want to hear it watch out for: Pas de quatre: good Andante and a really good (but short) Allegro *, watch for the flute whirl just before the Galop. Pas de deux: As sobering and dramatic as the quatre was whimsical, at least at first. Includes a waltz and a vivance that betrays the influence of Meyerbeer. Pas solo: Begins with an Andante * (the longest single part of the entire ballet at about three and a half minutes), it sounds even more like Meyerbeer. Pas d’ensemble: the shortest although in only a single movement, Allegro of course. None of the music sounds like it is trying to set a mood, it is just ordinary opera ballet music.
24: The Emir’s Officer freaks out, the Christians are storming the city! The Emir threatens to decapitate Helene and she is left for three and a half minutes to contemplate how meaningless her life has become. It is really, really, sad but of all of the lifted numbers (act 2 scene 3 again) this one sounds the most French *.
31: Sounds of war outside, the women of the harem come running in in terror, and instead of an interaction between Helene and another female character (as in Lombardi), we have the same music over Helene’s sole reaction, Gaston arrives just before the Crusaders and the Count immediately arrests Gaston when his forces come bursting into the room. Gaston protests his innocence, more of the racing music from a moment earlier and then Helene goes into the equivalent of Giselda’s mad scene at the end of act 2 in Lombardi only she certainly isn’t mad, at least not in the insane sense, she is mad in the angry sense, and at her father and his demand to have revenge on a man who everyone watching this opera knows is completely innocent. Unlike in the parent opera, the scene actually comes off a little better and has lost its original anti-war/racist message and focuses on the conflict between the Europeans which makes more dramatic sense anyway *.
Scene 2: A Scaffold. (14 minutes)
34: Funerary March ** as Gaston is led in to be judged (not executed). It is new music, in fact the entire scene is the only one that has nothing lifted from Lombardi. Gaston again declares his innocence, but the Papal Legate declares that he has been condemned by the Vatican to die the following day, but today he is to suffer defamation which for Gaston, who seems to want death A LOT in this scene, seems to dread a lot more than execution.
39: Gaston asks for the clemency of immediate execution **.
42: No mercy, the sentence is carried out. Gaston’s helmet, shield, and sword are smashed to bits, all the while he says that his accusers lie and pleads to be executed on the spot. There is something about this scene, and especially Gaston’s vocal line that is just amazing ***. There is a maturity in this scene that the previous music does not reflect.
ACT 4: (24 minutes)
Scene 1: Before the tent in which Gaston is held in the Crusader Camp (17 minutes)
13: The scene starts off feeling more like an epilogue to the previous act with Roger and the Christians praying for death. Helene says the only thing of any real interest, namely that Gaston is in the tent. At this point, unless one is really into the Crusades, the interest wore off in Act 1 and the choral music (even if it is lifted from act 3 scene 1 of Lombardi) is a bit tedious. Roger is requested by the Legate to give absolution to the condemned (he doesn’t know that it is Gaston), before the Legate goes off to give the Crusaders a pep talk. Over the course of eight minutes Roger recognizes Gaston, Helene curses God for making her life a living hell for no good reason. Gaston feels that the only hope is in death, Helene promises that if he dies, she will follow him because life will be meaningless. Just as we transition from part one (which is musically moot but dramatically good) to part two of this trio the music changes gears into something rather wonderful and lifted from Lombardi ***. Roger sets Gaston free so he can fight (to his death he thinks) in the battle.
Scene 2: The Count’s tent.
17: The battle, a stormy minute of music but effective enough *.
23: Isaure announces that the Crusaders have won and the finale begins with the Count trying to guess who this mysterious warrior who turned the battle in the Crusaders’ favour is only to discover that it is Gaston (duh). Everyone is shocked, Roger comes in mortally wounded and reveals his true identity (everyone again in shock). Roger confesses to having plotted the assassination attempt, Gaston is completely innocent and in fact was the intended victim, and asks to see Jerusalem one last time before he dies. Helene and Gaston are overjoyed, they draw the curtains of the tent to reveal amazing panoramic view of Jerusalem in near distance as Roger dies, everyone else in loud ecstasy *.
There are things that I can complain about regarding this opera, the music it doesn’t include from Lombardi however is not one of them. The best music from the original opera is all here and then some, such as the then newly composed condemnation scene in act 3. Jerusalem is dramatically tighter than Lombardi and avoids the massive inconsistencies of the first opera. It is also though-composed and more connected than the series of almost random tableau that make up Lombardi. There are only two female characters, Isaure acts as a chaperon to Helene rather than as a minor female character who strangely is more important in terms of backstory than the female lead. Whereas Giselda just sort of randomly ends up being the prima donna in Lombardi, Helene is solidly the female prime force musically and dramatically here. There are no Viclinda or Sofia wasting away after they disappear after serving their dramatic purpose in their respective single act performances. There is no gear change as in the transition from the first to the second act of Lombardi in which one might feel like you have just watched one opera and are now hearing another. Reducing the role of Helene’s father, the Count, in comparison to Alvino and having no one actual die in the first act works better but at the same time robs the opera of any real crime. Roger is guilty of plotting a failed assassination attempt of someone who actually never is physically (although is psychologically) harmed, not of a consummated murder so his guilt, unlike Pagano in Lombardi who accidentally commits patricide, comes off as being a bit wet behind the ears. Making the Count not only close to irrelevant after act 1 but also a baritone rather than a tenor corrects the vocal imbalance of the original opera. The loss of the violin concert is of little consequence. Jerusalem also lacks, mostly, the intense religiosity that Lombardi is possessed by. There is no Christian Lieberstod like Oronte’s (and the music to this scene is more effectively employed here) and although the chorus is doing its Crusading nut all the time, there feels like there is less of it or at least it is more balanced than in Lombardi, possibly due to the greater length of the newer opera, although I for one would not have complained had Verdi cut two or three of the choruses in his revision. The orchestral music is MUCH better here than in the original opera, more sophisticated and benefits greatly from French orchestration. There also is no post-death appearance by the lead tenor telling the soprano where to find a divine spring of water with which to lead the Christian forces to victory, thus the opera avoids having consecutive similar deaths by reducing the bodycount to one, and this to the very end of the opera. The reduction, as common in French opera, of the supernatural elements of the original opera make the newer opera much more credible. There are some new mostly meaningless characters, such as what purpose other than to demonstrate Gaston’s social status and telling Helene where he is in act 2 does the character of Raymond have? Isaure is slightly more purposeful, although she does nothing to contribute to the plot other than to announce the battle results to Helene in act 4. However they appear throughout the opera and are not relegated to a single act as what happens in Lombardi. Reducing the Muslim characters to near parody minimalism (which is still offensive) does mitigate the obnoxious Christian pretensions found in Lombardi. Still we have the Legate and the Count who are myopic and only Helene comes off as someone who is capably of changing her mind on anything as even Gaston is brainwashed on the concept of honour. Still some of the numbers are really good, as indicated by the star count, but there is very little here that is more than very good. The ballet is an okay divertissement, but nothing more than that and apart from completeness the opera would be better off (and just under two and a half hours) without it. The highlights are the various arias and duets for Helene and Gaston and their act 4 trio with Roger along with the entirety of act 3 scene 2, but in the negative are most of the choral numbers lifted from Lombardi (although two or three of them are rather good). The worst of these occur when the Crusader ideology brainwashes everyone in its path. The plot, and music, is more interesting when it sticks to its most basic elements of revenge over the murder attempt and divorces itself from its late 11th century setting. Thus Jerusalem is a B, maybe a B+, but certainly no more than that.