Giacomo Meyerbeer: Dinorah (1859)

Opera comique in 3 acts. Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes. I love Meyerbeer, I will admit this right now. In fact I will admit to my surprise that I have taken this long to write a review of a Meyerbeer opera but here I start. This is probably the simplest of Meyerbeer’s French works, certainly the shortest one. Although once one of Meyerbeer’s most popular works, it has been rarely performed since the Wagner induced drought of Meyerbeer since the First World War. The recording on review here is from the 2016 CPO release with Patrizia Ciofi as Dinorah and Philippe Talbot as Corentin.

A different three hour live performance of the opera is available on youtube here:

Plot: Brittany, 19th century. Dinorah has been deserted by her fiance Hoel at the altar because he has been seduced by a wicked demon into trying to find a buried treasure. She has since taken up with a mysterious pet goat named Bella. He enlists the help of the bag-piper Corentin because he knows that the first person to touch the treasure will die.


ACT 1: A rural scene, with the interior of Corentin’s little home (55 minutes).

0: The overture ***, an amazing (long) symphonic prologue depicting Dinorah’s abandonment in favour of a buried treasure. Starts with a brooding theme that is somewhat like the one that starts Catalani’s Dejanice then the strings go mad and high then back to the brooding theme then a series of dancing tunes some more fierce, some more tame, and then bang, bang, a choral sequence, a prayer to the Virgin Mary followed by a rather noble sounding theme and then some brooding and whirlwinds abound and then stillness. The noble theme tries to climb its way back up and it crescendos with mighty power, then flute and harp, then mighty power again and then flute and harp then back to mighty power. The final minute is a wonderfully galop.

13: Suddenly we are surrounded by goats and villagers give us a tuneful chorus as they prepare for the Pardon (Breton Catholic pilgrimage) which annually takes place the following day **. Two goat herders lead us in a little song on the same theme. They see Dinorah’s goat Bellah and go off.

18: We here the second theme from the overture again, this is the theme of Bellah the goat and the bell about her neck. Dinorah addresses Bellah, and we know from their one sided but tuneful conversation that Dinorah is totally batty **. The last four minutes are a little different, a nice little song for Dinorah **.

26: Then we hear Corentin’s bagpipes in the distance and then he has the first of the dialogues in which he demonstrates that he is terrified of something (possibly everything) but glad to be home. He has a very lovely (almost ravishing) Couplets **. He screams when he sees Dinorah and thinks she is a ghost or a demon or something.

30: Dinorah commits home invasion and terrorizes Corentin by coloratura bombing him ***. She at first is simply attracted to his song and demands he sing again then she mistakes him for her fiance Hoel. He repels her advances which only terrify him even more. If he closes his eyes maybe it will go away thinks Corentin, they both end up falling asleep until…

40: Dialogue: Hoel arrives looking for a Fr. Alain (recently deceased, three weeks ago), Dinorah runs off and Corentin is terrified again and eventually runs away. Hoel’s thoughts tune to Dinorah, who he abandoned a year earlier. Aria: Hoel’s song about magic ** is really tuneful, the end sounds a little like Rossini’s Barber. 

46: Corentin returns and Hoel seduces him into going with him to find the treasure knowing that he will kill him to get the treasure. Hoel reveals that he knows about it from a magician who lives on a nearby mountain. The duet that follows, although alright, is of a lower voltage * than the previous numbers although it does have an interesting downward scale in the strings. It takes a while to build up and acts more as an introduction to the trio to follow after Bellah’s goat bell can he heard and Dinorah returns.

50: Dinorah to the rescue ** with her mad coloratura and her goat. A storm blows in. The three have different reactions, Hoel excited to get the treasure, Dinorah out of her mind, Corentin listing Breton parton saints. The brooding theme from the very beginning of the overture starts up again, Bellah’s bell, and then as the two men go off to find the treasure, fading stillness.

ACT 2: A forest, a fallen tree bridging a stream. (41 minutes)

0: The entr’acte flows about like a brook *.

2: An a cappella chorus of woodcutters * (male and female alternating at first with the males on a “la” when the females are on then together).

4: Dinorah arrives and is depressed about her failed wedding ruined by the magician on the mountain **.

8: Dinorah sings a duet with her own shadow which she sees on a nearby rock face ***. Technically a very difficult coloratura aria and very charming, the Shadow Song as it is known can be seen as a digest of Meyerbeer’s knowledge of Italian bel canto technique.

18: She really likes her shadow and soon runs off after we get several of the themes from the overture. watch for some brooding in the orchestra. Hoel and Corentin arrive on the scene searching for the treasure.

20: Corentin is cold and complains about this in an interesting and beguiling aria **.

23: Dinorah returns to torment Corentin with her madness. She figures out about the treasure. They have a duet, at first to a sinister string accompaniment **, listen for a French Horn laying low under Dinorah’s vocal line as she tells Corentin that one little bit of info Hoel left out (the first person to touch the treasure will drop dead) which sounds a lot like the horn in the prelude to Das Rheingold.

26: Informed, Corentin is reluctant now to continue the search, but Hoel demands it of him **. Dinorah pops in again, Corentin thinks he is safe, but midnight strikes.

33: The trio finale *** in which Hoel at first thinks the Dinorah is a ghost, albeit one with amazing bel canto faculties. Corentin sees her as his saviour.  Especially look out for the last two minutes in which Dinorah tries to follow Bellah across the dead tree bridging the ravine and then falls over and gets taken away by the rushing water. With one long dramatic crash, the act ends.

ACT 3: Near the village church, the day of the Pardon. (39 minutes)

8: Another entr’acte, it at first seems to want to get to the choral theme from act 1 but doesn’t. Instead it races around in the strings and woodwinds until we have four divertissement numbers *. First a huntsman (baritone) much of it accompanied by horn, part of it parlando, followed by a reaper (tenor) who is slightly more tuneful and orchestrally accompanied. Then the two goatherds from act 1 come on and they take a while but it pays off slightly in the end *. Finally all four come to together in a prayer (started by the tenor and much of it a cappella). It isn’t all that interesting, but it does get us into the mode of the Pardon.

16: Hoel and Corentin come on, the latter having been searching for Dinorah who he fears has been washed out to the ocean. This starts off as patches of parlando again, not singing. Suddenly Hoel bursts out of the melodrama with his fear for Dinorah’s safety as he finds her laying on the ground ** and she is alive.

22: The long (17 minute) finale can be divided into two main parts. First a long duet ** (9 minutes)  Hoel realizes that his search for the buried treasure was madness, he should have married Dinorah a year ago that very day and instead he let her go mad and shacked up with that pet goat of hers. Dinorah is excited to get married finally. Listen for the orchestration, particularly while the number is still just a duet between Hoel and Dinorah. The last year has been just a dream, declares Dinorah.

31: At last she invokes the Virgin Mary again and the chorus and Corentin are able to come in for one long finale reprisal of the main chorus from the overture (first in almost a whisper under Dinorah’s coloratura soprano line). Dinorah is so ready to get married, Hoel takes up the wedding march theme from the overture, the chorus joins in and everyone and everything is happy **. Notice especially Dinorah last coloratura farewell before the curtain falls with a bang.

This is a really nice opera, but I can’t help but feel that the first two acts are superior to the last act in terms of musical quality. The plot is very (possibly excessively) simple with only three characters who matter dramatically at all and five or six walk on characters who provide scenic diversions at the beginning of each act. The massive overture acts almost like a Wagnerian quarry of musical themes that return throughout the opera leading one to suspect that Wagner got his leitmotif idea from Meyerbeer (maybe…). All of these themes are incredibly good and there are a few numbers such as Corentin’s aria and his duet with Dinorah, along with Hoel’s aria in act 1, the Shadow Song and finale in act 2 and the four divertissement pieces that are basically free of these influences and are fine numbers. The beginning of act 3 is by far the weakest part of the opera, and unfortunately there is so little left of the opera once it is over that the opera never fully recovers to the level of act 2 much less act 1. But how wonderful are the first two acts of this opera! With the exception of just a few minutes the opera from overture to the end of act 2 is absolutely stunning with amazing number after amazing number. The plot is a little silly, although so uncomplicated with its idea of the buried treasure being the only plot motivator except for Dinorah and Hoel’s desire to finally wed. Corentin serves as a comic foil to the lovers, and in most ways is their total opposite being frightened by everything, including Dinorah herself. He seems more comfortable around Hoel, that is until Dinorah tells him about the deadly nature of the treasure. In any case, Meyerbeer gives him some wonderful music to sing. Dinorah spends most of the opera too insane to fear anything and Hoel only fears that which would stop his marry to her. The goat must have some sort of psychological symbolism as a surrogate of affection for Dinorah. In spite of its (comparatively, but still good) weaker third act, Dinorah deserves a solid A for its amazing overture, marvellous numbers for its three leads, and wonderful orchestration. I can never get enough of the “off” sound of Meyerbeer’s orchestrations for his operas. If only he had written more than six operas in his French period.

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