Giacomo Meyerbeer: L’etoile du nord (1854)

Opera-comique en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 53 minutes.

With this review I believe I cover all six of Meyerbeer’s French works. I hope to review some of the Italian operas later. Coming off of the worldwide success of Le Prophete, L’etoile du Nord was Meyerbeer’s first (of two) foray into the opera comique genre, and within a year it had been performed 100 times at the Comique alone. It is actually a revision of a German singspiel about Frederick the Great of Prussia (which was incidentally a subject Wagner had considered for a five-act opera in the late 1840s).  Today it is certainly the least performed of the six Paris operas.

PLOT: Finland and St. Petersburg, during the reign of Peter the Great, circa 1710. Catherine is a Finnish peasant girl who misses her dead mother greatly and is the sister of George who ends up in being drafted into Peter the Great’s army along with Danilowitz, a pastry chef, but instead of George going into military service (as he is engaged to be wed to the beautiful Prascovia) his sister disguises herself as a boy and takes his place, falls in love with the Tsar, and foils a coup attempt. That is just half of what happens!

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The overture is a full scale ten minute symphony **, the best bits are a wintery ballet theme that comes in about five minutes in which you may recognize and the finale gallop which is utterly irresistible and I believe connected to the military music in the act 2 finale, to me at least. It is full of those orchestral clashes one would recognize now as distinctly Meyerbeerean.

ACT 1: A village on the gulf of Finland, George’s house on the left, a church entrance on the right. In the back the harbour. The village is set up for dinning hour for the workers. (68 minutes not counting the overture’s 10).

2: Workers and carpenters (Peter disguised among them and still working) along with their wives prepare for dinner in the village centre to a quiet little intro “tra-ra-la-la” chorus. Danilowitz gives us the first air with a rather dapper sales pitch for his pastries *** full of high tenor coloratura. After this Danilowitz enquires as to where Catherine is. Apparently with her brother, he also discovers that Peter is in love with her.

8: The workers go into a “To Finland!” patriotic drinking song **.

12: Danilowitz is a bit intimidated by this as he is an ethnic Russian, the drinking song itself is a bit menacing as well and the infuriated Finns attack him * when a bell rings from the church (the sign that the workers must go back to work). Danilowitz finds out that Peter is also Russian.

14: Danilowitz sings him a lilting Polonaise about a faithful and brave soldier ***. Peter turns out to be a flautist as well.

19: Catherine herself comes on informing them that her brother Georges has just gotten the consent of his fiancee Prascovia’s father to marry her. There are some nice coloratura and interjections from the two men **. She goes into a melodrama in which she relates how her mother told her that she would one day meet and fall in love with a man of great merit and heroism (star theme is heard for the first time here).

26: Georges’ fiancee Prascovia rushes on fearing the persuit of Ukrainian soldiers **. Everyone hides in the big house.

30: A fearsome band of Ukrainian warriors led by their leader Gritzenko contemplate that there seems to be no one in the village and the misdeeds they will now inflict **.

32: Catherine confronts the thugs ** and demonstrates that she does not fear them and is capable of some coloratura, dancing, and fortunetelling, telling Gritzenko that he will soon be a corporal in Tsar Peter’s army. The amused Ukrainians leave the village undisturbed.

40, 47: Catherine and Peter duet as he is impressed with her courage and she gives him a ring marking their engagement *. It is an okay number, but it is musically much more low temperature, sort of like the opening chorus. This conclusion, about the last 100 seconds are actually rather good though **.

49: Prascovia and Catherine are confronted with the news of Georges’ draft order. Although Catherine is mostly calm and a plan is formulating in her mind, Prascovia freaks out *. He will have to leave that night if no replacement is found, but at the same time he is on his way purchasing the wedding garments for the couple.

55: The first act finale consists of five parts: The first is an introductory chorus of guests arriving for the wedding *.

58: Second: Prascovia entertains the guests with a wobbly coloratura gymnast song *. At the end of which Georges arrives.

62: Third: a chorus of soldiers and recruits **. Georges and Prascovia end up engaging in some coloratura fireworks.

65: Fourth: A transvesti Catherine joins the recruits, she prays for her brother and his wife ***.

66: In the last three minutes or so Catherine sings are barcarolle as the ship floats out of the harbour *. The orchestral crashes at the very end.

ACT 2: A Russian military camp. 49 minutes.

0: I think I remember this Waltz from either being part of the ballet suit for Le Prophete or else it is part of the Les Patineurs suit **.

4: Ismailoff’s air to the calvary ***, a surprisingly good number.

6: Gritzenko is now a corporal and sings a song in honour of the infantry with choral accompaniment **. A good martial number. Catherine and the recruits arrive and Gritzenko thinks he recognizes her (he does) but Catherine tells him that the girl he met is his sister. He reveals to “him” a planned coup to take power from Peter.

11: The troops sing a good military song ** before a grand tent is set up for Peter and his second in command Danilowitz (!).

15: Danilowitz and Peter get drunk in a mini-orgy (the dancers Ekimona and Nathalie are also there entertaining the two men at the end of the number). Catherine and another have been stationed as guards and is annoyed when she recognizes the two men and that Peter has broken his promise not to drink but forgives him **.

24: Peter starts off with a mini-bacchanal song *.

27: The two girls respond with a song that is not far from the coloratura cooing of Prascovia and Georges in the act 1 finale about the ramparts of Moscow *.

30: Catherine comes into the tent for some reason and catches Peter kissing one of the two girls *. The two men continue to ravish the two dancers to the anger of Catherine.

33: Peter does not recognize Catherine at first because he is so drunk and condemns her to death but rescinds when he realizes the resemblance the youth has to Catherine **. Gritzenko gives Catherine a list of his co-conspirators which she hands over to Peter before deserting camp.

40: The chorus opens the act 2 finale after which Yermoloff (loyal to Peter) informs him of the rebellion but he and Danilowitz are so drunk **.

42: There is then a dark prayer of vengeance on the Tsar *.

44: Le marche sacree ** the signal for attack.

46: Peter rouses himself and gives his people a pep talk *.  The first of the loyal rally to him.

48: A second army arrives to defend him and the fanfare runs on fast as they all vow to defend Russia **.

ACT 3: A grand apartment in the palace of the Tsar in Petrograd, to the left a path toward a garden, to the right a door leading to further apartments in the palace and to the back a grand window overlooking a park. (47 minutes).

0: The entr’acte is a nice little mood setter *.

2: In a rather heartwarming air Peter ponders how he has lost Catherine **. Danilowitz has recreated a portion of the Finnish village for Peter in a part of the garden.

9: Gritzenko is brought in and fears for his life (after all he is a traitor) **. Peter promises to have Gritzenko executed if he can not bring Catherine to the palace by the following evening. There are multiple musical ideas here that are really very good but it isn’t a coherent whole.

16: Prascovia and Georges show up and tell Gritzenko that they are from Finland (true) and that Georges was replaced by his sister Catherine disguised as a boy when the former was drafted. Gritzenko tells Georges and Prascovia that the former will be shot for not making the draft call.

18: The couple’s duet is sweet but not much else *.

23: Upon arrival Danilowitz recognizes the pair as Catherine’s brother and sister-in-law. His aria has a very lite accompaniment and it seems like Meyerbeer just wrote a good vocal line for Danilowitz here without much orchestration, but it does end sweetly *.

27: The twenty minute finale starts with the arrival of Catherine * who then starts to think she is fantasizing about the village in Finland to some strong returns of tunes from the opening of act one (the workmen, the toast to Finland).

34: Danilowitz reprises his sales pitch on the pastries **.

36: The wedding procession *.

40: She hears Peter playing the flute and asks her brother to play as well. There is then a trio of sorts between Catherine and two flutes **. Everything goes silent and she wonders why. The flutes come back nicely.

43: Finally the strings come in ** and the chorus as suddenly we realize that everything is in preparation for Catherine to wed Peter and become empress.

45: In the last two minutes the first theme from the overture returns **.

46: In the finale forty seconds there is a final chorus based on the end of the overture *. Very fast, curtain falls. The End.

COMMENT:

This is an okay opera. It isn’t great, but it is entertaining and most of the music is sparkling and bright as one would expect from a good comedic night of French musical theatre. There are some drawbacks like the act 1 Catherine- Prascovia duet, the act 2 quintet is a little uncomfortable with the two men getting drunk and randy with two showgirls but are then wide awake for the act finale only minutes later, and in the middle of act 3 the music does start to give one the impression that Meyerbeer was running out of steam. What is up with that aria for Danilowitz in act 3? There is, however, also great pathos in the work, such as many of Catherine’s melodramas and Peter’s aria at the opening of act 3. The first act is rather long, being 77 minutes whereas the other two are in the 47-49 minute range. There is something Merry Widow-ish about Danilowitz recreating the Finnish village in act three and then all the returning melodies which really help to salvage the finale (along with Catherine and the duelling flutes). Like I said, this isn’t great opera, but it is enjoyable. Certainly not an alpha opera, but certainly a worthy B+.

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