Opera-Comique en trois actes. Running Time 2 hours 12 minutes (music only, with dialogue about 30 to 40 minutes longer).
This is in my opinion Chabrier’s finest opera. The music is often chromatic but also maintains a 16th century feel, at least vaguely. The plot is ludicrous and it may feel at times that there are too many similarities between this and a lot of other, much more famous, operas.
PLOT: Poland, 1574. There are six main characters: Henri de Valois (baritone), King of France, who really wants to not be crowned also as King of Poland, le Comte de Nangis (tenor), his friend who is in love with the slave girl Minka (soprano) who is owned by the wealthy Laski (bass) who is the uncle of Alexina (soprano) the wife of the Italian duke de Fritelli (baritone) who is conspiring with other Polish nobles to evict or even kill Henri to keep him from taking the Polish throne. To further complicate things, Henri had an affair with Alexina years before her marriage in Venice. Confused?
On review here is the Dutoit recording from 1985 which cuts all of the dialogue (which will vary depending on production in any case). All the music (which I think is uncut) is under review here. I chose this recording because all of the music is presented here and I think it is the best sung recording of this work.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A stately room in a castle in Krakow. (48 minutes)
0: The prelude *** starts on a series of chromatic chords which Maurice Revel claimed changed the face of French music forever. Much of the rest consists of something rather lovely resembling a 16th century pavane wedded to a Marche militaire ending in a nice climax.
3: The opera itself opens with a card game between two of Henri’s nobles (a baritone Count and a tenor Vicomte, the latter losing constantly) as the other soldiers look on because they are so bored. In its own way it is rather cute, particularly with the choral flourishes about how they are in drab Poland and the tenor’s acceptance of defeat *. Nangis arrives, and the Vicomte loses again.
8: Nangis tries to lighten everyone’s spirits with a rather jaunty rondeau ** filled with tenor vocal gymnastics as he tells the nobles that he has spent the last eight days recruiting new Polish troops for Henri. He orders them to come in, they do, lazily.
12: There is a bit of a march and yet another good but short chorus *.
13: The duke de Fritelli unfavourably compares the Poles to the French to a militant Mazurka *. It is entertaining, but mild.
15: Minka breaks in and is held by the guards who ID her as a slave of the villainous Count Laski and Nangis rescues her. She has been looking for him and gently reproaches him for his coolness, the nobles provide a nice choral counterbalance to the duetting with both Nangis and Minka going up and down scales like mad but in the most melodic way as the nobles are transfixed by Minka’s beauty ***. She promises to meet up with him later and will signal by singing from under the window.
22: Minka tells Nangis to cool off because, like a caged bird, she must acclimatize to her new freedom **. He caches her in a cupboard when the King arrives.
24: Henri finally arrives and complains about how drab Poland is wanting to go back to the bright gaiety of Paris **.
28: Henri and de Fritelli talk about this gal named Alexina who is in fact de Fritelli’s wife, who arrives and sings a rather tuneful if chromatic duet with her husband after Henri goes off with Nangis **. Fritelli is in on the plot not for glory but just to impress his wife to be affectionate toward him. Her uncle Laski is the real badie who wants to kidnap Henri, transport him to the border, and instate the Austrian archduke as king. Alexina does not actually know that it is Henri who was her ex-lover in Venice, but she has sworn vengeance on all Frenchmen.
31: Minka gets popped out of the cupbroad by Henri and reveals that she is in love with Nangis and that there is a plot against the King (she does not know that Henri is the King). Their duet has one truly wonderful melody **.
37: The eleven minute act one finale starts off with a chorus *. Henri and Fritelli have made a deal: the king will not order the duke’s execution (actually he loves the idea of the non-violent conspiracy to ship himself back off to France) in exchange for allowing him to go to the conspirators’ meeting at Laski’s ball that evening disguised as Nangis.
42: Henri has Nangis arrested *.
44: Henri and Alexina recognize each other, Fritelli is annoyed by this as now his wife is fantasizing about the king with coloratura delight **. Both decide mutually to put politics ahead of their desire for each other.
46: Minka, having promised to return that evening for a rendezvous with Nangis announces herself by singing under the window **. Nangis escapes prison through the window and Henri goes off with Fritelli to the ball and the conspiracy meeting.
ACT 2: The ball room of Laski’s palace. (53 minutes)
0: The act starts with an okay dance sequence * all out of place for the 16th century setting (mostly Waltz music actually). About three minutes in the chorus starts doing its pennyworth with the same music. We finally meet Laski as he does hosting duties for his party. It’s all grand, loud, and in its own way impressive alright, but also a bit too Viennese waltz king for an opera set in renaissance Poland with French, Italian, and Polish characters.
10: After Fritelli has passed off Henri as Nangis (who apparently desires revenge on the king) Alexina, Henri, Fritelli and Laski all reflect on how friendship often turns to hatred and betrayal *.
13: Fritelli admits that his love for Alexina is the only reason why he is siding with her uncle Laski over deporting Henri. Meanwhile, Minka is congratulated by the other servants for getting herself a noble lover **.
15: She sings an “old gypsy song” about the power of love. This is rather adorable if in its own way powerful ** and ends with some brief duetting between her and the escapee Nangis (reminder of his act one rondeau) before she almost blows Henri’s cover (thinking him to be a conspirator against the King) and is locked away in yet another cupboard, this time by Fritelli.
23: Alexina confronts Henri for deserting her (incidentally she doesn’t actually know he is king, she just recognizes him from , he claims that politics beyond his control were the cause of his betrayal and they go down memory lane. After first it is a little slow but there are moments of real passion, especially when Henri’s baritone starts to sound strongly like a dramatic tenor **. Henri actually goes up to a G#4 and rarely sings below a F3 here and this continues into the next number.
30: The conspiracy meeting ***. After some preliminaries, silence. Then the theme from the very beginning of the overture comes lead by Alexina and the scene flows accordingly, although Henri has to reenforce the demand to boot out well…himself!
38: Henri has Minka summon up Nangis with their usual song. This time, she sings a song about how she is ready to consummate their love which really gets Nangis going. He is then set upon by the conspirators, although he declares himself to be the real Nangis at first he quickly changes his story and openly declares himself to really be the King and as his first act pardons himself (as in Nangis) of all crimes foreign and domestic. This is a coup de foudre ***. In an aside Nangis figures out that this is Henri’s safe plan for leaving Poland and agrees to be be kidnapped and sent off to the border.
44: In the ten minute finale *** things get very complicated. The conspirators decide that, after all, the king must die! Henri admits the truth of his identity to them, but none of them believe him and they all still think he is Nangis and decide that “Nangis” must assassinate the “King”. Minka declares that she has freed the “King”, the conspirators disperse for fear of French reprisal and Minka and Henri turn out to be on opposite sides in a way: Henri vows to get the King out of Poland and Minka vows to save the man she loves be he the King or Nangis! The act ends with one last reprisal of the grand theme from the start of the overture with all the other soloists and the chorus in a bizarre state of ecstasy only possible in opera. A triumph.
ACT 3: An inn on the Polish border. (31 minutes)
0: A four minute entr’acte starts off the act with some oddly Wagnerian but jovial and romantic chromatic modulations *.
4: A crowd of guests celebrating the coronation have a rather good chorus and then Fritelli tells Basile, the innkeeper, that the new king is actually the Austrian Archduke and not the King of France, but he and his guests are cool with it either way and they party on *. An amusing five minutes.
9, 11: Alexina tells Fritelli that the Archduke, thinking himself the loser, has already returned to Austria, and thinks that supporting Henri might be the winning end of the fuzzy stick meanwhile Henri and his retinue are trying to find transport across the border to get out of Poland. Fritelli accuses his wife of planning to continue her affair with Henri *. Watch the bit of a mazurka towards the very end **.
12: Minka comes on and she and Alexina despair over the fates of the men they respectively love (remember, neither of them is 100% such what their lover’s identity is as although Nangis was originally honest with Minka about being le Comte de Nangis, the King has never been honest with Alexina as to who he is except for the one time with the conspirators when he admitted to being king, confused? I know.) But this number is very sweet with the two sopranos doing their soprano thing pining for the men they love ***.
17: Fritelli tells Minka that Nangis has killed the King and Minka collapses while Alexina decides that she will help the assassin, whoever they are, to escape Poland because, it is apparently the worst country ever (especially for misbehaving wives). Minka is about to kill herself in grief (seriously) ***.
20: When Nangis suddenly arrives and the two lovers fall into each other’s arms in a mad passionate ecstasy bordering on Tristan und Isolde only better and more sexy ***. He admits that he is definitely Nangis, not the King, and she is so happy he is alive and with her (notice his subtle tenor high C). She mourns the fact that she is still a slave, but Nangis declares that to him she is a queen.
26: In the last five minutes Alexina and Henri attempt to flee across the border but are brought back by the King’s Guards led by Minka and Nangis. The two women finally straighten out who they are in love with and Henri decides to accept the crown anyway. The people cheer their reluctant king “le roi malgre lui” in a finale of Wagnerian proportions to the military chorus in the introduction ***.
This is an extremely enjoyable opera. You really cheer for the two couples (especially Minka and Nangis who you wish for the entire opera would just start making soprano and tenor babies because they both have such beauteous music). Alexina is a little less attractive given that she is just so headstrong, vengeful, and frankly her affair with the King, were it to continue, would be adulterous and not nearly so innocent (although just about as passionate) as that of Minka and Nangis. Henri, on the other hand, is a very attractive figure, and in a lot of ways he is the funniest character in the opera. Fritelli and Laski are a little less interesting, Chabrier does not seem to have given them much interesting music and it is odd that Laski (who is the closest thing this opera has to a villain) doesn’t really do much beyond host a conspirators meeting during a ball at his palace. If I can fault the opera it would be for attaching a large list of really earth shatteringly amazing numbers (which were extremely modern in 1887 and can be easily identified in the review above as the three star and even some of the two star items) with a few that are rather derivative like Fritelli’s mazurka, the first half of the act one finale which falls into the realm of brooding recitative during the events leading to and during the arrest of Nangis, and the Waltz sequence at the start of the second act which is a shallow parody of Johann Strauss II. I like the dramatic tenor effect Chabrier gives to Henri in the second half of act 2 by scoring the baritone very, very high (up to a G#4), suddenly sounding almost like an heroic tenor. Meanwhile, I don’t think I have ever (and it bares repeating) come across an operatic coupling for whom I really want them to make it like Nangis and Minka, Chabrier gave them musical ecstasy to sing! His orchestration is masterful, and everything falls into place on a lush score which makes me wish the work was through composed and not just a system of 20 numbers and an overture. The plot being as complex as it is (or is it simply confusing?) is another drawback although if one focuses on the romantic elements and just remembers that the conspiracy is somewhere out there this should keep one from enjoying the work. It could be nothing but a solid A, of course.