Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes.
This is my first opera reviewed at the request of a viewer. I had heard this opera before a few years ago. It was Halevy’s last completed opera, as he left Noe incomplete upon his death although it was completed by his son-in-law Georges Bizet. It has an extremely spotty history, after its initial run of 58 performances in Paris it disappeared for over 150 years until it was revived in concert form at Montpellier in 2011 which is the origin of the recording under review here. It is edited, the ballets are all missing for the most part, which is a shame because one of them, in act 2, consists of a ballet for chess pieces! When entire numbers are cut in the recording I will indicate this as often as I can. There are 22 numbers according to the vocal score.
PLOT: Poitou, Middle Ages. Blanche, daughter of the Count of Poitou, is in love with the returning crusader Rene who is relentlessly pursued by the sorceress and countess of Lusignan, Melusine, the lover/prisoner of the evil sorcerer Stello di Nici. She tries to remove Rene from Blanche by claiming that the latter is having an affair with her soprano page Alois.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (30.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The chateau of the Comte de Poitou.
2: The opening scene *, after a brief orchestral introduction, sends us off into a celebration of maidens surrounding the excited Blanche and Alois anticipating the return of Rene to agreeable waltzing music. The Count comes on and leads everyone in a mildly agreeable prayer.
14: Stello arrives dressed as a monk returning from the crusades and claims that Rene can be found at the castle of Melusine de Lusignan to a rather bright orchestral accompaniment, prompting Blanche into an agreeable ballade * which gets interrupted by the chorus a couple of times before regaining its bearings. The scene ends with the Count and chorus trying to lift her spirits with an okay if somewhat stilted and ensemble which, however, does end well.
Scene 2: A room in the chateau de Lusignan.
26: After what you would expect would be a menacing introduction and is as far from it as water is a rock (although a chorus of female dark spirits is cut re: vocal score), Melusine goes on about her fascination with Rene (who suddenly appears dreaming while laying on a couch in his tent but speaking before her). It eventually warms up * and then the chorus comes on and lullabies everything before the act ends. It is an interesting instance of a female character in an opera objectifying a male character.
ACT 2: (36 minutes)
Scene 1: Melusine’s laboratory, occult goings on.
0: Finally, we get some music that at least sounds sinister **. Melusine gives us her spiel: she wants Rene but also wants to be freed from Stello’s evil power. He is the true origin of her power. She has no powers without him, and she traded her soul to him for those powers.
7: Stello arrives and confronts her, she can not escape him, and tells her so in a rather oddly lyrical duet *.
Scene 2: A grand room in the chateau of the Count de Poitou.
14: A lovely horn solo starts off as an intro to Rene’s little cavatina which has one really catchy bit in the vocal line (supported by the oboe and thankfully repeated) for which I can give this number ***. (Personally, it is my favourite moment in the score).
19: The Count, Blanche, and Alois come on and greet Rene along with the chorus in an agreeable if low temperature Couplet lead by the Count *. (The human chess game ballet would occur here).
25: The chorus leads an Offenbach-style number as the Sibyl arrives to tell the royals their fortunes. She is obviously a mezzo-soprano (spoiler: it is Melusine) and introduces herself (Strophes) in a good aria *.
30: The music during the prediction scene saunters about but there is a strong accompaniment here *. The predictions are all doom and disaster (of course) but she does reveal her true identity to Rene and reminds him about the dream he had the previous night (an odd operatic reference to what is possibly a wet dream). After she tells him to meet her in the garden the chorus finishes off the scene with a repeat of the Sibyl’s intro.
ACT 3: The castle gardens. (29 minutes)
0: Furious preluding music * seems to be predicting the storm that will come towards the end of the act, then something more familiar and lyrical.
2: Rene comes on waiting for Melusine and she arrives. Their duet is a very good number if not especially amazing **.
8: Blanche arrives and so does Alois. Melusine provokes Alois to declare his love for Blanche in front of Rene *.
10: The chorus comes out with a cute dance number for little reason at all *.
16: Rene confronts and denounces Blanche who at first protests her very real innocence when he tells her he is leaving for good *.
19: The Count arrives and asks Blanche what is going on. Everyone except for Melusine is either enraged (Rene) or very miserably unhappy (everyone else) **.
24: As the Count is about to punch out Rene, Blanche declares that she has betrayed Rene with Alois and will go to a convent for life **.
26: The finale is oddly bouncy as Melusine brews up a storm and spirits Rene away to her chateau **. And do I find traces of La Juive?
ACT 4: A Pavillon on the Chateau de Lusignan. (21.5 minutes)
0: The prelude starts off with something rather sophisticated for a change *, all of the instrument sections sort of end up flying about. This leads to a female spirits chorus. Rene comes on mildly liltingly. He is now Melusine’s lover and they greet each other.
7: The Bacchanal * attempts to be a lot more exciting and interesting than it actually is, especially with Rene’s heroics. It is pretty though, but this is also a shame because it really should be more interesting than it is and should be climactic rather than anti-climactic (is it cut possibly?).
15: The number is broken up by the arrival of Stello who reveals to Rene to truth about Melusine and himself. This goes on for five minutes of brooding but never ornery music when a Rene calls out to Melusine by name and Stello brings in a good melody on a horn and the act flowers finally **.
20: Rene curses and leaves Melusine, vowing to return to Blanche to the amusement of Stello **. The chorus of spirits condemns her.
ACT 5: A Valley near a magnificent cathedral. (25 minutes)
2: Blanche is going to be conducted to the nearby convent and encounters an old woman who predicts danger. Blanche declares she is not afraid in a okay little air *.
7: Melusine arrives and begs Blanche to forgive her. Blanche refuses * and their duet is a little confused as it sounds like Blanche is forgiving her but she leaves to meet Rene in the church (Melusine tells her he awaits her there). But it does have one good solid melody.
16: Stello comes on and tells Melusine that her time has come. Demons come from the earth and are ready to take her to hell in a furious Bacchanal **. Melusine refuses to go and they get more sinister, but only mildly.
20: Then, literally five minutes before everything is going to be over **, Blanche, Rene, and the Count can be heard praying madly in the cathedral for Melusine. This, along with Melusine deciding she now believes in Jesus saves her soul from Stello. Blanche then goes into a sweet if somewhat sappy song about hope for Christians in the afterlife as she takes the dying Melusine in her arms. The nuns come out of the convent and it is a mild conclusion, so milky sweet as the organ comes out and everyone sings a nice little hymn.
This is an okay opera, not really that interesting but it does have some elements that are worth mentioning. The “Oh Christian Faithful” ending must have been a bit of a conceit for the Jewish Halevy and I suspect this fairy-tale-like ending was a major factor in the failure of the opera to be picked up after its initial run in Paris. The story and the music are at their worst never bad but instead dull. Melusine’s relentless lust for Rene does come off as odd and somewhat unbelievable but the instance in act 1 scene 2 when she watches him sleep in his tent is an interesting moment of female on male objectification. There is some grand music, the best numbers for me at least are Rene’s act 2 cavatina (my absolute fav), Stello’s bacchanal in act five, and the finales to the last three acts, but much of the score (particularly in the first two acts but throughout the opera) falls into the sound world of French ordinary opera music which is serviceable and fine but not all that interesting. Alois also seems like an odd and almost wasted soprano part as he only serves a single purpose and that is to help Melusine win over Rene by exposing his unrequited love for Blanche. The human chess game ballet would have been interesting. Stello is to me the most interesting character in the piece, but alas we don’t get very much of him because so much of the running time is taken up with the Melusine-Rene-Blanche love triangle. I wish the fourth act bacchanal was as good as the one in the fifth act. All this said, this really isn’t a bad opera, even if the plot is spread rather thin. Why, other than to maintain the five act structure, is act three its own act? There is nothing I can pinpoint as a failure here really other than the inability of the work to maintain my interest. I am certain there are people out there who will like this thing, and maybe even love it. Personally a B-, but you are free to disagree with me, after all I keep changing my mind between this and a solid B.