Opera en quatre actes et cinq tableaux, ou cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes (not counting intermission or time elapsed before and after performance but included on the recording).
What do you get when the composer of Lakmé goes to Eastern Europe and gives us the tale of a gypsy turned wicked countess, a Slavic peasant girl, and the good man they both are in love with? You get Kassya!
Set during the historical Galician Peasant Uprising of 1846 in far-eastern Austria-Hungary, this is the ultimate love-quadrangle. The tenor is in a love triangle with two sopranos (one a Gypsy, the other his from his own people) and gets drafted into the army so the baritone Count can marry the Gypsy. A year of mismanagement and utter corruption on the part of the Count and Countess follows leading to their banishment. The Countess comes back to the tenor, realizing he is marrying the other soprano, stabs herself, and the other soprano lives sort of happily ever after married to the man they both love. Also something about a gypsy fortuneteller revealing all of this to the two women in code during a first act Christmas party. The librettists are the same as Bizet’s masterpiece leading this to be called <<Carmen du Nord>>. Delibes himself had been to Galicia in 1886, and had utilized melodies of Galician, Polish, Hungarian, and Czech origin while writing the score and had even developed his ear well enough to differentiate between melodies from either the western or eastern respective slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Galicia, incidentally, was a very multiethnic region. The majority were Ruthenian Slavs (a Latin term for non-muscovite East Slavs) along with Poles, Germans, Hungarians, Armenians, Jews, Romany, and Romanians. He was also friends with multiple members of the Parisian Polish emigre community. Given the fact that the opera’s plot is very pro-Galician peasant and anti-Polish noble, ethnically Polish elements in Paris at the time condemned the opera as not having “the Slavic spirit”, although I am certain that many Russians would object to this assessment.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A public place in the village of Zevale. (The opera starts 5 minutes 55 seconds in).
0: There is no overture, instead we are almost instantly in a world of Russian-style male chorusing *, a little starchy but happy chorusing if a bit in the furious, Arabian Nights vein, a little odd for a drinking chorus that must ultimately be based on a Ruthenian melody. Actually, technically we are in Galicia, which would have been located in an eastern section of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in any case Eastern Slavic territory. At first the scene consists of an encounter between some bandits, their chief, and the Jewish pub owner Mochkou (none of whom factor much into the plot later). It turns into an ensemble led by Cyrille, who is a 25 year old tenor peasant who is in love with Kassya, a 20 year old soprano Romany, although the 18 year old Sonya is in love with him. I think we all know where this is headed…. Apparently Cyrille has been very courageous in protecting the villagers from bandits and has been invited to play one of the Three Magi in the Christmas play that evening, and has been promised by the village elders of one request that must be obeyed by all, which would date the action to sometime in December or January(?) given usage of the Julian calendar? All of the melodies here go to the chorus, there are four, all of which are repeated at least once although the first obviously is dominate at the beginning and end.
8: An odd recitative/arioso for Cyrille ** as he thinks about Kassya. It has one solidly good tune which thankfully comes back frequently. It ends on some cute tenor coloratura, but is otherwise rather sedate but mildly charming. It is followed by some more oddly snake-charmer music that isn’t half-way away from the ballet of Verdi’s Otello, this is sort of a leitmotif for Kassya as she enters at this point.
15: The Kassya-Cyrille duet * takes a few minutes to warm up but it eventually does. It is a warm piece but has very little cohesion, much of it ends up more recitative than proper duetting. He invites her to the Christmas party after she admits to refusing a neckless from the count.
23: An encounter between Cyrille and Sonya, not exactly a duet but not exactly recitative either, instead Delibes labels this a Scene et Melodie * much of the latter on the phrase “Je ne sais pas”. Sonya starts to worry about if he loves her or not.
25: Another male chorus, this one strangely entitled “Chorus of the Jewish Merchants” *. It is tuneful but very mild.
27: A prediction from the old Gypsy woman that Kassya will be poor no longer and Sonya that she will find domestic bliss. It is reliant on its performance rather than the musical accompaniment *.
31, 34: The arrival of the Three Kings and Shepherds *. Gentle, with the quality of Gregorian chant. Cyrille has to choose a queen and chooses Kassya ** which devastates Sonya, who is heartbroken by this mindless betrayal.
38: A finale celebratory chorus * (it appears in miniature briefly a few moments earlier), set to a mazurka apparently.
ACT 2: A Hall in the castle of the Count of Zevale. (36.5 minutes)
3, 5: The orchestral introduction starts promisingly but turns almost immediately into an external chorus of Polish noblemen and we are introduced to the Comte and his servant Kolenoti. Kassya and Cyrille are brought in to work on Christmas decorations but the Count decides he wants Kassya to sing a song, she performs a Chanson slave *. It doesn’t last long (70 seconds) which is unfortunate (and the reason it gets only one star) because it is the most interesting thing to happen so far, and the Count goes into a longer aria * in which he tries to persuade Kassya to become his mistress. She isn’t buying it at first because if he were serious he would propose marriage to her, not just a temp living arrangement.
10: Cyrille comes back and they prep the decorations while engaging in a slightly confused duet ** which gets two stars even though the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. He is very worried that she will take up the Count’s offer, but she constantly tells him she loves only him. At first this almost resembles a comic opera number but the angst is apparent in the vocal line even if the rest of the number can be fragmentary although I do like the nice tenor high notes at the end.
21: Another bright male choral tune from the Polish noblemen brings on a scary ensemble * with Cyrille and the Count as the latter drafts the former into the army to get rid of him as a rival for Kassya. The most interesting thing here are Cyrille’s high notes (numerous).
25: Another mild chorus *, this time with bells.
29: Kassya comes on and confronts the Count with a mild but heartfelt petition * to stop all the trouble he is dealing out to Cyrille.
31: The choral finale in which Kassya worries a lot about Cyrille but sort of gives in to the Count has a menacing but dance-like quality to it **. The centre part is basically recitative but in the last ninety seconds it turns more faux-Middle Eastern/East Slavic and then there is a trumpet call and one last choral glorious repeat from the Polish nobles.
There is a 24 minute intermission ending at 1 hour 48 minutes and 57 seconds into the recording.
ACT 3: A snowy field near the forest and the village, two years later. (30 minutes)
0, 3: We do have an entr’acte as the snow falls, this is the remotely famous orchestral number La neige * that was performed on the organ at Delibes’ funeral and resembles proto-Debussy. It meanders about for what feels like the longest time. It is followed by a semi-chromatic female chorus des frileuses *. Sonya comes on with a mezzo peasant and they keep a vigil. Eventually Cyrille’s father Kostska come on and the two wait for the young man to return.
9: Sonya’s air de l’Hirondelle * is a grown up piece, even if the accompaniment consists of the woodwind section fluttering about aimlessly in parts.
14: The chorus of returning soldiers is a cappella and incredibly fragmentary with much of the scene following up to the return of Cyrille consisting of Sonya’s anticipating exclamations leading to a trio ** were Delibes finally attempts to raise the temperature a little, although it sags in the middle. Kostska tells his son that the Count and Countess have made the tax system unbearable and that the Countess is Kassya. Cyrille freaks and repeats her name again and again and the second half of the trio is comparatively depressing to the briefly joyous first half. The scene before the finale gets a little chromatic.
24: The sounds as the villagers show up with pitch forks * is obviously based on the sound made by a Galician church bell and although not quite striking, it is effective and repeated well. They are headed for the castle and elect Cyrille as their leader.
27: The chorus of the Proletariat **. Led by Cyrille, the army of villagers moves on to the castle. The number is a little static although the forces of menace and an oncoming snow storm work effectively enough. There is no entr’acte, although a recapitulation of La neige briefly pops up, so I will consider them distinct acts.
ACT 4: A ballroom in the Count’s castle. (22 minutes)
0: Most of the scene, prior to the insurrection sequence that is, consists of a combo of Polish and Ruthenian dance and song numbers. First up a manic but weirdly tuneful choral Polonaise opens the act *. Kassya and the Comte come on.
3: Second, Kassya’s Dumka * (a Ruthenian folk song about a cigar to choral accompaniment).
7: Third, the Ballet ** is ushered in by a solo gypsy violin and consists of four sections, Obertas (which is apparently a mazurka), Danse ruthene (which includes a glockenspiel), Sumka (including a solo gypsy violin), and Trepak (the most famous). This is actually the most interesting part of the opera, not a surprise given Delibes’ massively greater success with composing ballet than opera.
17: More scary peasants march which scares the aristo party guests. The insurrection ** sounds like a cross between an ornery Russian dance and the soundtrack of a film about the French Revolution. Kassya confronts the villagers and Cyrille. This whole time, and even through protests from the Comte, the people call for blood but Cyrille remembers that the people owe him one request, and he uses it to spare Kassya’s and the Comte’s lives. At first the people are disgusted but they remember their promise, on condition that they be banished forever.
ACT 5: Kotska’s cabin (12 minutes)
2: A section for Sonya has been cut so we apparently don’t know that Cyrille has already declared that he is going to marry her immediately before we go into a long duet * between Kassya and Cyrille which is far too similar to the duet between Carmen and Don Jose including even the tenor growling and yelling. At some point he almost ends up believing her protestations of love.
8: The finale * Kassya realizes that Cyrille does not love her and stabs herself. Sonya silently comes on (sans bridal chorus as indicated in the score) and Kassya goes through a flash back of the gypsy fortuneteller who said that she would be rich and Sonya would be domestically happy, now all that will come to pass, Kassya dies a Countess and Sonya gets Cyrille.
I think that some people believe I dislike this opera. I actually like this opera, it just took a struggle for me to recognize that although much of the score is rather quiet and even pale, there are some good things here. It is true that like everything else by Delibes the score consists of very short, momentary snatches of wonderful melody and beguiling ideas which rarely if never satisfy in total. Apart from the ballet, the best bits here last less than two minutes (some, like Kassya’s act 2 Slavic Song is all of 70 seconds). However, there are multiple good things about this opera: the multiculturalism depicted in the libretto, the music itself is fine at worst and sometimes good (much of Cyrille’s music and the choral sections relating to the insurrection). Delibes also does a good job of conveying wintery weather in act 3 and of embedding Sonya’s role in this act in particular into the weather conditions. Yet, the fifth act is sabotaged in this recording by being drastically cut down to the duet and the death scene devoid of choral accompaniment. I wonder if this was done to fit the opera into a three hour broadcast slot or if the soprano singing Sonya simply could not grasp the number properly in time (ah the world of concert opera!). Although musically the work is fine and even good at times, the plot is very episodic and blatantly similar to Bizet’s Carmen (after all they have the same librettists!). Only acts three and four connect to each other properly, and that is because they are basically in real time with each other. There is no explanation given for how Kassya meets with Cyrille in act 5 when she is supposed to be banished. Also, naughty gypsy characters in opera were certainly too much of a cliche by 1893. Perhaps the best way to understand Kassya is as the Eastern European Lakme, then it makes some logical sense.
In spite of my misgivings I am happy to have had the chance to listen to this opera, and then listen to it again, and again, and again. It took me multiple listens to finally warm up to it because with each listen I became more and more drawn to it and I still don’t think I’ve fully appreciated it yet. Regarding its premiere in 1893 I did some research: to paraphrase Ksenya Kiebuzinski’s article on this opera entitled Dancing the Kolomyika at the Opera-Comique: Leo Delibes’s Galician Opera Kassya, the reasons for the failure of this opera are four fold. One, the librettists’ misinterpretation of the worldview of the short story on which it is based, entitled “Frinko Balaban”; two, failure to represent Galician musical culture in the score; three, the public rejected it as an outmoded, non-Wagnerian work with an episodic plot; and four, the critical panning of the work as a bag of exotica. In the original story, Frinko (who is renamed Cyrille in the opera) is an old man who frames a story that is similar but not quite the same as the opera. There is no Sonya, and Kassya does not die. She does desert Frinko for a Polish Count, and Frinko, like Cyrille, is drafted into the army. Upon returning from war he discovers that the Count has been imprisoned but Kassya, who has become a libertine, has taken up with a neighbouring nobleman and spends the rest of her life (into old age) in luxury. The moral of the story is somewhat chauvinistic: although Frinko does not blame Kassya for what she has done, he does consider her actions to be the result of being trapped by the legal system of the era and so having to resort to dominating men in order to achieve her goals.
A beta, although a strangely intriguing one as it is an extremely late example of the grand opera genre.