Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
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This review is written in direct response to OperaScribe. Special thanks to BruZane Mediabase for making the images available. I used the synopsis found at Charles Gounod.com while constructing this post.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A public square in Oviedo, Asturia, the royal palace visible. (38 minutes)
0, 2: The extremely brief prelude is a chromatic exercise * building up to a fanfare followed by a sedate picturesque chorus saved by the intervention of some chimes from the orchestra *.
4, 10: An Aubade for Manoel **, charming, especially when it is taken up by his bride Xaima. It is followed by another fanfare, a serviceable male chorus and a recitative which becomes agitated as Xaima is told that she may be included in a virgin quota extracted by the Muslims since their vanquishing of the Spanish at the Battle of Zamora. Oviedo, as the royal capital, has so far been spared, but this time twenty virgins are to be taken. Xaima expresses grief over Zamora, where she lost her entire family, in a gentle aria *. The envoy of the Emir of Cordoba, Ben Said, comes to collect the virgins and sees Xaima, and seeing her in her wedding dress is determined to stop the wedding.
15, 18, 20, 23: Ben Said goes into the royal palace to tell the king what-for and Xaima and Manoel express their fear/anger in a delicate duet * which is followed by yet another gentle aria from Xaima * and then a chorus for the wedding guests set to the rhythm of church bells *. The king comes out of the palace and orders a stop to the wedding, the city will hand over its quota of virgins to the moors that day. The people are furious but the girls are to be chosen by lots and this prompts Ben Said to identify himself in an arioso *.
28, 33, 36: The lots sequence * in which (unluckily for them) both Xaima and her friend Iglesia are chosen, prompting both women to emote tragically and for Manoel to become enraged. He curses Ben-Said *, which prompts the Spaniards to both promise him help and burst into a marching Spanish national anthem *.
ACT 2: A bazaar near Cordoba. (38 minutes)
0: The act opens with some appropriately Spanish-sounding dance music and a male chorus praising the Moorish victory at Zamora *.
2: Hadjar, Ben-Said’s brother, sings a Kasidah * and joins their celebrations. His Spanish captive slave, Hermosa, pleads with them slightly obnoxiously to not celebrate their victory over her people. Although they are about to punish her, they are stopped by Hadjar, using a quotation from the Koran that to harm a mad people is to bring a curse upon oneself.
6: Hermosa then has a Meyerbeer-ian vision ** in which she believes she sees herself in heaven with her children.
11, 13: An oddly cheerful march as the virgins are brought to the slave market * and the chorus cheers Ben-Said to a strangely catchy melody *.
18: There is a long patch of recitative in which Hadjar and Manoel recognize each other, Manoel having long ago saved Hadjar’s life in battle and is now disguised as a Berber in order to track Xaima down. The Moor promises to help the Spaniard rescue Xaima from the slave market. Some snake-charmer music as the Caliph arrives is followed quickly by a march of the captives *.
22: Xaima and Hermosa meet in a sedate recitative which turns into an arioso for Hermosa ** which has a good orchestral accompaniment.
28, 31, 37: The nine and a half minute long finale * consists of the slave auction itself. It starts off which more of Gounod’s attempts at Spanish/Moorish atmospheric music. It turns into a grand ensemble **. Manoel starts the bidding at 100-gold dinars, but Ben-Said bids 10,000! Manoel despairs as Xaima is taken away and the chorus bursts into the jovial chorus *.
ACT 3: A room in the house of Ben-Said. (39 minutes)
0: Gounod tries to bleed that choral march tune dry * as we enter the divertissement.
2: The song of a young slave girl: Barcarolle *.
4, 8: A two-part ballet: 1) Greek dance *, sedate at first then moving into an andante second section, long. 2) Spanish dance * which is very, well Spanish.
12: Ben-Said pleads with Xaida to love him * to an agitated romance.
15, 16, 23: Hadjar arrives with Manoel to a lovely flute/string accompaniment **. Hadjar introduces Manoel as the man who saved his life and Ben-Said offers him any one thing from his home out of thanks, but Manoel obviously only wants Xaida which leads to a fugitive trio ** with a good horn solo. Ben-Said has Manoel arrested and is about to have him executed when Xaida arrives and threatens to commit suicide prompting a striking Morceau from Manoel **. He is ordered to leave the city and never return.
26, 35: The remainder of the act consists of a thirteen minute long duet * between Xaida and Hermosa in which they both slowly discover that they are mother and daughter. Lots of references to march tunes and Spanish patriotism. The second half is more ardent and tender ** with a harp accompaniment and takes on a Meyerbeer-ian quality. It moves a lot more quickly than its running time would indicate.
ACT 4: The garden of Ben-Said’s house. (30 minutes)
0: Manoel breaks into Ben-Said’s garden and emotes as he hopes to speak to Xaida one last time **.
6: Xaida arrives and pleads with Manoel to kill her and commit suicide so they can escape their miserable lives *.
9: A trio ** develops as Hermosa comes on and stops the lovers from killing themselves. She guilts them: why would Xaida kill herself just after rediscovering her long-lost mother? (I have to admit, crazy lady has a point!) This is one of the two best numbers in the score.
16, 18: Ben-Said begs Xaida one last time to love him **, really rather lush but still she doesn’t bite, in fact in a brief duet * she even accuses him of lying, which is rather harsh, but also unleashes his wrath upon her finally (I have to admit though, he has begged her to love him since act 1 so by 19th century opera-convention, she’s been rather annoying).
22, 25, 27: Hermosa comes on and rescues Xaida, who flees the scene. She begs Ben-Said to let her daughter go * both in recite and a cantabile *. By this point Gounod conducts the scene mostly through battery chords and standard recitative items, it is only when Hermosa stabs Ben-Said that anything really happens. The death of Ben-Said and the closing moments * in which Hermosa is saved (yet again) by Hadjar and his Quran quotation and the lovers and the old woman are allowed to depart in safety.
Although not great, this is worth a single listen. The score of this opera sounds more 1851 than 1881 (except maybe the ballet), nothing here is particularly original, and there are no amazing tunes, even if it does have a single march tune and a romantic one that get repeated a LOT. That said, this is still a mildly enjoyable work, but is it Faust or Romeo et Juliette? Yes, and no. No in the sense that although agreeable enough to be entertaining, and probably better than a few of Gounod’s other operas (Polyeucte is a z-grade psychological disaster in comparison to this), neither the plot nor the score are interesting enough for this to be a repertoire item. Yes in the sense that I personally think Gounod is dull theatre to begin with and neither Faust nor Romeo et Juliette are actually great operas, just lucky with the opera-going public.
I can’t claim that anything here is ornery, but there also isn’t anything particularly great here either. Genre-wise this is a combination of grand opera and opera comique in the vein of Delibes’ Lakme. Gounod uses a variety of techniques to infuse the score with pseudo-Spanish/Arab romanticism, some of it comes off, others not so well. Hermosa gets the best music, although Manoel fairs better than the others certainly. The plot is slight, and rather predictable: Hadjar, Ben-Said’s brother, owing his life to Manoel, and Hermosa turning out to be Xaida’s long lost crazy mum are hardly novel in the world of opera. By act four there really isn’t much left except for the lovers to attempt suicide and for Hermosa to defeat the baddie. I can understand very easily why Verdi turned down this libretto. Although Moorish Spain is an interesting setting, it is also very common (Pelagio) and there is nothing here that would make this opera standout even though there isn’t anything specifically wrong with it either. I would say I prefer Cinq-Mars to this however. I’m giving it a solid beta, but it will probably be lower to other people.