Vincent D’Indy: Fervaal (1897)

Opera en prologue et trois actes. Running Time: 3 hours 25 minutes.

Why exactly am I re-evaluating an opera that I, at face value, hate? This is basically a Celtic Parsifal with some bizarre historically inaccurate concepts like Muslims and Ancient Druids existing at the same time and space. However, if people are stupid enough to love Cagnoni′s Re Lear, I guess they can worship this fascist Frankish dreck.

I think that this time, I will review the work within the context of the difference between operas that are musically and dramatically good versus operas that are merely popular.

SETTING: France, some time after the birth of Islam but before the ninth century. There are three main characters, Fervaal (tenor) the last son of the King of Cravann who must forswear all romantic love in order to protect his people. This includes the love of Guilhen (mezzo-soprano) a Saracen (Muslim) princess and apparent sorceress who (after having saved his life) when rejected by Fervaal in favour of his mission at the behest of the Druid Arfagard (baritone) has her men attack Cravann. The other character worth mentioning is a religious figure named Kaito (contralto) who gets the best music in the piece.


Prologue: A forest in the Midi, France circa 7th century. (19 minutes)

4, 8, 16: Freres, laissez ces gens/Il fait grand jours/Je connais les virtues des plantes The extremely brief prelude is a furious piece (references to Tristan abound) before we come upon five peasants who fight over who just killed Fervaal before the arrival of Guilhen the Muslim sorceress, who comes on to a series of quotations from Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal *as she looks at the body of the young warrior.  She questions everyone, her servant Moussah, Arfagard the Druid, suddenly Fervaal awakens *. His arioso utilizes the lower half of the range (mostly the bass clef with rare opportunity above middle-C), first as he asks Arfagard where the horses are and then as he tries to spurn Guilhen (so many Wagner references here). He passes out, Arfagard at first thinking he is dead, but Guilhen sees that he breaths and lives. She orders that he be taken to her palace at once to the objections of Arfagard because she understands herbal medicines *. He eventually relents to her and she has her men take Fervaal, following close behind.

ACT 1: The palace gardens of Guilhen. (70 minutes)

0, 4, 10, 14: Partir ici?/Ecoutez-moi/Un nuit dans la solitude The act opens with a long and rather well known prelude ** which is a rather gentle and romantic piece. It is stopped by Arfagard trying to wake up Fervaal and get him to leave (which he doesn’t want to do *). Arfagard reminds him of his vow to the Celtic gods to protect his kingdom (which requires that he remain a virgin, Fervaal going into details with Arfagard about when he made his vows). Arfagard goes into a prophecy about how Jesus will eventually overthrow the Druidic order * (furious stuff). For Fervaal to conquer Jesus, he must remain pure and virginal, otherwise a woman will corrupt him and all will fall to the forces of Christianity. He must go to the chiefdom council. He leaves.

23, 25, 29, 37, 42, 47, 50, 52: Le chef est élu!/Fervaal, pourquoi rester dans ce jardin?/Jadis enfievre pars les chants des bards/Destin pareil, Destin contraire/Non Guilhen, la rose n’est pas la morte/Ho Fervaal!/Eh bien, eh bien!/Dans ma chaud pays Fervaal is left alone to ponder all of this *, but it doesn’t last long as Guilhen keeps interrupting everything * (more Wagner references, specifically Tristan and Walkure) as the two talk about how  they have become enslaved/imprisoned by their love for each other. Fervaal has something resembling an aria *, followed by a similarly long response from Guilhen *. She doesn’t really understand the fact that if he loves her, he will die as a result *. After a lot of back and forth, it is nice it hear a little overlap for the two before Arfagard returns * and orders Fervaal to give up Guilhen and the love of all women to fulfill his mission as protector of Cravann. Guilhen is not thrilled about how willingly Fervaal is able to reject her advances ** (even though she momentarily wins him over before Arfagard returns yet again **)

55, 58, 62: Fervaal, mon bien amie/Ma bouche a goute la Miel de tes leves/Les fils des embrasse rivage/Allons de ses côtes!   Guilhen contemplates * what to do. Her soldiers arrive and she orders her men to take Cravann **. 

ACT 2:  (62 minutes)

Scene 1: The mountain of Kaito.

0, 5, 9, 11: Fervaal and Arfagard climb up the mountain to receive the oracles advice *. It is all rather boring until a rather amazing orchestral passage *** (an ascent) is followed by the encounter with Kaito which is just amazing *** (backed by feminine chorus) as she announces her prophecy *** that some sort of “love” will take over the world (a reference to Christianity no doubt)  thus the age of the gods will end and only death will cause new life to flourish. The two men are left to interpret the prophecy: Arfagard doesn’t get it, but Fervaal is certain that because of his love for Guilhen, he must die.

Scene 2: The meeting place of the tribesmen of Crevann.

0, 6, 15: Excited brass leading to a good male chorus ** that greets Fervaal. This is followed by Fervaals address, some brassy Parsifal-like stuff and a chorus (altos leading). The rest borders on a lower-voltage variant of the choruses in Boris Godunov. After Arfagard gives his address and introduces their new chief, Fervaal tells everyone that although he is their leader, he will ultimately fail and they will all die **. A LOT of fanfare (most of it of a military nature) follows until a rather bouncy finale lead by Fervaal **. Arfagard predicts that they will all die.

ACT 3: A battlefield near Kaito’s mountain. (58 minutes)

0, 5, 8, 13, 17, 24: Scary chorusing *, everyone (except our famous three) has died in a climactic battle between Guilhen’s and Fervaal’s respective forces. Arfagard finds Fervaal still alive expressing a lot of chromatic grief and they come to a mutual decision that Fervaal has to be ritually murdered so that Jesus can take over. Guilhen arrives and the three get into a massive argument about how Fervaal’s love for Guilhen is basically the worst thing that has ever happened. This ends in Fervaal killing Arfagard * which is greeted with something resembling Also Sprach Zarathustra. In one minute there are quotations from both Tristan and Parsifal *Guilhen goes into some detail about how the weather is killing her (it is far too cold for her) *. The rest of the act consists of a fifteen minute long aria ** for Fervaal  as he carries Guilhen’s lifeless body up the mountain and contemplates how everyone and everything he has ever loved is dead, so now  he must die so Jesus can triumph. He goes crazy, thinks that the bloody battlefield has become Guilhen’s rose garden. Eventually the Pange lingua * (which in the original score is used ad nauseam akin to Wagner’s usage of the Dresden Amen in Parsifal, but here we get far less of it, although the usage of both pieces has been connected to Meyerbeer’s usage of “A Might Fortress” in Les Huguenots) can be heard in the background and our boy bombs out. He is last seen going off with Guilhen’s body into the clouds for whatever reason (death? apotheosis?).


As OperaScribe said, it is impossible to accurately judge an opera from a recording that probably only consists of about one-third of the original score. However, when has that stopped ME! The plot is Parsifal with the acts shuffled and an unhappy ending, or rather everyone dies and Christianity triumphs fantastically over the corpse of an extinct civilization: so sort of an everyday occurrence? The finale leaves us in the cold light of day realizing that the entire work is a Christofascist wet dream written by an anti-semite, (it actually makes me thankful that secularism is a thing, and I’m not even a secularist!), and although musically good, dramatically the storyline itself is illogical, slow, and aimless. There isn’t enough of a story for a two-hour long opera here much less a premiere that took five hours. I will only reference that D’Indy’s focus on his main character being a warrior and the East-West cultural clash (usually well within the realm of French Grand Opera) is similar to Julius Evola’s later books The Mystery of the Grail and Revolt Against the Modern World, as well as the preoccupation with magic, the occult, and a load of rubbish about how male heterosexuality is so normative that it is a justification for sexual violence against women (albeit here it seems to be the exact opposite).  In all honesty, I don’t know what to give this thing!

6 responses to “Vincent D’Indy: Fervaal (1897)”

  1. Lots of two and three stars here! Which raises the question: Should art works be judged politically?

    In your posts on Fervaal and Turandot, you seem to judge the operas from the standard of a 21st century progressive grad student. (Race, religion, sex, power!) d’Indy is right-wing; Puccini is racist and sexist – demerits. Is this really fair to works written in another time and place?

    Strauss’s collaboration with the Nazis, Glinka’s anti-Semitism, Rameau and Haydn’s monarchism have little bearing on the artistic value of their works.


    1. It is true that I sometimes judge operas like a progressive grad student (although technically isn’t that what I am?). I actually find Fervaal boring regardless of the politics involved, but I also conceded that I really can’t pass ultimate judgement on a recording of what is probably one-third of the opera.

      Turandot I haven’t liked since I first heard it as a fifteen year old, that was long before I was a progressive grad student. It has always been too real for me to take it as a fairy tale, the characters are too believable, horrid as they might mostly be.

      Ping-Pang-Pong is just an add on to my overall dislike of the opera, get rid of them and I still wouldn’t like it. However, I will concede that I do like Timur, but he doesn’t do very much.

      Did I ever call Puccini sexist and racist? Certainly never sexist, his feminine characterizations are generally amazing (excluding Anna, Turandot, and perhaps Manon). The entirety of Turandot for me hinges on Liu, who you admit to not liking, not me!

      Everyone knows Strauss’ involvement in WW2 was under duress in order to keep his two Jewish grandsons safe. He hated Nazism and thought anti-semitism was disgusting and ignorant. If anything the Nazis loved him because of what he represented in German culture at the time.

      I don’t think I brought up Glinka’s anti-semitism at all, although I know about it. Mussorgsky’s (or Tchaikovsky’s for that matter) anti-semitism hasn’t caused me to not like their operas. And even in the case of D’Indy, I referenced that he actually was friends with Paul Dukas, who was Jewish. That Fervaal is an obvious nationalist tool is no secret, the original story is set in 18th century Sweden! Even with Wagner, the most notorious anti-Jew ever (although not the biggest one, really his anti-semitism seems to border on attention seeking and spoiled brat behaviour rather than true genocidal hatred) I can appreciate Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman as unmitigated classics. I legitimately find Tristan boring, Parsifal is weird, and the Ring is inflated by about ten hours. Tannhauser is a beta, no one disagrees with that judgement, it simply isn’t up to the level of Dutchman or Lohengrin. I find Meistersinger repetitive (every other bar consists of one of twelve leitmotifs), which given its mammoth length is lethal. Tristan actually uses motifs less frequently, as does Parsifal, so they are actually more tolerable although Parsifal’s status as the eighth Christian sacrament might make it a bit of a turn off if you don’t ignore the symbolism and make it into a fairy tale. The characters are less realistic than in Turandot (where I find the characters too real).

      This is fun, I’m just ranting! My advisor is ill in bed at the moment so I’m just sort of waiting around. Why not talk about opera!


    2. This is rather interesting because Turandot can be used to discuss the role of East Asian depictions in European art (similarly Madama Butterfly).


  2. Also, the intro on this post was to make it seem less obvious that I only reviewed it because you already did. I had been thinking of reviewing Fervaal for years but you beat me to it so I figured, make me seem like I’m not liking it.

    And, admittedly, there really isn’t enough plot. The complete four hour version seems to be the Heaven’s Gate of opera. The story is simple, it doesn’t need to be as long as Parsifal.

    The three-star items are confined to the Kaito scene, which is definitely the best in the opera, but I was saying that from the first time I ever heard this recording and discussed it with you.

    I probably would have given it a beta had a recording beyond glorified highlight status exist for this opera.

    I try to base my assessments on two factors, the music and the plot. If the music is boring I usually won’t give it a good score (Peter Grimes, like I said was saved by my interest in the story, if only it were a play and not set to muzak!), if the plot is obviously an ideological tool I am usually less kind than if it is obviously just pure entertainment (for instance Die Feen is entertainment, it has no ideological depth even if it is Wagner, but the music is amateurish). When I am confronted with an ideological tool opera, like Fervaal, I try to assess it within the time period. Sometimes I don’t do so good a job.

    I’m guessing that you take Turandot at face value, that is, as a fairy tale. Hence Liu is tedious and she breaks up the fantasy elements with the realistic nature of her hopeless love for Calaf?

    Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to Cosi fan tutte and I’m almost at the end of the second act! (No review coming, sometimes I like to just listen to operas and not review them, you know?). 🙂


  3. Also, the term “Christofascist wet dream” should have been a tip off that it was a joke. Whenever I use extreme language like that it is always meant as a joke. When I don’t like something I literally say “I hated/disliked this or that”.


  4. I’ve been looking at the computer screen too long. However, do I believe that art should be judged politically? This is a great question! I would say yes, if the purpose the artist had in creating the work was to forward a specific message. If not, then no. You are correct in my judgement of Turandot, that is my personal spin and bias and has nothing to do with Puccini’s intentions. Mea culpa. In the case of D’Indy or Wagner especially, every work has a specific purpose that can not be ignored. Tristan und Isolde is about whatever the heck “love-death” is, there is no way of separating it from this concept and it has to be judged in that light (or rather darkness seeing that they hate light). It’s like Forman’s criticism of Lakme, he was wrong about what genre it was and although it is lite music, that is what it is supposed to be, not something to be taken overtly seriously. Instead he tried to compare it literally to the same genre (grand opera) that it is mimicking. Like you said, it is L’Africaine-lite. Back to Turandot, I do take it way too seriously, but that is because unlike Delibes, Puccini’s score is very serious. Liu is a flesh and blood human being surrounded by actors performing a gory fairy tale which I suppose if you spent your childhood playing video games isn’t so bad, but that wasn’t me. Reality dies with Liu (as did obviously Puccini’s inspiration), and thus we get the faerie ending from musical Gehenna.

    I just suggestively find act 2 boring, you are entitled to you own opinion.


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