Georges Bizet: La jolie fille de Perth (1867)

Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

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SETTING: 14th Century Perth, Scotland. Henry Smith, a blacksmith, is in love with Catherine Glover, daughter of Simon Glover, the city glover, and wants her to be his girl at the valentine’s carnival. Although at first things turn for the worse due to multiple misunderstandings involving Mab, the Queen of the Gypsies (I’m not kidding!), with the help of Mab, and her amazing ability to impersonate Catherine, Henry is able to win the girl he loves.

LINKS:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leoW1iy_dSw&t=2930s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The workshop of Henry the Blacksmith.  (44 minutes)

0: The overture * is a placid piece with a few fleeting melodic turns.

4: Que notre enclume Suddenly we get anvils *, lots of them as the blacksmiths go about the end of their day’s work in a spirited chorus.

12: Catherine est coquette Henry thinks about Catherine, but he is interrupted by Mab, Queen of the Gypsies as she tries to find refuge from pursuing noblemen. He tries to kick her out but she offers to read his palm, providing a cute couplet **.

16, 19: Deja le carnival commence/Vive l’hiver!A lovely ensemble as Catherine arrives with her father and his apprentice Ralph *. Catherine goes into some irrelevant coloratura as she sings about how much she loves winter *, it has some nice work for the chimes. I know it is meant to be impressive, but it leaves me rather as frigid as the season she describes.

25: Deux mots encore The first Catherine-Henry duet starts off with a sorrowful viola as he begs her to be his valentine at the Carnival celebrations and gives her a rose brooch * which she finds very beautiful.

31, 37, 43: Ainsi, plus de jalousie/Que fait ici cette inconnue/Je suis innocent! The Duke of Rothsay arrives and a furious trio ** develops as he orders something from Henry and hits on Catherine which infuriates Henry. It is the first number in the opera which demonstrates a pulse since the opening chorus so it gets an extra star. Henry is about to strike the Duke with his hammer when Mab pops out of her hiding place to stop him which causes the other two to believe that Mab is Henry’s lover in a quartet *. Catherine storms out and throws the rose brooch on the ground when her father and Ralph enter, the former recognizing the Duke. Mab picks up the brooch in anticipation of returning it to Catherine during a fast final ensemble *.

ACT 2: A Square in Perth near the house of Glover. (38 minutes)

1: Bons citoyens! A Marche is followed by Glover and the Nightwatchmen sing an amusing song to the same tune **.

3: Carnival! Carnival! The Carnival festivities begin * with chorus (what else?).

7: Tout boit, amis! The Duke is apparently running this show and embarks on a drinking song which is salvaged by the choral and brass work *. Meanwhile, the Duke has been spurned by Catherine, so he has enlisted the help of Mab (apparently his former mistress) to get the young girl to come to the Carnival.

9: Mab dances seductively to a flute and harp duet that really isn’t all that bad **. Eventually the oboe, strings, and triangle come in, and it builds towards a crescendo complete with female choral sounds.

14: Les seigneurs de la cour Mab’s second couplet is just about as flighty as her first but a little more tuneful **. There is then a reprise of the carnival music.

21: Partout des cris de joie Alone, Henry serenades Catherine below her window and we enter the best section of the opera. This consists of two arias which go to the end of the act and thankfully this first one goes on for ten minutes *** as Henry describes how stupid it is that he is waiting for the heartless Catherine.

28: The second great number in the opera is an aria for Ralph ***, who is obviously drunk. When Mab returns dressed as Catherine, Ralph mistakes her for the real Catherine, so when she leaves in the Duke’s coach he alerts Henry, who now believes that Catherine is the Duke’s mistress. Henry rushes off but Ralph sees Catherine at the window in her nightgown proving that the woman he just saw could not possibly be her.

ACT 3: A room in the Duke’s castle, festivities in progress. (29 minutes)

2: Elle sortait de sa demeure A furious entr’acte leads to a dialogue between the Duke and his executioner (?). It turns into an cavatina for the Duke **. Mab arrives to lyrical ceremony and the Duke’s delight (because he thinks she is Catherine).

6: Nous voila seuls A rather lovely duet which would be rather dully simple if not for a flute ** as the Duke declares that he has never loved anyone but her (remember he believers her to be Catherine). Mab drops the artificial rose Henry made for Catherine and the Duke promises to return it in exchange for sexual favours as a minuet plays in the background.

12: C’est donc ici Henry arrives and fears that he will find Catherine with the Duke and thinks that he would rather die of grief alone **.

18, 24: Qui? Moi, votre epoux?/Henri? Meanwhile we get the coming dawn (slightly ornery) and the Duke returns after a night of sexual romping with Mab (remember he thinks it was Catherine) and Henry overhears him and thinks the worst. Apparently Mab fled at sunrise. Catherine and her father then show up to announce that Catherine has chosen Henry as her husband. The Duke is confused. Catherine sees Henry and tells him that she is his and he denounces her as the Duke’s mistress *. Catherine then asks the Duke to back her up and he only confirms the belief that Catherine just spent the night with him. She curses him. The scene itself is fine, there just is little to directly highlight. Everyone else comes to her defence although considering how much of a witch with a b she has been it is hard to believe her innocent. There is a brief climactic explosion which turns into a delicate air *** for Catherine as she begs him to remember the better days of their relationship (which were when exactly?). It turns into a climactic ensemble. But for some reason Henry believes her, then doesn’t because he finds the rose brooch on the Duke, who else could have given it to him but Catherine? Now he hates her and she collapses.

ACT 4: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: A desolate spot, of which there are many in Scotland, so take your pick.

1: Smith, tu nous connais Ralph and two other men scare the life out of me as they confront Henry for his jealousy *. Ralph claims that it is an insult for him to believe that Catherine slept with the Duke and Henry challenges him to a duel to prove him wrong. The question is, why does Ralph need a chorus of male backup singers? Considering how my father used to joke about the name Ralph (my mother’s grandfather’s name) I find it doubly amusing when Ralph says “Ralph accepts your challenge!”. They both take St. John as their patron. A furious scene.

9: Ils verront, si je meure. Catherine has apparently turned into Lucy Ashton, declaring that she will soon die because Henry thinks she is the Duke’s courtesan. Although she emotes well, the sentiment is idiocy. Bizet does pull off some vocal features that save the number because the orchestral features have just collapsed **. It is followed by limp recitative as he tells her he is going to die for her. Catherine loses her mind and her father finds her.

Scene 2: Same as Act 2.

19: Aux premieres rayons du matin. A cutesy chorus of Valentine’s Day celebrators begins the scene *. Mab arrives and fills Glover in on having the Duke stop the duel. Meanwhile, Glover tells her that Catherine has rather conveniently lost her mind.

23: Echo viens sur l’air Catherine has her brief mad scene * which is an idiotic parody of the major mad scenes of opera, only instead of a flute, Bizet gives her an oboe.

28: Le jour de la Saint Valentin  The finale *, Catherine thinks Henry is dead and that now she will never be his valentine. This is maudlin sentimentality, made worse by the fact that we already know Henry isn’t dead so even if she is crazy, she is just crazy. So Henry arrives with Ralph and the other men. Henry brings Catherine back to planet earth with a repeat of his serenade from act two which he addresses to Mab dressed up as Catherine. Cathy declares who she is, the chorus does their thing, high note from Catherine, sparkly battery chord finish. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This opera isn’t just dreadful, it is the first opera that I can actually feel rather confident in labeling it idiotically stupid. The plot is dumb, the libretto is mind-numbingly inane, and the music, well, the music is serviceable at worst and downright amazing at its best. The first and last acts are of an strikingly inferior musical quality to the rather brilliant second and third acts, but the libretto is beyond redemption. The basic premise of Henry loving Catherine is illogical, she is a horrid human being who changes her opinions about people at whim. She is capricious and spoiled, and her mad scene comes off as emotional masturbation, partially because of of her personality but also because it has absolutely no psychological build up, she just goes bonkers. She also gets out of it rather too quickly, even by opera magic standards. The references to Valentine’s Day come off more morbid than even sentimental much less actually poignant, which is how they should. Henry makes more sense than her at least; apart from his love from her he seems perfectly sane and he gets much of the best music in the show. At least when he accuses her it is on very strong, if circumstantial evidence (the account of the Duke, the rose brooch) Mab is a stronger character and has some really great stuff to do in the first three acts, but why the heck is she the Queen of the Gypsies? Seriously, are we in lite operetta? If she were the Duke’s mistress trying to reclaim him from the threat of Catherine, that would actually be dramatically relevant and interesting. Then she would team up with Henry to eliminate her rival and give the Blacksmith what he wants. Also, how does the Duke not recognize her, at some point they have sex, he still thought it was Catherine? Is he blind? Ralph is just harmlessly amusing, Glover rather nondescript. There is just nothing original about this story (gypsy queens, mad scenes, duels, women dressing up as other women causing a case of mistaken identity with relational implications for the other characters, horny dukes, blacksmiths in love), and little if any depth, emotional or otherwise. I’m marking it down as a beta, call it what you will.

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