Francois-Adrien Boieldieu: La dame blanche (1825)

Opera comique en trois actes. Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes.

Boieldieu, Weiße Dame / Klavierauszug - Boieldieu / La Dame Blance / Piano Score -

SETTING: Scotland, near the estate of the Count of Avenel, 1753. The Count and Countess of Avenel have died in exile, leaving their estates to their dishonest steward Gaveston unless their son, who is missing, appears and claims his inheritance. Meanwhile, the estate is haunted by a White Lady ghost.

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The overture *** starts off with a striking chord followed by a series of frolicking nature tunes about as delightful as any of the major overtures by Mozart. It is made up of themes by Boieldieu, but the composer is ultimately Adolphe Adam.

ACT 1: A Scottish farm near Castle Avenel. (45 minutes)

8: An opening chorus which although not all that vocally interesting, is orchestrally exceptional **. This introduces us to a major element of the score: the usage of Scottish folk tunes. Meanwhile, Dickson and his wife Jenny need a godfather for their baby son–

13: Enter Georges Brown, an English army officer who assumes the duties of godfather for Jenny’s baby in a furious aria **.

18: Jenny and Dickson are delighted with this turn of events **, as is the chorus which then dance off to the church (this must be a Catholic part of Scotland). Apparently, Gaveston is having the castle auctioned off the following day in order to purchase it and the title for himself.

23: A “hospitality” ensemble in which the two demand that Brown stay with them **.

26: Jenny sings the Ballad of the White Lady ***, not scary in any way, actually rather closer to the Marseillaise but with harp interludes.

31: A duet for Jenny and Dickson after Georges briefly leaves **

35: The chord returns after Dickson receives a letter from “la dame blanche” to come to the castle, Georges offers to take his place and goes ***, promising Jenny that tomorrow he will return for the baptism of her son.

ACT 2: A gothic hall in Castle Avenel. (45 minutes)

0: Marguerite’s couplets about how her life is nearing its end ***. She awaits the return of young Julien Avenel to reclaim the estate.

3, 8: Gaveston and Anna, his ward, come to blows over the plan to auction off the Avenel estate in a duet ** which turns into a trio * as Marguerite announces the arrival of a stranger, Georges Brown of course, who receives permission to stay overnight at the castle.

13: The ultimate tenor aria *** as Georges encounters the White Lady just before she appears before him to a harp arpeggio.

22: The Anna/White Lady-Georges duet ***, as a supernatural being she demands that tomorrow at the auction he do whatever Anna says, he promises the spirit to obey.(In a dialogue with Marguerite, Anna reveals that she nursed a soldier who reminded her of Julien Avenel, and Georges Brown reminds her of him. Incidentally, Anna was Julien’s childhood sweetheart and once the ward of the Countess, so she does know what she is talking about.)

29, 35, 39, 42: The Auction sequence *** is sixteen minutes long and modelled off of Rossini comic ensembles, but with an added intensity. The farmers show up along with a committee of auctioneers and officials. Dickson bids on behalf of the famers but soon finds himself outbid by Gaveston so Anna asks Georges to bid and he wins. When it is revealed that Georges does not have the money he says that the White Lady will provide it at noon.

ACT 3: A gothic chamber. (22 minutes)

Technically, this act starts with an entr’acte and an aria for Anna in which she expresses her romantic desire for Julien.

0, 6: Instead we get almost twelve solid minutes of Georges and the chorus in two parts *. It is fine, but also rather irrelevant filler. However, the second part includes a nice tenor decant for Georges **.

12: The Anna-Marguerite duet ** in which they try to figure out how to raise the money (500,000 francs) which Anna knows is stored in a “White Lady” statue which is a hallow statue containing apparently all of the Avenel family fortune (a single statue?).

16: The finale ***. Everyone awaits the “white lady” and her money bags (especially Georges). She arrives to a harp arpeggio and presents the money in cash but then has her veil torn off by the wicked Gaveston (who has received written information proving that Georges Brown actually is Julien Avenel, and thus the rightful heir regardless of the auction. With the truth revealed, Julien is free to marry Anna and the estate is his. Happy ending!

COMMENTS:

Although musically great, La Dame Blanche suffers from having an extremely rapid fire plot that feels a little random and like it was written by someone ON Speed or some other drug that causes hyper-activity disorder. I keep feeling the need for a breather, and although we do get some choral numbers, they are basically just filler. SLOW DOWN! Apart from Jenny’s Ballad of The White Lady and Georges’ “Vien, gentile dame” I kept feeling like I was on a rollercoaster going a light speed! We are immediately let in on Anna’s identity as the “white lady” in the second act, so there is no surprise when Gaveston tears off her veil and reveals her. I’m willing to overlook how much of a con-act Anna is pulling on everyone because this is a comic opera so the credulity of ridiculousness can be suspended. The first act consists of just three of the characters (Jenny and Dickson, then Georges) getting the backstory out but the whole plot point of Georges becoming their son’s godfather, which seems so important, becomes less than an afterthought in the central conflict of trying to make sure Gaveston doesn’t buy the estate. The “white lady” concept also seems a bit forced, and there is nothing supernatural about it which was a bit of a let down for me (I thought maybe there was a real ghost who looked a lot like the heroine, like in La nonne sanglante). Also, how does Georges/Julien not know who he actually is? Does he have amnesia, mental illness, was kidnapped by Romany as a child? Still, in its own way it is charming and the music alone raises the work to an alpha.

I did this late at night, I’ll fill in the track listings another time.

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6 thoughts on “Francois-Adrien Boieldieu: La dame blanche (1825)

  1. Thanks for this, Phil!

    I love La Dame blanche; it’s delightful, and full of really good tunes. The overture is a musical pick-me-up, a really joyous piece. And the auction ensemble was one of the first pieces I put up on YouTube. The scene where Georges remembers his identity is lovely, too!

    The plot is light, I agree, but that’s the genre.

    Which recording did you listen to?

    Why Is It Not In The Repertoire? *
    (other than that it’s French, of course)

    *: henceforward WINTER

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    1. The one with Gedda, it was the longest recording I was able to find, and in French. It was hard to come by anything else so I ran with it. It isn’t complete, I know the EMI recording is about 28 minutes longer and includes the dialogues.

      Plenty of French works are in the rep, maybe not enough for you. There is a joke about Bizet hating La dame blanche and now his final opera, Carmen, is the most famous example of the comique genre.

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    2. Well, like Les Huguenots, this was once a big rep piece, so unlike a lot of other operas you can have a question mark. I get why operas fail to catch on initially and then disappear, but this one did catch on, for a century! I would say it is because it was basically operetta, but plenty of operettas have stayed on (Merry Widow, Fliedermaus). The plot may have been seen as contrived, but there are plenty of operas with contrived plots and the music here could certainly sustain any idiocy in the story. A couple of the arias have always remained as concert pieces (I first heard ‘Viens, gentile dame’ fifteen years ago).

      It seems that todays audiences want more gritty works, even religious persecution stories like Huguenots, or something sophisticated like Figaro. There is nothing gritty about La dame blanche, but there really isn’t anything sophisticated about it either.

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      1. Correction, Boieldieu’s music IS very sophisticated. When listening to the overture I thought I had found the missing link between Mozart and Wagner. I was speaking of the narrative.

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