Felicien David: Herculanum (1859)

Grand Opera en quatre actes (first very long). Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes.


So something very different, an occultist grand opera with a final volcanic explosion and the deaths of literally all of the characters (except Satan: see below)! It isn’t nearly as interesting as it sounds, Bru Zane isn’t able to salvage everything!

SETTING: The palace and gardens of Olympia, Herculanum, year 79. There are six characters performed by five soloists. The good guys are Christians soprano Lilia and tenor Helios. The bad guys are pagans mezzo Olympia, and the two basses, her brother Nicanor who gets killed by lightening strike in act 2 and is almost instantly replaced by Satan (yes, you heard that right, the Christian devil takes an active role in the eruption of Vesuvius). The last character is a baritone prophet named Magnus who appears at the end of the first act. Apart from rather standard romantic complications, nothing else happens except for the eruption.


ACT 1: The palace and gardens of Olympia on the border of the Egyptian quarter of the city. (51 minutes)

0: The opera’s prelude * begins with ten seconds of banging followed by a lot of semi-holy quiet contrasted with fleeting angst.

3: A starchy but regal opening chorus * as Olympia (apparently “queen” of Herculanum, don’t tell the Romans!) receives tribute

9: A march *.

12: Helios and Lilia are dragged on and the chorus wants them to be killed because they are Christians * (isn’t this all just a little too stereotypical?).

14: The two Christians speak * and the two badies comment.

17: Nicanor tells them that they are to die, but Olympia becomes attracted to the handsome Helios * and sends everyone else away.

19: There is a fleetingly good chorus *. Olympia asks the two Christians their names and Lilia is let go.

21: Alone with Helios, Olympia gives him a magical potion and seduces him *.

24: The second movement of the duet is a bit better *.

27: A drinking chorus because why not? *

29: Olympia’s drinking song *.

34: Suddenly the earth quakes because Vesuvius is going to erupt *. Helios emotes for several minutes with interjections from Olympia as this is apparently an extended ten minute love duet.

44: The Christian prophet Magnus arrives predicting the destruction of the city. Oddly enough this is probably the best bit of the entire act **.

48: Olympia and the chorus laugh at Magnus and his prophecy in a comparatively good ensemble **. Oh well, at least the act ended well.

ACT 2: A remote rocky location outside the city near a Christian worship spot. (26 minutes)

0: David bases the first entr’acte on the previous act finale ensemble *. No doubt because it was the best tune in the opera. The Christians come on singing chromatically in sotto voce.

4: They sing in praise of the Christian deity *.

7: Nicanor and Lilia come on and she rejects his advances outright in a long (twelve minute) duet which forms the heart of the act **. He tells her that he has converted to Christianity (a lie of course) but that also doesn’t go anywhere. He also tells her her god doesn’t exist, and gets struck by lightening. Lilia passes out.

19, 24: Satan arrives **, declaring that he is ready to inflict countless sufferings upon humanity. Lilia wakes up and he torments her by showing Helios having sexual relations with Olympia *. Satan decides to disguise himself as Nicanor since only Lilia knows he is actually dead.

ACT 3: The gardens of Olympia’s palace. (20 minutes)

0: The act starts with joyous party chorusing *, there is a recitative for Helios and Olympia and a reprise of the chorus.

4: The ballet * (here reduced to a single movement).

9: Lilia arrives claiming that Helios is her man! Olympia threats to have Lilia executed unless Helios marries her (Olympia) and becomes her consort. Lilia then sings her credo ** as Helios…makes up his mind? Satan shows up and Lilia tries to blow his cover (cuz she is the only person who knows about this apparent incarnation of the demonic).

11: A quartet * (the first ever in the opera) as Lilia confronts Satan who tells Olympia that having Lilia watch Helios marry her would be far more insufferable.

13: The seven minute long finale **. Helios ultimately decides to marry Olympia in order to save Lilia (so, just how effective was that potion from act 1?).

ACT 4: (29 minutes)

Scene 1: A great hall in Olympia’s palace.

1: After a deep and dark prelude, Satan comes on declaring victory to his theme music *.

2: Suddenly, something rather interesting happens as Satan gathers all of Olympia’s slaves together as Nicanor and tells them to revolt against their mistress ***. This is probably the best number in the opera.

Scene 2: Terrace of the palace.

15, 18, 21: Helios comes on praying for death. He calls to Lilia and she eventually shows up and forgives him, but he fears eternal Dalmatian… Just kiddying, eternal damnation. 🙂 Actually it is all rather dull (there is no indication that Vesuvius is erupting just from the music) until Lilia finally gets a bit of arioso and we are into a duet **. The second section, as she forgives him, is just lovely ***. Followed by a marching section as they run off to die *.

24: The five minute finale *, finally we get some indication that a volcano is erupting as the chorus freaks but it dies out rather quickly and gets ornery. Olympia encounters Satan thinking he is still Nicanor and he reveals his true identity. It prompts an okay ensemble which feels a bit inert. The lava flows across the city destroying and killing everything. The Christians are happy cuz death=life. Whatever, it is rather underwhelming. Curtain.


Although it does have some good passages, and a couple in the final act that are stunning (partially because of how dull the rest is) this opera is incredibly boring taken in total. The plot consists of stock gestures and has no originality (I could go through and pin point where every plot point relates to something in a different opera). The music of the first (and longest) act is mostly inert and I found myself bored out of my mind with most of it, second and triple guessing why I had subjected myself to this exercise. Apparently this was very popular in the 1860s, although why anyone would see this rather than Le Prophete, Les Huguenots, or La Juive unless they were on opium is beyond me. As for the recording, it is well performed by the soloists and orchestra, the chorus is okay. There are some cuts apparently to the third act (a hymn to Venus for Olympia and most of the ballet). The plot and libretto could only rate a gamma, but the best of the music might render the final product a B-.

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