Grand opera en cinq actes et sept tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Okay, so I have been depriving you, my readers of something French… here we have the grandmother of French Grand Opera!
It is rare that one can say an opera caused the birthing of an entire nation, but in this case that is actually possible. Auber’s recounting of Masaniello revolt against Spanish rule in Naples in 1647 did not so much inspire the Belgian Revolution against the Kingdom of the Netherlands as it provided the ignition for it to happen on the night of 25 August, 1830. The plot is admittedly bizarre and what there is of one provides opportunity more for spectacle than true drama (none of the singing characters appear long enough to really get to know them well and the first act is unusually long in comparison to the other four acts which become increasingly brief). The same can not be said of the score itself which at the time was one of the most innovative ever written. The orchestral expression provided for the sections of the libretto meant to be interpreted by the dancer role of Fenella (along with most of the rest of the score) was much admired by Wagner (possibly because so much of the action is expressed by instruments other than the human voice).
SETTING: Naples, 1647. In brief the plot recounts the 1647 revolt led by the fisherman Masaniello (dramatic tenor) amid romantic complications, namely that the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, Alphonse (high tenor) has seduced and imprisoned the fisherman’s sister Fenella (mute dancer role) and married the Spanish noblewoman Elvire (soprano). Masaniello is made King of Naples as a result of the initial success of the revolt but is secretly poisoned by his own men after unwittingly protecting Alphonse and Elvire. The climactic final battle of the revolt (resulting in victory for the Spanish over the Italians) occurs during an eruption of Vesuvius ending with the mute throwing herself into the volcano.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A square before a chapel (56 minutes)
0: The overture *** starts off with a major theme representing Fenella, the “mute” of the title. After some tranquility it returns (as it will over and over again). Another theme, which will also return at the end of the opera, follows a passage of mild angst, which turns into full-blown angst. Eventually it builds to a climax.
9: O toi, jeune victime After one of the most stereotypical openings ever (a tune I would have sworn Auber ripped off from Mozart) we have the opening chorus and then a rather amazing cavatina ** for Alphonse as he awaits the arrival of his fiancee Elvire but is torn from the joyous situation by his thoughts of his love for Fenella, the fisherman’s daughter he has been sleeping with. Notice, however, that already at this early juncture that this aria is fully integrated into the rest of the score and connects with essentially no break at all into the recitative that follows it in which Alphonse discusses Fenella’s conditions in prison with his friend Lorenzo (he fears that Fenella might have committed suicide). Meanwhile, we interrupt this plot with a return of that Mozart-tune and Elvire arrives to choral acclaim.
19: A celui que j’aimais Elvire’s set piece aria *** starts off with a mild first section, turning into a bel canto standard with a surprisingly low tessitura for the coloratura it requires.
26: The first ballet * has a singularly catchy (and bouncy) tune which might be recognizable. Eventually it changes to a more Spanish-sounding style (with a trumpet solo).
37: Que voulez-vous? parlez. The arrival of Fenella brings the opera up a level ***. Auber vividly expresses the anguish of our muette as Elvire attempts to interpret into words what she is trying to express through gestures. Naturally this is far more effective on stage than it can ever be from a visual-less recording, but Auber’s orchestration comes up a very close second.
44: O Dieu puissant! Dieu tutélaire! The wedding chorus ** has a clever march attached to it although the chorus itself is just serviceably fine. Fenella realizes that the groom is Alphonse and lets out of scream (the only sound she ever makes).
48: Je veux que cette journée The finale ***: post-wedding ceremony Elvire tries to introduce Fenella to Alphonse leading to his shock-horror reaction and Elvire realizing everything as Fenella runs away. The act ends with the bridal couple both expressing their separate despair.
ACT 2: A beach at Portici, a coastal suburb of Naples, around sunset. (24 minutes)
1: Amis, le soleil va paraître The fishermen and silk-worm harvesters finish their work for the day to an interesting furious chorus with a hint of their desire to revolt against the Spanish *. Masaniello comes on looking for his friend Pietro who has been sent to find Fenella.
4: Amis, la matinée est belle Masaniello’s barcarolle **.
10: Mieux vaut mourir Masaniello’s furious duet ** with Pietro as the former decides that it is time to extract revenge for whatever has happened to Fenella by punishing the Spaniards.
15: Eh bien! nous voilà seuls. Fenella finally returns and expresses all of the pain and suffering she has endured to her brother **.
18: Venez, amis, venez The act finale ***: Infuriated by Fenella’s confession and her affair with Alphonse (well, she doesn’t specifically name him in an attempt to protect him because she still loves him), Masaniello calls the fishermen to revolt!
ACT 3 (21 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the Viceroyal Palace.
0: Écoutez, je vous en supplie Alphonse unsuccessfully begs Elvire to forgive him but she has taken his betrayal of Fenella as a betrayal of both women. The beauty here is to be found in the despair the duo express **. It moves into a more upbeat movement, or rather a slightly more energetic one which nevertheless is pregnant with doom as she does forgive him because she is apparently too feeble to go on hating him (she also finds herself guilty of loving him too much).
Scene 2: The Market Square, Naples.
9: Au marché qui vient de s’ouvrir A typically chatty market day chorus ** (apparently the model for the similar scene in the second act of Delibes’ Lakme).
11: Yet another ballet, this time a tarantella *, it isn’t too far from the furlana from the first act of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.
14: Non, je ne me trompe pas The act finale *** in which Alphonse’s body-guard Selva tries to rearrest Fenella and Masaniello succeeds in getting the townspeople to revolt in order to stop him and free his sister. Somehow a long a cappella prayer sequence follows this bit of action before they go off to take the city.
ACT 4: (36 minutes)
Scene 1: Masaniello’s cabin.
1: O Dieu! toi qui m’as destiné After a reprise of Fenella’s theme for a brief entr’acte, Masaniello’s prays to G-d for an end to the carnage for his people and to give them a wise leader. He has just been offered leadership (which he has declined) by the people of the city. In itself is just just okay, but the woodwind work raises it to **.
6: Fenella returns to her brother and describes the misery and violence occurring in the city. Masaniello worries for them all ** and is disgusted by their actions. Fenella apparently decides that she is exhausted and retires.
9: Du pauvre seul ami fidèle Masaniello’s beautiful tenor lullaby for his sister ***. (And yes, that actually is the interpolation of a recital recording of Nicolai Gedda and not part of the main recording.)
14: Que voulez-vous de moi? Pietro arrives with men and asks Masaniello to help them assassinate Alphonse. He wants no part in murder and tells them not to wake his sister so they go off *.
18: Ah! qui que vous soyez Fenella, who was not asleep at all, expresses her terror about what might befall Alphonse in another bit of orchestral pantomime. Suddenly, he knocks on her door and with Elvire begs for shelter *.
19: Arbitre d’une vie This develops into a beautiful duet/trio (?) starting with Elvire’s impassioned plea *** which consists of four lines of dialogue sustained for over four minutes.
26: Je sens qu’en sa présence Masaniello returns and without realizing who he is, promises Alphonse protection from the people. Pietro arrives and reveals Alphonse’s identity. An ensemble ensues * ending in a bouncy bit in which Pietro demands Alphonse be killed with choral backing, but Masaniello remains true to his promise and orders that Alphonse and Elvire be conducted to Chateaux-Neuf (a prison island in the bay of Naples) so that they can be protected from the people. Pietro goes off swearing revenge.
Scene 2: In front of the cabin.
31: Honneur, honneur et gloire! The act finale ***: in which Masaniello is offered the crown as King of Naples and accepts to the rejoicing of the populous (except Pietro and his men who continue swearing revenge).
ACT 5: Before the Viceroyal Palace, Vesuvius visible nearing eruption. (20 minutes)
1: Voyez du haut de ces rivages As an orgy concludes Pietro sings an oddly delightful couplet **. He reveals in an aside that he has already poisoned Masaniello.
6, 8, 11: Quelle frayeur t’agite/Courons, punissons nos bourreaux!/Ma Fenella! ma sœur! qui cause tes alarmes?/Victoire! il va guider nos pas The act finale starts with 1) the revelation that the Spanish troops have arrived to crush the Neapolitan rebellion *. 2) Masaniello comes on starting to go a little out of his mind (effect of the poison?) *. 3) Fenella comes on and Masaniello asks her what troubles her now *. 4) The choral revolt ** (which sounds a little like the third act finale of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell). This was the point at which the performance in Brussels was actually booed at to the point that the presentation was completely stopped.
13: N’approchez pas! le meurtre et l’incendie The Play-Out: After another bit of orchestral pantomime from Fenella, Elvire arrives having just escaped from the palace which is being incinerated by the coming lava flows of the erupting Vesuvius ***. Apparently, Masaniello has died saving Elvire (from the lava? the people because she is number two on their hit list?), Alphonse and his Spanish troops retake what is left of the city, and Fenella throws herself into the volcano (in order to stop it?). Auber pulls off one of opera’s biggest climaxes (gongs, me like!) as the Neapolitans pray to the Almighty that Fenella has been a worthy sacrifice. Curtain.
My comments will address three distinct things: 1) The opera itself. 2) The Neapolitan Revolt of 1647 led by Masaniello. 3) The 1830 Belgian Revolution.
Musically this opera is stunning as well as incredibly influential, but I find the plot a bit stilted and the character development a bit faulty. Fenella is actually the best defined member of the cast (interpreters include Anna Pavlova) and she only utters a single sound (a scream in the first act). The villainous Pietro is a stock figure (and if he were the basis for the character of Paolo in Simon Boccanegra I wouldn’t be surprised), and so are Elvire, Alphonse, and even Masaniello himself. The two tenors are polar opposites of each other (Alphonse is a cowardly womanizing aristocratic light lyrical tenor, Masaniello is a noble and honourable fisherman dramatic tenor) which does provide some contrasting interest. Elvire is not as sympathetic as say Euxodie in La Juive but she isn’t so uninteresting a personality as to repulse the audience either, which is how Euxodie can eventually come of as. She is far too quick to forgive Alphonse. The finale is about as dramatically depressing as it is musically spectacular, after all both Masaniello and his sister Fenella have died while the weak willed and rather dishonourable Spaniards triumph. All the while Vesuvius erupts in the background! The most beautiful number (not the grandest, but the most beautiful) is Masaniello’s act four lullaby Du pauvre seul ami fidèle. Naturally, the fifth act finale is the most spectacular.
Anna Pavlova as Fenella.
Rather amusingly, the Neapolitan Revolt, the Belgian Revolution, and the American Revolution all have one thing in common: France.
Allow me to explain:
The Neapolitan Revolt of 1647 was led by a fisherman named Tommaso Aniello, which has from that time been abbreviated as Masaniello, who was of humble means but not exactly poor either. A description of him, albeit from the 19th century, remarks on how handsome he was (big black eyes, blond hair). The primary motivator for the revolt was, not too ironically, to avoid taxation, as Naples was then in a period of economic disaster. The kingdoms of Naples and Spain had been in a personal union since 1504, but decades of mismanagement by the Viceroy Masaniello frequently sold his fish to the nobility directly (in their homes) but was just as frequently imprisoned by tax collectors for this. He also engaged in smuggling. His wife, Bernardina, not a sister, was imprisoned for eight days after she was caught smuggling a sock filled with flour (in an attempt to avoid paying taxes on it) and Masaniello was able to win her release only after paying a ransom of 100 crowns, which caused him to fall into debt. This prompted his participation in the revolt. Yes, the parallels to the American revolution are actually rather strong (eventually a short-lived republic was established in Naples which was backed by the French of all people from October 1647 until April 1648). Eventually, he was assassinated, not heroically saving some Spanish noblewoman from lava, but decapitated by grain merchants.
The Surrender of Naples to John of Austria, Carlo Coppola, 1648.
In 1830, the southern (Catholic) portion of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was a ticking time bomb. Not only was there this religion-cultural difference, but the city of Brussels itself was suffering from massive unemployment and unrest among industrial workers. The Theatre de la Monnaie in Bruxelles selected La muette de Portici for the last night (of three) celebrating the 15th anniversary of the ascension of King William I of the Netherlands. This celebration occurred on the 23rd-25th of August, 1830. The opera had been very successful at la Monnaie and the King had attended the first performance of the opera given there in 1829. The work had been banned following the July Revolution in Paris, but the ban was lifted for this one performance. The King had cancelled all the other events that were to occur on this final night (fireworks, a procession), so the performance was literally the last event of the celebrations. The Francophone-newspaper Courrier-de-Pays-Bas (oh, did I mention that the French were allied with the Belgians in this revolution as well?) published a coded message days earlier telling attendees to leave the theatre before the fifth act, however it appears that by the second act the audience was starting to turn into a mob and although the fourth act was given massive applause, the fifth act was ultimately aborted because of the booing. The crowd then flooded into the streets of the city and Belgium ended up being born.
La Monnaie, circa 1900.
With all its sponsoring of revolutionaries, it is rather amazing that France is not hated by Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands (or was partitioned by them?) today seeing how much territory it has lost to them due to its constant alliances with certain tax-dodging populist political elements. Just saying….