Ernest Reyer: Salammbo (1890)

Opera en cinq actes et sept tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.

Special thanks to OperaScribe/MeyerbeerSmith for making this recording available on YouTube.

The book that could not be written becomes the opera that could not be made! Salammbo is an historical novel by Gustave Flaubert (better known for Madame Bovary). It contains within its fifteen chapters all of the perversions and vices of humanity! Crucifixion, prisoners being trampled to death by elephants, child sacrifice, graphic unbridled sexual acts, and an imperious dead-causing veil (!) are but some of its shocking features. Yet again, the veil does end up falling on the lovers while they are in the act itself, so…. (Read Chapter 11!)

SETTING: Carthage, 240 B.C.E. Salammbo (soprano) is the daughter of Hamilcar (baritone) the leader of Carthage, and thus apparently also the older sister of Hannibal. Matho (tenor) a Libyan mercenary who is secretly in love with Salammbo, steals the deathly Zaimph of Tanit, a sacred veil, at the behest of a Greek slave named Spendius (baritone) which Salammbo has to get back in order to save Carthage after she is charged to do so by Shahabarim (tenor) the High Priest of Tanit. She ends up falling in love with Matho, and retrieves the veil, but don’t worry, the Zaimph has its revenge and everyone who touched it dies (note: the methods of dispatch are different from that of the novel, following more standard operatic conventions).

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The Gardens of Hamilcar at Megara, near Carthage. (28 minutes)

1, 12: Heros victorieux!/Tanit, déesse austere! The opera opens on chords of doom (representing the imperious Zaimph and repeated appropriately at points as a sort of leitmotif for this imperious veil of death). It quickly waltzes its way into some more mild territory, while never losing its seriousness. The party choruses ** (there are actually five going on all at once) move rather quickly and we are into a lot of introductory material for Matho and Narrhavas (the king of the Numidians) and then more choral material as they fight over who should get Carthage while they drink wine and carouse. There really isn’t much else to say until the arrival of the Priests of Tanit and Salammbo **.

15: Carthage! Osol sacre dont Salammbo wants to Make Carthage Great Again (what is that MCGA? the Scottish cousin?) in an agitated passage *. All of the various nations are impressed, giving her the titles of their deities of love, except Matho, who bows before Salammbo herself as his ideal of love. She gives him a pure cup of wine, which he drinks. Autherite (a Gaulish mercenary) says that now Salammbo and Matho are married as in his culture for a man and woman to share the same cup of wine is to wed them. This causes the jealous Narrhavas to attack and wound Matho. Salammbo and the priests of Tanit leave during the scuffle.

25: Le feu dans mes veines Spendius, a Greek slave, tells Matho that he can have Salammbo if he takes Carthage. Matho has gone crazy *, and at first refuses the purple cloak from the mercenaries to be declared their leader, but he accepts at the behest of Spendius.

ACT 2: The Temple of Tanit. (32 minutes)

0: Sors des flots Shahabarim (high priest of Tanit) sings her praises as the chorus embarks on some oddly mid-19th century work **. Spendius and Matho manage to break into the temple without being detected (chords of doom as Spendius goes into the narrative of the Zaimph and how Matho needs to steal it to take the city). Shahabarim then goes into a bit of a warning, anyone who even touches the veil will die. Salammbo shows up fearful for the Zaimph, begging that it be taken to a special location for safety.

11: Parmi les parfums The response she gets from Shahabarim (although ultimately a rejection) is set to some of the most lush music **. It is quickly followed by Salammbo recounting a dream of warning from Tanit herself to protect the veil. The High Priest refuses her request, telling her to beg on her knees for forgiveness from the goddess, and leaves.

17, 23: O ciel! me voila seule/ Salammbo! Salammbo, alone, sings a beautiful prayer to Tanit **. Matho overhears her, suddenly a chorus of divine beings tells her to protect the veil, even at the cost of her life. Matho calls to her, and she believes him to be a god, especially since he is already covered in the Zaimph ***. He tells her that he loves her. This entire section is probably the best in the opera so far. She still believes him to be divine until he reveals his actual identity. Then, everything changes. She condemns him, telling him to get out and die (and burn in hell). The priests rush in, but no one is willing to reclaim the Zaimph and Matho manages to escape with it.

ACT 3: (29 minutes)

Scene 1: The Temple of Moloch. (13 minutes)

3: Salut a vous The scene is pregnant with doom, even though we do get a brief and stately procession of city elders. All hope has been lost in Carthage as they await their leader Hamilcar. He does not have much to say that is positive *: partially driven by the false accusations against Salammbo, he orders that twenty sons of the city must be sacrificed to Moloch to assure victory. The people fall into despair.

Scene 2: The terrace of Salammbo overlooking Carthage. (16 minutes)

14: Oui de ce sacrilege Salammbo contemplates the fate of the city ** before Shahabarim shows up.

17: Il est une arme plus sure He tells her to go to Matho, seduce him, and take back the Zaimph **. He goes, she orders her servant Taanach (mezzo) to prepare her for this rendezvous.

24: Qui me donnera The Dove Song ** as Salammbo contemplates what she must do and how it will bring about her death.

ACT 4: (33 minutes)

Scene 1: The tent of Matho.

0: The ballet **, actually one of the more tuneful. Seems a little retro for 1890, but not out of place about a generation or two earlier.

6: Terreur et fleau de Carthage Narrhavas makes amends with Matho * and they form an alliance (a trap, as Narrhavas still wants Salammbo for himself).

9: La voix des dieux The long love duet sequence ***: Salammbo arrives to recover the veil or die trying. Matho says that he has a much better idea than the cruelty of death. Eventually he does start to show signs of dementia and tries to start a master-slave dynamic with her, but quickly this passes and he turns far more ardent than before. Her religious zeal starts to battle with her own desire. It starts to thunder, a storm brews outside, his soldiers warn that the Numids are attacking, but Matho wants to get into Salammbo so bad he refuses to leave. But the calls become louder (as does the thunder) and he is forced to leave (this is rather different from the novel, where their love is consummated at this point, also notice the chords of doom in the background). It isn’t Tristan or the passionate throws of Esclarmonde and Roland, but it satisfies.

Scene 2: The battlefield.

21: The battle * is given a symphonic rendering. Hamilcar comes on in the aftermath of the battle.

26: Le gage a qui vous devez Salammbo presents the Zaimph to her father **. The enemy are brought in, including Spendius (who tries to get himself saved from death by offering to return to slavery). but they are all ordered to be crucified.

30: Toi qui n as pas rougi Matho is brought in (having been thought dead) and proceeds to denounce EVERYONE ** for treachery: Hamilcar, Naarhavas (who is given the hand of Salammbo for striking against Matho), Salammbo (who gets the best because he still admits his desire for her). Salammbo wants him killed with the others, but Hamilcar declares that he shall live, until tomorrow, when he will be sacrificed to Tanit!

ACT 5: The forum of Carthage. (12 minutes)

0: O fete! O triomphe! O joie! The triumphal wedding sequence **, Shahabrarim declares that for this one day the statue of Tanit will be displayed without the veil. Rejoicing ensues. Matho is brought in for the ritual human sacrifice. Shahadrarim is about to kill him when the people shout that Salammbo must do it as she recovered the veil.

7: Salammbo! Salammbo takes the knife! ** but she can not bring herself to do it! She declares that first her blood must also be spilled for having touched the veil, so she stabs herself. Matho takes the knife and stabs himself. The people decry the unforgiving goddess as the curtain falls (to a long fade out).

COMMENTS:

The first shocking thing about Salammbo is how retro it sounds. This is supposed to be 1890, it sounds more like 1860 or even 1840! Reyer actually started work on the opera in 1878, with the blessing of Flaubert himself (who died in 1880). At that point, however, Reyer turned back to his earlier incomplete opera Sigurd and abandoned Salammbo until Sigurd was produced. However, at the same time, the opera has no formal arias or ensembles. There are crowd scenes in which soloists or soloists and choruses interact, and there are even several mono-cants, but even though it frequently sounds like late-middle period Verdi, it isn’t. It should also be noted that Reyer himself was nearing seventy when he completed Salammbo, which might attest to its classical sound world. The very best of the music probably goes more to Matho than Salammbo herself, just saying.

The ending is a little odd. It seems more like self-fulfilling prophecy than the sudden death by shock experienced by Salammbo in the novel as a result of seeing Matho tortured to death. Here she stabs herself, almost as if had she not instigated it, there would have been no death curse. And am I the only one who is really into the idea of a death-inducing veil?

In spite of what one may think, for the first half-century of its existence Salammbo was a highly successful work, receiving 196 performances at the Opera Paris alone until 1943, when it vanished, only to be revived, in a heavily abridged form, at Marseilles in 2008, which is the basis of this review.

So, there is a bit of great and a bit of bad here. Partially to blame is that the production is cut by probably at least one half hour, which makes the work episodic and the scenes often too brief. There are some boring parts, like the first scene of act three. The best music would probably be the encounters between Salammbo and Matho in acts two and four. B+, probably would be better if the performance were complete.

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