Emmanuel Chabrier: Gwendoline (1886)

Opera en deux actes and trois tableaux. Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

The general take on this opera is that the plot is absurd and the score is at least far better than the plot even if it is pale French pseudo-Wagner. Chabrier himself claimed that the orchestration was not quite right, but somehow he does retain his individuality as a composer here, relatively rare among attempted French Wagnerians. And so, I complete my series of French Wagnerian operas that actually are historically worth looking into (Fervaal, Le roi Arthus, Sigurd, being some of the others). Premiering in Brussels, this has had some showings in Germany, France, and the United States. The two principal roles of Gwendoline and Harald are notable for their extreme ranges, requiring a soprano capable of hitting a low B as well as a high D and a baritone mostly resting in his upper range (mostly staying from F3 to F4). The tenor role of Armel is comparably ordinary. Chabrier began writing the opera in 1879, but it took until 1891 before it was performed in Paris.

SETTING: Saxon England, eighth century C.E. Gwendoline (soprano), is the daughter of Saxon chief Armel (tenor). When Danish pirates invade, their leader Harald (baritone) falls instantly in love with Gwendoline and their wedding is immediately announced. During the wedding night, the Saxons attack the drunken Danes, slaughtering everyone. Gwendoline, who was tasked with slaying her bridegroom, attempts to help him escape, but he is cut down by her father and she commits suicide to die with her beloved and enter Valhalla with him. There are two other soloist Saxons named Aella (baritone) and Erick (tenor) who act more as window dressing (to disguise the fact that the plot is so simple it only requires three soloists?) than direct plot contributors.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A Saxon village in a valley not far from the sea. (61 minutes)

0: The nine minute long overture ** is ironically not Wagnerian, but it isn’t non-Wagnerian either. Rather it is more frantic (the upper strings seem to be on some sort of stimulant, although which one can only guess). Several good themes get shifted about (Peut etre l’heure etait venue and Ne riez pas among them), leading to a satisfactory climax. It is dramatic, and very French. On its own perhaps more successful as a concert piece than the case that can be made for the opera as a whole. It is also rather long, ending on page 43 (out of 306) of the piano-vocal reduction score.

11: Voici l’aube vermeille The opening chorus * is not remotely Wagnerian but gently dream-like within the sound world of French opera in spite of some attempts as choral chromaticism. Gwendoline comes on with her father Armel. Chorusing continues as the Saxon workers go to their work.

24: Ne riez pas The Saxon maidens know something is wrong with Gwen, she is definitely not herself. Knowing this is a tease, she reveals a dream she has been having in spectacular fashion ** of Danish pirates abducting Saxon maidens. Her sympathies are also with the Danes, incidentally, with their unloved lives and red beards. At its best, the stormy timpani and the vocal lines never fail to provide a dramatic impression.

31, 35: Nous avons frappes des epees The arrival of the Danes occurs to much the same sort of almost dream-like choral music (perhaps a reference to the paralysis of fear?) which seems to have impregnated half of the score. Harold gives his opening speech about having destroyed all enemy swords rather effectively ** (and very high, there are plenty of sustained high Fs here). He is about to kill Armel when Gwendoline intervenes and Harold falls instantly in love with her because she is the first living women he has ever seen equating her with Freya (apparently…but this is opera so go along with it). This prompts a lovely passage from the orchestra *.

42, 45, 49, 57: Peut etre l’heure etait venue/On prends les eglantines/Blonde aux yeux/Cela depend The first Gwendoline-Harald love duet in which they meet cute and she tells him her name at the spinning wheel. The theme referenced from the overture returns here ** as be compares her to a Valkyrie. Her response is comparatively pastoral in tone *. He becomes disenchanted and is about to leave, but she stops him. Her second go ** is a lovely bit but it fragmentary and gets interrupted by both Harald and the chorus. Armel eventually brings up the possibility of marriage to Gwendoline to Harald (a trap of course, but Harald is too love struck), but it leads to a second verse of her earlier song **. Everything fades out into romantic nothingness as the Danes are lulled into a false sense of security by the Saxons and their leader, sexy Gwen.

ACT 2: (39 minutes)

Scene 1: A nuptial chamber.

The prelude has been cut (it consists of about eight pages in the piano-vocal score). I have included a two minute extract that I found. Sorry about this, it appears to be the only cut made in the main recording.

0, 3: Ah! Voici!/La fiancee The opening chorus is, as usual, rather dreamy *, but we are suddenly jolted into a violent section between Armel, Aella, and Erick. The chorus comes back in the background, then overtaking everything else in a bridal chorus **.

7: Comme le chêne The Nuptial Ceremony itself *** is the start of the musical peak of the score. Armel gives his ceremonial blessing as Gwendoline (who is enraptured in love) and Harald sing of their love for each other, and the chorus knows it! Afterwards, Armel reveals the plot (and the dagger) to Gwendoline (who is appalled). He tells her to kill her husband and the Danes to drink all the wine and mede they want in the same breath.

16, 20, 23: Gwendoline!/Apres la guerre et les burins/Soir nuptial The second love duet Gwendoline-Harald *** as she begs him to flee for his life from her father and her people, all bent on killing him and his Danes, who interject with an off-stage drinking chorus in the middle of everything *. Things turn for the worse and the bridal couple mourns their lost joy never to be consummated ***. The dream is broken by the sounds of the Danes being slaughtered outside and Gwendoline (seeing that he is unarmed) gives Harald the dagger with which her father would have had her take his life.

Scene 2: A rocky place on the coast.

27, 34: A mort! A mort!/C-est notre bucher The finale *** oddly does not take long to get started: Saxons calling for death to the Danes, Armel attacks Harald (who laughs at him, knowing he is cornered) and runs him threw just as Gwendoline shows up (who then immediately stabs herself), Armel immediately seeing the error of his ways (this is instantaneous at a level that even by opera standards is too ridiculous). Harald, who is still alive somehow, praises Gwendoline for her sacrifice, who in tern (as she is also still in the last throws of death) is excited to join Harald in death in Valhalla ***. The chorus agrees. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

The first act, the overture aside, is basically comic opera with less depth than Dinorah. It has some good tunes, but it is basically just leading up to a meet cute the likes of Adolphe Adam only with winged Viking helmets, Saxon maidens, and spinning wheels. Even the dream-prophecy is stock comic opera even if it is musically dramatic and well executed. The choruses, up until the wedding ceremony, are dream-like to a fault. Then, suddenly, after over an hour of this syrup, the score hits you with three great scenes (the nuptial ceremony, the wedding night duet, and the violent finale with apotheosis). The duet, between Gwendoline and Harald, is of the most intense pathos. The characters are finally flesh and blood for ten minutes. But then the finale, for all its musical power, is sort of silly when it really shouldn’t. The main couple goes back to being stock opera characters, because they are no longer alone but surrounded by stock opera characters (the chorus and Armel). The fact that apart from two other characters with only a few lines we only have three soloists here is a warning sign that we are in melodramatic territory.

Gwendoline is a work of brief drama, a single moment makes up a portrait of two people in love, and doomed for it. The rest is melodramatic filler. Musically, Chabrier does pull off a good show, the score demonstrates that he pored a great deal of effort into the situation, but it can not mask the shallowness of the story. It also isn’t really all that Wagnerian, at most it is just as shallowly Wagnerian as it is melodramatic. And yet, for that fleeting moment in the middle of act two, it is a beta.

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