Cesar Franck: Hulda (1894)

Opera en prologue, trois actes, et epilogue (ou cinq actes). Running Time: 2 hour 43 minutes.*

A link to the recording on YouTube is available at the end of the post. 

Table-thematique-des-morceaux-separes-d-Hulda-Franck

Link to Vocal Score: 

Franck Hulda

*Although the Naxos release from 2021 places the ballet at the end of Act 3, I am placing it at the beginning of Act 4 which is were it actually occurs in the vocal score and in terms of the plot, where it acts as a transition from winter to spring. 

Another exciting and bloody French adventure set to a Wagnerian-influenced score, based on a Norwegian play from 1858 (by the then 26-year-old playwright Bjornstjerne Bjornson, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903), and cast for a mezzo anti-heroine. The score was composed between 1879 and 1885. According to Stephen Walsh in The New Penguin Opera Guide it appears as if Franck was coerced into writing this by his wife and son for financial reasons. He compliments the orchestral music (including the 17-minute long ballet in act 3 depicting winter and spring), but overall the work lacks what he considers to be genuine drama. As said, the plot is bloody, with at least one murder per act and ending in a murder-suicide. Franck did not live to see the first performance of this, nor his last opera Ghiselle in 1896, as he had already died in 1890. None of his four operas were performed in his lifetime. Hulda was the first of his operas to even be staged, and then incomplete. The first and fifth acts are so short (around 20 minutes each) that the opera is usually given in a three-act form (the third act is exceptionally long, including the ballet, although it properly belongs to Act 4 in terms of the plot). The play, needless to say, has most of the marks of a work by a man in his twenties: the story starts off with mass murder on the scale of Mohammed vs. the Banu Qurayza (at least, in theory) with a female survivor who then plots to kill EVERYONE in revenge leading to a lot of blood being spilled (including tricking a patriarch to commit filicide) and the title character committing suicide by jumping into a fjord. Two other factors are that Hulda has a limp (which I suppose makes this an example of positive disability representation in opera since at the same time) and in spite of her handicap, every man in this opera is in love with her (which I suppose is an example of LGBT-erasure in opera). Also, the title character is apparently Icelandic. 

SETTING: 11th century Norway. The plot centers on the bizarre revenge of the title character, Hulda Hustawick (mezzo-soprano), upon Aslak (bass) and his many sons (5 in total, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, and a bass) for the murder of all the men of her family during a hunting trip. It eventually turns into a love triangle between Hulda, a gentleman named Eiolf (tenor) and the sultry Swanhilde (soprano). Hulda convinces the surviving Aslak brothers to kill Eiolf (who accidentally killed the elder brother, Gudleik (baritone), in a staged fight during celebrations for the wedding of the latter to Hulda) for her when he chooses Swanhilde (after she believed him to be her savior), leading to her suicide alla Senta in a Fjord.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The house of the Hustawick. (19 minutes)

0, 6: Maitre éternelle The two-minute prelude * starts off with three despairing chords which repeat themselves and are interrupted by orchestral whirls by various sections (strings, woodwinds, brass) in an overall depiction of the sea and forests (there is a Rheingold reference in the brass if you can spot it). We immediately come upon Hulda and her mother (unnamed, both mezzos) as they await the return of their menfolk from a hunt. Mother tries to strike up a gentle prayer *, but it gets bogged down by Hulda who is so gloomy (already) although Mother tries to reenforce the prayer to the Almighty, resulting in a mild climax. 

9, 13: Ah, écoute!/Nous sommes vainquerers!  A haunting chorus of fishermen (off-stage) ** is the first really good item in the score (it is accompanied by four saxophones if you can make them out). A second off-stage chorus, this time of the Aslaks as they celebrate their murder of the male Hustawicks is also unusual for its high tessitura (the second note in the tenor line is an A-flat, and it gets repeated a few times) and chromaticism which only increase as they come nearer and break into the house **. Gudleik, the eldest son, declares that he will marry Hulda, who curses the Aslaks for killing all of her family. Hulda is abducted by Gudleik and the Aslaks finish off the scene with their chorus of bloody triumph (notice a three chord phrase which is repeated here, it reoccurs whenever an Aslak dies later in the opera). 

ACT 2: A hall in the Castle of the Aslaks, two years later. (41 minutes)

1, 11:  Hermines qui glissez/Deux ans sont écoules The act opens with a female chorus in A minor * followed by a long series of recitative between the women of the household (Gudrun, Halgerde, Thordis, Swanhilde) which is interrupted by Aslak and Sons who are all preparing for a double wedding (Gudleik to Hulda, Thordis to a nephew of Aslak named Gunnard, the son of Halgerde). Much of this has a Slavic quality to it. Next is a long mono-cant for Hulda as she goes over, rather mildly, what has happened in the last two years and her revenge plot *.

21, 26: C’est un double hyménée/Eiolf, salut fier chevalier  The Double-Wedding Chorus is similar in style to the opening chorus at the start of the act *. It gently floats about, but not much more than that. The Aslaks give their felicitations to the guests, but it is only with the entrance of Eiolf * that there is actually anything going on musically in the act. We get a lot of plot-forwarding (Eiolf and his previous relationship with Swanhilde, Hulda slowly becoming attracted to Eiolf). 

30: Dans nos forets et sur By far the best chorus so far ** for males which is in a fugue format as they go over the rules of celebratory combat for the wedding festivities. Hulda convinces Gudleik to fight with Eiolf. The fight is not as musically interesting as one would expect, with Gudleik quickly falling dead to the ground thanks to Eiolf (which impresses Hulda). 

36: Adieu! The act ends with a Verdi-style finale con coro * which rehashes a lot of the dream-like pseudo-Scandinavian/Slavic music. It never really crescendos or anything and overall maintains the quiet and almost religious nature of the score overall. 

ACT 3: A battlement of Aslak Castle. (30 minutes) 

0: The pastorale entr’acte *** is one of the best pieces in the score.

4: Entre les bras d’Eiolf Aslak and Gudrun continue to mourn the death of Gudleik in a rather good scene **, albeit brief (under two minutes).

7: Heure cherie, te voila The remainder of the act consists of an aria for Hulda ** as she awaits Eiolf and her rendezvous with him in a passionate, Wagnerian love-duet. 

14, 17: C’est lui!/Ta main tremble! Eiolf gets the first of his two love duets *** (the one with Hulda) and freely quoting from Tristan (note the clarinet *). There is a brief scene, after Eiolf leaves, in which Arne (a bass son of Aslak)  tries to seduce Hulda. Aslak, believing that Arne is Eiolf, kills Arne, and Hulda claims a second victim of her revenge. (Interestingly, this scene was cut from the vocal score). 

ACT 4: The May Ball, Night, the following May Day. (53 minutes, ballet 26 minutes) 

0: The act is almost equally split between a choral-ballet *** scene and the actual plot-driven act). The ballet is divided into movements as follows: Opening Chorale ***, Marche Royale **, Ballet Allegorique ** Danse dhiver *** , Danse des elfes **, Chorale *, and Danse generale (which quotes the Magic Fire Music if you listen closely enough) ***. 

28: Tout mes blesse! Swanhilde comes on for a rather lovely forlorn mono-cant in which she pines away for Eiolf **. Hulda overhears this (because opera logic).   

39: C’est mon amour! The Swanhilde-Eiolf love duet *** (as with his duet with Hulda) freely quotes Tristan und Isolde and even borders into Richard Strauss, although it is significantly shorter (about six minutes). Hulda continues to spy on them, realizing that she has lost Eiolf. A brilliant climax.

51: La violence de ma haine The rest of the act is comparatively unassuming musically as Hulda convinces the surviving Aslaks to kill Eiolf for her (prompting a brief ensemble bringing back the curse theme *) and her brief mono-cant of wild vengeance (notice the return of the ballet music and chorus). 

ACT 5: Cliffs at a Fjord. (23 minutes) 

0: The act returns to the music of the prelude with a long entr’acte **. A good respite and filler (as otherwise the scene would be 17 minutes long). It includes traces of the opening theme from the start of the opera as well as the only indirect return of the murderous chorus of Aslaks from act 1 (providing a background to a solo flute). 

6: Le lac sourit A better chorus than usual **, acting as a filler night prayer. This is followed by Hulda coming on, waiting for the Aslaks and contemplating her vengeance. Aslaks arrive (traces of the chorus from act 1 again) and they hide as Eiolf comes on, not knowing what to say to Hulda. 

16: Oui, pour toujours! The finale **: Hulda gets Eiolf to verbally confess what she already knows: that he is in love with Swanhilde. The Aslaks come out of hiding and fight Eiolf, casting him into the fjord to his death. The Aslaks, just as quickly. turn on Hulda, realizing that she tricked them into getting revenge for herself. Squires of Eiolf come on, knowing of his death and searching for his killers, the Aslaks flee, knowing their guilt even if coerced by Hulda. Hulda embarks on a brief (but Wagnerian) mono-cant before throwing herself off cliffs into the fjord. Curtain. 

 COMMENTS: 

It takes a while for Hulda to warm up, an hour in fact, but when it finally makes it, it packs a punch, at least orchestrally. The first two acts are dry with only a few good male choral sequences surrounded by orchestral fragments (which are recycled to better use in later acts) and otherwise dull stock numbers and recitatives (some of which sounds more comfortable in a Russian or Czech-language opera). Act three makes a much better impression with the lovely pastorale prelude and two scenes (the parental mourning sequence and the aria for Hulda) which are followed by one of the two best vocal pieces in the work (the love duets). Act 4 is stronger still, as the ballet is truly where Franck shines in this score, then comes the Swanhilde aria, and her duet with Eiolf (paralleling the same sequencing in act 3). The fifth act is brief, this brevity being an asset, and although not great, it is certainly very good.

There are other problems, however. Most of the best material is either repeated over and over or are one-offs, the pacing is rough to say the least, and dramatically, the piece is fragmentary at best. There really is not enough of a storyline for an over two and a half hour long five-act grand opera (or even a three act opera). The tendency has been to cut sections, but this, although usually including the best music, only amplifies the plot weaknesses. Franck is only satisfactorily able to write vocal music, his strengths are obviously with the orchestra pit and his recitatives are frankly boring, although his writing for Eiolf is an exception to this, Swanhilde perhaps as well although there is so little of her. Hulda herself is difficult to classify as the role is annotated as a Falcon which today would most closely be a dramatic soprano or high mezzo-soprano. The other characters, apart from perhaps Aslak himself, who at least makes for an oddly sympathetic villain towards the end as Hulda goes off the deep end (figuratively and literally), are too brief to be fully developed. 

B or B+. 

Link to Naxos 2021 Release on Youtube.

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