Ballad Opera in two acts (originally three). Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
Warning: This is one of my longest, just over 3300 words, reviews.
Would it surprise anyone if I said that the first opera written and produced in Australia was based on a direct (abridged) translation of a French play about Jews, the Inquisition, and Philip II?
Well, naturally, nothing can be more bizarre than historical reality!
HISTORIAN PHIL: This was the first opera to be written, composed, and produced in Australia! The composer, Isaac Nathan, was the Canterbury born son of a Polish Hazzan (cantor) and his English Jewish wife in 1791 and is one of the few people who can be considered historically important for multiple reasons and categories. Nathan was the composer of the Hebrew Melodies for which Lord Byron wrote a series of oddly-Calvinistic poems. Nathan was also the music teacher of the Princess Royal, Princess Charlotte, who died in 1817 while giving birth to a child sired by her husband, the future King Leopold of Belgium. Nathan was married twice, to Christian women (although in both instances he had both a church and synagogue service performed), and in 1841 he and his second wife and family immigrated to Australia. This was after more than two decades of his being a comic opera composer in London (he was a brother of the London impresario Barnett “Baron” Nathan) and singing instructor. Don John was first performed at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney on 3 May, 1847, and ran for six performances. It has been produced twice since: in 1997 in London and in 2007 in Sydney (in a two act version). In 2011 the opera was recorded by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Briger. That 2011 recording is what this review is based on.
Isaac Nathan was also the first person of European background to research and transcribe Australian indigenous music. He died on 25 March 1864 in a tram accident, the first tram accident victim in both Australia and the Southern Hemisphere. Even his death could be trivia, and I haven’t even gotten into his gambling, or his involvements with Robert Browning, Lady Carolina Lamb, or Lord Melbourne!
OPERA PHIL: So what of the opera we have here? Well, if D’Indy’s Le legende de St. Christophe is the drame anti-Juif this is the drame anti-Juive. (Get used to the opera puns, I’m like Contrapoints talking about MILFs on Reddit today!).
I will explain.
SETTING: Spain, the reign of King Philip II, although since John of Austria was only nine when his half-brother became King of Spain, sometime in 1567 (John indicates that he is 20 years old) would be most probable. The libretto is mostly a direct translation into English of the 1835 French five-act comedy by Casimir Delavigne, Don Juan d’Autriche. Delavigne (1793-1843), also composed the text for La Parisienne and La Varsovienne and Donizetti based two of his operas I Paria and Marino Faliero, on two of his plays. In his day, Delavigne was considered the peak of French dramatic theatre, very much in the same liberal spirit as the early Revolution (and later the Revolution of 1830). The basis of the plot is a love triangle between the royal half-brothers, years after the apparent death of their father King Charles V of Spain (and Holy Roman Emperor) and a series of secrets the main four characters are all hiding from one another: Don John (tenor), King Philip (baritone) and one Donna Agnes (soprano), who is a secret Jewess (and really named Miriam). Donna Agnes is in love with Don John, who has been forced into a monastery since he is the natural (illegitimate) son of the former Emperor Charles, but she knows King Philip in disguise as the Count de Santa Fiore. The other singing characters are the former prime minister Don Quexada (bass-baritone), who has secrets of his own concerning the parentage of Don John, who believes himself to be the son of Quexada(!), and Dorothy, a servant of Donna Agnes (mezzo-soprano). The remaining characters are all speaking roles including the new prime minister Don Ruy de Gomes, the Grand Inquisitor Don Ferdinand de Valdes, and a mysterious Brother Carlos (yes, both the play and the opera engage in the conceit Verdi and Scribe would eventually utilize to end Don Carlos). Mostly, the play was edited down and translated, with the plot of the opera following closely to that of the original French play, but with the addition of a scene for Donna Agnes (named Florinde de Sandoval and Sara in the original) towards the end of the opera. The plot mostly concerns a reversal of the plot of La Juive in which a Christian Prince is in love with a Jewish woman who turns out to not actually be Jewish. Here, a secretly Jewish woman (pretending to be a Christian–been there!) falls in love with a Christian Prince, who turns out to be Jewish!
HISTORIAN PHIL AGAIN!: The ironic plot probably appealed to the librettist, the (wait for it!) Barbadian-born Anglo-Italian Sephardic Jewish businessman Jacob Levi Montefiore, who had immigrated to Australia in 1837 at the age of 18. Montefiore died in London in 1885. Most of the libretto consists of literal translations of scenes from the original play. The original orchestration is lost, so conductor Sir Charles Mackerras (a 3-times grandson of Nathan, who died in 2010) re-orchestrated the work for the 1997 production. Briger, the conductor of the 2011 recording, is one of Mackerras’ nephews (and a 4-times grandson of the composer.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (75 minutes)
0: The nine-minute long overture ** starts off with comedic allegro (with a bit of storminess) getting a bit more lyrical (a bit of a minuet at points) with the storminess popping in to wake us up. Eventually it quiets down into a dramatic phase. It returns to the comedic theme and then builds up, stops, returns to the original comic theme and then finishes off with a flourish. It sounds about two decades in the past for the late 1840s (a mix of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Weber, if I didn’t know better).
Scene 1: The Study of Don Quexada, Toledo. (Act 1 of the original play).
11: Come, merrily sing The thoroughly faux-Spanish opening chorus ** immediately establishes the geographical setting well. It might remind one of Die Entfuhrung, although there is an obviously Weberian influence. This is followed by a long patch of dialogue between Don Quexada and his servants Domingo and Jerome (who order that the choruses shut up because they are too noisy, a bit of opera-meta in this operetta!), about Don Quesada’s “son”, really Don John, who will be forced into a monastery at San Yuste the following day. He then reads a letter from Ignatius of Loyola involving a lot of the conflict in the plot: secret births, the unwillingness of Philip to recognize John as his half-brother.
18: When a man has toiled through the livelong day Don Quesada complains rather melodiously about his three-day trip to Madrid **. A wandering theme in the woodwinds dominates. Now he wants to sleep, and retires at the end of the number. Don John arrives, and is annoyed when the servants stop him (he cannot speak with the sleeping Quesada). Meanwhile, it is revealed that Don John is paying the servants to positively report on him and that he would rather apparently live in a convent (!). However, Don John is actually faithful to Donna Agnes.
21: The visions of youth fade fast away The first tenor aria ** as John fantasies about Agnes, full of love’s first joys and with the respectability of a child. Don Quesada awakens and tells his son that in 12 hours he shall entering a monastery. John rejects this, saying that his piety was faked and that he is in love and plans to marry, asking his father’s blessing. Don Quesada then reveals that he is in fact not his father at all, and that Don John is actually under the authority of the Count de Santa Fiore (really King Philip, but he does not disclose that part). Don John thinks himself free of any constraints, but in fact, his life depends on following the commands of Santa Fiore.
27: But stay, Don John, for this can never be The duet *** is a contrast: Don Quesada warns Don John, who can think of nothing but his freedom. Mozart is the primary influence here. In the second movement (just before three and a half minutes in) Nathan pulls off a variant of the Golden Melody, and then some tenor coloratura. The Count de Santa Fiore arrives and is annoyed by the servants, also for having had Donna Agnes pointed out to him earlier, because now he too loves her.
33: I dare not say how much I love The King Philip introspects about his love for Donna Agnes, ever determined to repress his desire ***. The woodwind work here is most worth looking out for. Philip decides to have Donna Agnes brought to him, and to discover if Don John wants to enter a monastery, or has already fallen to the temptation of love. He will have no rival to the throne, and will only recognize Don John if he goes to a monastery. The brothers embark on an interview which goes instantly badly as Don John reveals that what he loves are war, women, and hunting.
41: Yes, sir, yes, in these three all excitement is The John-Philip duet ** as the brothers discover that they have much in common–too much in common. John asks Philip what his parentage truly is, Philip gives him a cryptic answer, but he is intrigued by the desire of John to go into battle. Philip asks John if he is in love, he answers in the affirmative, and John makes a wager “on the faith of a Christian” (this is an important plot point) that he will present to Philip the woman he loves an if he approves he will allow John to marry the woman and reveal the secret of his parentage. Philip is surprised by the lack of political ambition on the part of John. John goes off to fetch the woman (whom we already know is Donna Agnes/Miriam) and Philip goes off as well.
Scene 2: The house of Donna Agnes. (Act 2 of the play)
47: The days are gone when Judah’s voice Agnes expresses feelings which in a different context are similar to internalized Transphobia (or else I watch too much Contrapoints!) as her name, title, and supposed devotion to Christianity are all fake. In truth she is of noble birth, but as the Jewess, Miriam. Her aria is the first remotely modern sounding piece in the score ** (particularly with the woodwind half-arpeggios). Miriam has decided to reveal her secret to John, everything. John arrives and plans on having the wedding in the Cathedral, but also reveals that he has no surname to give her. Miriam gives John the letter which reveals her Jewishness (this is not really an issue, more of a comedic episode). King Philip arrives and is introduced as the Count.
56: Tis she herself, tis she herself Philip instantly recognizes Miriam as his mysterious beloved, John praises her beauty, and the two women join in to make a quartet **. Philip is almost unable to contain himself, and reveals his true identity to Miriam. He gives her the third ultimatum in the opera (she must give up John, and never reveal to him Philip’s true identity). She obviously refuses to give up John, and Philip reveals that John is destined for a monastery.
62: Lady, entreaty is in vain The delicate Miriam-Philip duet as he demands that she renounce the love of John ** includes some rather good baritone coloratura (and high notes).
68: Don John, stay your steps for a while The climactic trio *** when Philip tries to force John to give up Miriam and he laughs at him and Don Quexada (who has come with Don John). Don John leaves and Philip orders that Don Quexada have John abducted and taken to the monastery, or else be imprisoned for life. But the order does not say to which monastery, Yuste then thinks Quexada, as the curtain falls to an orchestral flourish.
ACT 2: (55 minutes)
Scene 1: The Monastery of San Yuste. (A condensed form of act 3 of the play, which includes a lot more comedic dialogue between the monks and an interview between Don Quexada and the Emperor/Monk Charles V.)
0: Hark, the solemn bell is calling The tranquil chorus ** of the monks of San Yuste. Brother Carlos (the Emperor) has an interview with Don John (although initially they do not actually know each other). It is revealed that Don John has been forced into the monastery, Carlos lets John out of the monastery, but not before giving him a sword which he can only use in honorable deeds for the king.
Scene 2: The same as Act 1 Scene 2. (Act 4 of the Play)
11: Canst thou bid the hand its cunning forget Miriam regrets her lost love for Don John as she awaits to be taken to trial before the Inquisition **. Later, alone, Dorothy has a monologue which is a plea for Jewish equality (possibly one of the strongest advocations for Jewish-Gentile equity in English theatre. “They will always side with might over misery?” she charges: indeed, why? Miriam returns, but she knows she is being followed by the Count/King Philip. He begs Miriam for her love.
19: One resource is yet left me Miriam firmly stands up against King Philip in a furious duet ***: G-d being her ultimate line of defense against him. Philip tends to think that he is master, however. There are quotations from Die Zauberflote if one can spot them. Probably the most rousing number in the score. Miriam goes to her last recourse and reveals that she is a Jew to Philip, knowing that she could be executed for it. John has overheard everything and draws on Philip, but Miriam reveals that he is the King and Philip has John arrested and Miriam placed under surveillance (with the anticipation that she will eventually be handed over to the Inquisition).
26: By passion wild my heart is toss’d Philip’s song of revenge on everyone is a strikingly dramatic piece ***. Gomez reveals that John drew the sword of Charles V on him, meaning that their father chose John over Philip. Philip then decides to use the Inquisition to extract revenge on everyone: John, Miriam, and Don Quexada, who is interviewed by the King as to why he sent John to San Yuste. All three are written out in a list for the Auto de Fe which is to occur tomorrow. Quexada offers up his own life, but begs him not to murder his own brother out of revenge. Philip wavers and decides to force John into the monastery instead, but Miriam will die.
34: They tell us that a home of light The shortest number in the opera ***, less than two minutes, is not in the original play: as Miriam prays to the Divine Parent that her death atone for the deception she has engaged in all her life. It is probably the strongest statement of Jewish theology in 19th century opera. She is taken away for trial.
Scene 3: A room in the Royal Palace. (Act 5 in the play)
38: On thy lips her doom is pending The triangle meet up with one last ultimatum: Philip will spare Miriam if John submits to him and retires to the monastery for the rest of his life. Miriam tells John not to give in: it is easier to experience death than to live as a slave (the reoccurring theme of liberty). Philip embarks on a bit of macabre ** as he tries to get John to give in.
45: Hail to the star that in glory appears The Emperor appears and liberates Miriam, raises up John as Prince of Austria, and orders Philip to swear to protect his younger brother. Miriam gives up her love for the Prince, praying that he be given the strength of the Israelites to endure any misfortune in his life. The finale *** is in concertate form with Miriam, Philip, then John on solos mixed with choruses praising Don John of Austria.
I wonder if I should have let OperaScribe review this one first?
This was a real find for me, a rather well scored operetta in English with probably the strongest Jewish themes one could encounter in the 19th century. Actually, that might be the main reason why the work has only been produced three times and recorded (in full) once, and all but the first production occurring during my lifetime. It does seem odd that in mid-19th century Australia an opera about the plight of Jews during the reign of Philip II would be produced, what is more with such a strong case being made both for freedom of the individual and Jewish equality. I would almost claim that the work speaks better now in the 21st century than it did when it was written (making the work closest to this within opera being Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini). The fact that the libretto is mostly an English translation of a French play from 1835 probably should not be so shocking, who else but the French could have produced Don Juan d’Autriche or La Juive? Certainly not the English!
What is most admirable is the portrayal of Agnes/Miriam who is not just a strong female character but a female character with a complex personality (something rare in opera, or film for that matter). She is a woman with her own principles: her loyalty to her Jewish faith, her concern for others (specifically John), her courage in the face of death by the Inquisition. Although King Philip tries to pressure her using all sorts of tricks and ultimatums, she never gives in.
Philip is a villain, driven mostly by lust, and his giving up in the end because of daddy scolding him is both amusing and a little strange.
John is the ultimate male waif: in no other opera can it be said that a male character has his life directed for him by other people: being given ultimatums involving the death penalty, being forced into a monastery, having daddy Charles fix everything (in a way paralleling, in disturbing similarity, the ending of Verdi’s Don Carlos). Was Camille du Locle influenced by Delavigne?
The usage of the chorus is minimal: they open each act and show up for the finale. The music itself seems strongly influenced by Mozart and Weber in particular, with Mendelssohn. It does give sort of a retro feel to the work given that it is from 1847.
Unfortunately there really was very little on this opera or even the 2011 recording. What little information I found was from Wikipedia (there isn’t even a libretto online, although I did find the original French play), although I did find one review from April 2022.
An alpha, maybe even plus.
Welcome to Phil’s Opera World, Australia!
It really should be Don John of Australia! (You knew I had to!)
The PLAY by Casimir Delavigne: (In French: Is available for free download from Google Books, unfortunately they wouldn’t let me link the PDF file to the site so I saved the file and downloaded onto the post, hopefully it works, but if not let me know and I will try to fix it)
The Opera: (The other titles are hyperlinked to the articles I sourced)Read more: Isaac Nathan: Don John of Austria (1847)