Opera in a Prologue and Three Acts. Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
What if I told you that a Danish-born composer of Sicilian origin wrote a Wagnerian opera about the last female pharaoh of Ancient Egypt based on a novel written by an Englishman? Don’t believe me? Well this opera matches that description!
Although born in Nakskov on the island of Lolland in far southern Denmark, the family of Enna can be traced back to the town of the same name on the island of Sicily. August Enna (1859-1939) had his first success with the 1892 opera The Witch, and became a major influence on other Danish composers, including Carl Nielsen. Kleopatra was prepares his most internationally recognized work, treading the boards (in a German translation) throughout Germany, Poland, Latvia, and the Netherlands (where it ran for 50 performances in 1897 in Amsterdam alone). Early Wagner (Dutchman and Tannhauser) was a major influence on Enna, but so was Delibes (a strange combination, I know!).
For the German productions, an overture was written which is not included in the main recording so I have included a copy from KuhlauDilfeng4 which really brings out the Wagnerian influence.
Based on an 1888 serial by English novelist H. Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines and She, for The Illustrated London News, which was then published as a novel in 1889, recounts a fantastical narrative unlike any other Cleopatra opera, of how one Harmachis (the last of the native Egyptian royal bloodline) has been protected by the Priesthood of Isis so he can assassinate the Ptolemaic Cleopatra, drive out the Greeks and Romans from Egypt, and restore the throne of Egypt to its native dynasty. The novel would later be part of the plot basis for the 1917 silent film Cleopatra starring Theda Bara.
However, the opera has fallen into obscurity (what else is new? my blog thrives on operas obscure!) and a 2019 production by the Royal Danish Opera was actually the first time the opera had be performed in Denmark in 122 years! The opera when then recorded in 2020, the basis for this review.
SETTING: Alexandria, Egypt during the reign of Cleopatra VII (some time between 51 and 30 B.C.E.). Harmaki (tenor) is the last of the native Egyptian dynasty and has been tasked by Sepa (baritone) the High Priest of Isis (and father of Charmion, (dramatic soprano), a lady of Cleopatra who is actually the larger female part and crucial to the opera, being on stage for around two-thirds of the work) and Schafra (bass) an Egyptian prince, with assassinating Cleopatra (soprano) who rounds out the triangle that develops with Charmion when Harmaki starts to become torn between his loyalties for the two women and the political sides they represent. Cleopatra is hated by all of the other characters for her incredible sexiness, which is apparently unrelenting because it gets her out of being killed multiple times, as well as her fondness for Roman and Greek culture (although, obviously not that kind of Greek culture). Harmaki is brought to the court of Cleopatra as an astrologer to interpret a dream Cleo has been having (which is meant to parallel Joseph in the Book of Genesis). Iras (soprano) a slave of Cleopatra, is also worth mentioning to round out the six soloist roles, although she only features towards the end of act one and has only six lines. Charmion eventually reveals the plot to Cleopatra when she becomes convinced that Harmaki will not go through with it. The Queen has the High Priest and the other conspirators arrested. Harmaki, having failed due to Cleo’s sexiness, stabs himself to death with the intended weapon and Charmion dies in a mini-Liebestod from grief because she truly loves him. This opera brings new meaning to the phrase Yass Queen slay!
LOOK OUT FOR:
PROLOGUE: An underground chamber near an Egyptian sanctuary. (19.5 minutes)
0, 1, 8, 11, 15, 18: Min fader!/Hathor, hellige Hathor!/Hug hende ned Romder kvinden!/Op mod Lyset The brief prelude * establishes an immediate sense of chromatic doom (it is a leitmotif for a hymn to the Egyptian god Hathor); we then come upon Sepa who orders that Harmaki be brought to him. The plot is revealed in a long recitative * between the two men, punctuated by several choruses ** from the priests in the background to the effect that Harmaki is the last of the true Pharaonic line and must slay Cleo in the bad way and take the throne. Prince Schafra arrives to confirm Harmaki and his ancestry (and not much else, he never appears again in the opera). Sepa goes over how Harmaki will infiltrate by posing as a dream interpreter because Cleo is having nightmares lately. Sepa will bring Harmaki to the royal court, but it is his daughter Charmion who will act as his advisor. Harmaki takes three vows before the High Priest declaring his determination to murder the Queen and take the throne; the priests are ecstatic as the scene ends.
ACT 1: The Gardens of the Palace of Cleopatra, terraces in background. (28 minutes)
0, 1, 7, 12, 13, 18, 25: De strømme, de hellige vande/Maegtig er hvervet/Jublende sukker jeg/Dagen spreder sit sidste/Nuvel, sa lad din visdom/Jublende sucker jeg The sonorous prelude * shifts the melody from viola to oboe, and then in unison. We come upon Charmion who goes over what has already transpired **: Cleo has been having the same reoccurring nightmare, has had Charmion seek out someone to interpret the dream, so Harmaki is to be brought to the Queen. Sepa arrives with Harmaki (as the astrologer) and Charmion immediately falls in love with him (although there are hints in her earlier aria that she has, sight unseen, already started to idolize Harmaki), declaring that she will either triumph with him if he succeeds or die with him if he fails. Her father gets annoyed with her because actions, paying homage to Harmaki and declaring him Pharaoh, could ruin the entire plot. Sepa charge Charmion and Harmaki with their mission in the most Wagnerian way ** (this shifts to a unison passage for the trio). Alone, Charmion and Harmaki size each other up: she is immediately attracted to him, he wants to know how she is able to hate Cleopatra so much, taught from childhood says Charmion: as a woman on a mission, she will either succeed or perish. The arrival of Cleopatra herself ** starts off with Cleo chanting in the background, then a choral procession *** slowly makes its way on stage and Cleo mounts her throne to shouts of joy. Charmion presents Harmaki to the Queen as an astrologer and dream interpreter. The dream ** is interesting: A Beast with the chest and loins of a man but the head of a lion and talons of an eagle came to her bed with flowers smelling of blood, a golden flower and a lotus. Harmaki claims that the being is Rome, offering either itself (stained with blood) or Egypt (represented by the lotus). Cleopatra is taken by Harmaki, and they go back and forth in conversation and eventually she has him crowned with a wreath of hyacinth and made priest of the nightly ardor (meaning that she plans to seduce him, because she plans to seduce all of the male persuasion) and the act ends with a climatic reprise of the processional chorus ***.
ACT 2: A tower reserved for astrology. (30 minutes)
0, 9: Der stiger en duft fra Kleopatras krans/I morgen nat Harmaki, alone, is already torn between his stirrings of sexual desire for Cleo and knowing that he needs to fulfill his mission, kill her, and take the throne (is the lust for power not stronger than the lust for, you know?). A rather brilliant aria ***. Charmion arrives and fills Harmaki in on the plans: Sepa already has military forces ready to back Harmaki once he kills Cleo to secure his seizing of power. Harmaki has already started to weaken, he is still willing to kill, but the pleasure of the idea has left him. Charmion worries that he might falter now that Cleo has started her seduction campaign *. Sudden, Cleopatra is seen coming near and Charmion must hide, but she drops her veil as she is hidden behind a curtain by Harmaki.
11: Hvad skylder jeg Cleopatra arrives to an orchestral flourish and embarks on her seduction of Harmaki **. She sees that he has cast her wreath on the floor, and picks it up, a little distraught by the ingratitude, but then she sees the veil Charmion dropped and chides him, remarking that it is so beautiful even she, a queen, would wear it, and yet she does not recognize it as belong to Charmion. Harmaki throws it off of the balcony. Cleo then asks him to throw the wreath as well, but he declines (another sign that he is weakening). So she asks that the two of them go out and look at the stars together for a while.
18, 20, 23: Hviskende tyder de stjernernes bog/Jeg traenger til en ven som dig/Harmaki! Charmion briefly comes out of hiding, fearing that Harmaki will fail *. She hides as Harmaki and Cleo return and she compliments him ** by saying that he is the only man she knows for whom flattery is meaningless. The Queen leaves after inviting him to a sexual interlude the following evening. Charmion confronts Harmaki ** saying that the Queen has already seduced him, she knows by his actions in regards to her veil. Charmion confesses her love for him, but he rejects her advances as the jealousy of a madwoman. She warns him not to fail in his mission, but also that she now knows that he loves the Queen. She leaves, he collapses.
ACT 3: A great hall in the palace of Cleopatra. (34 minutes)
0: The act starts off with an eight-minute-long ballet sequence ** which has traces of Humperdinck in it (especially in its opening movement). The second starts off legato before turning a bit more jubilant. The third movement is more of a flighty, bell, finish.
11, 15, 20, 30, 31: Galdt også din befaling mig?/Jeg synger til dig/Nej, nej!/Raek mig din hand/So bleg du er med dodens rosensmil Charmion reveals the entire plot involving her father and Harmaki to Cleopatra, who gives Charmion orders to have her personal guard arrest everyone. Harmaki arrives for his rendezvous with the Queen and embarks on the center piece of the act, the grand duet ***. At first they go over star charts, but eventually she sings for him a lovely song about twilight. He gets up, and she asks if he dislikes the song. He fears her, she tells him not to fear, but rather to rest. He tries to lay in her lap, but can not rest, rather he begs her to make love to him, even if she kill him afterwards. During their long embrace she manages to take the knife he has been hiding and Harmak realizes that he has been betrayed. She tells him to strangle her with his bare hands, but that her death will give him nothing, his fellow conspirators have all been arrested (Cleopatra has had Sepa and the others brought in chains during the duet). The Queen orders them all away for sentencing before dawn, except Harmaki (to whom she returns the dagger, and Charmion, who nevertheless confesses that she was the one who betrayed the plot). Sepa curses his daughter. Harmaki then takes the dagger and, while looking at Cleopatra, stabs himself with it *** to the wailful cries of all except Cleopatra, who simply leaves. Everyone else, excluding Charmion, is taken out to be executed. Charmion mourns Harmaki (hints of the Hymn from the prelude in the prologue) and falls upon his body as the curtain falls to a Strauss-like feature in the horns ***.
Okay, so for an opera about Cleopatra, her lady-in-waiting and her would be assassin/replacement are obviously the primary characters. In some ways this is similar to watching The Virgin Queen and expecting to see a lot of Bette Davis and getting Joan Collins and Richard Todd for most of the film instead. Not an unsatisfying experience, but potentially violating the Trades Description Act. It is not until act three that Cleopatra actually becomes a fully fleshed out character, before then she is mostly an operatic gimmick (a seductress with a bad dream which needs interpreting), although by act two it is easy to feel for her when she sees her wreath on the ground, and later, the veil. The other characters are surprisingly minor. Iras and Schafra appear in only one scene each, leaving only Sepa who comes in only three times, mostly at the beginning and very end of the opera. Apart from the chorus, with the exception of the first thirty minutes and last ten minutes, Harmaki is the only male on stage for well over an hour. The prologue excepting, Charmion is on stage for all of act one, all but the opening 5-minute aria for Harmaki in act two, and all but the 15-minute climactic Harmaki-Cleo duet in act three. Harmaki is on stage for even longer, around an hour and a half, including all of act two, with the ballet being the larger part of when he is absent. Cleopatra herself is on stage for only around half of the opera by comparison, around half an hour before act three and then for most of the final act, although a sizable share of her stage time is during the ballet. Although technically in a prologue and three acts, the opera is basically in two acts, each of two scenes, with the ballet acting as an intermezzo for the second interval. Given that it is under two hours, this is not so much of a problem.
So, what of the music and plot? The plot is to the point, there is no padding apart from the ballet. One interesting feature of the libretto would be the continuous references to how attractive Harmaki is. Both of the female leads want to sleep with him from the moment they lay eyes on him, which means that the role has to be given to a tenor who can also be physically convincing as a male sex-pot (not easy). Unlike the Leiberstod, Charmion concludes the opera with a hymn not to death or being reunited in death, but to her love for Harmaki, a love which will never know peace, and to praising his physical beauty. The story is also interesting because our sympathies are with the antiheroes, who ultimately fail. Cleopatra is really the closest any of the characters come to being on what might be termed the good-side, being the potential victim of assassination. Oddly, apart from Harmaki committing suicide, and to some extent for Charmion and her never fully realized love for him, we do not end up fully sympathizing with them.
The score is lush, as befits the scenario and its ancient Egyptian setting. It builds, the prologue is less interesting than the rest of the opera, with act two building upon what came before it, until the orchestra peaks with not the climactic duet but the suicide of Harmaki and then Charmion with her hymn to unrequited love (and sexual desire for Harmaki). I am not going to complain about an opera which sexually idolizes its tenor lead. Especially when, in spite his failure to kill Cleo, he is such an alpha. 🙂