Friday, September 2, 2011

Daniel Auber Still Shocks Brussels With "La Muette de Portici"

"Nearly everyone in Belgium has heard of The Mute Girl of Portici, the opera that, in 1830, sparked the Belgian revolution. But few have ever seen it performed. That could change, however, because the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie is staging a new performance for the upcoming opera season. Except that it won’t be produced in Brussels but in Paris as a co-production with the Opéra Comique. 'We did it knowingly,' says the director of La Monnaie, Peter De Caluwe. Staging the opera now, in Brussels, would not only be an artistic act but it would also be a political manifesto and interpreted as an argument in favour of Belgian unity at a moment when the political situation is precarious. 'It isn’t the right time,' says Peter De Caluwe, 'because it would raise the question of whether or not we need Belgium. I want to withdraw opera from the debate.' Writer Geert Van Istendael, who had to learn excerpts of The Mute Girl of Portici by heart in primary school, agrees with Peter De Caluwe. 'Staging the opera in Brussels today, in the political swamp in which we are wading would be a crushing blow,' he said. On August 16, discussions resumed over the formation of a Belgian government. Mistrust between the Flemish and the Walloons runs so high, that negotiations have been on-going for fourteen months. King Albert, one of the last symbols of unity left, last month blasted politicians for failing to find a compromise and warned against Poujadisme – an allusion to the French populist movement of the 1950s. In such a climate, staging The Mute Girl of Portici is considered dynamite on the political front." Find out more about this opera's politically charged history by reading the whole story here. [Source]

Listen to June Anderson sing "Arbitre d'une vie" by clicking here.

Listen to Alfredo Kraus and Jean-Philippe Lafont sing "Amour sacré de la Patrie" by clicking here.

Listen to Frieda Hempel sing "O Moment enchanté" by clicking here.

Lise Noblet as Fenella in La Muette de Portici 

Information about the artwork on the right: Color lithograph by Achille Devéria, Paris, [184-]. First performed at the Paris Opéra in 1828, La Muette de Portici was an opera-ballet with music by Daniel Auber, choreography by Jean-Louis Aumer, a singing hero (the fisherman Masaniello), and a dancing heroine (the mute Fenella). The work, set in Naples during a seventeenth-century revolt against the Spaniards, capitalized on the Romantic era's fascination with local color, evident in the treatment of Fenella's costume. Many French works of the Romantic period had Italian settings and featured classicized versions of Italian folk dances. Cia Fornaroli Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division. [Source]

More information about the opera, original cast list and a detailed synopsis after the jump.

La muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici, or The Mute Girl of Portici) originally called Masaniello, ou La muette de Portici, is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber, with a libretto by Germain Delavigne, revised by Eugène Scribe. The work has an important place in musical history, as it is generally regarded as the earliest French grand opera. The opera was first given at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra on 29 February 1828. The role of Masaniello was taken by the famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit and Princess Elvire was sung by Laure Cinti-Damoreau. The dancer Lise Noblet played the mute title role, a part later taken by other dancers such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, also the actress Harriet Smithson (the future wife of Hector Berlioz). The conductor at the premiere was François Antoine Habeneck. La muette was innovative in a number of ways. First, it marked the introduction into opera of mime and gesture as an integral part of an opera plot (although these formats were familiar to Parisian audiences from ballet and mélodrame). Its historic setting, liberal political implications, use of popular melodies, handling of large orchestra and chorus and spectacular stage effects immediately marked it as different from preceding types of opera, in retrospect earning it the title of the first of the genre of 'Grand Opera'. The journal Pandore commented after the premiere "for a long time, enlightened critics have thought that alongside the old tragédie lyrique it was possible to have a more realistic and natural drama which might suit the dignity of this theatre." The new genre was consolidated by Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (1831). La muette was revived in Paris immediately after the French July Revolution of 1830. Later, at a performance of this opera at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels on 25 August 1830, a riot broke out that became the signal for the Belgian Revolution, which led to Belgian independence. Richard Wagner remarked, in his 1871 Reminiscences of Auber, that the opera 'whose very representation had brought [revolutions] about, was recognised as an obvious precursor of the July Revolution, and seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event.' The opera is loosely based on the historical uprising of Masaniello against Spanish rule in Naples in 1647.

In the first act we witness the wedding of Alfonso, son of the Viceroy of Naples, with the Spanish Princess Elvira. Alfonso, who has seduced Fenella, the Neapolitan Masaniello's dumb sister and abandoned her, is tormented by doubts and remorse, fearing that she has committed suicide. During the festival Fenella rushes in to seek protection from the Viceroy, who has kept her a prisoner for the past month. She has escaped from her prison and narrates the story of her seduction by gestures, showing a scarf which her lover gave her. Elvira promises to protect her and proceeds to the altar, Fenella vainly trying to follow. In the chapel Fenella recognizes her seducer in the bridegroom of the Princess. When the newly married couple come out of the church, Elvira presents Fenella to her husband and discovers from the dumb girl's gestures, that he was her faithless lover. Fenella flies, leaving Alfonso and Elvira in sorrow and despair. In the second act the fishermen, who have been brooding in silence over the tyranny of their foes, begin to assemble. Pietro, Masaniello's friend, has sought for Fenella in vain, but at length she appears of her own accord and confesses her wrongs. Masaniello is infuriated and swears to have revenge, but Fenella, who still loves Alfonso, does not mention his name. Then Masaniello calls the fishermen to arms and they swear perdition to the enemy of their country. In the third act we find ourselves in the marketplace in Naples, where the people go to and fro, selling and buying, all the while concealing their purpose under a show of merriment and carelessness. Selva, the officer of the Viceroy's body-guard, from whom Fenella has escaped, discovers her and the attempt to rearrest her is the sign for a general revolt, in which the people are victorious. In the fourth act Fenella comes to her brother's dwelling and describes the horrors, which are taking place in the town. The relation fills his noble soul with sorrow and disgust. When Fenella has retired to rest, Pietro enters with comrades and tries to excite Masaniello to further deeds, but he only wants liberty and shrinks from murder and cruelties. They tell him that Alfonso has escaped and that they are resolved to overtake and kill him. Fenella, who hears all, decides to save her lover. At this moment Alfonso begs at her door for a hiding-place. He enters with Elvira, and Fenella, though at first disposed to avenge herself on her rival, pardons her for Alfonso's sake. Masaniello, reentering, assures the strangers of his protection and even when Pietro denounces Alfonso as the Viceroy's son, he holds his promise sacred. Pietro with his fellow-conspirators leaves him full of rage and hatred. Meanwhile the magistrate of the city presents Masaniello with the Royal crown and he is proclaimed King of Naples. In the fifth act we find Pietro with the other fishermen before the Viceroy's palace. He confides to Moreno, that he has administered poison to Masaniello, in order to punish him for his treason, and that the King of one day will soon die. While he speaks, Borella rushes in to tell of a fresh troop of soldiers, marching against the people with Alfonso at their head. Knowing that Masaniello alone can save them, the fishermen entreat him to take the command of them once more and Masaniello, though deadly ill and half bereft of his reason, complies with their request. The combat takes place, while an eruption of Vesuvius is going on. Masaniello falls in the act of saving Elvira's life.

On hearing these terrible tidings Fanella rushes to the terrace, from which she leaps into the abyss beneath, while the fugitive noblemen take again possession of the city. La Muette de Portici played a major role in establishing the genre of grand opera. Many of its elements - the five-act structure, the obligatory ballet sequence, the use of spectacular stage effects, the focus on romantic passions against a background of historical troubles - would become the standard features of the form for the rest of the 19th century. Grand opera would play a far more important role in the subsequent career of the librettist than that of the composer. Auber went on to write three more works in the genre: Le Dieu et la bayadère (1830), Gustave III (1833) and Le lac des fées (1839). But their fame would be eclipsed by the grand operas for which Scribe provided the libretti: Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836) and Halévy's La Juive (1835). Nevertheless, Auber's pioneering work caught the attention of the young Richard Wagner, who was eager to create a new form of music drama. He noted that in La Muette, 'arias and duets in the wonted sense were scarcely to be detected any more, and certainly, with the exception of a single prima-donna aria in the first act, did not strike one at all as such; in each instance it was the ensemble of the whole act that riveted attention and carried one away...'" [Source]

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