New York; but the music was a disappointment. Five numbers were sung by Mme. Tavary and Signor Campanini, and Mr, Damrosch, not having the orchestral parts, played the accompaniments upon a pianoforte. As usual, Mr. Gustav Hinrichs was to the fore with a performance in Philadelphia (on June 8, 1892), the principal singers being Mme. Koert-Kronold, Clara Poole, M. Guille, and Signor Del Puente. On January 31, 1893, the Philadelphia singers, aided by the New York Symphony Society, gave a performance of the opera, under the auspices of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, for the benefit of its charities, at the Carnegie Music Hall, New York. Mr. Walter Damrosch was to have conducted, but was detained in Washington by the funeral of Mr. Blaine, and Mr. Hinrichs took his place. Another year elapsed, and then, on January 10, 1894, the opera reached the Metropolitan Opera House. In spite of the fact that Madame Calve sang the part of Suzel, only two performances were given to the work.
The failure of this opera did not dampen the industry of Mascagni nor the zeal of his enterprising publishers. For his next opera the composer went again to the French authors, Erckmann-Chatrian, who had supplied him with the story of “L’Amico Fritz.” This time he chose “Les deux Freres,” which they had themselves turned into a drama with the title of “Rantzau.” Mascagni’s librettist retained the title. The opera came out in Florence in 1892. The tremendous personal popularity of the composer, who was now as much a favorite in Vienna and Berlin as he was in the town of his birth which had struck a medal in his honor, or the town of his residence which had created him an honorary citizen, could not save the work.
Now he turned to the opera which he had laid aside to take up his “Cavalleria,” and in 1895 “Guglielmo Ratcliff,” based upon the gloomy Scotch story told by Heine, was brought forward at La Scala, in Milan. It was in a sense the child of his penury and suffering, but he had taken it up inspired by tremendous enthusiasm for the subject, and inasmuch as most of its music had been written before success had turned his head, or desire for notoriety had begun to itch him, there was reason to hope to find in it some of the hot blood which surges through the score of “Cavalleria.” As a matter of fact, critics who have seen the score or heard the work have pointed out that portions of “I Rantzau” and “Cavalleria” are as alike as two peas. It would not be a violent assumption that the composer in his eagerness to get his score before the Sonzogno jury had plucked his early work of its best feathers and found it difficult to restore plumage of equal brilliancy when he attempted to make restitution. In the same year, 1895, his next opera, “Silvano,” made a fiasco in Milan. A year later there appeared “Zanetto,” which seems like an effort to contract the frame of the lyric drama still further than is done in “Cavalleria.” It is a bozzetto, a sketch, based on Coppee’s duologue “Le Passant,” a scene between a strumpet who is weary of the world and a young minstrel. Its orchestration is unique–there are but strings and a harp. It was brought out at Pesaro, where, in 1895, Mascagni had been appointed director of the Liceo Musicale Rossini.
As director of the music-school in Rossini’s native town Mascagni’s days were full of trouble from the outset. He was opposed, said his friends, in reformatory efforts by some of the professors and pupils, whose enmity grew so virulent that in 1897 they spread the story that he had killed himself. He was deposed from his position by the administration, but reinstated by the Minister of Fine Arts. The criticism followed him for years that he had neglected his duties to travel about Europe, giving concerts and conducting his operas for the greater glory of himself and the profit of his publisher. At the time of the suicide story it was also said that he was in financial straits; to which his friends replied that he received a salary of 60 lire ($12) a day as director, 1000 lire ($200) a month from Sonzogno, and lived in a princely dwelling.
After “Zanetto” came “Iris,” to which, as the one opera besides “Cavalleria rusticana” which has remained in the American repertory, I shall devote the next chapter in this book. “Iris” was followed by “Le Maschere,” which was brought out on January 17, 1901, simultaneously in six cities–Rome, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Turin, and Naples. It made an immediate failure in all of these places except Rome, where it endured but a short time. Mascagni’s next operatic work was a lyric drama, entitled “Vistilia,” the libretto of which, based upon an historical novel by Racco de Zerbi, was written by Menasci and Targioni-Tozzetti, who collaborated on the book of “Cavalleria rusticana.” The action goes back to the time of Tiberius and deals with the loves of Vistilia and Helius. Then came another failure in the shape of “Amica,” which lived out its life in Monte Carlo, where it was produced in March, 1905.
In the winter of 1902-1903 Signor Mascagni was in the United States for the purpose of conducting performances of some of his operas and giving concerts. The company of singers and instrumentalists which his American agents had assembled for his purpose was, with a few exceptions, composed of the usual operatic flotsam and jetsam which can be picked up at any time in New York. The enterprise began in failure and ended in scandal. There had been no adequate preparation for the operas announced, and one of them was not attempted.
This was “Ratcliff.” “Cavalleria rusticana,” “Zanetto,” and “Iris” were poorly performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in October, and an attempt at Sunday night concerts was made. Signor Mascagni’s countrymen labored hard to create enthusiasm for his cause, but the general public remained indifferent. Having failed miserably in New York, Mascagni, heavily burdened with debt, went to Boston. There he was arrested for breach of contract. He retaliated with a suit for damages against his American managers. The usual amount of crimination and recrimination followed, but eventually the difficulties were compounded and Mascagni went back to his home a sadly disillusionized man. [Footnote: The story of this visit is told in greater detail in my “Chapters of Opera,” as is also the story of the rivalry among American managers to be first in the field with “Cavalleria rusticana.”]
“Zanetto” was produced along with “Cavalleria rusticana” at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 8, 1902, and “Iris” on October 16. Signor Mascagni conducted and the parts were distributed as follows among the singers of the company: Iris, Marie Farneti; Osaka, Pietro Schiavazzi; Kyoto, Virgilio Bollati; Il Cieco, Francesco Navarrini; Una Guecha, Dora de Filippe; Un Mercianola, Pasquale Blasio; Un Cencianola, Bernardino Landino. The opera was not heard of again until the season of 1907-1908, when, just before the end of the administration of Heinrich Conried, it was incorporated into the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera House apparently for the purpose of giving Mme. Emma Eames an opportunity to vie with Miss Geraldine Farrar in Japanese opera.
“Light is the language of the eternal ones–hear it!” proclaims the librettist of “Iris” in that portion of his book which is neither said nor sung nor played. And it is the sun that sings with divers voices after the curtain has risen on a nocturnal scene, aiid the orchestra has sought to depict the departure of the night, the break of day, the revivification of the flowers and the sunrise. As Byron sang of him, so Phoebus Apollo celebrates himself as “the god of life and poetry and light,” but does not stop there. He is also Infinite Beauty, Cause, Reason, Poetry, and Love. The music begins with an all but inaudible descending passage in the basses, answered by sweet concordant harmonies. A calm song tells of the first streaks of light; woodwind and harp add their voices; a mellifluous hymn chants the stirring flowers, and leads into a rhythmically, more incisive, but still sustained, orchestral song, which bears upon its surface the choral proclamation of the sun: “I am! I am life! I am Beauty infinite!” The flux and reflux of the instrumental surge grows in intensity, the music begins to glow with color and pulsate with eager life, and reaches a mighty sonority, gorged with the crash of a multitude of tamtams, cymbals, drums, and bells, at the climacteric reiteration of “Calore! Luce! Amor!” The piece is thrillingly effective, but as little operatic as the tintinnabulatory chant of the cherubim in the prologue of Boito’s “Mefistofele.”
And now allegory makes room for the drama. To the door of her cottage, embowered on the banks of a quiet stream, comes Iris. The peak of Fujiyama glows in the sunlight. Iris is fair and youthful and innocent. A dream has disturbed her. “Gorgons and Hydras and Chimaeras dire” had filled her garden and threatened her doll, which she had put to sleep under a rose-bush. But the sun’s rays burst forth and the monsters flee. She lifts her doll and moves its arms in mimic salutation to the sun. Osaka, a wealthy rake, and Kyoto, a pander, play spy on her actions, gloat on her loveliness and plot to steal her and carry her to the Yoshiwara. To this end they go to bring on a puppet show, that its diversion may enable them to steal her away without discovery. Women come down to the banks of the river and sing pretty metaphors as they wash their basketloads of muslins. Gradually the music of samisens, gongs, and drums approaches. Osaka and Kyoto have disguised themselves as travelling players, gathered together some geishas and musicians, and now set up a marionette theatre. Iris comforts her blind father, the only object of her love, besides her doll, and promises to remain at his side. The puppet play tells the story of a maiden who suffers abuse from a cruel father, who threatens to sell her to a merchant. Iris is much affected by the sorrows of the puppet. The voice of Jor, the son of the sun, is heard–it is Osaka, singing without. The melody is the melody of Turridu’s Siciliano, but the words are a promise of a blissful, kissful death and thereafter life everlasting. The puppet dies and with Jor dances off into Nirvana. Now three geishas, representing Beauty, Death, and the Vampire, begin a dance. Kyoto distracts the attention of the spectators while the dancers flaunt their skirts higher and wider until their folds conceal Iris, and Osaka’s hirelings seize her and bear her off toward the city. Kyoto places a letter and money at the cottage door for the blind father. Through a pedler and the woman he learns that his daughter is gone to be an inmate of the Yoshiwara. He implores the people who had been jeering him to lead him thither, that he may spit in her face and curse her.
Iris is asleep upon a bed in the “Green House” of the district, which needs no description. A song, accompanied by the twanging of a samisen and the clanging of tamtams, is sung by three geishas. Kyoto brings in Osaka to admire her beauty, and sets a high price upon tt. Osaka sends for jewels. Iris awakes and speculates in philosophical vein touching the question of her existence. She cannot be dead, for death brings knowledge and paradise joy; but she weeps. Osaka appears. He praises her rapturously–her form, her hair, her eyes, her mouth, her smile. Iris thinks him veritably Jor, but he says his name is “Pleasure.” The maiden recoils in terror. A priest had taught her in an allegory that Pleasure and Death were one! Osaka loads her with jewels, fondles her, draws her to his breast, kisses her passionately. Iris weeps. She knows nothing of passion, and longs only for her father, her cottage, and her garden. Osaka wearies of his guest, but Kyoto plans to play still further upon his lust. He clothes her in richer robes, but more transparent, places her upon a balcony, and, withdrawing a curtain, exhibits her beauty to the multitude in the street. Amazed cries greet the revelation. Osaka returns and pleads for her love.
“Iris!” It is the cry of the blind man hunting the child whom he thinks has sold herself into disgraceful slavery. The crowd falls back before him, while Iris rushes forward to the edge of the veranda and cries out to him, that he may know her presence. He gathers a handful of mud from the street and hurls it in the direction of her voice. “There! In your face! In your forehead! In your mouth! In your eyes! Fango!” Under the imprecations of her father the mind of Iris gives way. She rushes along a corridor and hurls herself out of a window.
The third act is reached, and drama merges again into allegory. In the wan light of the moon rag-pickers, men and women, are dragging their hooks through the slimy muck that flows through the open sewer beneath the fatal window. They sing mockingly to the moon. A flash of light from Fujiyama awakens a glimmer in the filth. Again. They rush forward and pull forth the body of Iris and begin to strip it of its adornments. She moves and they fly in superstitious fear. She recovers consciousness, and voices from invisible singers, tell her of the selfish inspirations of Osaka, Kyoto, and her blind father; Osaka’s desire baffled by fate–such is life! Kyoto’s slavery to pleasure and a hangman’s reward;–such is life! The blind man’s dependence on his child for creature comforts;– such is life! Iris bemoans her fate as death comes gently to her. The sky grows rosy and the light brings momentary life. She stretches out her arms to the sun and acclaims the growing orb. As once upon Ida–
Glad earth perceives and from her bosom pours Unbidden herbs and voluntary flow’rs!
A field of blossoms spreads around her, into which she sinks, while the sun, again many-voiced and articulate, chants his glory as in the beginning,
The story is perhaps prettier in the telling than in the performance. What there is in its symbolism and its poetical suggestion that is ingratiating is more effective in the fancy than in the experience. There are fewer clogs, fewer stagnant pools, fewer eddies which whirl to no purpose. In the modern school, with its distemper music put on in splotches, there must be more merit and action. Psychological delineation in music which stimulates action, or makes one forget the want of outward movement, demands a different order of genius than that which Signor Mascagni possesses. Mere talent for artful device will not suffice. There are many effective bits of expressive writing in the score of “Iris,” but most of them are fugitive and aim at coloring a word, a phrase, or at best a temporary situation. There is little flow of natural, fervent melody. What the composer accomplished with tune, characteristic but fluent, eloquent yet sustained, in “Cavalleria rusticana,” he tries to achieve in “Iris” with violent, disjointed, shifting of keys and splashes of instrumental color. In this he is seldom successful, for he is not a master of orchestral writing– that technical facility which nearly all the young musicians have in the same degree that all pianists have finger technic. His orchestral stream is muddy; his effects generally crass and empty of euphony. He throws the din of outlandish instruments of percussion, a battery of gongs, big and little, drums, and cymbals into his score without achieving local color. Once only does he utilize it so as to catch the ears and stir the fancy of his listeners–in the beginning of the second act, where there is a murmur of real Japanese melody. As a rule, however, Signor Mascagni seems to have been careless in the matter of local color, properly so, perhaps, for, strictly speaking, local color in the lyric drama is for comedy with its petty limitations, not for tragedy with its appeal to large and universal passions. Yet it is in the lighter scenes, the scenes of comedy, like the marionette show, the scenes of mild pathos, like the monologues of Iris, and the scenes of mere accessory decoration, like that of the laundresses, the mousmes in the first act, with its purling figure borrowed from “Les Huguenots” and its unnecessarily uncanny col legno effect conveyed from “L’Africaine” that it is most effective.
This is the book of the generation of “Madama Butterfly”: An adventure in Japan begat Pierre Loti’s “Madame Chrysantheme”; “Madame Chrysantheme” begat John Luther Long’s “Madame Butterfly,” a story; “Madame Butterfly,” the story, begat “Madame Butterfly,” a play by David Belasco; “Madame Butterfly,” the play, begat “Madama Butterfly,” the opera by Giacomo Puccini. The heroine of the roving French romanticist is therefore seen in her third incarnation in the heroine of the opera book which L. Illica and G. Giacosa made for Puccini. But in operatic essence she is still older, for, as Dr. Korngold, a Viennese critic, pointed out, Selica is her grandmother and Lakme her cousin.
Even this does not exhaust her family history; there is something like a bar sinister in her escutcheon. Mr. Belasco’s play was not so much begotten, conceived, or born of admiration for Mr. Long’s book as it was of despair wrought by the failure of another play written by Mr. Belasco. This play was a farce entitled “Naughty Anthony,” created by Mr. Belasco in a moment of aesthetic aberration for production at the Herald Square Theatre, in New York, in the spring of 1900. Mr. Belasco doesn’t think so now, but at the time he had a notion that the public would find something humorous and attractive in the spectacle of a popular actress’s leg swathed in several layers of stocking. So he made a show of Blanche Bates. The public refused to be amused at the farcical study in comparative anatomy, and when Mr. Belasco’s friends began to fault him for having pandered to a low taste, and he felt the smart of failure in addition, he grew heartily ashamed of himself. His affairs, moreover, began to take on a desperate aspect; the season threatened to be a ruinous failure, and he had no play ready to substitute for “Naughty Anthony.” Some time before a friend had sent him Mr. Long’s book, but he had carelessly tossed it aside. In his straits it came under his eyes again, and this time he saw a play in it–a play and a promise of financial salvation. It was late at night when he read the story, but he had come to a resolve by morning and in his mind’s eye had already seen his actors in Japanese dress. The drama lay in the book snugly enough; it was only necessary to dig it out and materialize it to the vision. That occupation is one in which Mr. Belasco is at home. The dialogue went to his actors a few pages at a time, and the pictures rose rapidly in his mind. Something different from a stockinged leg now!
Glimpses of Nippon–its mountains, waters, bridges, flowers, gardens, geishas; as a foil to their grace and color the prosaic figures of a naval officer and an American Consul. All things tinged with the bright light of day, the glories of sunset or the super-glories of sunrise. We must saturate the fancy of the audience with the atmosphere of Japan, mused Mr. Belasco. Therefore, Japanese scenes, my painter! Electrician, your plot shall be worked out as carefully as the dialogue and action of the play’s people. “First drop discovered; house-lights down; white foots with blue full work change of color at back of drop; white lens on top of mountain; open light with white, straw, amber, and red on lower part of drop; when full on lower footlights to blue,” and so on. Mr. Belasco’s emotions, we know, find eloquent expression in stage lights. But the ear must be carried off to the land of enchantment as well as the eye. “Come, William Furst, recall your experiences on the Western coast. For my first curtain I want a quaint, soft Japanese melody, pp–you know how!”
And so “Madame Butterfly,” the play, was made. In two weeks all was ready, and a day after the first performance at the Herald Square Theatre, on March 5, 1900, the city began to hum with eager comment on the dramatic intensity of the scene of a Japanese woman’s vigil, of the enthralling eloquence of a motionless, voiceless figure, looking steadily through a hole torn through a paper partition, with a sleeping child and a nodding maid at her feet, while a mimic night wore on, the lanterns on the floor flickered out one by one and the soft violins crooned a melody to the arpeggios of a harp.
The season at the Herald Square Theatre was saved. Some time later, when Mr. Belasco accompanied Mr. Charles Frohman to London to put on “Zaza” at the Garrick Theatre, he took “Madame Butterfly” with him and staged it at the Duke of York’s Theatre, hard by. On the first night of “Madame Butterfly” Mr. Frohman was at the latter playhouse, Mr. Belasco at the former. The fall of the curtain on the little Japanese play was followed by a scene of enthusiasm which endured so long that Mr. Frohman had time to summon his colleague to take a curtain call. At a stroke the pathetic play had made its fortune in London, and, as it turned out, paved the way for a new and larger triumph for Mr. Long’s story. The musical critics of the London newspapers came to the house and saw operatic possibilities in the drama. So did Mr. Francis Nielson, at the time Covent Garden’s stage manager, who sent word of the discovery to Signor Puccini. The composer came from Milan, and realized on the spot that the successor of “Tosca” had been found. Signori Illica and Giacosa, librettists in ordinary to Ricordi & Co., took the work of making the opera book in hand. Signor Illica’s fancy had roamed in the Land of Flowers before; he had written the libretto for Mascagni’s “Iris.” The ephemeral life of Cho-Cho-San was over in a few months, but by that time “Madama Butterfly,” glorified by music, had lifted her wings for a new flight in Milan.
It is an old story that many operas which are recognized as masterpieces later, fail to find appreciation or approval when they are first produced. “Madama Butterfly” made a fiasco when brought forward at La Scala on February 17, 1904.
[Footnote: At this premiere Campanini was the conductor and the cast was as follows: Butterfly, Storchio; Suzuki, Giaconia; Pinkerton, Zenatello; Sharpless, De Luca; Goro, Pini-Corsi; Bonzo, Venturini; Yakuside, Wulmann. At the first performance in London, on July 10, 1905, at Covent Garden, the cast was: Butterfly, Destinn; Suzuki, Lejeune; Pinkerton, Caruso; Sharpless, Scotti; Goro, Dufriche; Bonzo, Cotreuil; Yakuside, Rossi. Conductor, Campanini. After the revision it was produced at Brescia on May 28, 1904, with Zenatello, of the original cast, Krusceniski as Butterfly, and Bellati as Sharpless. The first American performances were in the English version, made by Mrs. B. H. Elkin, by the Savage Opera Company, which came to the Garden Theatre, New York, after a trial season in Washington, on November 12, 1906. It had a run of nearly three months before it reached the Metropolitan Opera House, on February 11, 1907. Mr. Walter Rothwell conducted the English performance, in which there were several changes of casts, the original Butterfly being Elza Szamozy (a Hungarian singer); Suzuki, Harriet Behne; Pinkerton, Joseph F. Sheehan, and Sharpless, Winifred Goff. Arturo Vigna conducted the first Italian performance at the Metropolitan, with Geraldine Farrar as Butterfly, Louise Homer as Suzuki, Caruso as Pinkerton, Scotti as Sharpless, and Albert Reiss as Goro.]
So complete was the fiasco that in his anxiety to withdraw the work Signer Puccini is said to have offered to reimburse the management of the theatre for the expenditures entailed by the production. Failures of this kind are frequently inexplicable, but it is possible that the unconventional character of the story and the insensibility of the Italians to national musical color other than their own, had a great deal to do with it in this case. Whatever the cause, the popular attitude toward the opera was displayed in the manner peculiar to Italy, the discontented majority whistling, shrilling on house keys, grunting, roaring, bellowing, and laughing in the good old-fashioned manner which might be set down as possessed of some virtuous merit if reserved for obviously stupid creations.
“The Pall Mall Gazette” reported that at the time the composer told a friend that on this fateful first night he was shut up in a small room behind the scenes, where he could hear nothing of what was going on on the stage or in the audience-room. On a similar occasion, nearly a century before, when “The Barber of Seville” scored an equally monumental failure, Rossini, in the conductor’s chair, faced the mob, shrugged his shoulders, and clapped his hands to show his contempt for his judges, then went home and composedly to bed. Puccini, though he could not see the discomfiture of his opera, was not permitted to remain in ignorance of it. His son and his friends brought him the news. His collaborator, Giacosa, rushed into the room with dishevelled hair and staring eyes, crying: “I have suffered the passion of death!” while Signorina Storchio burst into such a flood of tears and sobs that it was feared she would be ill. Puccini was cut to the heart, but he did not lose faith in the work. He had composed it in love and knew its potentialities, His faith found justification when he produced it in Brescia three months later and saw it start out at once on a triumphal tour of the European theatres. His work of revision was not a large or comprehensive one. He divided the second act into two acts, made some condensations to relieve the long strain, wrote a few measures of introduction for the final scene, but refused otherwise to change the music. His fine sense of the dramatic had told him correctly when he planned the work that there ought not to be a physical interruption of the pathetic vigil out of which Blanche Bates in New York and Evelyn Millard in London had made so powerful a scene, but he yielded to the compulsion of practical considerations, trying to save respect for his better judgment by refusing to call the final scene an act, though he permitted the fall of the curtain; but nothing can make good the loss entailed by the interruption. The mood of the play is admirably preserved in the music of the intermezzo, but the mood of the listeners is hopelessly dissipated with the fall of the curtain. When the scene of the vigil is again disclosed, the charm and the pathos have vanished, never to return. It is true that a rigid application of the law of unities would seem to forbid that a vigil of an entire night from eve till morning be compressed into a few minutes; but poetic license also has rights, and they could have been pleaded with convincing eloquence by music, with its marvellous capacity for publishing the conflicting emotions of the waiting wife.
His ship having been ordered to the Asiatic station, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Lieutenant in the United States Navy, follows a custom (not at all unusual among naval officers, if Pierre Loti is to be believed) and for the summer sojourn in Japan leases a Japanese wife. (The word “wife” is a euphemism for housekeeper, companion, play-fellow, mistress, what not.) This is done in a manner involving little ceremony, as is known to travellers and others familiar with the social customs of Nippon, through a nakodo, a marriage broker or matrimonial agent. M. Loti called his man Kangourou; Mr. Long gave his the name of Goro. That, however, and the character of the simple proceeding before a registrar is immaterial. M. Loti, who assures us that his book is merely some pages from a veritable diary, entertains us with some details preliminary to his launch into a singular kind of domestic existence, which are interesting as bearing on the morals of the opera and as indicative of the fact that he is a closer observer of Oriental life than his American confrere. He lets us see how merchantable “wives” are chosen, permits M. Kangourou to exhibit his wares and expatiate on their merits. There is the daughter of a wealthy China merchant, a young woman of great accomplishments who can write “commercially” and has won a prize in a poetic contest with a sonnet. She is, consequently, very dear–100 yen, say $100– but that is of no consequence; what matters is that she has a disfiguring scar on her cheek. She will not do. Then there is Mlle. Jasmin, a pretty girl of fifteen years, who can be had for $18 or $20 a month (contract cancellable at the end of any month for non- payment), a few dresses of fashionable cut and a pleasant house to live in. Mlle. Jasmin comes to be inspected with one old lady, two old ladies, three old ladies (mamma and aunts), and a dozen friends and neighbors, big and little. Loti’s moral stomach revolts at the thought of buying for his uses a child who looks like a doll, and is shocked at the public parade which has been made of her as a commodity. He has not yet been initiated into some of the extraordinary customs of Japan, nor yet into some of the distinctions attendant upon those customs. He learns of one of the latter when he suggests to the broker that he might marry a charming geisha who had taken his fancy at a tea house. The manner in which the suggestion was received convinced him that he might as well have purposed to marry the devil himself as a professional dancer and singer. Among the train of Mlle. Jasmin’s friends is one less young than Mlle. Jasmin, say about eighteen, and already more of a woman; and when Loti says, “Why not her?” M. Kangourou trots her out for inspection and, discreetly sending Loti away, concludes the arrangement between night-fall and 10 o’clock, when he comes with the announcement: “All is arranged, sir; her parents will give her up for $20 a month–the same price as Mlle. Jasmin.”
So Mlle. Chrysantheme became the wife of Pierre Loti during his stay at Nagasaki, and then dutifully went home to her mother without breaking her heart at all. But she was not a geisha, only a mousme–“one of the prettiest words in the Nipponese language,” comments M. Loti, “it seems almost as if there must be a little moue in the very sound, as if a pretty, taking little pout, such as they put on, and also a little pert physiognomy, were described by it.”
Lieutenant Pinkerton, equally ignorant with Lieutenant Loti but uninstructed evidently, marries a geisha whose father had made the happy dispatch at the request of the Son of Heaven after making a blunder in his military command. She is Cio-Cio-San, also Madama Butterfly, and she comes to her wedding with a bevy of geishas or mousmes (I do not know which) and a retinue of relations. All enjoy the hospitality of the American officer while picking him to pieces, but turn from their kinswoman when they learn from an uncle, who is a Buddhist priest and comes late to the wedding like the wicked fairy in the stories, that she has attended the Mission school and changed her religion. Wherefore the bonze curses her: “Hou, hou! Cio-Cio-San, hou, hou!”
Sharpless, United States Consul at Nagasaki, had not approved of Pinkerton’s adventure, fearing that it might bring unhappiness to the little woman; but Pinkerton had laughed at his scruples and emptied his glass to the marriage with an American wife which he hoped to make some day. Neither Loti nor Long troubles us with the details of so prosaic a thing as the marriage ceremony; but Puccini and his librettists make much of it, for it provides the only opportunity for a chorus and the musician had found delightfully mellifluous Japanese gongs to add a pretty touch of local color to the music. Cio-Cio-San has been “outcasted” and Pinkerton comforts her and they make love in the starlight (after Butterfly has changed her habiliments) like any pair of lovers in Italy. “Dolce notte! Quante stelle! Vieni, vieni!” for quantity.
This is the first act of the opera, and it is all expository to Belasco’s “Tragedy of Japan,” which plays in one act, with the pathetic vigil separating the two days which form its period of action. When that, like the second act of the opera, opens, Pinkerton has been gone from Nagasaki and his “wife” three years, and a baby boy of whom he has never heard, but who has his eyes and hair has come to bear Butterfly company in the little house on the hill. The money left by the male butterfly when he flitted is all but exhausted. Madama Butterfly appears to be lamentably ignorant of the customs of her country, for she believes herself to be a wife in the American sense and is fearfully wroth with Suzuki, her maid, when she hints that she never knew a foreign husband to come back to a Japanese wife. But Pinkerton when he sailed away had said that he would be back “when the robins nest again,” and that suffices Cio-Cio-San. But when Sharpless comes with a letter to break the news that his friend is coming back with an American wife, he loses courage to perform his mission at the contemplation of the little woman’s faith in the truant. Does he know when the robins nest in America? In Japan they had nested three times since Pinkerton went away. The consul quails at that and damns his friend as a scoundrel. Now Goro, who knows Butterfly’s pecuniary plight, brings Yamadori to her. Yamadori is a wealthy Japanese citizen of New York in the book and play and a prince in the opera, but in all he is smitten with Butterfly’s beauty and wants to add her name to the list of wives he has conveniently married and as conveniently divorced on his visits to his native land. Butterfly insists that she is an American and cannot be divorced Japanese fashion, and is amazed when Sharpless hints that Pinkerton might have forgotten her and she would better accept Yamadori’s hand.
First she orders him out of the house, but, repenting her of her rudeness, brings in the child to show him something that no one is likely to forget. She asks the consul to write to his friend and tell him that he has a son, so fine a son, indeed, that she indulges in a day dream of the Mikado stopping at the head of his troops to admire him and make him a prince of the realm. Sharpless goes away with his mission unfulfilled and Suzuki comes in dragging Goro with her, for that he had been spreading scandalous tales about the treatment which children born like this child receive in America. Butterfly is tempted to kill the wretch, but at the last is content to spurn him with her foot.
At this moment a cannon shot is heard. A man-of-war is entering the harbor. Quick, the glasses! “Steady my hand, Suzuki, that I may read the name.” It is the Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton’s ship! Now the cherry tree must give up its every blossom, every bush or vine its violets and jessamines to garnish the room for his welcome! The garden is stripped bare, vases are filled, the floor is strewn with petals. Perfumes exhale from the voices of the women and the song of the orchestra. Here local color loses its right; the music is all Occidental. Butterfly is dressed again in her wedding gown of white and her pale cheeks are touched up with carmine. The paper partitions are drawn against the night. Butterfly punctures the shoji with three holes–one high up for herself to look through, standing; one lower for the maid to look through, sitting; one near the floor for the baby. And so Butterfly stands in an all-night vigil. The lanterns flicker and go out. Maid and babe sink down in sleep. The gray dawn creeps over the waters of the harbor. Human voices, transformed into instruments, hum a barcarolle. (We heard it when Sharpless tried to read the letter.) A Japanese tune rises like a sailors’ chanty from the band. Mariners chant their “Yo ho!” Day is come. Suzuki awakes and begs her mistress to seek rest. Butterfly puts the baby to bed, singing a lullaby. Sharpless and Pinkerton come and learn of the vigil from Suzuki, who sees the form of a lady in the garden and hears that it is the American wife of Pinkerton. Pinkerton pours out his remorse melodiously. He will be haunted forever by the picture of his once happy home and Cio- Cio-San’s reproachful eyes. He leaves money for Butterfly in the consul’s hands and runs away like a coward. Kate, the American wife, and Suzuki meet in the garden. The maid is asked to tell her mistress the meaning of the visit, but before she can do so Butterfly sees them. Her questions bring out half the truth; her intuition tells her the rest. Kate (an awful blot she is on the dramatic picture) begs forgiveness and asks for the baby boy that her husband may rear him. Butterfly says he shall have him in half an hour if he will come to fetch him. She goes to the shrine of Buddha and takes from it a veil and a dagger, reading the words engraved on its blade: “To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor.” It is the weapon which the Mikado had sent to her father. She points the weapon at her throat, but at the moment Suzuki pushes the baby into the room. Butterfly addresses it passionately; then, telling it to play, seats it upon a stool, puts an American flag into its hands, a bandage around its eyes. Again she takes dagger and veil and goes behind a screen. The dagger is heard to fall. Butterfly totters out from behind the screen with a veil wound round her neck. She staggers to the child and falls, dying, at its feet. Pinkerton rushes in with a cry of horror and falls on his knees, while Sharpless gently takes up the child.
I have no desire to comment disparagingly upon the denouement of the book of Mr. Long or the play of Mr. Belasco which Puccini and his librettists followed; but in view of the origin of the play a bit of comparative criticism seems to be imperative. Loti’s “Madame Chrysantheme” was turned into an opera by Andre Messager. What the opera was like I do not know. It came, it went, and left no sign; yet it would seem to be easy to guess at the reason for its quick evanishment. If it followed the French story, as no doubt it did, it was too faithful to the actualities of Japanese life to awaken a throb of emotion in the Occidental heart. Without such a throb a drama is naught–a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. The charm of Loti’s book lies in its marvellously beautiful portrayal of a country, a people, and a characteristic incident in the social life of that people. Its interest as a story, outside of the charm of its telling, is like that excited by inspection of an exotic curio. In his dedication of the book the author begged Mme. la Duchesse de Richelieu not to look for any meaning in it, but to receive it in the same spirit in which she would receive “some quaint bit of pottery, some grotesque carved ivory idol, or some preposterous trifle brought back from the fatherland of all preposterousness.” It is a record of a bit of the wandering life of a poet who makes himself a part of every scene into which fortune throws him. He has spent a summer with a Japanese mousme, whom he had married Japanese fashion, and when he has divorced her, also in Japanese fashion, with regard for all the conventions, and sailed away from her forever, he is more troubled by thoughts of possible contamination to his own nature than because of any consequences to the woman. Before the final farewell he had felt a touch of pity for the “poor little gypsy,” but when he mounted the stairs to her room for the last time he heard her singing, and mingled with her voice was a strange metallic sound, dzinn, dzinn! as of coins ringing on the floor. Is she amusing herself with quoits, or the jeu du crapaud, or pitch and toss? He creeps in, and there, dressed for the departure to her mother’s, sitting on the floor is Chrysantheme; and spread out around her all the fine silver dollars he had given her according to agreement the night before. “With the competent dexterity of an old money changer she fingers them, turns them over, throws them on the floor, and armed with a little mallet ad hoc, rings them vigorously against her ear, singing the while I know not what little pensive, birdlike song, which I dare say she improvises as she goes along. Well, after all, it is even more completely Japanese than I could possibly have imagined it–this last scene of my married life! I feel inclined to laugh.” And he commends the little gypsy’s worldly wisdom, offers to make good any counterfeit piece which she may find, and refuses to permit her to see him go aboard of his ship. She does, nevertheless, along with the Japanese wives of four of his fellow officers, who peep at their flitting husbands through the curtains of their sampans. But when he is far out on the great Yellow Sea he throws the faded lotus flowers which she had given him through the porthole of his cabin, making his best excuses for “giving to them, natives of Japan, a grave so solemn and so vast”; and he utters a prayer: “O Ama-Terace-Omi-Kami, wash me clean from this little marriage of mine in the waters of the river of Kamo!”
The story has no soul, and to give his story, which borrowed its motive from Loti’s, a soul, Mr. Long had to do violence to the verities of Japanese life. Yet might not even a geisha feel a genuine passion?
The use of folk-tunes in opera is older than “Madama Butterfly,” but Puccini’s score stands alone in the extent of the use and the consistency with which Japanese melody has been made the foundation of the music. When Signor Illica, one of the librettists, followed Sar Peladan and d’Annunzio into Nippon seeking flowers for “Iris,” he took Mascagni with him–metaphorically, of course. But Mascagni was a timid gleaner. Puccini plucked with a bolder hand, as indeed he might, for he is an incomparably greater adept in the art of making musical nosegays. In fact, I know of only one score that is comparable with that of “Madama Butterfly” in respect of its use of national musical color, and that is “Boris Godounoff.” Moussorgsky, however, had more, richer, and a greater variety of material to work with than Puccini. Japanese music is arid and angular, and yet so great is Puccini’s skill in combining creative imagination and reflection that he knew how to make it blossom like a rose. Pity that he could not wholly overcome its rhythmical monotony. Japanese melody runs almost uninterruptedly through his instrumental score, giving way at intervals to the Italian style of lyricism when the characters and passions become universal rather than local types. Structurally, his score rests on the Wagnerian method, in that the vocal part floats on an uninterrupted instrumental current. In the orchestral part the tunes which he borrowed from the popular music of Japan are continuously recurrent, and fragments of them are used as the connecting links of the whole fabric. He uses also a few typical themes (Leitmotive) of his own invention, and to them it might be possible, by ingenious study of their relation to text and situation, to attach significances in the manner of the Wagnerian handbooks; but I do not think that such processes occupied the composer’s mind to any considerable extent, and the themes are not appreciably characteristic. His most persistent use of a connecting link, arbitrarily chosen, is found in the case of the first motive of the theme, which he treats fugally in the introduction, and which appears thereafter to the end of the chapter (a, in the list of themes printed herewith). What might be called personal themes are the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Pinkerton and the melody (d) which comes in with Yamadori, in which the Japanese tune used by Sir Arthur Sullivan in “The Mikado” is echoed. The former fares badly throughout the score (for which no blame need attach to Signor Puccini), but the latter is used with capital effect, though not always in connection with the character.
If Signor Puccini had needed the suggestion that Japanese music was necessary for a Japanese play (which of course he did not), he might have received it when he saw Mr. Belasco’s play in London. For the incidental music in that play Mr. William Furst provided Japanese tunes, or tunes made over the very convenient Japanese last. Through Mr. Belasco’s courtesy I am able to present here a relic of this original “Butterfly” music. The first melody (a) was the theme of the curtain-music; (b) that accompanying Cho-Cho-San, when discovered at the beginning spraying flowers, presenting an offering at the shrine and burning incense in the house at the foot of Higashi hill; (c) the Yamadori music; (d) the music accompanying the first production of the sword; (e) the music of the vigil. There were also two Occidental pieces–the melody of a little song which Pinkerton had taught Cho-Cho-San, “I Call Her the Belle of Japan,” and “Rock-a-bye, Baby.”
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
Themes from Puccini’s “Butterfly” music By permission of Ricordi & Co.
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
Meiodies from Mr. Furst’s “Butterfly” music By permission of Mr. David Belasco
In the beginning there was “Guntram,” of which we in America heard only fragmentary echoes in our concert-rooms. Then came “Feuersnot,” which reached us in the same way, but between which and the subject which is to occupy me in this chapter there is a kinship through a single instrumental number, the meaning of which no commentator has dared more than hint at. It is the music which accompanies the episode, politely termed a “love scene,” which occurs at the climax of the earlier opera, but is supposed to take place before the opening of the curtain in the later. Perhaps I shall recur to them again–if I have the courage.
These were the operas of Richard Strauss which no manager deemed it necessary or advisable to produce in New York. Now came “Salome.” Popular neurasthenia was growing. Oscar Wilde thought France might accept a glorification of necrophilism and wrote his delectable book in French. France would have none of it, but when it was done into German, and Richard Strauss accentuated its sexual perversity by his hysterical music, lo! Berlin accepted it with avidity. The theatres of the Prussian capital were keeping pace with the pathological spirit of the day, and were far ahead of those of Paris, where, it had long been the habit to think, moral obliquity made its residence. If Berlin, then why not New York? So thought Mr. Conned, saturated with German theatricalism, and seeing no likely difference in the appeal of a “Parsifal” which he had successfully produced, and a “Salome,” he prepared to put the works of Wagner and Strauss on the same footing at the Metropolitan Opera House. An influence which has not yet been clearly defined, but which did not spring from the director of the opera nor the gentlemen who were his financial backers, silenced the maunderings of the lust-crazed Herod and paralyzed the contortions of the lascivious dancer to whom he was willing to give one-half his kingdom. [Footnote: For the story of “Salome” in New York, see my “Chapters of Opera” (Henry Holt & Co., New York), p. 343 et seq.]
Now Mr. Hammerstein came to continue the artistic education which the owners of the Metropolitan Opera House had so strangely and unaccountably checked. Salome lived out her mad life in a short time, dying, not by the command of Herod, but crushed under the shield of popular opinion. The operation, though effective, was not as swift as it might have been had operatic conditions been different than they are in New York, and before it was accomplished a newer phase of Strauss’s pathological art had offered itself as a nervous, excitation. It was “Elektra,” and under the guise of an ancient religious ideal, awful but pathetic, the people were asked to find artistic delight in the contemplation of a woman’s maniacal thirst for a mother’s blood. It is not necessary to recall the history of the opera at the Manhattan Opera House to show that the artistic sanity of New York was proof against the new poison.
Hugo von Hoffmannsthal had aided Strauss in this brew and collaborated with him in the next, which, it was hoped, probably because of the difference in its concoction and ingredients, would make his rein even more taut than it had ever been on theatrical managers and their public. From the Greek classics he turned to the comedy of the Beaumarchais period. Putting their heads together, the two wrote “Der Rosenkavalier.” It was perhaps shrewd on their part that they avoided all allusion to the opera buffa of the period and called their work a “comedy for music.” It enabled them, in the presence of the ignorant, to assume a virtue which they did not possess; but it is questionable if that circumstance will help them any. It is only the curious critic nowadays who takes the trouble to look at the definition, or epithet, on a title page. It is the work which puts the hallmark on itself; not the whim of the composer. It would have been wise, very wise indeed, had Hoffmannsthal avoided everything which might call up a comparison between himself and Beaumarchais. It was simply fatal to Strauss that he tried to avoid all comparison between his treatment of an eighteenth century comedy and Mozart’s. One of his devices was to make use of the system of musical symbols which are irrevocably associated with Wagner’s method of composition. Mozart knew nothing of this system, but he had a better one in his Beaumarchaisian comedy, which “Der Rosenkavalier” recalls; it was that of thematic expression for each new turn in the dramatic situation–a system which is carried out so brilliantly in “Le Nozze di Figaro” that there is nothing, even in “Die Meistersinger,” which can hold a candle to it. Another was to build up the vocal part of his comedy on orchestral waltzes. Evidently it was his notion that at the time of Maria Theresa (in whose early reign the opera is supposed to take place) the Viennese world was given over to the dance. It was so given over a generation later, so completely, indeed, that at the meetings in the ridotto, for which Mozart, Haydn, Gyrowetz, Beethoven, and others wrote music, retiring rooms had to be provided for ladies who were as unprepared for possible accidents as was one of those described by Pepys as figuring in a court ball in his time; but to put scarcely anything but waltz tunes under the dialogue of “Der Rosenkavalier” is an anachronism which is just as disturbing to the judicious as the fact that Herr Strauss, though he starts his half-dozen or more of waltzes most insinuatingly, never lets them run the natural course which Lanner and the Viennese Strauss, who suggested their tunes, would have made them do. Always, the path which sets out so prettily becomes a byway beset with dissonant thorns and thistles and clogged with rocks.
All of this is by way of saying that “Der Rosenkavalier” reached New York on December 9, 1913, after having endured two years or so in Europe, under the management of Mr. Gatti-Casazza, and was treated with the distinction which Mr. Conried gave “Parsifal” and had planned for “Salome.” It was set apart for a performance outside the subscription, special prices were demanded, and the novelty dressed as sumptuously and prepared with as lavish an expenditure of money and care as if it were a work of the very highest importance. Is it that? The question is not answered by the fact that its music was composed by Richard Strauss, even though one be willing to admit that Strauss is the greatest living master of technique in musical composition, the one concerning whose doings the greatest curiosity is felt and certainly the one whose doings are the best advertised. “Der Rosenkavalier,” in spite of all these things, must stand on its merits–as a comedy with music. The author of its book has invited a comparison which has already been suggested by making it a comedy of intrigue merely and placing its time of action in Vienna and the middle of the eighteenth century. He has gone further; he has invoked the spirit of Beaumarchais to animate his people and his incidents. The one thing which he could not do, or did not do, was to supply the satirical scourge which justified the Figaro comedies of his great French prototype and which, while it made their acceptance tardy, because of royal and courtly opposition, made their popular triumph the more emphatic. “Le Nozze di Figaro” gave us more than one figure and more than one scene in the representation, and “Le Nozze di Figaro” is to those who understand its text one of the most questionable operas on the current list. But there is a moral purpose underlying the comedy which to some extent justifies its frank salaciousness. It is to prevent the Count from exercising an ancient seigniorial right over the heroine which he had voluntarily resigned, that all the characters in the play unite in the intrigue which makes up the comedy. Moreover, there are glimpses over and over again of honest and virtuous love between the characters and beautiful expressions of it in the music which makes the play delightful, despite its salaciousness. Even Cherubino who seems to have come to life again in Octavian, is a lovable youth if for no othe reason than that he represents youth in its amorousness toward all womankind, with thought of special mischief toward none.
“Der Rosenkavalier” is a comedy of lubricity merely, with what little satirical scourge it has applied only to an old roue who is no more deserving of it than most of the other people in the play. So much of its story as will bear telling can be told very briefly. It begins, assuming its instrumental introduction (played with the scene discreetly hidden) to be a part of it, with a young nobleman locked in the embraces of the middle-aged wife of a field marshal, who is conveniently absent on a hunting expedition. The music is of a passionate order, and the composer, seeking a little the odor of virtue, but with an oracular wink in his eye, says in a descriptive note that it is to be played in the spirit of parody (parodistisch). Unfortunately the audience cannot see the printed direction, and there is no parody in music except extravagance and ineptitude in the utterance of simple things (like the faulty notes of the horns in Mozart’s joke on the village musicians, the cadenza for violin solo in the same musical joke, or the twangling of Beckmesser’s lute); so the introduction is an honest musical description of things which the composer is not willing to confess, and least of all the stage manager, for when the curtain opens there is not presented even the picture called for by the German libretto. Nevertheless, morn is dawning, birds are twittering, and the young lover, kneeling before his mistress on a divan, is bemoaning the fact that day is come and that he cannot publish his happiness to the world. The tete-a-tete is interrupted by a rude boor of a nobleman, who come to consult his cousin (the princess) about a messenger to send with the conventional offering of a silver rose to the daughter of a vulgar plebeian just elevated to the nobility because of his wealth. The conversation between the two touches on little more than old amours, and after the lady has held her levee designed to introduce a variety of comedy effects in music as well as action, the princess recommends her lover for the office of rosebearer. Meanwhile the lover has donned the garments of a waiting maid and been overwhelmed with the wicked attentions of the roue, Lerchenau. When the lovers are again alone there is a confession of renunciation on the part of the princess, based on the philosophical reflection that, after all, her Octavian being so young would bring about the inevitable parting sooner or later.
In the second act what the princess in her prescient abnegation had foreseen takes place. Her lover carries the rose to the young woman whom the roue had picked out for his bride and promptly falls in love with her. She with equal promptness, following the example of Wagner’s heroines, bowls herself at his head. The noble vulgarian complicates matters by insisting that he receive a dowry instead of paying one. The young hot-blood adds to the difficulties by pinking him in the arm with his sword, but restores order at the last by sending him a letter of assignation in his first act guise of a maid servant of the princess.
This assignation is the background of the third act, which is farce of the wildest and most vulgar order. Much of it is too silly for description. Always, however, there is allusion to the purpose of the meeting on the part of Lerchenau, whose plans are spoiled by apparitions in all parts of the room, the entrance of the police, his presumptive bride and her father, a woman who claims him as her husband, four children who raise bedlam (and memories of the contentious Jews in “Salome”); by shouting “Papa! papa!” until his mind is in a whirl and he rushes out in despair. The princess leaves the new-found lovers alone.
They hymn their happiness in Mozartian strains (the melody copied from the second part of the music with which Papageno sets the blackamoors to dancing in “Die Zauberflote”), the orchestra talks of the matronly renunciation of the princess, enthusiastic Straussians of a musical parallel with the quintet from Wagner’s “Meistersinger,” and the opera comes to an end after three and one- half hours of more or less unintelligible dialogue poised on waltz melodies.
I have said unintelligible dialogue. For this unintelligibility there are two reasons-the chief one musical, the other literary. Though Strauss treats his voices with more consideration in “Der Rosenkavalier” than in his tragedies, he still so overburdens them that the words are distinguishable only at intervals. Only too frequently he crushes them with orchestral voices, which in themselves are not overwhelming–the voices of his horns, for instance, for which he shows a particular partiality. His style of declamation is melodic, though it is only at the end of the opera that he rises to real vocal melody; but it seems to be put over an orchestral part, and not the orchestral part put under it. There is no moment in which he can say, as Wagner truthfully and admiringly said of the wonderful orchestral music of the third act of “Tristan und Isolde,” that all this swelling instrumental song existed only for the sake of what the dying Tristan was saying upon his couch. All of Strauss’s waltzes seem to exist for their own sake, which makes the disappointment greater that they are not carried through in the spirit in which they are begun; that is, the spirit of the naive Viennese dance tune.
A second reason for the too frequent unintelligibility of the text is its archaic character. Its idioms are eighteenth century as well as Viennese, and its persistent use of the third person even among individuals of quality, though it gives a tang to the libretto when read in the study, is not welcome when heard with difficulty. Besides this, there is use of dialect–vulgar when assumed by Octavian, mixed when called for by such characters as Valzacchi and his partner in scandal mongery, Annina. To be compelled to forego a knowledge of half of what such a master of diction as Mr. Reiss was saying was a new sensation to his admirers who understand German. Yet the fault was as little his as it was Mr. Goritz’s that so much of what he said went for nothing; it was all his misfortune, including the fact that much of the music is not adapted to his voice.
The music offers a pleasanter topic than the action and dialogue. It is a relief to those listeners who go to the opera oppressed with memories of “Salome” and “Elektra.” It is not only that their ears are not so often assaulted by rude sounds, they are frequently moved by phrases of great and genuine beauty. Unfortunately the Straussian system of composition demands that beauty be looked for in fragments. Continuity of melodic flow is impossible to Strauss– a confession of his inability either to continue Wagner’s method, to improve on it, or invent anything new in its place. The best that has been done in the Wagnerian line belongs to Humperdinck.
[Footnote: “Der Rosenkavalier” had its first American production at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on December 9, 1913, the cast being as follows:–
Feldmarschallin Furstin Werdenberg………… Frieda Hempel Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau…………………. Otto Goritz Octavian, genannt Quinquin……………….. Margarete Ober Herr von Faninal………………………… Hermann Weil Sophie, seine Tochter……………………. Anna Case Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin…………….. Rita Fornia Valzacchi, ein Intrigant…………………. Albert Reiss Annina, seine Begleiterin………………… Marie Mattfeld Ein Polizeikommissar…………………….. Carl Schlegel Haushofmeister der Feldmarschalh’n………… Pietro Audisio Haushofmeister bei Faninal……………….. Lambert Murphy Ein Notar………………………………. Basil Ruysdael Ein Wirt……………………………….. Julius Bayer Ein Sanger……………………………… Carl Jorn Drei adelige Waisen……………………… Louise Cox Rosina Van Dyck
Sophie Braslau Eine Modistin…………………………… Jeanne Maubourg Ein Lakai………………………………. Ludwig Burgstaller Ein kleiner Neger……………………….. Ruth Weinstein
Once upon a time a witch cast a spell upon a king’s daughter and held her in servitude as a gooseherd. A prince found her in the forest and loved her. She loved him in return, and would gladly have gone away from her sordid surroundings with him, though she had spurned the crown which he had offered her in exchange for her wreath of flowers; but when she escaped from her jailer she found that she could not break the charm which held her imprisoned in the forest. Then the prince left the crown lying at her feet and continued his wanderings. Scarcely had he gone when there came to the hut of the witch a broommaker and a woodchopper, guided by a wandering minstrel. They were ambassadors from the city of Hellabrunn, which had been so long without a king that its boorish burghers themselves felt the need of a ruler in spite of their boorishness. To the wise woman the ambassadors put the questions: Who shall be this ruler and by what sign shall they recognize him? The witch tells them that their sovereign shall be the first person who enters their gates after the bells have rung the noon hour on the morrow, which is the day of the Hella festival. Then the minstrel catches sight of the lovely goose-girl, and through the prophetic gift possessed by poets he recognizes in her a rightly born princess for his people. By the power of his art he is enabled to put aside the threatening spells of the witch and compel the hag to deliver the maiden into his care. He persuades her to break the enchantment which had held her bound hitherto and defy the wicked power.
Meanwhile, however, grievous misfortunes have befallen the prince, her lover. He has gone to Hellabrunn, and desiring to learn to serve in order that he might better know how to rule, he had taken service as a swineherd. The daughter of the innkeeper becomes enamoured of the shapely body of the prince, whose proud spirit she cannot understand, and who has repulsed her advances. His thoughts go back to the goosegirl whose wreath, with its fresh fragrance, reminds him of his duty. He attempts to teach the burghers their own worth, but the wench whose love he had repulsed accuses him of theffy and he is about to be led off to prison when the bells peal forth the festal hour.
Joyfully the watchmen throw open the strong town gates and the multitude and gathered councillors fall back to receive their king. But through the doors enters the gooseherd, proudly wearing her crown and followed by her flock and the minstrel The lovers fall into each other’s arms, but only the poet and a little child recognize them as of royal blood. The boorish citizens, who had fancied that their king would appear in regal splendor, drive the youth and maiden out with contumely, burn the witch and cripple the minstrel by breaking one of his legs on the wheel. Seeking his home, the prince and his love lose their way in the forest during a snowstorm and die of a poisoned loaf made by the witch, for which the prince had bartered his broken crown, under the same tree which had sheltered them on their first meeting; but the children of Hellabrunn, who had come out in search of them, guided by a bird, find their bodies buried under the snow and give them royal acclaim and burial. And the prescient minstrel hymns their virtues.
This is the story of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera “Konigskinder,” which had its first performance on any stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on December 28,1910, with the following cast:
Der Konigssohn………………….Herman Jadlowker Die Gansemagd…………………..Geraldine Farrar Der Spielmann……………………… Otto Goritz Die Hexe…………………………..Louise Homer Der Holzhacker…………………….. Adamo Didur Der Besenbinder…………………… Albert Reiss Zwei Kinder…………..Edna Walter and Lotte Engel Der Ratsalteste………………….. Marcel Reiner Der Wirt……………………..Antonio Pini-Corsi Die Wirtstochter………………. Florence Wickham Der Schneider…………………….. Julius Bayer Die Stallmagd…………………….Marie Mattfeld Zwei Torwachter….. Ernst Maran and William Hinshaw
Conductor: Alfred Hertz
To some in the audience the drama was new only in the new operatic dress with which Humperdinck had clothed it largely at the instance of the Metropolitan management. It had been known as a spoken play for twelve years and three of its musical numbers–the overture and two pieces of between-acts music–had been in local concert-lists for the same length of time. The play had been presented with incidental music for many of the scenes as well as the overture and entr’actes in 1898 in an extremely interesting production at the Irving Place Theatre, then under the direction of Heinrich Conried, in which Agnes Sorma and Rudolf Christians had carried the principal parts. It came back four years later in an English version at the Herald Square Theatre, but neither in the German nor the English performance was it vouchsafed us to realize what had been the purpose of the author of the play and the composer of the music.
The author, who calls herself Ernst Rosmer, is a woman, daughter of Heinrich Forges, for many years a factotum at the Bayreuth festivals. It was her father’s devotion to Wagner which gave her the name of Elsa. She married a lawyer and litterateur in Munich named Bernstein, and has written a number of plays besides “Konigskinder,” which she published in 1895, and afterward asked Herr Humperdinck (not yet a royal Prussian professor, but a simple musician, who had made essays in criticisms and tried to make a composer out of Siegfried Wagner) to provide with incidental music. Mr. Humperdinck took his task seriously. The play, with some incidental music, was two years old before Mr. Humperdinck had his overture ready. He had tried a new experiment, which proved a failure. The second and third acts had their preludes, and the songs of the minstrel had their melodies and accompaniments, and all the principal scenes had been provided with illustrative music in the Wagnerian manner, with this difference, that the dialogue had been “pointed,” as a church musician would say–that is, the rhythm was indicated with exactness, and even the variations of pitch, though it was understood that the purpose was not to achieve song, but an intensified utterance, halfway between speech and song. This was melodrama, as Herr Humperdinck conceived it and as it had no doubt existed for ages–ever since the primitive Greek drama, in fact. It is easy to understand how Herr Humperdinck came to believe in the possibility of an art-form which, though accepted, for temporary effect, by Beethoven and Cherubini, and used for ballads with greater or less success by Schumann, had been harshly rejected by his great model and master, Wagner. Humperdinck lives in Germany, where in nearly every theatre there is more or less of an amalgamation of the spoken drama and the opera–where choristers play small parts and actors, though not professional singers, sing when not too much is required of them. And yet Herr Humperdinck found out that he had asked too much of his actors with his “pointed” and at times intoned declamation, and “Konigskinder” did not have to come to America to learn that the compromise was a failure. No doubt Herr Humperdinck thought of turning so beautiful a play into an opera then, but it seems to have required the stimulus which finally came from New York to persuade him to carry out the operatic idea, which is more than suggested in the score as it lies before me in its original shape, into a thorough lyric drama. The set pieces which had lived in the interim in the concert-room were transferred into the opera-score with trifling alterations and condensations and so were the set songs. As for the rest it needed only that note-heads be supplied to some of the portions of the dialogue which Humperdinck had designed for melodic declamation to have those portions ready for the opera. Here an example:–
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
A German opera can generally stand severer criticism than one in another language, because there is a more strict application of principles in Germany when it comes to writing a lyric drama than in any other country. So in the present instance there is no need to conceal the fact that there are outbreaks of eroticism and offences against the German language which are none the less flagrant and censurable because they are, to some extent, concealed under the thin veneer of the allegory and symbolism which every reader must have recognized as running through the play. This is, in a manner, Wagnerian, as so much of the music is Wagnerian– especially that of the second act, which because it calls up scenes from the “Meistersinger” must also necessarily call up music from the same comedy. But there is little cause here for quarrel with Professor Humperdinck. He has applied the poetical principle of Wagner to the fairy tale which is so closely related to the myth, and he has with equal consistency applied Wagner’s constructive methods musically and dramatically. It is to his great honor that, of all of Wagner’s successors, he has been the only one to do so successfully.
The story of “Konigskinder,” though it belongs to the class of fairy tales of which “Hansel und Gretel” is so striking and beautiful an example, is not to be found as the author presents it in the literature of German Marchen. Mme. Bernstein has drawn its elements from many sources and blended them with the utmost freedom. To avoid a misunderstanding Germans will insist that the title be used without the article, for “Die Konigskinder” or “Zwei Konigskinder” both suggest the simple German form of the old tale of Hero and Leander, with which story, of course, it has nothing whatever to do. But if literary criticism forbids association between Humperdinck’s two operas, musical criticism compels it. Many of the characters in the operas are close relations, dramatically as well as musically–the royal children themselves, the witches, of course, and the broom-makers. The rest of the characters have been taken from Wagner’s “Meistersinger” picture book; the citizens of Hellabrunn are Nuremberg’s burghers, the city’s’ councillors, the old master singers. The musical idiom is Humperdinck’s, though its method of employment is Wagner’s. But here lies its charm: Though the composer hews to a theoretical line, he does it freely, naturally, easily, and always with the principle of musical beauty as well as that of dramatic truthfulness and propriety in view. His people’s voices float on a symphonic stream, but the voices of the instruments, while they sing on in endless melody, use the idiom which nature gave them. There is admirable characterization in the orchestral music, but it is music for all that; it never descends to mere noise, designed to keep up an irritation of the nerves.
From whatever point of view it may be considered Mossourgsky’s opera “Boris Godounoff” is an extraordinary work. It was brought to the notice of the people of the United States by a first performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York, on March 19, 1913, but intelligence concerning its character had come to observers of musical doings abroad by reports touching performances in Paris and London. It is possible, even likely, that at all the performances of the work outside of Russia those who listened to it with the least amount of intellectual sophistication derived the greatest pleasure from it, though to them its artistic deficiencies must also have been most obvious. Against these deficiencies, however, it presented itself, first of all, as a historical play shot through and through with a large theme, which, since it belongs to tragedy, is universal and unhampered by time or place or people. To them it had something of the sweep, dignity, and solemnity and also something of the dramatic incongruity and lack of cohesion of a Shakespearian drama as contradistinguished from the coherence of purpose and manner of a modern drama.
To them also it had much strangeness of style, a style which was not easily reconciled to anything with which the modern stage had made them familiar. They saw and heard the chorus enter into the action, not for the purpose of spectacular pageantry, nor as hymners of the achievements of the principal actors in the story, but as participants. They heard unwonted accents from these actors and saw them behave in conduct which from moment to moment appeared strangely contradictory. There were mutterings of popular discontent, which, under threats, gave way to jubilant acclamation in the first great scenes in the beginning of the opera. There were alternate mockeries and adulations in the next scene in which the people figured; and running through other scenes from invisible singers came ecclesiastical chants, against which were projected, not operatic song in the old conception, but long passages of heightened speech, half declamatory, half musical. A multitude cringed before upraised knouts and fell on its knees before the approach of a man whose agents swung the knotted cords; anon they acclaimed the man who sought to usurp a throne and overwhelmed with ridicule a village imbecile, who was yet supposed because of his mental weakness to be possessed of miraculous prescience, and therefore to have a prevision of what was to follow the usurpation. They saw the incidents of the drama moving past their eyes within a framework of barbaric splendor typical of a wonderful political past, an amazing political present, and possibly prophetic of a still more amazing political future.
These happily ingenuous spectators saw an historical personage racked by conscience, nerve-torn by spectres, obsessed by superstitions, strong in position achieved, yet pathetically sweet and moving in his exhibition of paternal love, and going to destruction through remorse for crime committed. They were troubled by no curious questionings as to the accuracy of the historical representation. The Boris Godounoff before them was a remorse- stricken regicide, whose good works, if he did any, had to be summed up for their imagination in the fact that he loved his son. In all this, and also in some of its music, the new opera was of the opera operatic. But to the unhappily disingenuous (or perhaps it would be better to say, to the instructed) there was much more in the new opera; and it was this more which so often gave judgment pause, even while it stimulated interest and irritated curiosity. It was a pity that a recent extraordinary outburst of enthusiasm about a composer and an opera should have had the effect of distorting their vision and disturbing their judgment.
There was a reason to be suspicious touching this enthusiasm, because of its origin. It came from France and not from the home land of the author of the play or the composer of the music. Moreover, it was largely based upon an element which has as little genuineness in France as a basis of judgment (and which must therefore be set down largely as an affectation) as in America. Loud hallelujahs have been raised in praise of Moussorgsky because, discarding conventional law, he vitalized the music of the lyric poem and also the dramatic line, by making it the emotional flowering of the spoken word. When it became necessary for the precious inner brotherhood of Frenchmen who hold burning incense sticks under each others’ noses to acclaim “Pelleas et Melisande” as a new and beautiful thing in dramatic music, it was announced that Moussorgsky was like Debussy in that he had demonstrated in his songs and his operas that vocal melody should and could be written in accordance with the rhythm and accents of the words. We had supposed that we had learned that lesson not only from Gluck and Wagner, but from every true musical dramatist that ever lived! And when the Frenchmen (and their feeble echoers in England and America) began to cry out that the world make obeisance to Moussorgsky on that score, there was no wonder that those whose eagerness to enjoy led them to absorb too much information should ask how this marvellous psychical assonance between word and tone was to be conveyed to their unfortunate sense and feeling after the original Russian word had been transmogrified into French or English. In New York the opera, which we know to be saturated in some respects with Muscovitism, or Slavicism, and which we have every reason to believe is also so saturated in its musico-verbal essence, was sung in Italian. With the change some of the character that ought to make it dear to the Russian heart must have evaporated. It is even likely that vigorous English would have been a better vehicle than the “soft, bastard Latin” for the forceful utterances of the operatic people.
It is a pity that a suspicion of disingenuousness and affectation should force itself upon one’s thoughts in connection with the French enthusiasm over Moussorgsky; but it cannot be avoided. So far as Moussorgsky reflects anything in his art, it is realism or naturalism, and the latter element is not dominant in French music now, and is not likely to be so long as the present tendency toward sublimated subjectivism prevails. Debussy acclaimed Moussorgsky enthusiastically a dozen years ago, but for all that Moussorgsky and Debussy are antipodes in art–they represent extremes.
It is much more likely that outside of its purely literary aspect (a large aspect in every respect in. France) the Moussorgsky cult of the last few years was a mere outgrowth of the political affiliation between France and Russia; as such it may be looked upon in the same light as the sudden appreciation of Berlioz which was a product of the Chauvinism which followed the Franco-Prussian War. It is easy even for young people of the day in which I write to remember when a Wagner opera at the Academie Nationale raised a riot, and when the dances at the Moulin Rouge and such places could not begin until the band had played the Russian national hymn.
Were it not for considerations of this sort it would be surprising to contemplate the fact that Moussorgsky has been more written and talked about in France than he was in his native Russia, and that even his friend Rimsky-Korsakoff, to whose revision of the score “Boris Godounoff” owes its continued existence, has been subjected to much rude criticism because of his work, though we can only think of it as taken up in a spirit of affection and admiration. He and the Russians, with scarcely an exception, say that his labors were in the line of purification and rectification; but the modern extremists will have it that by remedying its crudities of harmonization and instrumentation he weakened it–that what he thought its artistic blemishes were its virtues. Of that we are in no position to speak, nor ought any one be rash enough to make the proclamation until the original score is published, and then only a Russian or a musician familiar with the Russian tongue and its genius. The production of the opera outside of Russia and in a foreign language ought to furnish an occasion to demand a stay of the artistic cant which is all too common just now in every country.
We are told that “Boris Godounoff” is the first real Russian opera that America has ever heard. In a sense that may be true. The present generation has heard little operatic music by Russian composers. Rubinstein’s “Nero” was not Russian music in any respect. “Pique Dame,” by Tschaikowsky, also performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, had little in it that could be recognized as characteristically Russian. “Eugene Onegin” we know only from concert performances, and its Muscovitism was a negligible quantity. The excerpts from other Russian operas have been few and they demonstrated nothing, though in an intermezzo from Tschaikowsky’s “Mazeppa,” descriptive of the battle of Poltava, which has been heard here, we met with the strong choral tune which gives great animation to the most stirring scene in “Boris”–the acclamation of the Czar by the populace in the first act. Of this something more presently. There were American representations, however, of a Russian opera which in its day was more popular than “Boris” has ever been; but that was so long ago that all memories of it have died, and even the records are difficult to reach. Some fifty years ago a Russian company came to these shores and performed Verstoffsky’s “Askold’s Tomb,” an opera which was republished as late as 1897 and which within the first twenty-five years of its existence had 400 performances in Moscow and 200 in St. Petersburg. Some venturesome critics have hailed Verstoffsky as even more distinctively a predecessor of Moussorgsky than Glinka; but the clamor of those who are preaching loudly that art must not exist for art’s sake, and that the ugly is justified by the beauty of ugliness, has silenced the voices of these critical historians.
This may thus far have seemed a long and discursive disquisition on the significance of the new opera; but the questions to which the production of “Boris Godounoff” give rise are many and grave, especially in the present state of our operatic activities. They have a strong bearing on the problem of nationalism in opera, of which those in charge of our operatic affairs appear to take a careless view. Aside from all aesthetic questions, “Boris Godounoff” bears heavily on that problem. It is a work crude and fragmentary in structure, but it is tremendously puissant in its preachment of nationalism; and it is strong there not so much because of its story and the splendid barbarism of its external integument as because of its nationalism, which is proclaimed in the use of Russian folk-song. All previous experiments in this line become insignificant in comparison with it, and it is questionable if any other body of folk-song offers such an opportunity to the operatic composer as does the Russian. The hero of the opera is in dramatic stature (or at least in emotional content) a Macbeth or a Richard III; his utterances are frequently poignant and heart searching in the extreme; his dramatic portrayal by M. Chaliapine in Europe and Mr. Didur in America is so gripping as to call up memories of some of the great English tragedians of the past. But we cannot speak of the psychology of the musical setting of his words because we have been warned that it roots deeply in the accents and inflections of a language with which we are unfamiliar and which was not used in the performance. But the music of the choral masses, the songs sung in the intimacy of the Czar Boris’s household, the chants of the monks, needed not to be strange to any student of folk-song, nor could their puissance be lost upon the musically unlettered. In the old Kolyada Song “Slava” [Footnote: Lovers of chamber music know this melody from its use in the allegretto in Beethoven’s E minor Quartet dedicated to Count Rasoumowski, where it appears thus:–] with which Boris is greeted by the populace, as well as in the wild shoutings of the Polish vagrom men and women in the scene before the last, it is impossible not to hear an out-pouring of that spirit of which Tolstoi wrote: “In it is yearning without end, without hope; also power invincible, the fateful stamp of destiny, iron preordination, one of the fundamental principles of our nationality with which it is possible to explain much that in Russian life seems incomprehensible.”
No other people have such a treasure of folk-song to draw on as that thus characterized, and it is not likely that any other people will develop a national school of opera on the lines which lie open to the Russian composer, and which the Russian composer has been encouraged to exploit by his government for the last twenty years or more.
It is possible that some critics, actuated by political rather than artistic considerations, will find reasons
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
for the present condition of Moussorgsky’s score in the attitude of the Russian government. It is said that court intrigues had much to do with the many changes which the score had to undergo before it became entirely acceptable to the powers that be in the Czar’s empire. Possibly. But every change which has come under the notice of this reviewer has been to its betterment and made for its practical presentation. It is said that the popular scenes were curtailed because they represented the voice of the democracy. But there is still so much choral work in the opera that the judgment of the operatic audiences of to-day is likely to pronounce against it measurably on that account. For, splendid as the choral element in the work is, a chorus is not looked upon with admiration as a dramatic element by the ordinary opera lover. There was a lack of the feminine element in the opera, and to remedy this Moussorgsky had to introduce the Polish bride of the False Dmitri and give the pair a love scene, and incidentally a polonaise; but the love scene is uninteresting until its concluding measures, and these are too Meyerbeerian to call for comment beyond the fact that Meyerbeer, the much contemned, would have done better. As for the polonaise, Tschaikowsky has written a more brilliant one for his “Eugene Onegin.”
The various scores of the opera which have been printed show that Moussorgsky, with all his genius, was at sea even when it came to applying the principles of the Young Russian School, of which he is set down as a strong prop, to dramatic composition. With all his additions, emendations, and rearrangements, his opera still falls much short of being a dramatic unit. It is a more loosely connected series of scenes, from the drama of Boris Godounoff and the false Dmitri, than Boito’s “Mefistofele” is of Goethe’s “Faust.” Had he had his own way the opera would have ended with the scene in which Dmitri proceeds to Moscow amid the huzzas of a horde of Polish vagabonds, and we should have had neither a Boris nor a Dmitri opera, despite the splendid opportunities offered by both characters. It was made a Boris opera by bringing it to an end with the death of Boris and leaving everything except the scenes in which the Czar declines the imperial crown, then accepts it, and finally dies of a tortured conscience, to serve simply as intermezzi, in which for the moment the tide of tragedy is turned aside. This and the glimpse into the paternal heart of the Czar is the only and beautiful purpose of the domestic scene, in which the lighter and more cheerful element of Russian folk-song is introduced.
At the first American performance of “Boris Godounoff” the cast was as follows:–
Boris……………………………….Adamo Didur Theodore………………………………Anna Case Xenia…………………………….Lenora Sparkes The Nurse………………………….Maria Duchene Marina……………………………..Louise Homer Schouisky……………………………Angelo Bada Tchelkaloff………………….Vincenzo Reschiglian Pimenn……………………………..Leon Rothier Dmitri………………….Paul Althouse (his debut) Varlaam………………….. ….Andrea de Segurola Missail…………………………. Pietro Audisio The Innkeeper…………………… Jeanne Maubourg The Simpleton……………………….Albert Reiss A Police Officer…………………….Giulio Rossi A Court Officer………………… Leopoldo Mariani Lovitzky………………………….V. Reschiglian Tcerniakowsky, Two Jesuits………… Louis Kreidler
Conductor: Arturo Toscanini
“MADAME SANS-GENE” AND OTHER OPERAS BY GIORDANO
The opera-goers of New York enjoyed a novel experience when Giordano’s “Madame Sans-Gene” had its first performance on any stage in their presence at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 25, 1915. It was the first time that a royal and imperial personage who may be said to live freshly and vividly in the minds of the people of this generation as well as in their imaginations appeared before them to sing his thoughts and feelings in operatic fashion. At first blush it seemed as if a singing Bonaparte was better calculated to stir their risibilities than their interest or sympathies; and this may, indeed, have been the case; but at any rate they had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of Napoleon before he rose to imperial estate. But, in all seriousness, it is easier to imagine the figure which William II of Germany would cut on the operatic stage than the “grand, gloomy, and peculiar” Corsican. The royal people with whom the operatic public is familiar as a rule are sufficiently surrounded by the mists of antiquity and obscurity that the contemplation of them arouse little thought of the incongruity which their appearance as operatic heroes ought to create. Henry the Fowler in “Lohengrin,” Mark in “Tristan und Isolde,” the unnumbered Pharaoh in “Aida,” Herod in “Salome” and “Herodiade,” and the few other kings, if there are any more with whom the present generation of opera-goers have a personal acquaintance, so to speak, are more or less merely poetical creations whom we seldom if ever think of in connection with veritable history. Even Boris Godounoff is to us more a picture out of a book, like the Macbeth whom he so strongly resembles from a theatrical point of view, than the monarch who had a large part in the making of the Russian people. The Roman censorship prevented us long ago from making the acquaintance of the Gustavus of Sweden whom Ankerstrom stabbed to death at a masked ball, by transmogrifying him into the absurdly impossible figure of a Governor of Boston; and the Claudius of Ambroise Thomas’s opera is as much a ghost as Hamlet’s father, while Debussy’s blind King is as much an abstraction as is Melisande herself.
Operatic dukes we know in plenty, though most of them have come out of the pages of romance and are more or less acceptable according to the vocal ability of their representatives. When Caruso sings “La donna e mobile” we care little for the profligacy of Verdi’s Duke of Mantua and do not inquire whether or not such an individual ever lived. Moussorgsky’s Czar Boris ought to interest us more, however. The great bell-tower in the Kremlin which he built, and the great bell–a shattered monument of one of his futile ambitions–have been seen by thousands of travellers who never took the trouble to learn that the tyrant who had the bell cast laid a serfdom upon the Russian people which endured down to our day. Boris, by the way, picturesque and dramatic figure that he is as presented to us in history, never got upon the operatic stage until Moussorgsky took him in hand. Two hundred years ago a great German musician, Mattheson, as much scholar as composer if not more, set him to music, but the opera was never performed. Peter the Great, who came a century after Boris, lived a life more calculated to invite the attention of opera writers, but even he escaped the clutches of dramatic composers except Lortzing, who took advantage of the romantic episode of Peter’s service as ship carpenter in Holland to make him the hero of one of the most sparkling of German comic operas. Lortzing had a successor in the Irishman T. S. Cooke, but his opera found its way into the limbo of forgotten things more than a generation ago, while Lortzing’s still lives on the stage of Germany. Peter deserved to be celebrated in music, for it was in his reign that polyphonic music, albeit of the Italian order, was introduced into the Russian church and modern instrumental music effected an entrance into his empire. But I doubt if Peter was sincerely musical; in his youth he heard only music of the rudest kind. He was partial to the bagpipes and, like Nero, played upon that instrument.
To come back to Bonaparte and music. “Madame Sans-Gene” is an operatic version of the drama which Sardou developed out of a little one-act play dealing with a partly fictitious, partly historical story in which Napoleon, his marshal Lefebvre, and a laundress were the principal figures. Whether or not the great Corsican could be justified as a character in a lyric drama was a mooted question when Giordano conceived the idea of making an opera out of the play. It is said that Verdi remarked something to the effect that the question depended upon what he would be called upon to sing, and how he would be expected to sing it. The problem was really not a very large or difficult one, for all great people are turned into marionettes when transformed into operatic heroes.
In the palmy days of bel canto no one would have raised the question at all, for then the greatest characters in history moved about the stage in stately robes and sang conventional arias in the conventional manner. The change from old-fashioned opera to regenerated lyric drama might have simplified the problem for Giordano, even if his librettist had not already done so by reducing Napoleon to his lowest terms from a dramatic as well as historical point of view. The heroes of eighteenth-century opera were generally feeble-minded lovers and nothing more; Giordano’s Napoleon is only a jealous husband who helps out in the denouement of a play which is concerned chiefly with other people.
In turning Sardou’s dramatic personages into operatic puppets a great deal of bloodletting was necessary and a great deal of the characteristic charm of the comedy was lost, especially in the cases of Madame Sans-Gene herself and Napoleon’s sister; but enough was left to make a practicable opera. There were the pictures of all the plebeians who became great folk later concerned in the historical incidents which lifted them up. There were also the contrasted pictures which resulted from the great transformation, and it was also the ingratiating incident of the devotion of Lefebvre to the stout-hearted, honest little woman of the people who had to try to be a duchess. All this was fair operatic material, though music has a strange capacity for refining stage characters as well as for making them colorless. Giordano could not do himself justice as a composer without refining the expression of Caterina Huebscher, and so his Duchess of Dantzic talks a musical language at least which Sardou’s washerwoman could not talk and remain within the dramatic verities. Therefore we have “Madame Sans-Gene” with a difference, but not one that gave any more offence than operatic treatment of other fine plays have accustomed us to.
To dispose of the artistic merits of the opera as briefly as possible, it may be said that in more ways than one Giordano has in this work harked back to “Andrea Chenier,” the first of his operas which had a hearing in America. The parallel extends to some of the political elements of the book as well as its musical investiture with its echoes of the popular airs of the period of the French Revolution. The style of writing is also there, though applied, possibly, with more mature and refined skill. I cannot say with as much ingenuousness and freshness of invention, however. Its spirit in the first act, and largely in the second, is that of the opera bouffe, but there are many pages of “Madame Sans-Gene” which I would gladly exchange for any one of the melodies of Lecocq, let us say in “La Fille de Mme. Angot.” Like all good French music which uses and imitates them, it is full of crisp rhythms largely developed from the old dances which, originally innocent, were degraded to base uses by the sans-culottes; and so there is an abundance of life and energy in the score though little of the distinction, elegance, and grace that have always been characteristic of French music, whether high-born or low. The best melody in the modern Italian vein flows in the second act when the genuine affection and fidelity of Caterina find expression and where a light touch is combined with considerable warmth of feeling and a delightful daintiness of orchestral color. Much of this is out of harmony with the fundamental character of Sardou’s woman, but music cannot deny its nature. Only a Moussorgsky could make a drunken monk talk truthfully in music.
If Giordano’s opera failed to make a profound impression on the New York public, it was not because that public had not had opportunity to learn the quality of his music. His “Andrea Chenier” had been produced at the Academy of Music as long before as November 13, 1896. With it the redoubtable Colonel Mapleson went down to his destruction in America. It was one of the many strange incidents in the career of Mr. Oscar Hammerstein as I have related them in my book entitled “Chapters of Opera” [Footnote: New York, Henry Holt & Co.] that it should have been brought back by him twelve years later for a single performance at the Manhattan Opera House. In the season of 1916-1917 it was incorporated in the repertory of the Boston-National Opera Company and carried to the principal cities of the country. On December 16, 1906, Mr. Heinrich Conried thought that the peculiar charms of Madame Cavalieri, combined with the popularity of Signor Caruso, might give habitation to Giordano’s setting of an opera book made out of Sardou’s “Fedora”; but it endured for only four performances in the season of 1906-1907 and three in the next, in which Conried’s career came to an end. In reviving “Andrea Chenier” Mr. Hammerstein may have had visions of future triumphs for its composer, for a few weeks before (on February 5, 1908) he had brought forward the same composer’s “Siberia,” which gave some promise of life, though it died with the season that saw its birth.
The critical mind seems disposed to look with kindness upon new works in proportion as they fall back in the corridors of memory; and so I am inclined to think that of the four operas by Giordano which I have heard “Andrea Chenier” gives greatest promise of a long life. The attempt to put music to “Fedora” seemed to me utterly futile. Only those moments were musical in the accepted sense of the word when the action of the drama ceased, as in the case of the intermezzo, or when the old principles of operatic construction waked into life again as in the confession of the hero-lover. Here, moreover, there comes into the score an element of novelty, for the confession is extorted from Lorris while a virtuoso is entertaining a drawing-roomful of people with a set pianoforte solo. As for the rest of the opera, it seems sadly deficient in melody beautiful either in itself or as an expression of passion. “Andrea Chenier” has more to commend it. To start with, there is a good play back of it, though the verities of history were not permitted to hamper the imagination of Signor Illica, the author of the book. The hero of the opera is the patriotic poet who fell under the guillotine in 1794 at the age of thirty-two. The place which Saint-Beuve gave him in French letters is that of the greatest writer of classic verse after Racine and Boileau. The operatic story is all fiction, more so, indeed, than that of “Madame Sans-Gene.” As a matter of fact, the veritable Chenier was thrown into prison on the accusation of having sheltered a political criminal, and was beheaded together with twenty-three others on a charge of having engaged in a conspiracy while in prison. In the opera he does not die for political reasons, though they are alleged as a pretext, but because he has crossed the love- path of a leader of the revolution.
When Giordano composed “Siberia,” he followed the example of Mascagni and Puccini (if he did not set the example for them) by seeking local color and melodic material in the folk-songs of the country in which his scene was laid. Puccini went to Japan for musical ideas and devices to trick out his “Madama Butterfly” as Mascagni had done in “Iris.” Giordano, illustrating a story of political oppression in “Siberia,” called in the aid of Russian melodies. His exiles sing the heavy-hearted measures of the bargemen of the Volga, “Ay ouchnem,” the forceful charm of which few Russian composers have been able to resist. He introduced also strains of Easter music from the Greek church, the popular song known among the Germans as “Schone Minka” and the “Glory” song (Slava) which Moussorgsky had forged into a choral thunderbolt in his “Boris Godounoff.” It is a stranger coincidence that the “Slava” melody should have cropped up in the operas of Giordano and Moussorgsky than that the same revolutionary airs should pepper the pages of “Madame Sans-Gene” and “Andrea Chenier.” These operas are allied in subject and period and the same style of composition is followed in both.
Chenier goes to his death in the opera to the tune of the “Marseillaise” and the men march past the windows of Caterina Huebscher’s laundry singing the refrain of Roget de Lisle’s hymn. But Giordano does not make extensive use of the tune in “Madame Sans-Gene.” It appears literally at the place mentioned and surges up with fine effect in a speech in which the Duchess of Dantzic overwhelms the proud sisters of Napoleon; but that is practically all. The case is different with two other revolutionary airs. The first crash of the orchestra launches us into “La Carmagnole,” whose melody provides the thematic orchestral substratum for nearly the entire first scene. It is an innocent enough tune, differing little from hundreds of French vaudeville melodies of its period, but Giordano injects vitriol into its veins by his harmonies and orchestration. With all its innocence this was the tune which came from the raucous throats of politically crazed men and women while noble heads tumbled into the bloody sawdust, while the spoils of the churches were carried into the National Convention in 1793, and to which “several members, quitting their curule chairs, took the hands of girls flaunting in priests’ vestures” and danced a wild rout, as did other mad wretches when a dancer was worshipped as the Goddess of Reason in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Caterina’s account of the rude familiarity with which she is treated by the soldiery (I must assume a knowledge of Sardou’s play which the opera follows) is set to a melody of a Russian folk-song cast in the treatment of which Russian influences may also be felt; but with the first shouts of the mob attacking the Tuileries in the distance the characteristic rhythmical motif of the “Ca ira” is heard muttering in the basses. Again a harmless tune which in its time was perverted to a horrible use; a lively little contradance which graced many a cotillion in its early days, but which was roared and howled by the mob as it carried the beauteous head of the Lamballe through the streets of Paris on a pike and thrust it almost into the face of Marie Antoinette.
Of such material and a pretty little dance (“La Fricassee”) is the music of the first act, punctuated by cannon shots, made. It is all rhythmically stirring, it flows spiritedly, energetically along with the current of the play, never retarding it for a moment, but, unhappily, never sweetening it with a grain of pretty sentiment or adorning it with a really graceful contour. There is some graciousness in the court scene, some archness and humor in the scene in which the Duchess of Dantzic submits to the adornment of her person, some dramatically strong declamation in the speeches of Napoleon, some simulation of passion in the love passages of Lefebvre and of Neipperg; but as a rule the melodic flood never reaches high tide.
TWO OPERAS BY WOLF-FERRARI
When the operas of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari came to America (his beautiful setting of the “Vita Nuova” was already quite widely known at the time), it was thought singular and somewhat significant that though the operas had all been composed to Italian texts they should have their first Italian performances in this country. This was the case with “Le Donne Curiose,” heard at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on January 3, 1912; of “Il Segreto di Susanna,” which the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company brought to New York after giving it a hearing in its home cities, in February, 1912; of “I Giojelli della Madonna” first produced in Berlin in December, 1911, and in Chicago a few weeks later. A fourth opera, “L’Amore Medico,” had its first representation at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on March 25, 1914.
The circumstance to which I have alluded as worthy of comment was due, I fancy, more to the business methods of modern publishers than to a want of appreciation of the operas in Italy, though
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
A page of the Score of the German “Donne Curiose” Signor Wolf- Ferrari sought to meet the taste of his countrymen (assuming that the son of a German father and a Venetian mother is to be set down as an Italian) when he betrayed the true bent of his genius and sought to join the ranks of the Italian veritists in his “Giojelli della Madonna.” However, that is not the question I am desirous to discuss just now when the first impressions of “Le Donne Curiose” come flocking back to my memory. The book is a paraphrase of Goldoni’s comedy of the same name, made (and very deftly made) for the composer by Count Luigi Sugana. It turns on the curiosity of a group of women concerning the doings of their husbands and sweethearts at a club from which they are excluded. The action is merely a series of incidents in which the women (the wives by rifling the pockets of their husbands, the maidens by wheedling, cajoling, and playing upon the feelings of their sweethearts) obtain the keys of the club-room, and effect an entrance only to find that instead of gambling, harboring mistresses, seeking the philosopher’s stone, or digging for treasure, as is variously suspected, the men are enjoying an innocent supper. In their eagerness to see all that is going on, the women betray their presence. Then there follow scoldings, contrition, forgiveness, a graceful minuet, and the merriment runs out in a wild furlana.
Book and score of the opera hark back a century or more in their methods of expression. The incidents of the old comedy are as loosely strung together as those of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and the parallel is carried further by the similarity between the instrumental apparatus of Mozart and Wolf-Ferrari and the dependence of both on melody, rather than orchestral or harmonic device, as the life-blood of the music upon which the comedy floats. It is Mozart’s orchestra that the modern composer uses (“the only proper orchestra for comedy,” as Berlioz said), eschewing even those “epical instruments,” the trombones. It would not do to push the parallel too far, though a keen listener might feel tempted also to see a point of semblance in the Teutonism which tinctures the Italian music of both men; a Teutonism which adds an ingredient more to the taste of other peoples than that of the people whose language is employed. But while the Italianism of Mozart was wholly the product of the art-spirit of his time, the Teutonism of Wolf-Ferrari is a heritage from his German father and its Italianism partakes somewhat of the nature of a reversion to old ideals from which even his mother’s countrymen have departed. There is an almost amusing illustration of this in the paraphrase of Goldoni’s comedy which the composer took as a libretto. The Leporello of Da Ponte and Mozart has his prototype in the Arlecchino of the classic Italian comedy, but he has had to submit to so great a metamorphosis as to make him scarcely recognizable. But in the modern “Donne Curiose” we have not only the old figure down to his conventional dress and antics, but also his companions Pantaloon and Columbine. All this, however, may be better enjoyed by those who observe them in the representation than those who will only read about them, no matter how deftly the analysis may be made.
It is Mozart’s media and Mozart’s style which Wolf-Ferrari adopts, but there are traces also of the idioms of others who have been universal musicians rather than specifically Italian. Like Nicolai’s “O susse Anna!” (Shakespeare’s “Oh, Sweet Anne Page”), Wolf-Ferrari’s Florindo breathes out his languishing “Ah, Rosaura!” And in the lively chatter of the women there is frequently more than a suggestion of the lively gossip of Verdi’s merry wives in his incomparable “Falstaff.” Wolf-Ferrari is neither a Mozart nor a Verdi, not even a Nicolai, as a melodist, but he is worthy of being bracketed with them, because as frankly as they he has spoken the musical language which to him seemed a proper investiture of his comedy, and like them has made that language characteristic of the comedy’s personages and illustrative of its incidents. He has been brave enough not to fear being called a reactionary, knowing that there is always progress in the successful pursuit of beauty.
The advocates of opera sung in the language native to the hearers may find an eloquent argument in “Le Donne Curiose,” much of whose humor lies in the text and is lost to those who cannot understand it despite the obviousness of its farcical action. On the other hand, a feeling of gratitude must have been felt by many others that they were not compelled to hear the awkward commonplaces of the English translation of the libretto. The German version, in which the opera had its first hearing in Munich six years before, is in a vastly different case–neither uncouth nor halting, even though it lacks the characteristic fluency essential to Italian opera buffa; yet no more than did the speech of most of the singers at the Metropolitan performance. The ripple and rattle of the Italian parlando seem to be possible only to Italian tongues.
The Mozartian type of music is illustrated not only in the character of many of its melodies, but also in the use of motivi in what may be called the dramatic portions–the fleet flood upon which the dialogue dances with a light buoyancy that is delightfully refreshing. These motivi are not used in the Wagnerian manner, but as every change of situation or emotion is characterized in Mozart’s marvellous ensembles by the introduction of a new musical idea, so they are in his modern disciple’s. All of them are finely characteristic, none more so than the comical cackle so often heard from the oboe in the scenes wherein the women gossip about the imaginary doings of the men–an intentional echo, it would almost seem, of the theme out of which Rameau made his dainty harpsichord piece known as “La Poule.” The motto of the club,
“Bandie xe le done,” is frequently proclaimed with more or less pomposity; Florindo’s “Ah, Rosaura,” with its dramatic descent, lends sentimental feeling to the love music, and the sprightly rhythm which accompanies the pranks of Colombina keeps much of the music bubbling with merriment. In the beginning of the third act, not only the instrumental introduction, but much of the delightful music which follows, is permeated with atmosphere and local color derived from a familiar Venetian barcarolle (“La biondina in gondoleta”), but the musical loveliness reaches its climax in the sentimental scenes–a quartet, a solo by Rosaura, and a duet, in which there breathes the sympathetic spirit of Smetana as well as Mozart.
[Footnote: The cast at the first performance at the Metropolitan Opera House was as follows:–
Ottavio……………………………Adamo Dfdur Beatrice……………………… Jeanne Maubourg Rosaura……………………….Geraldine Farrar Florindo……………………. Hermann Jadlowker Pantalone………………….. Antonio Pini-Corso Lelio…………………………. Antonio Scotti Leandro………………………….. Angelo Bada Colombina………………………….Bella Alten Eleonora…………………………..Rita Fornia Arlechino………………….. Andrea de Segurola Asdrubale……………………… Pietro Audisio Almoro………………………… Lambert Murphy Alviso…………………….. Charles Hargreaves Lunardo………………….. Vincenzo Reschiglian Momolo…………………………. Paolo Ananian Menego………………………….. Giulio Rossi Un Servitore………………….. Stefen Buckreus Conductor–Arturo Toscanini.]
In “Le Donne Curiose,” the gondoliers sing their barcarolle and compel even the cynic of the drama to break out into an enthusiastic exclamation: “Oh, beautiful Venice!” The world has heard more of the natural beauties of Naples than of the artificial ones of Venice, but when Naples is made the scene of a drama of any kind it seems that its attractions for librettist and composer lie in the vulgarity and vice, libertinism and lust, the wickedness and wantonness, of a portion of its people rather than in the loveliness of character which such a place might or ought to inspire.
Perhaps it was not altogether surprising that when Wolf-Ferrari turned from Venice and “Le Donne Curiose” to “I Giojelli della Madonna” with Naples as a theatre for his drama he should not only change the style of his music, but also revert to the kind of tale which his predecessors in the field seem to have thought appropriate to the place which we have been told all of us should see once and die out of sheer ecstasy over its beauty. But why are only the slums of Naples deemed appropriate for dramatic treatment?
How many stories of Neapolitan life have been told in operas since Auber wrote his “La Muette di Portici” I do not know; doubtless