A Book of Operas: Their Histories, Their Plots, and Their Music Part 3

The incidents of the second act move with less rapidity, and, until the fateful denouement is reached, on a lower plane of interest than those of the first, which have been narrated. Don Giovanni turns his attentions to the handsome waiting-maid of Donna Elvira. To get the mistress out of the way he persuades Leporello to exchange cloaks and hats with him and station himself before her balcony window, while he utters words of tenderness and feigned repentance. The lady listens and descends to the garden, where Leporello receives her with effusive protestations; but Don Giovanni rudely disturbs them, and they run away. Then the libertine, in the habit of his valet, serenades his new charmer. The song, "Deh vieni alla finestra,"

is of melting tenderness and gallantry; words and music float graciously on the evening air in company with a delightfully piquant tune picked out on a mandolin. The maid is drawn to the window, and Don Giovanni is in full expectation of another triumph, when Masetto confronts him with a rabble of peasants, all armed. They are in search of the miscreant who had attempted to outrage Zerlina. Don Giovanni is protected by his disguise. He feigns willingness to help in the hunt, and rids himself of Masetto's companions by sending them on a fool's errand to distant parts of the garden. Then he cunningly possesses himself of Masetto's weapons and belabors him stoutly with his own cudgel. He makes off, and Zerlina, hearing Masetto's cries, hurries in to heal his hurts with pretty endearments.

(Air: "Vedrai carino.") Most unaccountably, as it will seem to those who seek for consistency and reason in all parts of the play, all of its actors except Don Giovanni find themselves together in a courtyard (or room, according to the notions of the stage manager).

Leporello is trying to escape from Elvira, who still thinks him Don Giovanni, and is first confronted by Masetto and Zerlina and then by Ottavio and Anna. He is still in his master's hat and cloak, and is taken vigorously to task, but discloses his ident.i.ty when it becomes necessary in order to escape a beating. Convinced at last that Don Giovanni is the murderer of the Commandant, Don Ottavio commends his love to the care of her friends and goes to denounce the libertine to the officers of the law.

The last scene is reached. Don Giovanni, seated at his table, eats, drinks, indulges in badinage with his servant, and listens to the music of his private band. The musicians play melodies from popular operas of the period in which Mozart wrote--not Spanish melodies of the unfixed time in which the veritable Don Juan may have lived:--

[Musical excerpts--From Martin's "Una cosa rara." From "Fra i due litiganti" by Sarti. From "Nozze di Figaro."]

Mozart feared anachronisms as little as Shakespeare. His Don Giovanni was contemporary with himself and familiar with the repertory of the Vienna Opera. The autograph discloses that the ingenious conceit was wholly Mozart's. It was he who wrote the words with which Leporello greets the melodies from "Una cosa rara," "I due Litiganti," and "Le Nozze di Figaro," and when Leporello hailed the tune "Non piu andrai" from the last opera with words "Questo poi la conosco pur troppo" ("This we know but too well"), he doubtless scored a point with his first audience in Prague which the German translator of the opera never dreamed of. Even the German critics of to-day seem dense in their unwillingness to credit Mozart with a purely amiable purpose in quoting the operas of his rivals, Martin and Sarti. The latter showed himself ungrateful for kindnesses received at Mozart's hands by publicly denouncing an harmonic progression in one of the famous six quartets dedicated to Haydn as a barbarism, but there was no ill-will in the use of the air from "I due Litiganti" as supper music for the delectation of the Don.

Mozart liked the melody, and had written variations on it for the pianoforte.

The supper is interrupted by Donna Elvira, who comes to plead on her knees with Don Giovanni to change his mode of life. He mocks at her solicitude and invites her to sit with him at table. She leaves the room in despair, but sends back a piercing shriek from the corridor.

Leporello is sent out to report on the cause of the cry, and returns trembling as with an ague and mumbling that he has seen a ghost--a ghost of stone, whose footsteps, "Ta, ta, ta," sounded like a mighty hammer on the floor. Don Giovanni himself goes to learn the cause of the disturbance, and Leporello hides under the table. The intrepid Don opens the door. There is a clap of thunder, and there enters the ghost of the Commandant in the form of his statue as seen in the churchyard. The music which has been described in connection with the overture accompanies the conversation of the spectre and his amazed host. Don Giovanni's repeated offer of hospitality is rejected, but in turn he is asked if he will return the visit. He will. "Your hand as a pledge," says the spectre. All unabashed, the doomed man places his hand in that of the statue, which closes upon it like a vise. Then an awful fear shakes the body of Don Giovanni, and a cry of horror is forced out of his lips. "Repent, while there is yet time," admonishes the visitor again and again, and still again. Don Giovanni remains unshaken in his wicked fort.i.tude. At length he wrests his hand out of the stony grasp and at the moment hears his doom from the stony lips, "Ah! the time for you is past!"

Darkness enwraps him; the earth trembles; supernatural voices proclaim his punishment in chorus; a pit opens before him, from which demons emerge and drag him down to h.e.l.l.

Here the opera ends for us; but originally, after the catastrophe the persons of the play, all but the reprobate whom divine justice has visited, returned to the scene to hear a description of the awful happenings he had witnessed from the buffoon who had hidden under the table, to dispose their plans for the future (for Ottavio and Anna, marriage in a year; for Masetto and Zerlina, a wedding instanter; for Elvira, a nunnery), and plat.i.tudinously to moralize that, the perfidious wretch having been carried to the realm of Pluto and Proserpine, naught remained to do save to sing the old song, "Thus do the wicked find their end, dying as they had lived."

Footnotes:

{1} See my preface to "Don Giovanni" in the Schirmer Collection of Operas.

{2} Gounod.

{3} "The Life of Mozart," by Otto Jahn, Vol. III, p. 169.

{4} "Mozart's Don Giovanni," by Charles Gounod, p. 3.

CHAPTER V

"FIDELIO"

It was the scalawag Schikaneder who had put together the singular dramatic phantasmagoria known as Mozart's "Magic Flute," and acted the part of the buffoon in it, who, having donned the garb of respectability, commissioned Beethoven to compose the only opera which that supreme master gave to the world. The opera is "Fidelio,"

and it occupies a unique place in operatic history not only because it is the only work of its kind by the greatest tone-poet that ever lived, but also because of its subject. The lyric drama has dealt with the universal pa.s.sion ever since the art-form was invented, but "Fidelio" is the only living opera which occurs to me now, except Gluck's "Orfeo" and "Alceste," which hymns the pure love of married lovers. The bond between the story of Alcestis, who goes down to death to save the life of Admetus, and that of Leonore, who ventures her life to save Florestan, is closer than that of the Orphic myth, for though the alloy only serves to heighten the sheen of Eurydice's virtue, there is yet a grossness in the story of Aristaeus's unlicensed pa.s.sion which led to her death, that strongly differentiates it from the modern tale of wifely love and devotion.

Beethoven was no ascetic, but he was as sincere and severe a moralist in life as he was in art. In that most melancholy of human doc.u.ments, written at Heiligenstadt in October, 1802, commonly known as his will, he says to his brothers: "Recommend to your children virtue; it alone can bring happiness, not money. I speak from experience. It was virtue which bore me up in time of trouble; to her, next to my art, I owe thanks for my not having laid violent hands on myself."

That Mozart had been able to compose music to such libretti as those of "Don Giovanni" and "Cos fan tutte" filed him with pained wonder.

Moreover, he had serious views of the dignity of music and of the uses to which it might be put in the drama, and more advanced notions than he has generally been credited with as to how music and the drama ought to be consorted. Like all composers, he longed to write an opera, and it is not at all unlikely that, like Mendelssohn after him, he was deterred by the general tendency of the opera books of his day. Certain it is that though he received a commission for an opera early in the year 1803, it was not until an opera on the story which is also that of "Fidelio" had been brought out at Dresden that he made a definitive choice of a subject. The production which may have infuenced him was that of Ferdinando Paer's" Leonora, ossia l'Amore conjugale," which was brought forward at Dresden, where its composer was conductor of the opera, on October 3, 1804. This opera was the immediate predecessor of Beethoven's, but it also had a predecessor in a French opera, "Leonore, ou l'Amour conjugal," of which the music was composed by Pierre Gaveaux, a musician of small but graceful gifts, who had been a tenor singer before he became a composer. This opera had its first performance on February 19, 1798, and may also have been known to Beethoven, or have been brought to his notice while he was casting about for a subject. At any rate, though it was known as early as June, 1803, that Beethoven intended to compose an opera for the Theater an der Wien, and had taken lodgings with his brother Caspar in the theatre building more than two months before, it was not until the winter of 1804 that the libretto of "Fidelio" was placed in his hands. It was a German version of the French book by Bouilly, which had been made by Joseph Sonnleithner, an intimate friend of Schubert, founder of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, who had recently been appointed secretary of the Austrian court theatres as successor of Kotzebue. Beethoven had gone to live in the theatre building for the purpose of working on the opera for Schikaneder, but early in 1804 the Theater an der Wien pa.s.sed out of his hands into those of Baron von Braun. The intervening summer had been pa.s.sed by the composer at Baden and Unter Dobling in work upon the "Eroica" symphony. The check upon the operatic project was but temporary. Baron von Braun took Schikaneder into his service and renewed the contract with Beethoven. This accomplished, the composer resumed his lodgings in the theatre and began energetically to work upon the opera. Let two facts be instanced here to show how energetically and how painstakingly he labored. When he went into the country in the early summer, as was his custom, he carried with him 346 pages of sketches for the opera, sixteen staves on a page; and among these sketches were sixteen openings of Florestan's great air, which may be said to mark the beginning of the dramatic action in the opera.

For the rest of the history of the opera I shall draw upon the preface to "Fidelio," which I wrote some years ago for the vocal score in the Schirmer collection. The score was finished, including the orchestration, in the summer of 1805, and on Beethoven's return to Vienna, rehearsals were begun. It was the beginning of a series of trials which made the opera a child of sorrow to the composer.

The style of the music was new to the singers, and they p.r.o.nounced it unsingable. They begged him to make changes, but Beethoven was adamant. The rehearsals became a grievous labor to all concerned.

The production was set down for November 20, but when the momentous day came, it found Vienna occupied by the French troops, Bonaparte at Schonbrunn and the capital deserted by the Emperor, the n.o.bility, and most of the wealthy patrons of art. The performance was a failure. Besides the French occupation, two things were recognized as militating against the opera's success:--the music was not to the taste of the people, and the work was too long. Repet.i.tions followed on November 21 and 22, but the first verdict was upheld.

Beethoven's distress over the failure was scarcely greater than that of his friends, though he was, perhaps, less willing than they to recognize the causes that lay in the work itself. A meeting was promptly held in the house of Prince Lichnowsky and the opera taken in hand for revision. Number by number it was played on the pianoforte, sung, discussed. Beethoven opposed vehemently nearly every suggestion made by his well-meaning friends to remedy the defects of the book and score, but yielded at last and consented to the sacrifice of some of the music and a remodelling of the book for the sake of condensation, this part of the task being intrusted to Stephan von Breuning, who undertook to reduce the original three acts to two. {1} When once Beethoven had been brought to give his consent to the proposed changes, he accepted the result with the greatest good humor; it should be noted, however, that when the opera was put upon the stage again, on March 29, 1806, he was so dilatory with his musical corrections that there was time for only one rehearsal with orchestra. In the curtailed form "Fidelio" (as the opera was called, though Beethoven had fought strenuously from the beginning for the retention of the original t.i.tle, "Leonore") made a distinctly better impression than it had four months before, and this grew deeper with the subsequent repet.i.tions; but Beethoven quarrelled with Baron von Braun, and the opera was withdrawn. An attempt was made to secure a production in Berlin, but it failed, and the fate of "Fidelio" seemed to be sealed. It was left to slumber for more than seven years; then, in the spring of 1814, it was taken up again. Naturally, another revision was the first thing thought of, but this time the work was intrusted to a more practised writer than Beethoven's childhood friend. Georg Friedrich Treitschke was manager and librettist for Baron von Braun, and he became Beethoven's collaborator. The revision of the book was completed by March, 1814, and Beethoven wrote to Treitschke: "I have read your revision of the opera with great satisfaction. It has decided me to rebuild the desolate ruins of an ancient fortress." Treitschke rewrote much of the libretto, and Beethoven made considerable changes in the music, restoring some of the pages that had been elided at the first overhauling. In its new form "Fidelio" was produced at the Theater am Karnthnerthor on May 23, 1814. It was a successful reawakening. On July 18 the opera had a performance for Beethoven's benefit; Moscheles made a pianoforte score under the direction of the composer, who dedicated it to his august pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, and it was published in August by Artaria.

The history of "Fidelio," interesting as it is, need not be pursued here further than to chronicle its first performances in the English and American metropoles. London heard it first from Chelard's German company at the King's Theatre on May 18, 1832. It was first given in English at Covent Garden on June 12, 1835, with Malibran as Leonore, and in Italian at Her Majesty's on May 20, 1851, when the dialogue was sung in recitative written by Balfe. There has scarcely ever been a German opera company in New York whose repertory did not include "Fidelio," but the only performances for many years after it came were in English. A company of singers brought from England by Miss Inverarity to the Park Theatre produced it first on September 19, 1839. The parts were distributed as follows: Leonore, Mrs.

Martyn (Miss Inverarity); Marcellina, Miss Poole; Florestan, Mr.

Manvers; Pizarro, Mr. Giubilei; and Rocco, Mr. Martyn. The opera was performed every night for a fortnight. Such a thing would be impossible now, but lest some one be tempted to rail against the decadent taste of to-day, let it quickly be recorded that somewhere in the opera--I hope not in the dungeon scene--Mme. Giubilei danced a pas de deux with Paul Taglioni.

Beethoven composed four overtures for "Fidelio," but a description of them will best follow comment on the drama and its music. Some two years before the incident which marks the beginning of the action, Don Pizarro, governor of a state prison in Spain, not far from Seville, has secretly seized Florestan, a political opponent, whose fearless honesty threatened to frustrate his wicked designs, and immured him in a subterranean cell in the prison. His presence there is known only to Pizarro and the jailer Rocco, who, however, knows neither the name nor the rank of the man whom, under strict command, he keeps in fetters and chained to a stone in the dimly lighted dungeon, which he alone is permitted to visit. Florestan's wife, Leonore, suspecting the truth, has disguised herself in man's attire and, under the name of Fidelio, secured employment in the prison. To win the confidence of Rocco, she has displayed so much zeal and industry in his interests that the old man, whose one weakness is a too great love of money, gives the supposed youth a full measure of admiration and affection. Fidelio's beauty and gentleness have worked havoc with the heart of Marcellina, the jailer's pretty daughter, who is disposed to cast off Jaquino, the turnkey, upon whose suit she had smiled till her love for Fidelio came between. Rocco looks with auspicious eye upon the prospect of having so industrious and thrifty a son-in-law as Fidelio promises to be to comfort his old age. The action now begins in the courtyard of the prison, where, before the jailer's lodge, Marcellina is performing her household duties--ironing the linen, to be specific.

Jaquino, who has been watching for an opportunity to speak to her alone (no doubt alarmed at the new posture which his love affair is a.s.suming), resolves to ask her to marry him. The duet, quite in the Mozartian vein, breathes simplicity throughout; plain people, with plain manners, these, who express simple thoughts in simple language. Jaquino begins eagerly:--

[Musical excerpt--"Jetzt, Schatzchen, jetzt sind wir allein, wir konnon vertraulich nun plaudern."]

But Marcellina affects to be annoyed and urges him to come to the point at once. Quite delicious is the manner in which Beethoven delineates Jaquino's timid hesitation:--

[Musical excerpt--"Ich--ich habe"]

Jaquino's wooing is interrupted by a knocking at the door (realistically reproduced in the music)

[Musical excerpt]

and when he goes to open the wicket, Marcellina expresses no sympathy for his sufferings, but ecstatically proclaims her love for Fidelio as the reason why she must needs say nay. And this she does, not amiably or sympathetically, but pettishly and with an impatient reiteration of "No, no, no, no!" in which the ba.s.soon drolly supports her. A second knocking at the door, then a third, and finally she is relieved of her tormentor by Rocco, who calls him out into the garden. Left alone, Marcellina sings her longing for Fidelio and pictures the domestic bliss which shall follow her union with him. Rocco and Jaquino enter, and close after them Leonore, wearied by the weight of some chains which she had carried to the smith for repairs. She renders an account for purchases of supplies, and her thrift rejoices the heart of Rocco, who praises her zeal in his behalf and promises her a reward. Her reply, that she does not do her duty merely for the sake of wage, he interprets as an allusion to love for his daughter. The four now give expression to their thoughts and emotions. Marcellina indulges her day-dream of love; Leonore reflects upon the dangerous position in which her disguise has placed her; Jaquino observes with trepidation the disposition of Rocco to bring about a marriage between his daughter and Fidelio.

Varied and contrasting emotions, these, yet Beethoven has cast their expression in the mould of a canon built on the following melody, which is sung in turn by each of the four personages:--

[Musical excerpt]

From a strictly musical point of view the fundamental mood of the four personages has thus the same expression, and this Beethoven justifies by making the original utterance profoundly contemplative, not only by the beautiful subject of the canon, but by the exalted instrumental introduction--one of those uplifting, spiritualized slow movements which are typical of the composer. This feeling he enhances by his orchestration--violas and violoncellos divided, and ba.s.ses--in a way copying the solemn color with more simple means which Mozart uses in his invocation of the Egyptian deities in "The Magic Flute." Having thus established this fundamental mood, he gives liberty of individual utterance in the counterpoint melodies with which each personage embroiders the original theme when sung by the others. Neither Rocco nor Marcellina seems to think it necessary to consult Leonore in the matter, taking her acquiescence for granted. Between themselves they arrange that the wedding shall take place when next Pizarro makes his monthly visit to Seville to give an account of his stewardship, and the jailer admonishes the youthful pair to put money in their purses in a song of little distinction, but containing some delineative music in the orchestra suggesting the rolling and jingling of coins. Having been made seemingly to agree to the way of the maid and her father, Leonore seeks now to turn it to the advantage of her mission. She asks and obtains the jailer's permission to visit with him the cells in which political prisoners are kept--all but one, in which is confined one who is either a great criminal or a man with powerful enemies ("much the same thing," comments Rocco). Of him even the jailer knows nothing, having resolutely declined to hear his story. However, his sufferings cannot last much longer, for by Pizarro's orders his rations are being reduced daily; he has been all but deprived of light, and even the straw which had served as a couch has been taken from him. And how long has he been imprisoned? Over two years. "Two years! "Leonore almost loses control of her feelings. Now she urges that she must help the jailer wait upon him. "I have strength and courage." The old man is won over. He will ask the governor for permission to take Fidelio with him to the secret cells, for he is growing old, and death will soon claim him. The dramatic nerve has been touched with the first allusion to the mysterious the matter, taking her acquiescence for granted. Between themselves they arrange that the wedding shall take place when next Pizarro makes his monthly visit to Seville to give an account of his stewardship, and the jailer admonishes the youthful pair to put money in their purses in a song of little distinction, but containing some delineative music in the orchestra suggesting the rolling and jingling of coins. Having been made seemingly to agree to the way of the maid and her father, Leonore seeks now to turn it to the advantage of her mission. She asks and obtains the jailer's permission to visit with him the cells in which political prisoners are kept--all but one, in which is confined one who is either a great criminal or a man with powerful enemies ("much the same thing," comments Rocco). Of him even the jailer knows nothing, having resolutely declined to hear his story. However, his sufferings cannot last much longer, for by Pizarro's orders his rations are being reduced daily; he has been all but deprived of light, and even the straw which had served as a couch has been taken from him. And how long has he been imprisoned? Over two years. "Two years!" Leonore almost loses control of her feelings. Now she urges that she must help the jailer wait upon him. "I have strength and courage." The old man is won over. He will ask the governor for permission to take Fidelio with him to the secret cells, for he is growing old, and death will soon claim him. The dramatic nerve has been touched with the first allusion to the mysterious prisoner who is being slowly tortured to death, and it is thrilling to note how Beethoven's genius (so often said to be purely epical) responds. In the trio which follows, the dialogue which has been outlined first intones a motif which speaks merely of complacency:--

[Musical excerpt--"Gut, Sohnchen, gut hab' immer"]

No sooner does it reach the lips of Leonore, however, than it becomes the utterance of proud resolve:--

[Musical excerpt--"Ich habe Muth!"]

and out of it grows a hymn of heroic daring. Marcellina's utterances are all concerned with herself, with an admixture of solicitude for her father, whose lugubrious reflections on his own impending dissolution are gloomily echoed in the music:--

[Musical excerpt--"Ich bin ja bald des Grabes Beute"]

A march accompanies the entrance of Pizarro. {2} Pizarro receives his despatches from Rocco, and from one of the letters learns that the Minister of Justice, having been informed that several victims of arbitrary power are confined in the prisons of which he is governor, is about to set out upon a tour of inspection. Such a visit might disclose the wrong done to Florestan, who is the Minister's friend and believed by him to be dead, and Pizarro resolves to shield himself against the consequences of such a discovery by compa.s.sing his death. He publishes his resolution in a furious air, "Ha! welch' ein Augenblick!" in which he gloats over the culmination of his revenge upon his ancient enemy. It is a terrible outpouring of bloodthirsty rage, and I have yet to hear the singer who can cope with its awful accents. Here, surely, Beethoven asks more of the human voice than it is capable of giving.

Quick action is necessary. The officer of the guard is ordered to post a trumpeter in the watch-tower, with instructions to give a signal the moment a carriage with outriders is seen approaching from Seville. Rocco is summoned, and Pizarro, praising his courage and fidelity to duty, gives him a purse as earnest of riches which are to follow obedience. The old man is ready enough until he learns that what is expected of him is

[Musical excerpt--"Morden!"]

whereupon he revolts, nor is he moved by Pizarro's argument that the deed is demanded by the welfare of the state. Foiled in his plan of hiring an a.s.sa.s.sin, Pizarro announces that he will deal the blow himself, and commands that a disused cistern be opened to receive the corpse of his victim. The duet which is concerned with these transactions is full of striking effects. The orchestra accompanies Rocco's description of the victim as "one who scarcely lives, but seems to float like a shadow" with chords which spread a cold, cadaverous sheen over the words, while the declamation of "A blow!--and he is dumb," makes ill.u.s.trative pantomime unnecessary.

Leonore has overheard all, and rushes forward on the departure of the men to express her horror at the wicked plot, and proclaim her trust in the guidance and help of love as well as her courageous resolve to follow its impulses and achieve the rescue of the doomed man. The scene and air in which she does this ("Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?") is now a favorite concert-piece of all dramatic singers; but when it was written its difficulties seemed appalling to Fraulein Milder (afterward the famous Frau Milder-Hauptmann), who was the original Leonore. A few years before Haydn had said to her, "My dear child, you have a voice as big as a house," and a few years later she made some of her finest successes with the part; but in the rehearsals she quarrelled violently with Beethoven because of the unsingableness of pa.s.sages in the Adagio, of which, no doubt, this was one:--

[Musical excerpt--"sie wird's erreichen"]

and when called upon, in 1814, to re-create the part which had been written expressly for her, she refused until Beethoven had consented to modify it. Everything is marvellous in the scena--the mild glow of orchestral color delineating the bow of promise in the recitative, the heart-searching, transfigurating, prayerful loveliness of the slow melody, the obbligato horn parts, the sweep of the final Allegro, all stand apart in operatic literature.

At Leonore's request, and presuming upon the request which Pizarro had made of him, Rocco permits the prisoners whose cells are above ground to enjoy the light and air of the garden, defending his action later, when taken to task by Pizarro, on the plea that he was obeying established custom in allowing the prisoners a bit of liberty on the name-day of the king. In an undertone he begs his master to save his anger for the man who is doomed to die. Meanwhile Leonore convinces herself that her husband is not among the prisoners who are enjoying the brief respite, and is overjoyed to learn that she is to accompany Rocco that very day to the mysterious subterranean dungeon. With the return of the prisoners to their cells, the first act ends.

An instrumental introduction ushers in the second act. It is a musical delineation of Florestan's surroundings, sufferings, and mental anguish. The darkness is rent by shrieks of pain; harsh, hollow, and threatening sound the throbs of the kettle-drums. The parting of the curtain discloses the prisoner chained to his rocky couch. He declaims against the gloom, the silence, the deathly void surrounding him, but comforts himself with the thought that his sufferings are but the undeserved punishment inflicted by an enemy for righteous duty done. The melody of the slow part of his air, which begins thus,

Receive SMS and Send Text Online for free >>

« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»

Novel »
Next  »