A Book of Operas: Their Histories, Their Plots, and Their Music Part 7

Nevertheless, he went to the composer and offered his condolences at the fiasco. Verdi wanted none of his sympathy. "Condole with yourself and your companions who have not understood my music," was his somewhat ungracious rejoinder. No doubt the singers felt some embarra.s.sment in the presence of music which to them seemed new and strange in a degree which we cannot appreciate now. Abramo Basevi, an Italian critic, who wrote a book of studies on Verdi's operas, following the fashion set by Lenz in his book on Beethoven, divides the operas which he had written up to the critic's time into examples of three styles, the early operas marking his first manner and "Luisa Miller" the beginning of his second. In "La Traviata" he says Verdi discovered a third manner, resembling in some things the style of French oeera comique. "This style of music," he says, "although it has not been tried on the stage in Italy, is, however, not unknown in private circles. In these latter years we have seen Luigi Gordigiani and Fabio Campana making themselves known princ.i.p.ally in this style of music, called da camera. Verdi, with his 'Traviata,' has transported this chamber-music on to the stage, to which the subject he has chosen still lends itself, and with happy success. We meet with more simplicity in this work than in the others of the same composer, especially as regards the orchestra, where the quartet of stringed instruments is almost always predominant; the parlanti occupy a great part of the score; we meet with several of those airs which repeat under the form of verses; and, finally, the princ.i.p.al vocal subjects are for the most part developed in short binary and ternary movements, and have not, in general, the extension which the Italian style demands." Campana and Gordigiani were prolific composers of romanzas and canzonettas of a popular type. Their works are drawing-room music, very innocuous, very sentimental, very insignificant, and very far from the conception of chamber-music generally prevalent now. How they could have been thought to have influenced so virile a composer as Verdi, it is difficult to see. But musical critics enjoy a wide lat.i.tude of observation. In all likelihood there was nothing more in Dr. Basevi's mind than the strophic structure of "Di Provenza," the song style of some of the other arias to which attention has been called and the circ.u.mstance that these, the most striking numbers in the score, mark the points of deepest feeling. In this respect, indeed, there is some relationship between "La Traviata" and "Der Freischutz"--though this is an observation which will probably appear as far-fetched to some of my critics as Dr. Basevi's does to me.

There were other reasons of a more obvious and external nature for the failure of "La Traviata" on its first production. Lodovico Graziani, the tenor, who filled the role of Alfredo, was hoa.r.s.e, and could not do justice to the music; Signora Salvini-Donatelli, the Violetta of the occasion, was afflicted with an amplitude of person which destroyed the illusion of the death scene and turned its pathos into absurdity. The spectacle of a lady of mature years and more than generous integumental upholstery dying of consumption was more than the Venetian sense of humor could endure with equanimity.

The opera ended with shrieks of laughter instead of the lachrymal flood which the music and the dramatic situation called for. This spirit of irreverence had been promoted, moreover, by the fact that the people of the play wore conventional modern clothes. The lure of realism was not strong in the lyric theatres half a century ago, when laces and frills, top-boots and plumed hats, helped to confine the fancy to the realm of idealism in which it was believed opera ought to move. The first result of the fiasco was a revision of the costumes and stage furniture, by which simple expedient Mr. Dumas's Marguerite Gauthier was changed from a courtesan of the time of Louis Philippe to one of the period of Louis XIV. It is an amusing ill.u.s.tration of how the whirligig of time brings its revenges that the spirit of verismo, masquerading as a desire for historical accuracy, has restored the period of the Dumas book,--that is, restored it in name, but not in fact,--with the result, in New York and London at least, of making the dress of the opera more absurd than ever. Violetta, exercising the right which was conquered by the prima donna generations ago, appears always garbed in the very latest style, whether she be wearing one of her two ball dresses or her simple afternoon gown. For aught that I know, the latest fad in woman's dress may also be hidden in the dainty folds of the robe de chambre in which she dies. The elder Germont has for two years appeared before the New York public as a well-to-do country gentleman of Provence might have appeared sixty years ago, but his son has thrown all sartorial scruples to the wind, and wears the white waistcoat and swallowtail of to-day.

The Venetians were allowed a year to get over the effects of the first representations of "La Traviata," and then the opera was brought forward again with the new costumes. Now it succeeded and set out upon the conquest of the world. It reached London on May 24, St. Petersburg on November 1, New York on December 3, and Paris on December 6--all in the same year, 1856. The first Violetta in New York was Mme. Anna La Grange, the first Alfredo Signor Brignoli, and the first Germont pere Signor Amodio. There had been a destructive compet.i.tion between Max Maretzek's Italian company at the Academy of Music and a German company at Niblo's Garden. The regular Italian season had come to an end with a quarrel between Maretzek and the directors of the Academy. The troupe prepared to embark for Havana, but before doing so gave a brief season under the style of the La Grange Opera Company, and brought forward the new opera on December 3, three days before the Parisians were privileged to hear it. The musical critic of the Tribune at the time was Mr. W. H. Fry, who was not only a writer on political and musical subjects, but a composer, who wrote an opera, "Leonora," in which Mme. La Grange sang at the Academy about a year and a half later. His review of the first performance of "La Traviata," which appeared in the Tribune of December 5, 1856, is worth reading for more reasons than one:--

The plot of "La Traviata" we have already given to our readers. It is simply "Camille." The first scene affords us some waltzing music, appropriate in its place, on which a (musical) dialogue takes place.

The waltz is not specially good, nor is there any masterly outworking of detail. A fair drinking song is afforded, which pleased, but was not encored. A pretty duet by Mme. de la Grange and Signor Brignoli may be noticed also in this act; and the final air, by Madame de la Grange, "Ah! fors' e lui che l'anima," contained a brilliant, florid close which brought down the house, and the curtain had to be reraised to admit of a repet.i.tion. Act II admits of more intensified music than Act I. A brief air by Alfred (Brignoli) is followed by an air by Germont (Amodio), and by a duet, Violetta (La Grange) and Germont. The duet is well worked up and is rousing, pa.s.sionate music. Verdi's mastery of dramatic accent--of the modern school of declamation--is here evident. Some dramatic work, the orchestra leading, follows--bringing an air by Germont, "Di Provenza il mar." This is a 2-4 travesty of a waltz known as Weber's Last Waltz (which, however, Weber never wrote); and is too uniform in the length of its notes to have dramatic breadth or eloquence. A good hit is the sudden exit of Alfred thereupon, not stopping to make an andiamo duet as is so often done. The next scene introduces us to a masquerade where are choruses of quasi-gypsies, matadors, and picadors,--sufficiently characteristic. The scene after the card-playing, which is so fine in the play, is inefficient in music. Act III in the book (though it was made Act IV on this occasion by subdividing the second) reveals the sick-room of Traviata. A sweet air, minor and major by turns, with some hautboy wailing, paints the sufferer's sorrows. A duet by the lovers, "Parigi, O cara," is especially original in its peroration. The closing trio has due culmination and anguish, though we would have preferred a quiet ending to a hectic shriek and a doubly loud force in the orchestra.

Goldsmith's rule in "The Vicar" for criticising a painting was always to say that "the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains." Perhaps the same might be said about "La Traviata"; but whether it would have pleased the public more is another question. Some of the airs certainly would bear subst.i.tution by others in the author's happier vein. The opera was well received.

Three times the singers were called before the curtain. The piece was well put on the stage. Madame La Grange never looked so well.

Her toilet was charming.

The princ.i.p.al incidents of Dumas's play are reproduced with general fidelity in the opera. In the first act there are scenes of gayety in the house of Violetta--dancing, feasting, and love-making. Among the devotees of the courtesan is Alfredo Germont, a young man of respectable Provencal family. He joins in the merriment, singing a drinking song with Violetta, but his devotion to her is unlike that of his companions. He loves her sincerely, pa.s.sionately, and his protestations awaken in her sensations never felt before. For a moment, she indulges in a day-dream of honest affection, but banishes it with the reflection that the only life for which she is fitted is one devoted to the pleasures of the moment, the mad revels rounding out each day, and asking no care of the moment. But at the last the voice of Alfredo floats in at the window, burdening the air and her heart with an echo of the longing to which she had given expression in her brief moment of thoughtfulness. She yields to Alfredo's solicitations and a strangely new emotion, and abandons her dissolute life to live with him alone.

In the second act the pair are found housed in a country villa not far from Paris. From the maid Alfredo learns that Violetta has sold her property in the city--house, horses, carriages, and all--in order to meet the expenses of the rural establishment.

Conscience-smitten, he hurries to Paris to prevent the sacrifice, but in his absence Violetta is called upon to make a much greater.

Giorgio Germont, the father of her lover, visits her, and, by appealing to her love for his son and picturing the ruin which is threatening him and the barrier which his illicit a.s.sociation with her is placing in the way of the happy marriage of his sister, persuades her to give him up. She abandons home and lover, and returns to her old life in the gay city, making a favored companion of the Baron Duphol. In Paris, at a masked ball in the house of Flora, one of her a.s.sociates, Alfredo finds her again, overwhelms her with reproaches, and ends a scene of excitement by denouncing her publicly and throwing his gambling gains at her feet.

Baron Duphol challenges Alfredo to fight a duel. The baron is wounded. The elder Germont sends intelligence of Alfredo's safety to Violetta, and informs her that he has told his son of the great sacrifice which she had made for love of him. Violetta dies in the arms of her lover, who had hurried to her on learning the truth, only to find her suffering the last agonies of disease.

In the preface to his novel, Dumas says that the princ.i.p.al incidents of the story are true. It has also been said that d.i.c.kens was familiar with them, and at one time purposed to make a novel on the subject; but this statement scarcely seems credible. Such a novel would have been un-English in spirit and not at all in harmony with the ideals of the author of "David Copperfield" and "Dombey and Son." Play and opera at the time of their first production raised questions of taste and morals which have remained open ever since.

Whether the anathema periodically p.r.o.nounced against them by private and official censorship helps or hinders the growth of such works in popularity, there is no need of discussing here. There can scarcely be a doubt, however, but that many theatrical managers of to-day would hail with pleasure and expectation of profit such a controversy over one of their new productions as greeted "La Traviata" in London. The Lord Chamberlain had refused to sanction the English adaptations of "La Dame aux Camelias," and when the opera was brought forward (performance being allowed because it was sung in a foreign language), pulpit and press thundered in denunciation of it. Mr. Lumley, the manager of Her Majesty's Theatre, came to the defence of the work in a letter to the Times, but it was more his purpose to encourage popular excitement and irritate curiosity than to shield the opera from condemnation. He had every reason to be satisfied with the outcome. "La Traviata" had made a complete fiasco, on its production in Italy, where no one dreamed of objecting to the subject-matter of its story; in London there was a loud outcry against the "foul and hideous horrors of the book," and the critics found little to praise in the music; yet the opera scored a tremendous popular success, and helped to rescue Her Majesty's from impending ruin.

CHAPTER X

"AIDA"

Two erroneous impressions concerning Verdi's "Ada" may as well as not be corrected at the beginning of a study of that opera: it was not written to celebrate the completion of the Suez Ca.n.a.l, nor to open the Italian Opera-house at Cairo, though the completion of the ca.n.a.l and the inauguration of the theatre were practically contemporaneous with the conception of the plan which gave the world one of Verdi's finest and also most popular operas. It is more difficult to recall a season in any of the great lyric theatres of the world within the last thirty-five years in which "Ada" was not given than to enumerate a score of productions with particularly fine singers and imposing mise en scene. With it Verdi ought to have won a large measure of grat.i.tude from singers and impresarios as well as the fortune which it brought him; for though, like all really fine works, it rewards effort and money bestowed upon it with corresponding and proportionate generosity, it does not depend for its effectiveness on extraordinary vocal outfit or scenic apparel.

Fairly well sung and acted and respectably dressed, it always wins the sympathies and warms the enthusiasm of an audience the world over. It is seldom thought of as a conventional opera, and yet it is full of conventionalities which do not obtrude themselves simply because there is so much that is individual about its music and its pictures--particularly its pictures. Save for the features of its score which differentiate it from the music of Verdi's other operas and the works of his predecessors and contemporaries, "Ada" is a companion of all the operas for which Meyerbeer set a model when he wrote his works for the Academie Nationale in Paris--the great pageant operas like "Le Prophete," "Lohengrin," and Goldmark's "Queen of Sheba." With the last it shares one element which brings it into relationship also with a number of much younger and less significant works--operas like Mascagni's "Iris," Puccini's "Madama b.u.t.terfly," and Giordano's "Siberia." In the score of "Ada" there is a slight infusion of that local color which is lavishly employed in decorating its externals. The pomp and pageantry of the drama are Egyptian and ancient; the play's natural and artificial environment is Egyptian and ancient; two bits of its music are Oriental, possibly Egyptian, and not impossibly ancient. But in everything else "Ada" is an Italian opera. The story plays in ancient Egypt, and its inventor was an archaeologist deeply versed in Egyptian antiquities, but I have yet to hear that Mariette Bey, who wrote the scenario of the drama, ever claimed an historical foundation for it or pretended that anything in its story was characteristically Egyptian. Circ.u.mstances wholly fortuitous give a strong tinge of antiquity and nationalism to the last scene; but, if the ancient Egyptians were more addicted than any other people to burying malefactors alive, the fact is not of record; and the picture as we have it in the opera was not conceived by Mariette Bey, but by Verdi while working hand in hand with the original author of the libretto, which, though designed for an Italian performance, was first written in French prose.

The Italian Theatre in Cairo was built by the khedive, Ismal Pacha, and opened in November, 1869. It is extremely likely that the thought of the advantage which would accrue to the house, could it be opened with a new piece by the greatest of living Italian opera composers, had entered the mind of the khedive or his advisers; but it does not seem to have occurred to them in time to insure such a work for the opening. Nevertheless, long before the inauguration of the theatre a letter was sent to Verdi asking him if he would write an opera on an Egyptian subject, and if so, on what terms. The opportunity was a rare one, and appealed to the composer, who had written "Les Vepres Siciliennes" and "Don Carlos" for Paris, "La Forza del Destino" for St. Petersburg, and had not honored an Italian stage with a new work for ten years. But the suggestion that he state his terms embarra.s.sed him. So he wrote to his friend Muzio and asked him what to do. Muzio had acquired much more worldly wisdom than ever came to the share of the great genius, and he replied sententiously: "Demand 4000 pounds sterling for your score.

If they ask you to go and mount the piece and direct the rehearsals, fix the sum at 6000 pounds."

Verdi followed his friend's advice, and the khedive accepted the terms. At first the opera people in Cairo thought they wanted only the score which carried with it the right of performance, but soon they concluded that they wanted also the presence of the composer, and made him, in vain, munificent offers of money, distinctions, and t.i.tles. His real reason for not going to prepare the opera and direct the first performance was a dread of the voyage. To a friend he wrote that he feared that if he went to Cairo they would make a mummy of him. Under the terms of the agreement the khedive sent him 50,000 francs at once, and deposited the balance of 50,000 francs in a bank, to be paid over to the composer on delivery of the score.

The story of "Ada" came from Mariette Bey, who was then director of the Egyptian Museum at Boulak. Auguste edouard Mariette was a Frenchman who, while an attache of the Louvre, in 1850, had gone on a scientific expedition to Egypt for the French government and had discovered the temple of Serapis at Memphis. It was an "enormous structure of granite and alabaster, containing within its enclosure the sarcophagi of the bulls of Apis, from the nineteenth dynasty to the time of the Roman supremacy." After his return to Paris, he was appointed in 1855 a.s.sistant conservator of the Egyptian Museum in the Louvre, and after some further years of service, he went to Egypt again, where he received the t.i.tle of Bey and an appointment as director of the museum at Boulak. Bayard Taylor visited him in 1851 and 1874, and wrote an account of his explorations and the marvellous collection of antiquities which he had in his care.

Mariette wrote the plot of "Ada," which was sent to Verdi, and at once excited his liveliest interest. Camille du Locle, who had had a hand in making the books of "Les Vepres Siciliennes" and "Don Carlos" (and who is also the librettist of Reyer's "Salammbo"), went to Verdi's home in Italy, and under the eye of the composer wrote out the drama in French prose. It was he who gave the world the information that the idea of the double scene in the last act was conceived by Verdi, who, he says, "took a large share in the work."

The drama, thus completed, was translated into Italian verse by Antonio Ghislanzoni, who, at the time, was editor of the Gazetta Musicale, a journal published in Milan. In his early life Ghislanzoni was a barytone singer. He was a devoted friend and admirer of Verdi's, to whom he paid a glowing tribute in his book ent.i.tled "Reminiscenze Artistiche." He died some fifteen or sixteen years ago, and some of his last verses were translations of Tennyson's poems.

The khedive expected to hear his opera by the end of 1870, but there came an extraordinary disturbance of the plan, the cause being nothing less than the war between France and Germany. The scenery and costumes, which had been made after designs by French artists, were shut up in Paris. At length, on December 24, 1871, the opera had its first performance at Cairo. Considering the sensation which the work created, it seems strange that it remained the exclusive possession of Cairo and a few Italian cities so long as it did, but a personal equation stood in the way of a performance at the Grand Opera, where it properly belonged. The conduct of the conductor and musicians at the production of "Les Vepres Siciliennes" had angered Verdi; and when M. Halanzier, the director of the Academie Nationale, asked for the opera in 1873, his request was refused.

Thus it happened that the Theatre Italien secured the right of first performance in Paris. It was brought out there on April 22, 1876, and had sixty-eight representations within three years. The original King in the French performance was edouard de Reszke. It was not until March 22, 1880, that "Ada" reached the Grand Opera. M.

Vaucorbeil, the successor of Halanzier, visited Verdi at his home and succeeded in persuading him not only to give the performing rights to the national inst.i.tution, but also to a.s.sist in its production. Maurel was the Amonasro of the occasion. The composer was greatly feted, and at a dinner given in his honor by President Grevy was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honor.

The opening scene of the opera is laid at Memphis, a fact which justifies the utmost grandeur in the stage furniture, and is explained by Mariette's interest in that place. It was he who helped moderns to realize the ancient magnificence of the city described by Diodorus. It was the first capital of the united kingdom of upper and lower Egypt, the chief seat of religion and learning, the site of the temples of Ptah, Isis, Serapis, Phra, and the sacred bull Apis. Mariette here, on his first visit to Egypt, unearthed an entire avenue of sphinxes leading to the Serapeum, over four thousand statues, reliefs, and inscriptions, eight gigantic sculptures, and many other evidences of a supremely great city.

He chose his scenes with a view to an exhibition of the ancient grandeur. In a hall of the Royal Palace, flanked by a colonnade with statues and flowering shrubs, and commanding a view of the city's palaces and temples and the pyramids, Radames, an Egyptian soldier, and Ramfis, a high priest, discuss a report that the Ethiopians are in revolt in the valley of the Nile, and that Thebes is threatened.

The high priest has consulted Isis, and the G.o.ddess has designated who shall be the leader of Egypt's army against the rebels. An inspiring thought comes into the mind of Radames. What if he should be the leader singled out to crush the rebellion, and be received in triumph on his return? A consummation devoutly to be wished, not for his own glory alone, but for the sake of his love, Ada, whose beauty he sings in a romance ("Celeste Ada") of exquisite loveliness and exaltation. Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt (Mariette gives him no name, and so avoids possible historical complications), enters. She is in love with Radames, and eager to know what it is that has so illumined his visage with joy. He tells her of his ambition, but hesitates when she asks him if no gentler dream had tenanted his heart. Ada approaches, and the perturbation of her lover is observed by Amneris, who affects love for her slave (for such Ada is), welcomes her as a sister, and bids her tell the cause of her grief. Ada is the daughter of Ethiopia's king; but she would have the princess believe that her tears are caused by anxiety for Egypt's safety. The King appears with Ramfis and a royal retinue, and learns from a messenger that the Ethiopians have invaded Egypt and, under their king, Amonasro, are marching on Thebes. The King announces that Isis has chosen Radames to be the leader of Egypt's hosts. Amneris places the royal banner in his eager hand, and to the sounds of a patriotic march he is led away to the temple of Ptah (the Egyptian Vulcan), there to receive his consecrated armor and arms. "Return a victor!" shout the hosts, and Ada, carried away by her love, joins in the cry; but, left alone, she reproaches herself for impiousness in uttering words which imply a wish for the destruction of her country, her father, and her kinsmen. (Scena: "Ritorna vincitor.") Yet could she wish for the defeat and the death of the man she loves? She prays the G.o.ds to pity her sufferings ("Numi, pieta"). Before a colossal figure of the G.o.d in the temple of Ptah, while the sacred fires rise upward from the tripods, and priestesses move through the figures of the sacred dance or chant a hymn to the Creator, Preserver, Giver, of Life and Light, the consecrated sword is placed in the hands of Radames.

It is in this scene that the local color is not confined to externals alone, but infuses the music as well. Very skilfully Verdi makes use of two melodies which are saturated with the languorous spirit of the East. The first is the invocation of Ptah, chanted by an invisible priestess to the accompaniment of a harp:--

[Musical excerpt--"Possente, possente Ftha, del mondo spirito animator ah! noi t'in vo chiamo."]

The second is the melody of the sacred dance:--

[Musical excerpt]

The tunes are said to be veritable Oriental strains which some antiquary (perhaps Mariette himself) put into the hands of Verdi.

The fact that their characteristic elements were nowhere else employed by the composer, though he had numerous opportunities for doing so, would seem to indicate that Verdi was chary about venturing far into the territory of musical nationalism. Perhaps he felt that his powers were limited in this direction, or that he might better trust to native expression of the mood into which the book had wrought him. The limitation of local color in his music is not mentioned as a defect in the opera, for it is replaced at the supreme moments, especially that at the opening of the third act, with qualities far more entrancing than were likely to have come from the use of popular idioms. Yet, the two Oriental melodies having been mentioned, it is well to look at their structure to discover the source of their singular charm. There is no mystery as to the cause in the minds of students of folk-song. The tunes are evolved from a scale so prevalent among peoples of Eastern origin that it has come to be called the Oriental scale. Its distinguishing characteristic is an interval, which contains three semitones:--

[Musical excerpt]

The interval occurring twice in this scale is enclosed in brackets.

Its characteristic effect is most obvious when the scale is played downward. A beautiful instance of its artistic use is in Rubinstein's song "Der Asra." The ancient synagogal songs of the Jews are full of it, and it is one of the distinguishing marks of the folk-songs of Hungary (the other being rhythmical), as witness the "Rakoczy March." In some of the Eastern songs it occurs once, in some twice (as in the case of the melodies printed above), and there are instances of a triple use in the folk-songs of the modern Greeks.

Act II. News of the success of the Egyptian expedition against the Ethiopians has reached Amneris, whose slaves attire her for the scene of Radames's triumph. The slaves sing of Egypt's victory and of love, the princess of her longing, and Moorish slaves dance before her to dispel her melancholy. Ada comes, weighed down by grief. Amneris lavishes words of sympathy upon her, and succeeds in making her betray her love for Radames by saying that he had been killed in battle. Then she confesses the falsehood and proclaims her own pa.s.sion and purpose to crush her rival, who shall appear at the triumph of Radames as her slave. Ada's pride rebels for the moment, and she almost betrays her own exalted station as the daughter of a king. As a slave she accompanies the princess to the entrance gate of Thebes, where the King, the priests, and a vast concourse of people are to welcome Radames and witness his triumphal entry.

Radames, with his troops and a horde of Ethiopian prisoners, comes into the city in a gorgeous pageant. The procession is headed by two groups of trumpeters, who play a march melody, the stirring effect of which is greatly enhanced by the characteristic tone quality of the long, straight instruments which they use:--

[Musical excerpt]

A word about these trumpets. In shape, they recall antique instruments, and the brilliancy of their tone is due partly to the calibre of their straight tubes and partly to the fact that nearly all the tones used are open--that is, natural harmonics of the fundamental tones of the tubes. There is an anachronism in the circ.u.mstance that they are provided with valves (which were not invented until some thousands of years after the period of the drama), but only one of the valves is used. The first trumpets are in the key of A-flat and the second B-natural, a peculiarly stirring effect being produced by the sudden shifting of the key of the march when the second group of trumpeters enters on the scene.

The King greets Radames with an embrace, bids him receive the wreath of victory from the hands of his daughter and ask whatever boon he will as a reward for his services. He asks, first, that the prisoners be brought before the King. Among them Ada recognizes her father, who is disguised as an officer of the Ethiopian army.

The two are in each other's arms in a moment, but only long enough for Amonasro to caution his daughter not to betray him. He bravely confesses that he had fought for king and country, and pleads for clemency for the prisoners. They join in the pet.i.tion, as does Ada, and though the priests warn and protest, Radames asks the boon of their lives and freedom, and the King grants it. Also, without the asking, he bestows the hand of his daughter upon the victorious general, who receives the undesired honor with consternation.

Transporting beauty rests upon the scene which opens the third act.

The moon shines brightly on the rippling surface of the Nile and illumines a temple of Isis, perched amongst the tropical foliage which crowns a rocky height. The silvery sheen is spread also over the music, which arises from the orchestra like a light mist burdened with sweet odors. Amneris enters the temple to ask the blessing of the G.o.ddess upon her marriage, and the pious canticle of the servitors within floats out on the windless air. A tone of tender pathos breathes through the music which comes with Ada, who is to hold secret converse with her lover. Will he come? And if so, will he speak a cruel farewell and doom her to death within the waters of the river? A vision of her native land, its azure skies, verdant vales, perfumed breezes, rises before her. Shall she never see them more? Her father comes upon her. He knows of her pa.s.sion for Radames, but also of her love for home and kindred. He puts added hues into the picture with which her heavy fancy had dallied, and then beclouds it all with an account of homes and temples profaned, maidens ravished, grandsires, mothers, children, slain by the oppressor. Will she aid in the deliverance? She can by learning from her lover by which path the Egyptians will against the Ethiopians, who are still in the field, though their king is taken.

That she will not do. But Amonas...o...b..eaks down her resolution.

Hers will be the responsibility for torrents of blood, the destruction of cities, the devastation of her country. No longer his daughter she, but a slave of the Pharaohs! Her lover comes. She affects to repulse him because of his betrothal to Amneris, but he protests his fidelity and discloses his plan. The Ethiopians are in revolt again. Again he will defeat them, and, returning again in triumph, he will tell the King of his love for her and thereafter live in the walks of peace. But Ada tells him that the vengeance of Amneris will pursue her, and urges him to fly with her. Reluctantly he consents, and she, with apparent innocence, asks by which path they shall escape the soldiery. Through the gorge of Napata; 'twill be unpeopled till to-morrow, for it has been chosen as the route by which the Egyptian advance shall be made. Exulting, Amonasro rushes from his place of concealment. At the gorge of Napata will he place his troops--he the King of Ethiopia! Radames has betrayed his country. Amneris comes out of the temple, and Amonasro is about to poignard her when Radames throws himself between. To the high priest, Ramfis, he yields himself and his sword. Amonasro drags Ada away with him.

We reach the last act of the drama. Radames is to be tried for treason in having betrayed a secret of war to his country's enemy.

Amneris fain would save him were he to renounce Ada and accept her love. She offers on such terms to intercede for him with her father, the king. From her Radames learns that Ada escaped the guards who slew her father. He is resolute to die rather than prove faithless to her, and is led away to the subterranean trial chamber. Amneris, crouched without, hears the accusing voices of the priests and the awful silence which follows each accusation; for Radames refuses to answer the charges. The priests p.r.o.nounce sentence:--Burial alive!

Amneris hurls curses after them, but they depart, muttering, "Death to the traitor!"

Radames is immured in a vault beneath the temple of Vulcan, whose sacred priestesses move in solemn steps above, while he gropes in the darkness below. Never again shall light greet his eyes, nor sight of Ada. A groan. A phantom rises before him, and Ada is at his side. She had foreseen the doom of her lover, and entered the tomb before him to die in his arms. Together they say their farewell to the vale of tears, and their streaming eyes have a prevision of heaven. Above in the temple a figure, shrouded in black, kneels upon the stone which seals the vault and implores Isis to cease her resentment and give her adored one peace. It is Amneris.

CHAPTER XI

"DER FREISCHUTZ"

A description of Carl Maria von Weber's opera, "Der Freischutz,"

ought to begin with a study of the overture, since that marvellous composition has lived on and on in the concert-rooms of the world without loss of popularity for nearly a century, while the opera which it introduces has periodically come and gone according to popular whim or the artistic convictions or caprices of managers in all the countries which cultivate opera, except Germany. Why Germany forms an exception to the rule will find an explanation when the character of the opera and its history come under investigation.

The overture, notwithstanding its extraordinary charm, is only an exalted example of the pot-pourri cla.s.s of introductions (though in the cla.s.sic sonata form), which composers were in the habit of writing when this opera came into existence, and which is still imitated in an ign.o.ble way by composers of ephemeral operettas. It is constructed on a conventional model, and its thematic material is drawn from the music of the opera; but, like the prelude to Wagner's lyric comedy, "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg," it presents the contents of the play in the form of what many years after its composition came to be called a symphonic poem, and ill.u.s.trates the ideal which was in Gluck's mind when, in the preface to "Alceste,"

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