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قراءة كتاب A Second Book of Operas

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‏اللغة: English
A Second Book of Operas

A Second Book of Operas

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 7

ark, and the deluge seem now too prodigious to be essayed by opera makers, but, apparently, they did not awe the Englishman Edward Eccleston (or Eggleston), who is said to have produced an opera, "Noah's Flood, or the Destruction of the World," in London in 1679, nor Seyfried, whose "Libera me" was sung at Beethoven's funeral, and who, besides Biblical operas entitled "Saul," "Abraham," "The Maccabees," and "The Israelites in the Desert," brought out a "Noah" in Vienna in 1818. Halevy left an unfinished opera, "Noe," which Bizet, who was his son-in-law, completed. Of oratorios dealing with the deluge I do not wish to speak further than to express my admiration for the manner in which Saint-Saens opened the musical floodgates in "Le Deluge."

On the plain in the Land of Shinar the families of the sons of Noah builded them a city and a tower whose top they arrogantly hoped might reach unto heaven. But the tower fell, the tongues of the people were confounded, and the people were scattered abroad on the face of the earth. Rubinstein attempted to give dramatic representation to the tremendous incident, and to his effort and vain dream I shall revert in the next chapter of this book. Now I must on with the history of the patriarchs. The story of Abraham and his attempted offering of Isaac has been much used as oratorio material, and Joseph Elsner, Chopin's teacher, brought out a Polish opera, "Ofiara Abrama," at Warsaw in 1827.

A significant milestone in the history of the Hebrews as well as Biblical operas has now been reached. The sojourn of the Jews in Egypt and their final departure under the guidance of Moses have already occupied considerable attention in this study. They provided material for the two operas which seem to me the noblest of their kind—Mehul's "Joseph" and Rossini's "Mose in Egitto." Mehul's opera, more than a decade older than Rossini's, still holds a place on the stages of France and Germany, and this despite the fact that it foregoes two factors which are popularly supposed to be essential to operatic success—a love episode and woman's presence and participation in the action. The opera, which is in three acts, was brought forward at the Theatre Feydeau in Paris on February 17, 1807. It owed its origin to a Biblical tragedy entitled "Omasis," by Baour Lormian. The subject—the sale of Joseph by his brothers into Egyptian slavery, his rise to power, his forgiveness of the wrong attempted against him, and his provision of a home for the people of Israel in the land of Goshen—had long been popular with composers of oratorios. The list of these works begins with Caldara's "Giuseppe" in 1722. Metastasio's "Giuseppe riconosciuto" was set by half a dozen composers between 1733 and 1788. Handel wrote his English oratorio in 1743; G. A. Macfarren's was performed at the Leeds festival of 1877. Lormian thought it necessary to introduce a love episode into his tragedy, but Alexander Duval, who wrote the book for Mehul's opera, was of the opinion that the diversion only enfeebled the beautiful if austere picture of patriarchal domestic life delineated in the Bible. He therefore adhered to tradition and created a series of scenes full of beauty, dignity, and pathos, simple and strong in spite of the bombast prevalent in the literary style of the period. Mehul's music is marked by grandeur, simplicity, lofty sentiment, and consistent severity of manner. The composer's predilection for ecclesiastical music, created, no doubt, by the blind organist who taught him in his childhood and nourished by his studies and labors at the monastery under the gifted Hauser, found opportunity for expression in the religious sentiments of the drama, and his knowledge of plain chant is exhibited in the score "the simplicity, grandeur, and dramatic truth of which will always command the admiration of impartial musicians," remarks Gustave Choquet. The enthusiasm of M. Tiersot goes further still, for he says that the music of "Joseph" is more conspicuous for the qualities of dignity and sonority than that of Handel's oratorio. The German Hanslick, to whom the absence from the action of the "salt of the earth, women" seemed disastrous, nevertheless does not hesitate to institute a comparison between "Joseph" and one of Mozart's latest operas. "In its mild, passionless benevolence the entire role of Joseph in Mehul's opera," he says, "reminds one strikingly of Mozart's 'Titus,' and not to the advantage of the latter. The opera 'Titus' is the work of an incomparably greater genius, but it belongs to a partly untruthful, wholly modish, tendency (that of the old opera seria), while the genre of 'Joseph' is thoroughly noble, true, and eminently dramatic. 'Joseph' has outlived 'Titus.'" [Footnote: "Die Moderne Opera," p. 92.] Carl Maria von Weber admired Mehul's opera greatly, and within recent years Felix Weingartner has edited a German edition for which he composed recitatives to take the place of the spoken dialogue of the original book.

There is no story of passion in "Joseph." The love portrayed there is domestic and filial; its objects are the hero's father, brothers, and country—"Champs eternels, Hebron, douce vallee." It was not until our own day that an author with a perverted sense which had already found gratification in the stench of mental, moral, and physical decay exhaled by "Salome" and "Elektra" nosed the piquant, pungent odor of the episode of Potiphar's wife and blew it into the theatre. Joseph's temptress did not tempt even the prurient taste which gave us the Parisian operatic versions of the stories of Phryne, Thais, and Messalina. Richard Strauss's "Josephslegende" stands alone in musical literature. There is, indeed, only one reference in the records of oratorio or opera to the woman whose grovelling carnality is made the foil of Joseph's virtue in the story as told in the Book. That reference is found in a singular trilogy, which was obviously written more to disclose the possibilities of counterpoint than to set forth the story—even if it does that, which I cannot say; the suggestion comes only from a title. In August, 1852, Pietro Raimondi produced an oratorio in three parts entitled, respectively, "Putifar," "Giuseppe giusto," and "Giacobbe," at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome. The music of the three works was so written that after each had been performed separately, with individual principal singers, choristers, and orchestras, they were united in a simultaneous performance. The success of the stupendous experiment in contrapuntal writing was so great that the composer fell in a faint amidst the applause of the audience and died less than three months afterward.

In the course of this study I have mentioned nearly all of the Biblical characters who have been turned into operatic heroes. Nebuchadnezzar appeared on the stage at Hamburg in an opera of Keiser's in 1704; Ariosti put him through his bovine strides in Vienna in 1706. He was put into a ballet by a Portuguese composer and made the butt of a French opera bouffe writer, J. J. Debillement, in 1871. He recurs to my mind now in connection with a witty fling at "Nabucco" made by a French rhymester when Verdi's opera was produced at Paris in 1845. The noisy brass in the orchestration offended the ears of a critic, and he wrote:

Vraiment l'affiche est dans son tort;
     En faux, ou devrait la poursuivre.
Pourquoi nous annoncer Nabuchodonos—or
     Quand c'est Nabuchodonos—cuivre?

Judas Maccabaeus is one of the few heroes of ancient Israel who have survived in opera, Rubinstein's "Makkabaer" still having a hold, though not a strong one, on the German stage. The libretto is an adaptation by Mosenthal (author also of Goldmark's "Queen of Sheba") of a drama by Otto Ludwig. In the drama as well as some of its predecessors some liberties have been taken with the story as told in Maccabees II, chapter 7. The tale of the Israelitish champion of freedom and his brothers Jonathan and Simon, who lost their lives in the struggle against the tyranny of the kings of Syria, is intensely