[This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.]
If one were set upon paradox, it would not be far from the truth to say that up to the middle of the nineteenth century the most famous French composers had been either German or Italian. Certainly if Lulli, Gluck, Rossini and Meyerbeer—to name only a few of the distinguished aliens who settled in Paris—had never existed, French opera of the present day would be a very different thing from what it actually is. Yet in spite of the strangely diverse personalities of the men who had most influence in shaping its destiny, modern French opera is an entity remarkable for completeness and homogeneity, fully alive to tendencies the most advanced, yet firmly founded upon the solid traditions of the past.
Gounod (1818-1893) was trained in the school of Meyerbeer, but his own sympathies drew him rather towards the serene perfection of Mozart. The pure influence of that mighty master, combined with the strange mingling of sensuousness and mysticism which was the distinguishing trait of his own character, produced a musical personality of high intrinsic interest, and historically of great importance to the development of music. If not the actual founder of modern French opera, Gounod is at least the source of its most pronounced characteristics.
His first opera, 'Sapho' (1851), a graceful version of the immortal story of the Lesbian poetess's love and death, has never been really popular, but it is interesting as containing the germs of much that afterwards became characteristic in Gounod's style. In the final scene of Sappho's suicide, the young composer surpassed himself, and struck a note of sensuous melancholy which was new to French opera. 'La Nonne Sanglante' (1854), his next work, was a failure; but in 'Le Médecin malgré lui' (1858), an operatic version of Molière's comedy, he scored a success. This is a charming little work, instinct with a delicate flavour of antiquity, but lacking in comic power. It has often been played in England as 'The Mock Doctor.' Sganarelle is a drunken woodcutter, who is in the habit of beating his wife Martine. She is on the look-out for a chance of paying him back in his own coin. Two servants of Géronte, the Croesus of the neighbourhood, appear in search of a doctor to cure their master's daughter Lucinde, who pretends to be dumb in order to avoid a marriage she dislikes. Martine sends them to the place where her husband is at work, telling them that they will find him an able doctor. She adds that he has one peculiarity, namely, that he will not own to his profession unless he is soundly thrashed. Under the convincing arguments of the two men, Sganarelle admits that he is a doctor, and follows them to their master's house. Léandre, Lucinde's lover, persuades Sganarelle to smuggle him into the house as an apothecary. The two young people with Sganarelle's help contrive an elopement, but when the marriage is discovered, Géronte visits his wrath upon the mock doctor, and is only pacified by the news that Léandre has just inherited a fortune.
The year 1859 saw the production of 'Faust,' the opera with which Gounod's name is principally associated. The libretto, by MM. Barbier and Carré does not of course claim to represent Goethe's play in any way. The authors had little pretension to literary skill, but they knew their business thoroughly. They fastened upon the episode of Gretchen, and threw all the rest overboard. The result was a well-constructed and thoroughly comprehensible libretto, with plenty of love-making and floods of cheap sentiment, but as different in atmosphere and suggestion from Goethe's mighty drama as could well be imagined.
The first act shows us Faust as an old man, sitting in his study weary and disappointed. He is about to end his troubles and uncertainty in death, when an Easter hymn sung in the distance by a chorus of villagers seems to bid him stay his hand. With a quick revulsion of feeling he calls on the powers below, and, rather to his surprise, Mephistopheles promptly appears. In exchange for his soul, the devil offers him youth, beauty, and love, and, as an earnest of what is to come, shows him a vision of the gentle Margaret sitting at her spinning wheel. Faust is enraptured, hastily signs the contract, and hurries away with his attendant fiend.
The next act is taken up with a Kermesse in the market-place of a country town. Valentine, the brother of Margaret, departs for the wars, after confiding his sister to the care of his friend Siebel. During a pause in the dances Faust salutes Margaret for the first time as she returns from church. The third act takes place in Margaret's garden. Faust and Mephistopheles enter secretly, and deposit a casket of jewels upon the doorstep. Margaret, woman-like, is won by their beauty, and cannot resist putting them on. Faust finds her thus adorned, and wooes her passionately, while Mephistopheles undertakes to keep Dame Martha, her companion, out of the way. The act ends by Margaret yielding to Faust's prayers and entreaties. In the fourth act Margaret is left disconsolate. Faust has deserted her, and Valentine comes home to find his sister's love-affair the scandal of the town. He fights a duel with Faust, whom he finds lurking under his sister's window, and dies cursing Margaret with his last breath. During this act occurs the church scene, which is sometimes performed after Valentine's death and sometimes before it. Margaret is kneeling in the shadowy minster, striving to pray, but the voice of conscience stifles her half-formed utterances. In Gounod's libretto, the intangible reproaches which Margaret addresses to herself are materialised in the form of Mephistopheles, a proceeding which is both meaningless and inartistic, though perhaps dramatically unavoidable. In the,' last act, after a short scene on the Brocken and a conventional ballet, which are rarely performed in England, we are taken to the prison where Margaret lies condemned to death for the murder of her child. Faust is introduced by the aid of Mephistopheles, and tries to persuade her to fly with him. Weak and wandering though she is, she refuses, and dies to the chant of an angelic choir, while Faust is dragged down to the abyss by Mephistopheles. Gounod's music struggles nobly with the tawdriness and sentimentality of the libretto. A good deal of the first and last acts is commonplace and conventional, but the other three contain beauties of a high order. The life and gaiety of the Kermesse scene in the second act, the sonorous dignity of Valentine's invocation of the cross, and the tender grace of Faust's salutation—the last a passage which might have been written by Mozart—are too familiar to need more than a passing reference. In the fourth act also there is much noble music. Gounod may be forgiven even for the soldiers' chorus, in consideration of the masculine vigour of the duel terzetto—a purified reminiscence of Meyerbeer—and the impressive church scene. But the most characteristic part of the work is, after all, the love music in the third act. The dreamy languor which pervades the scene, the cloying sweetness of the harmonies, the melting beauty of the orchestration, all combine to produce an effect; which was at that time entirely new to opera, and had no little share in forming the modern school. With all his admiration of Mozart, Gounod possessed little of his idol's genius for characterisation. The types in 'Faust' do not stand out clearly. Margaret, for instance, is merely a sentimental school-girl; she has none of the girlish freshness and innocence of Goethe's Gretchen, and Mephistopheles is much more of a tavern bully than a fallen angel. Yet with all its faults 'Faust' remains a work of a high order of beauty. Every page of the score tells of a striving after a lofty ideal, and though as regards actual form Gounod made no attempt to break new ground, the aim and atmosphere of 'Faust,' no less than the details of its construction, contrast so strongly with the conventional Italianism of the day, that it may well be regarded as the inauguration of a new era in French music.
'Faust' marks the zenith of Gounod's career. After 1859 he was content for the most part merely to repeat the ideas already expressed in his chef-d'oevre, while in form his later works show a distinctly retrograde movement. He seems to have known nothing of the inward impulse of development which led Wagner and Verdi from strength to strength.
Philémon et Baucis' (1860) is a charming modernisation of a classical legend. Jupiter and Vulcan, visiting earth for the purpose of punishing the impiety of the Phrygians, are driven by a storm to take refuge in the cottage of an aged couple, Philémon and Baucis. Pleased with the hospitable treatment which he receives at their hands, and touched by the mutual affection of the old people, which time has done nothing to impair, Jupiter restores their lost youth to them. This leads to dangerous complications. The rejuvenated Baucis is so exceedingly attractive that Jupiter himself falls a victim to her charms, and Philémon becomes jealous and quarrelsome. Baucis finally persuades Jupiter to promise her whatever she wishes, and having extorted the oath compels him to return to Olympus, leaving Philémon and herself to enjoy another lifetime of uninterrupted happiness. 'Philémon et Baucis' adheres strictly to the conventional lines of opéra comique, and has little beyond its tuneful grace and delicate orchestration to recommend it. Nevertheless it is a charming trifle, and has survived many of Gounod's more pretentious works. 'La Reine de Saba' (1862) and 'La Colombe' (1866) are now forgotten, but 'Mireille' (1864), one of the composer's most delightful works, still enjoys a high degree of popularity. The story, which is founded upon Mistral's Provençal romance 'Miréio,' is transparently simple. Vincent, a young basket-maker, loves the fair Mireille, who is the daughter of a rich farmer named Raymond. Raymond will have nothing to say to so humble a suitor, and favours the pretensions of Ourrias, a herdsman. While making a pilgrimage to a church in the desert of Crau, Mireille has a sunstroke, and her life is despaired of. In an access of grief and remorse her father promises to revoke his dismissal of Vincent, whereupon Mireille speedily recovers and is united to her lover. Gounod's music seems to have borrowed the warm colouring of the Provençal poet's romance. 'Mireille' glows with the life and sunlight of the south. There is little attempt at dramatic force in it, and the one scene in which the note of pathos is attempted is perhaps the least successful in the whole opera. But the lighter portions of the work are irresistible. 'Mireille' has much of the charm of Daudet's Provençal stories, the charm of warmth and colour, independent of subject. More than one version of the opera exists. That which is now most usually played is in three acts. In the first version of the work there is a curious scene, in which Ourrias is drowned by a spectral ferryman in the waters of the Rhone, but this is now rarely performed.
In 1869 was produced 'Roméo et Juliette,' an opera which, in the estimation of the majority of Gounod's admirers, ranks next to 'Faust' in the catalogue of his works. The libretto, apart from one or two concessions to operatic convention, is a fair piece of work, and at any rate compares favourably with the parodies of Shakespeare which so often do duty for libretti. The opening scene shows the ball in Capulet's house and the first meeting of the lovers. The second act is the balcony scene. The third includes the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Friar Laurence's cell, with the duels in the streets of Verona, the death of Mercutio, and the banishment of Romeo. The fourth act opens with the parting of the lovers in Juliet's chamber, and ends with Friar Laurence giving Juliet the potion. The last act, after an elaborate orchestral movement describing the sleep of Juliet, takes place in the tomb of the Capulets. MM. Barbier and Carré could not resist an opportunity of improving upon Shakespeare, and prolonged Romeo's death agony, in order to enable him to join in a final duet with Juliet.
The composer of the third act of 'Faust' could hardly fail to be attracted by 'Romeo and Juliet.' Nevertheless Gounod was too pronounced a mannerist to do justice to Shakespeare's immortal love-story. He is, of all modern composers, the one whose method varies least, and throughout 'Roméo et Juliette' he does little more than repeal in an attenuated form the ideas already used in 'Faust.' Yet there are passages in the opera which stand out in salient contrast to the monotony of the whole, such as the exquisite setting of Juliet's speech in the balcony scene, beginning—
which conveys something more than an echo of the virginal innocence and complete self-abandonment of Shakespeare's lines, or the more commonplace but still beautiful passage at the close of the act; suggested by Romeo's line—
The duel scene is vigorous and effective, and the song allotted to Romeo's page—an impertinent insertion of the librettists—is intrinsically delightful. It is typical of the musician that he should put forth his full powers in the chamber duet, while he actually omits the potion scene altogether, which is the legitimate climax of the act. In the original version of the opera there was a commonplace cavatina allotted to Juliet at this point, set to words which had but a remote connection with Shakespeare's immortal lines, but it was so completely unworthy of the situation that it was usually omitted, and when the opera was revised for production at the Grand Opéra in 1888, Gounod thought it wiser to end the act with the Friar's discourse to Juliet, rather than attempt once more to do justice to a scene which he knew to be beyond his powers. The last act is perhaps the weakest part of the opera. MM. Barbier and Carré's version of Shakespeare's magnificent poetry is certainly not inspiring; but in any case it is difficult to believe that Gounod's suave talent could have done justice to the piteous tragedy of that terrible scene. Gounod's last three operas did not add to his reputation. 'Cinq Mars' (1877) made little impression when it was first produced, but it has recently been performed by the Carl Rosa Company in English with some success. The libretto is a poor one. It deals in conventional fashion with the conspiracy of Cinq Mars against Richelieu, but the incidents are not well arranged and the characters are the merest shadows. Much of the music is tuneful and attractive, though cast in a stiff and old-fashioned form, and the masque music in the second act is as fresh and melodious as anything Gounod ever wrote. In 'Polyeucte' (1878) he attempted a style of severe simplicity in fancied keeping with Corneille's tragedy. There are some noble pages in the work, but as a whole it is distressingly dull, and 'Le Tribut de Zamora' (1881) was also an emphatic failure.
Gounod's later works, as has already been pointed out, show a distinct falling off from the standard attained in 'Faust,' as regards form as well as in ideas. As he grew older he showed a stronger inclination to return to obsolete models. 'Le Tribut de Zamora' reproduces the type of opera which was popular in the days of Meyerbeer. It is cut up into airs and recitatives, and the accompaniment is sedulously subordinated to the voices. Without desiring to discredit the beauties of 'Mireille' or 'Roméo et Juliette,' one cannot help thinking that it would have been better for Gounod's reputation if he had written nothing for the stage after 'Faust.'
Very soon after its production Gounod's masterpiece began to exert a potent influence upon his contemporaries. One of the first French composers to admit its power was Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896). Thomas was an older man than Gounod, and had already written much for the stage without achieving any very decisive success. He was a man of plastic mind, and was too apt to reproduce in his own music the form and even the ideas which happened to be popular at the time he wrote. Most of his early works are redolent of Auber or Halévy. Gounod's influence acted upon him like a charm, and in 'Mignon' (1866) he produced a work which, if not strictly original, has an element of personality too distinctive to be ignored.
If we can dismiss all thoughts of Goethe and his 'Wilhelm Meister' from our minds, it will be possible to pronounce MM. Barbier and Carré's libretto a creditable piece of work. Mignon is a child who was stolen in infancy by a band of gipsies. She travels with them from town to town, dancing in the streets to the delight of the crowd. One day in a German city she refuses to dance, and Jarno the gipsy chief threatens her with his whip. Wilhelm Meister, who happens to be passing, saves her from a beating, and, pitying the half-starved child, buys her from the gipsies. Among the spectators of this scene are Laertes, the manager of a troupe of strolling players, and Philine, his leading lady. Philine is an accomplished coquette, and determines to subjugate Wilhelm. In this she easily succeeds, and he joins the company as poet, proceeding with them to the Castle of Rosenberg, where a grand performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is to be given. Mignon, at her earnest request, accompanies him, disguised as a page. While at the castle Mignon is distracted by Wilhelm's infatuation for Philine, and when Wilhelm, prompted by Philine, tries to dismiss her, she puts on her old gipsy clothes and rushes away. Outside the walls of the castle she meets with an old half-witted harper, Lothario, who soothes the passion of her grief. In a moment of jealous fury at the thought of Philine she utters a wish that the castle were in flames. Lothario hears her words and proves his devotion by setting fire to the theatre while the performance is in progress. Mignon had been sent by Philine to fetch her bouquet from the green-room. The fire breaks out while the unfortunate girl is in the building, and she is given up for lost, but is saved by Wilhelm. The last act takes place in Italy. Mignon's devotion has won Willielm's heart, and the opera ends by the discovery that she is the long-lost daughter of Lothario, who is actually the Count of Cipriani, but after the disappearance of his daughter had lost his reason, and wandered forth in the guise of a harper to search for her. The score of 'Mignon' reveals the hand of a sensitive and refined artist upon every page. It has no claims to greatness, and few to real originality, but it is full of graceful melody, and is put together with a complete knowledge of stage effect.
Thomas's 'Hamlet' (1868) is accepted as a masterpiece in Paris, where the absurdities of the libretto are either ignored or condoned. In England Shakespeare's tragedy is fortunately so familiar that such a ridiculous parody of it as MM. Barbier and Carré's libretto has not been found endurable. Much of Thomas's music is grandiose rather than grand, but in the less exacting scenes there is not a little of the plaintive charm of 'Mignon,' Ophelia's mad scene, which occupies most of the last act, is dramatically ludicrous, but the music is brilliant and captivating, and the ghost scene, earlier in the opera, is powerful and effective. Thomas employs several charming old Scandinavian tunes in the course of the work, which give a clever tinge of local colour to the score.
With Bizet (1838-1875), the influence of Wagner is felt in French music for the first time. 'Les Pêcheurs de Perles' (1863), his first work, follows traditional models pretty closely for the most part, and though containing music of charm and originality, does not, of course, represent Bizet's genius in its most characteristic aspects. It tells the story of the love of two Cingalese pearl-fishers for the priestess Leila. There are only three characters in the piece, and very little incident. The score owes a good deal to Félicien David's 'Le Désert,' but there is a dramatic force about several scenes which foreshadows the power and variety of 'Carmen.' 'La Jolie Fille de Perth' (1867), is to a great extent a tribute to the powerful influence of Verdi. It is a tuneful and effective work, but cannot be called an advance on 'Les Pêcheurs de Perles,' In 'Djamileh' (1872), we find the real Bizet for the first time. The story tells of the salvation of a world-wearied youth, who is won back to life by the love and devotion of his slave. It is a clever study in Oriental colour, but has little dramatic value, though it was thought very advanced at the time of its production. In 1875, the year of Bizet's death, 'Carmen' was produced. The libretto is founded upon Mérimée's famous novel. Carmen, a sensual and passionate gipsy girl, is arrested for stabbing one of her comrades in a cigarette manufactory at Seville. She exercises all her powers of fascination upon the soldier, José by name, who is told off to guard her, and succeeds in persuading him to connive at her escape. For this offence he is imprisoned for a month, but Carmen contrives to communicate with him in gaol, and at the expiration of his sentence he meets her once more in an inn at the outskirts of the town. The passionate animalism of the gipsy completely captivates him, and forgetting Micaëla, the country damsel to whom he is betrothed, he yields himself entirely to Carmen's fascinations. He quarrels with one of his officers about her, and to escape punishment flies with Carmen to join a band of smugglers in the mountains. Carmen's capricious affection for José soon dies out, and she transfers her allegiance to the bull-fighter Escamillo, who follows her to the smugglers' lair, and is nearly killed by the infuriated José. Micaëla also finds her way up to the camp, and persuades José to go home with her and tend the last moments of his dying mother. The last act takes place outside the Plaza de Toros at Seville. José has returned to plead once more with Carmen, but her love has grown cold and she rejects him disdainfully. After a scene of bitter recrimination he kills her, while the shouts of the people inside the arena acclaim the triumph of Escamillo. 'Carmen' was coldly received at first. Its passionate force was miscalled brutality, and the suspicion of German influence which Bizet's clever use of guiding themes excited, was in itself enough to alienate the sympathies of the average Frenchman in the early seventies. Since its production 'Carmen' has gradually advanced in general estimation, and is now one of the most popular operas in the modern repertory. It is unnecessary to do more than allude to its many beauties, the nervous energy of the more declamatory parts, the brilliant and expressive orchestration, the extraordinarily clever use of Spanish rhythms, and the finished musicianship displayed upon every page of the score. The catalogue of Bizet's works is completed by 'Don Procopio,' an imitation of Italian opera buffa dating from his student days in Rome. It was unearthed and produced at Monte Carlo in 1906. It is a bright and lively little work, but has no pretensions to original value. Bizet's early death deprived the French school of one of its brightest ornaments. To him is largely due the development of opéra comique which has taken place within the last twenty years, a development which has taken it almost to the confines of grand opera.
Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), though German by birth, may fitly be mentioned here, since the greater part of his life was spent in Paris, and his music was more typically French than that of any of his Gallic rivals. His innumerable opéras bouffes scarcely come within the scope of this work, but his posthumous opéra comique, 'Les Contes d'Hoffman (1881), is decidedly more ambitious in scope, and still holds the stage by virtue of its piquant melody and clever musicianship. In Germany, where 'Les Contes d' Hoffmann' is still very popular under the name of 'Hoffmann's Erzählungen,' it is usually performed in a revised version, which differs considerably from the French original as regards plot and dialogue, though the music is practically the same. Hoffmann, the famous story-teller, is the hero of the opera, which, after a prologue in a typically German beer-cellar, follows his adventures through three scenes, each founded upon one of his famous tales. In the first we see him fascinated by the mechanical doll Olympia, in the second he is at the feet of the Venetian courtesan Giulietta, while in the third we assist at his futile endeavours to save the youthful singer Antonia from the clutches of the mysterious Dr. Miracle.
The career of César Franck (1822-1890), offers a striking contrast to that of his famous contemporary Gounod. Fame came betimes to Gounod. While he was still a young man his reputation was European. He wrote his masterpiece at forty, and lived on its success for the remaining thirty years of his life. Since his death his fame has sadly shrunk, and even 'Faust' is beginning to 'date' unmistakably. The name of César Franck, on the other hand, until his death was hardly known beyond a narrow circle of pupils, but during the last fifteen years his reputation has advanced by leaps and bounds. At the present moment there is hardly a musician in Paris who would not call him the greatest French composer— he was a Belgian by birth, but what of that?—of the nineteenth century. His fame was won in the concert-room rather than in the theatre, but the day may yet come when his 'Hulda' will be a familiar work to opera-goers. It was produced in 1894 at Monte Carlo, but, in spite of the deep impression which it created, has not yet been heard in Paris. The action passes in Norway in the times of the Vikings. Hulda is carried off by a band of marauders, whose chief she is compelled to wed. She loves Eyolf, another Viking, and persuades him to murder her husband. After a time he proves faithless to her, whereupon she kills him and throws herself into the sea. This gloomy tale is illustrated by music of extraordinary power and beauty. Although Franck only avails himself of guiding themes to a limited extent, in mastery of the polyphonic style his work will compare with Wagner's most elaborate scores. In fact, the opulence of orchestral resource and the virility of inspiration displayed in 'Hulda' strikingly recall the beauties of 'Tristan und Isolde.' 'Ghiselle,' a work left unfinished by the composer and completed by several of his pupils, was produced in 1896 at Monte Carlo. Although by no means upon the same level as 'Hulda,' 'Ghiselle' also contains much fine music, and will doubtless be heard of again.
Léo Delibes (1836-1891) made no pretensions to the dignity and solidity of César Franck's style. He shone principally in ballet-music, but 'Lakmé' (1883), his best-known opera, is a work of much charm and tenderness. It tells the story of a Hindoo damsel who loves an English officer. Her father, a priest, discovering the state of her affections, tries to assassinate the Englishman, but Lakmé saves his life, and conveys him to a place of concealment in the jungle. There she find that his heart is set upon a beautiful English 'miss,' and, in despair, poisons herself with the flowers of the Datura. Delibes's music never rises to passion, but it is unfailingly tender and graceful, and is scored with consummate dexterity. He has a pretty feeling too for local colour, and the scene in Lakmé's garden is full of a dreamy sensuous charm. 'Le Roi l'a dit' (1873) is a dainty little work upon an old French subject, as graceful and fragile as a piece of Sèvres porcelain. 'Kassya,' which the composer left unfinished, was orchestrated by Massenet, and produced in 1893. In this work Delibes attempted a tragic story to which his delicate talent was ill suited, and the opera achieved little success. Delibes is a typically French musician. Slight as his works often are, the exquisite skill of the workmanship saves them from triviality. He made no pretensions to advanced views, and though he occasionally trifles with guiding themes, the interest of his works rests almost entirely upon his dainty vein of melody and the finish of his orchestration.
With Delibes may be classed Ferdinand Poise (1828-1892), a composer who made a speciality of operas founded upon the comedies of Molière and his contemporaries, and Ernest Guiraud (1837 - 1892), whose 'Piccolino' (1876) is one of the daintiest of modern comic operas. His 'Frédégonde,' produced in Paris in 1895, proved emphatically that his talent did not lie in the direction of grand opera. Edouard Lalo (1823-1892), a composer of no little charm and resource, owes his fame chiefly to 'Le Roi d'Ys,' which was successfully produced at the Opéra Comique in 1888, and was played in London in 1901. It is a gloomy story, founded upon a Breton legend. Margared and Rozenn, the two daughters of the King of Ys, both love the warrior Mylio, but Mylio's heart is given to Rozenn. The slighted Margared in revenge betrays her father's city to Karnac, the defeated enemy of her country, giving him the keys of the sluices which protect the town from the sea. Karnac opens the sluices and the tide rushes in. The town and its people are on the point of being overwhelmed, when Margared, stricken by remorse, throws herself into the waters. St. Corentin, the patron saint of Ys, accepts the sacrifice, and the sea retires. 'Le Roi d'Ys' is an excellent specimen of the kind of opera which French composers of the second rank used to write before the sun of Wagner dawned upon their horizon. It is redolent of Meyerbeer and Gounod, and though some of the scenes are not without vigour, it is impossible to avoid feeling that in 'Le Roi d'Ys' Lalo was forcing a graceful and delicate talent into an uncongenial groove. He is at his best in the lighter parts of the work, such as the pretty scene of Rozenn's wedding, which is perfectly charming. Emmanuel Chabrier (1842-1894), after writing a comic opera of thoroughly Gallic verve and grace, 'Le Roi malgré lui,' announced himself as a staunch adherent of Wagner in the interesting but unequal 'Gwendoline,' which was performed at Brussels in 1886. Benjamin Godard (1849-1895), one of the most prolific of modern composers, won no theatrical success until the production of 'La Vivandière' (1895), an attractive work constructed upon conventional lines, in which the banality of the material employed is often redeemed by clever treatment. Emile Paladilhe won a brilliant success in 1886 with 'Patrie,' and among other meritorious composers of what may be called the pre-Wagnerian type are Victorin Joncières (1839-1903) and Thodéore Dubois.
Of living French composers Camille Saint Saëns is the unquestioned head, but he is known to fame principally by his successes in the concert-room. Many of his operas achieved only succès d'estime, though not one of them is without beauty of a high order. Over 'La Princesse Jaune' (1872) and 'Le Timbre d' Argent' (1877) there is no need to linger. 'Samson et Dalila,' his first work of importance, was produced at Weimar in 1877, but, in spite of its success there and in other German towns, did not find its way on to a Parisian stage until 1890. The libretto follows the Biblical narrative with tolerable fidelity. In the first act, Samson rouses the Israelites to arms, kills the Philistine leader and disperses their army. In the second he visits Dalila in the Vale of Sorek, tells her the secret of his strength, and is betrayed into the hands of the Philistines. The third act shows Samson, blind and in chains, grinding at a mill. The scene afterwards changes to the temple of Dagon, where a magnificent festival is in progress. Samson is summoned to make sport for the Philistine lords, and the act ends with the destruction of the temple, and the massacre of the Philistines. Saint Saëns is the Proteus of modern music, and his scores generally reveal the traces of many opposing influences. The earlier scenes of 'Samson et Dalila' are conceived in the spirit of oratorio, and the choral writing, which is unusually solid and dignified, often recalls the massive style of Handel. In the second act he exhausts the resources of modern passion and colour, and in the Philistine revels of the third act he makes brilliant and judicious use of Oriental rhythms and intervals. Guiding themes are used in the opera, but not to any important extent, and the construction of the score owes very little to Wagner. Yet though the main outlines of the work adhere somewhat closely to a type which is now no longer popular, there is little fear of 'Samson et Dalila' becoming old-fashioned. The exquisite melody with which it overflows, combined with the inimitable art of the orchestration, make it one of the most important and attractive works of the modern French school. 'Étienne Marcel' (1879) and 'Proserpine' (1887) must be classed among Saint Saëns's failures, but 'Henry VIII.' is a work of high interest, which, though produced so long ago as 1883, is still popular in Paris. The action of the piece begins at the time when Henry is first smitten with the charms of Anne Boleyn, who for his sake neglects her former admirer, Don Gomez, the Spanish Ambassador. Negotiations regarding the King's divorce with Catherine of Aragon are set on foot, and, when the Pope refuses to sanction it, Henry proclaims England independent of the Roman Church, amidst the acclamations of the people. In the last act Anne is queen. Catherine, who is at the point of death, has in her possession a compromising letter from Anne to Don Gomez. Henry is devoured by jealousy, and comes, accompanied by Don Gomez, to try to obtain possession of the incriminating document. Anne comes also for the same purpose. This is the strongest scene in the opera. Henry, in order to incite Catherine to revenge, speaks to Anne in his tenderest tones, but the divorced queen rises to the occasion. Praying for strength to resist the temptation, she throws the letter into the fire and falls down dead.
Saint Saëns has treated this scene with uncommon variety and force, and indeed the whole opera is a masterly piece of writing. He uses guiding themes with more freedom than in 'Samson et Dalila,' but the general outline of 'Henry VIII.' is certainly not Wagnerian in type. The same may be said of 'Ascanio,' a work produced in 1890, with only partial success. 'Phryné,' which was given at the Opéra Comique in 1893, is on a much less elaborate scale. It is a musicianly little work, but in form follows the traditions of the older school of opéra comique with almost exaggerated fidelity. 'Les Barbares' (1901), a story of the Teutonic invasion of Gaul, did not enhance the composer's reputation. The plot is of a well-worn kind. Marcomir, the leader of the barbarian invaders, is subjugated by the charms of the priestess Floria, who, after the requisite amount of hesitation, falls duly into his arms. Finally Marcomir is stabbed by Livia, whose husband he had killed in battle. Saint Saëns's music is admirable from the point of view of workmanship, but it is singularly devoid of anything like inspiration. 'Les Barbares' was received with all the respect due to a work from the pen of the leading musician of modern France, but it would be useless to pretend that it is likely to keep its place in the current repertory.
'Hélène' (1904) is a more favourable example of Saint Saëns's many-sided talent. The libretto, which is the work of the composer himself, deals with the flight of Helen and Paris from Sparta, and the greater part of the one act of which the opera consists is devoted to an impassioned duet between the lovers. The apparitions of Venus and Pallas, the one urging Helen upon her purposed flight, the other dissuading her from it, give variety to the action, but the work as a whole lacks dramatic intensity, though it rises to a climax of some power. Saint Saëns's music is interesting and musicianly from first to last. Like Berlioz in his 'Prise de Troie' he has plainly gone to Gluck for his inspiration, and in its sobriety and breadth of design no less than in its classic dignity of melody and orchestration, his music often recalls the style of the mighty composer of 'Alceste.'
Saint Saëns's latest opera, 'L'Ancêtre' (1906), has not added materially to his reputation. It is a gloomy and, to tell the truth, somewhat conventional story of a Corsican vendetta. The instrumental part of the work is treated in masterly fashion, but the opera as a whole met with little favour at its production at Monte Carlo, and it has not been performed elsewhere.
Saint Saëns's theory of opera has been to combine song, declamation, and symphony in equal proportions, and thus, though he has written works which cannot fail to charm, he seems often to have fallen foul of both camps in the world of music. The Wagnerians object to the set form of his works, and the reactionaries condemn the prominence which he often gives to the declamatory and symphonic portions of his score. He is by nature a thorough eclectic, and his works possess a deep interest for musicians, but it may be doubted whether, in opera at any rate, a more masterful personality is not necessary to produce work of really permanent value.
To Ernest Reyer success came late. The beauties of his early works, 'Érostrate' (1852) and 'La Statue' (1861), were well known to musicians; but not until the production of 'Sigurd' in 1884 did he gain the ear of the public. Sigurd is the same person as Siegfried, and the plot of Reyer's opera is drawn from the same source as that of 'Götterdämmerung.' Hilda, the youthful sister of Gunther, the king of the Burgundians, loves the hero Sigurd, and at the instigation of her nurse gives him a magic potion, which brings him to her feet. Sigurd, Gunther, and Hagen then swear fealty to each other and start for Iceland, where Brunehild lies asleep upon a lofty rock, surrounded by a circle of fire. There Sigurd, to earn the hand of Hilda, passes through the flames and wins Brunehild for Gunther. His face is closely hidden by his visor, and Brunehild in all innocence accepts Gunther as her saviour, and gives herself to him. The secret is afterwards disclosed by Hilda in a fit of jealous rage, whereupon Brunehild releases Sigurd from the enchantment of the potion. He recognises her as the bride ordained for him by the gods, but before he can taste his new-found happiness he is treacherously slain by Hagen, while by a mysterious sympathy Brunehild dies from the same stroke that has killed her lover. Although not produced until 1884, 'Sigurd' was written long before the first performance of 'Götterdämmerung,' but in any case no suspicion of plagiarism can attach to Reyer's choice of Wagner's subject. There is very little except the subject common to the two works. 'Sigurd' is a work of no little power and beauty, but it is conceived upon a totally different plan from that followed in Wagner's later works. Reyer uses guiding themes, often with admirable effect, but they do not form the foundation of his system. Vigorous and brilliant as his orchestral writing is, it is generally kept in subservience to the voices, and though in the more declamatory parts of the opera he writes with the utmost freedom, he has a lurking affection for four-bar rhythm, and many of the songs are conveniently detachable from the score. 'Sigurd' is animated throughout by a loftiness of design worthy of the sincerest praise. Reyer's melodic inspiration is not always of the highest, but he rarely sinks below a standard of dignified efficiency. In 'Salammbô,' a setting of Flaubert's famous romance which was produced at Brussels in 1890, he did not repeat the success of 'Sigurd.' 'Salammbô' is put together in a workmanlike way, but there is little genuine inspiration in the score. The local colour is not very effectively managed, and altogether the work is lacking in those qualities of brilliancy and picturesqueness which Flaubert's Carthaginian story seems to demand.
Reyer and Saint Saëns both show traces of the influence of Wagner, but though guiding themes are often employed with excellent effect in their works, the general outlines of their operas remain very much in accordance with the form handed down by Meyerbeer. Massenet, on the other hand, has drunk more deeply at the Bayreuth fountain. His early comic operas, 'La Grand' Tante' (1867) and 'Don César de Bazan' (1872) are purely French in inspiration, and even 'Le Roi de Lahore' (1877), his first great success, does not show any very important traces of German influence. Its success was largely due to the brilliant spectacle of the Indian Paradise in the third act. The score is rich in sensuous melody of the type which we associate principally with the name of Gounod, and the subtle beauties of the orchestration bear witness to the hand of a master.
In 'Hérodiade' (1881) the influence of Wagner becomes more noticeable, though it hardly amounts to more than an occasional trifling with guiding themes. The libretto is a version of the Biblical story of St. John the Baptist, considerably doctored to suit Parisian taste. When 'Hérodiade' was performed in London in 1904, under the title of 'Salome,' the names of some of the characters were altered and the scene of the story was transferred to Ethiopia, in order to satisfy the conscientious scruples of the Lord Chamberlain. Thus according to the newest version of Massenet's opera 'Jean' is a mysterious prophet—presumably a species of Mahdi—who makes his appearance at the court of Moriame, King of Ethiopia. He denounces the sins of Queen Hesatoade in no measured terms, but the latter cannot induce her husband to avenge her wrongs, since Moriame dare not venture for political reasons to proceed to extreme measures against so popular a character as Jean. Jean has an ardent disciple in Salome, a young lady whose position in Ethiopian society is not very clearly defined by the librettist, though in the end she turns out to be Hesatoade's long-lost daughter. Jean's regard for Salome is purely Platonic, but Moriame loves her passionately, and when he finds out that Jean is his rival he promptly orders him to prison where he is put to death after a passionate scene with Salome, who kills herself in despair. Massenet has taken full advantage of the passionate and voluptuous scenes of the libretto, which lend themselves well to his peculiar style. In certain scenes his treatment of guiding themes reaches an almost symphonic level, and the opera is throughout a singularly favourable specimen of his earlier manner. He has recently revised the score, and added a scene between the Queen and a Chaldean soothsayer, which is one of the most powerful in the opera.
'Manon,' which was first performed in 1884, shows perhaps no advance in the matter of form upon 'Hérodiade,' but the subject of the opera is so admirably suited to Massenet's tender and delicate talent that it remains one of his most completely successful works. The Abbé Prévost's famous romance had already been treated operatically by Auber, but his 'Manon Lescaut' was never really a success, and had been laid upon the shelf many years before Massenet took the story in hand.
The action of Massenet's opera begins in the courtyard of an inn at Amiens, where the Chevalier des Grieux happens to fall in with Manon Lescaut, who is being sent to a convent under the charge of her brother, a bibulous guardsman. Manon does not at all like the prospect of convent life, and eagerly agrees to Des Grieux's proposal to elope with him to Paris. The next act shows them in an apartment in Paris. Des Grieux has tried in vain to obtain his father's consent to his marriage, and the capricious Manon, finding that the modest style of their ménage hardly agrees with her ideas of comfort, listens to the advances made to her by a nobleman named Brétigny, and ends by conniving at a scheme, planned by the elder Des Grieux, for carrying off his son from his questionable surroundings. In the next act Manon is the mistress of Brétigny, feted and admired by all. During an entertainment at Cours-la-Reine, she overhears a conversation between Brétigny and the Count des Grieux, and learns from the latter that his son is a novice at Saint Sulpice. Seized by a sudden return of her old love, she hastens away to the seminary, and after a passionate interview persuades Des Grieux to come back once more to her arms. In the next act Manon beguiles Des Grieux to a gambling-house, where he quarrels with Guillot, one of her numerous admirers. The latter revenges himself by denouncing the place to the police, who effect a successful raid upon it and carry off Manon to St. Lazare. The last scene takes place upon the road to Havre. Manon, who is condemned to transportation, is passing by with a gang of criminals. Lescaut persuades the sergeant in charge to allow her an interview with Des Grieux. She is already exhausted by ill-treatment and fatigue, and dies in his arms. Massenet's dainty score reproduces the spirit of the eighteenth century with rare felicity. A note of genuine passion, too, is not wanting, and an ingenious use of guiding themes binds the score together into a harmonious whole. A novelty in its arrangement is the plan of an orchestral accompaniment to the dialogue. Æsthetically this is perhaps hardly defensible, but in several scenes—notably that of Cours-la-Reine, in which Manon's agitated interview with the Count stands out in forcible relief against the graceful background formed by a minuet heard in the distance—the result is completely successful. 'Le Cid' (1885) and 'Le Mage' (1891), two works produced at the Paris Opera, may be passed over as comparative failures, but 'Esclarmonde' (1889) marks an important stage in Massenet's career. The libretto is drawn from an old French romance. Esclarmonde, the Princess of Byzantium, who is a powerful enchantress, loves Roland, the French knight, and commands her minion spirits to guide him to a distant island, whither she transports herself every night to enjoy his company. He betrays the secret of their love, and thereby loses Esclarmonde, but by his victory in a tournament at Byzantium he regains her once more.
Massenet's music is a happy combination of Wagner's elaborate system of guiding themes with the sensuous beauty of which he himself possesses the secret. As regards the plan of 'Esclarmonde' his indebtedness to Wagner was so patent, that Parisian critics christened him 'Mlle. Wagner,' but nevertheless he succeeded in preserving his own individuality distinct from German influence. No one could mistake 'Esclarmonde' for the work of a German; in melodic structure and orchestral colouring it is French to the core.
'Werther' was written in 1886, though not actually produced until 1892, when it was given for the first time at Vienna. The plot of Goethe's famous novel is a rather slight foundation for a libretto, but the authors did their work neatly and successfully. In the first act Werther sees Charlotte cutting bread and butter for her little brothers and sisters, and falls in love with her. In the second, Charlotte, now married to Albert, finding that she cannot forget Werther and his passion, sends him from her side. He departs in despair, meditating suicide. In the last act Charlotte is still brooding over the forbidden love, and will not be comforted by the artless prattle of her sister Sophie. Werther suddenly returns, and after a passionate and tearful scene, extorts from Charlotte the confession that she loves him. He then borrows Albert's pistols, and shoots himself in his lodgings, where Charlotte finds him, and he breathes his last sigh in her arms. Though in tone and sentiment more akin to 'Manon,' in form 'Werther' resembles 'Esclarmonde.' It is constructed upon a basis of guiding themes, which are often employed with consummate skill. The uniform melancholy of the story makes the music slightly monotonous, and though the score cannot fail to delight musicians, it has hardly colour or variety enough to be generally popular. 'Le Portrait de Manon,' a delicate little sketch in one act, and 'Thaïs,' a clever setting of Anatole France's beautiful romance, both produced in 1894, will not be likely to add much to Massenet's reputation. 'La Navarraise,' produced during the same year in London, was apparently an attempt to imitate the melodramatic extravagance of Mascagni. The action takes place under the walls of Bilbao during the Carlist war. Anita loves Araquil, a Spanish soldier, but his father will not permit the marriage because of her poverty. Seeing that a reward is offered for the head of the Carlist general, Anita goes forth like a second Judith, trusting to her charms to win admittance to the hostile camp. She wins her reward, but Araquil, who is brought in from a battle mortally wounded, knowing the price at which it was won, thrusts her from him, and she sinks a gibbering maniac upon his corpse.
There is little in Massenet's score but firing of cannons and beating of drums. The musical interest centres in a charming duet in the opening scene, and a delicious instrumental nocturne. The action of the piece is breathless and vivid, and the music scarcely pretends to do more than furnish a suitable accompaniment to it. Of late years Massenet has confined himself principally to works of slight calibre, which have been on the whole more successful than many of his earlier and more ambitious efforts. 'Sapho' (1897), an operatic version of Daudet's famous novel, and 'Cendrillon' (1899), a charming fantasia on the old theme of Cinderella, both succeeded in hitting Parisian taste. No less fortunate was 'Grisélidis' (1901), a quasi-mediæval musical comedy, founded upon the legend of Patient Grizel, and touching the verge of pantomime in the characters of a comic Devil and his shrewish spouse. Of Massenet's later works none has been more successful than 'Le Jongleur de Notre Dame' (1902), which, besides winning the favour of Paris, has been performed at Covent Garden and in many German towns with much success. Here we find Massenet in a very different vein from that of 'Manon,' or indeed any of his earlier works. The voluptuous passion of his accustomed style is exchanged for the mystic raptures of monasticism. Cupid has doffed his bow and arrows and donned the conventual cowl. 'Le Jongleur' is an operatic version of one of the prettiest stories in Anatole France's 'Etui de Nacre.' Jean the juggler is persuaded by the Prior of the Abbey of Cluny to give up his godless life and turn monk. He enters the monastery, but ere long is distressed to find that while his brethren prove their devotion to the Blessed Virgin by their skill in the arts of painting, music and the like, he can give no outward sign of the faith that is in him. At last he bethinks him of his old craft. He steals into the chapel and performs before the image of Our Lady the homely antics which in old days delighted the country people at many a village fair. He is discovered by the Prior, who is preparing to denounce the sacrilege when the image comes to life and bends down to bless the poor juggler who has sunk exhausted on the steps of the altar. The Prior bows in awe before this manifestation of divine graciousness and the juggler dies in the odour of sanctity. Massenet's music catches the spirit of the story with admirable art. As regards melodic invention it is rather thin, but the workmanship is beyond praise. The opening scene at the village fair is appropriately bright and gay, but the best music comes in the second act where the monks are gathered together in the convent hall, each busied over his particular task. Here occurs the gem of the work, the Legend of the Sage-bush, which is sung to the juggler-monk by his good friend the convent cook. Rarely has Massenet written anything more delightful than this exquisite song, so fresh in its artful simplicity, so fragrant with the charm of mediæval monasticism.
Mention must be made, for the sake of completeness, of the performance at Nice in 1903 of Massenet's thirty—year—old oratorio, 'Marie Magdeleine,' in the guise of a 'drame lyrique.' French taste, it need hardly be said, is very different from English with regard to what should and should not be placed upon the stage, but once granted the permissibility of making Jesus Christ the protagonist of an opera, there is comparatively little in 'Marie Magdeleine' to offend religious susceptibilities. The work is divided into four scenes: a palm-girt well outside the city of Magdala, the house of Mary and Martha, Golgotha, and the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, where occurs what a noted French critic in writing about the first performance described as 'l'apparition très réussie de Jésus.'
In 'Chérubin' (1905) Massenet returned to his more familiar manner. The story pursues the adventures of Beaumarchais's too fascinating page after his disappearance from the scene of 'Le Mariage de Figaro.' What these adventures are it is needless to detail, save that they embrace a good deal of duelling and even more love-making. Massenet's music is as light as a feather. It ripples along in the daintiest fashion, sparkling with wit and gaiety, and if it leaves no very definite impression of originality, its craftsmanship is perfection itself. 'Ariane' (1906) is a far more serious affair. It is a return to the grander manner of 'Hérodiade' and 'Le Cid,' and proves conclusively that the musician's hand has not lost its cunning. Catulle Mendès's libretto is a clever embroidery of the world-old tale of Ariadne and Theseus, the figure of the gentle Ariadne being happily contrasted with that of the fiery and passionate Phædra, who succeeds her sister in the affections of the fickle Theseus. The death of Phædra, who is crushed by a statue of Adonis which she had insulted, is followed by a curious and striking scene in Hades, whither Ariadne descends in order to bring her sister back to the world of life. The opera, according to tradition, ends with the flight of Theseus and Phædra, while the deserted Ariadne finds death in the arms of the sirens, who tempt her to seek eternal rest in the depths of the sea. Massenet's music is conspicuous for anything rather than novelty of invention or treatment, but though he is content to tread well-worn paths, he does so with all his old grace and distinction of manner, and many of the scenes in 'Ariane' are treated with an uncommon degree of spirit and energy.
Massenet's latest work, 'Thérèse' (1907), is a return to the breathless, palpitating style of 'La Navarraise.' It is a story of the revolution, high-strung and emotional. Thérèse is the wife of the Girondin Thorel, who has bought the castle of Clerval, in the hope of eventually restoring it to its former owner, Armand de Clerval. Armand returns in disguise, on his way to join the Royalists in Vendée. He and Thérèse were boy-and-girl lovers in old days, and their old passion revives. Armand entreats her to fly with him, which after the usual conflict of emotions she consents to do. But meanwhile Thorel, who has been amiably harbouring the émigré, is arrested and dragged to the scaffold. This brings about a change in Thérèse's feelings. She sends Armand about his business and throws in her lot with Thorel, defying the mob and presumably sharing her husband's fate. Massenet's music is to a certain extent thrust into the background by the exciting incidents of the plot. The cries of the crowd, the songs of the soldiers and the roll of the drums leave but little space for musical development. Still 'Thérèse' contains many passages of charming melody and grace, though it will certainly not rank among the composer's masterpieces, Massenet is one of the most interesting of modern French musicians. On the one hand, he traces his musical descent from Gounod, whose sensuous charm he has inherited to the full; on the other he has proved himself more susceptible to the influence of Wagner than any other French composer of his generation. The combination is extremely piquant, and it says much for Massenet's individuality that he has contrived to blend such differing elements into a fabric of undeniable beauty.
Alfred Bruneau is a composer whose works have excited perhaps more discussion than those of any living French composer. By critics who pretend to advanced views he has been greeted as the rightful successor of Wagner, while the conservative party in music have not hesitated to stigmatise him as a wearisome impostor. 'Kérim' (1887), his first work, passed almost unnoticed. 'Le Rêve,' an adaptation of Zola's novel, was produced in 1891 at the Opéra Comique, and in the same year was performed in London. The scene is laid in a French cathedral city. The period is that of the present day.
Angélique, the adopted child of a couple of old embroiderers, is a dreamer of dreams. All day she pores over the lives of the saints until the legends of their miracles and martyrdoms become living realities to her mind, and she hears their voices speaking to her in the silence of her chamber. She falls in love with a man who is at work upon the stained glass of the Cathedral windows. This turns out to be the son of the Bishop. The course of their love does not run smooth. The Bishop, in spite of the protestations of his son, refuses his consent to their marriage. Angélique pines away, and is lying at the point of death when the Bishop relents, and with a kiss of reconciliation restores her to life. She is married to her lover, but in the porch of the Cathedral dies from excess of happiness. The entire work is rigorously constructed upon Wagner's system of representative themes. Each act runs its course uninterruptedly without anything approaching a set piece. Two voices are rarely heard together, and then only in unison. So far Bruneau faithfully follows the system of Wagner. Where he differs from his master is in the result of his efforts; he has nothing of Wagner's feeling for melodic beauty, nothing of his mastery of orchestral resource, and very little of his musical skill. The melodies in 'Le Rêve'—save for an old French chanson, which is the gem of the work—are for the most part arid and inexpressive. Bruneau handles the orchestra like an amateur, and his attempts at polyphony are merely ridiculous. Yet in spite of all this, the vocal portions of the work follow the inflections of the human voice so faithfully as to convey a feeling of sincerity. Ugly and monotonous as much of 'Le Rêve' is, the music is alive. In its strange language it speaks with the accent of truth. Here at any rate are none of the worn-out formulas which have done duty for so many generations. In defence of Bruneau's work it may be urged that his dreary and featureless orchestration, so wholly lacking in colour and relief, may convey to some minds the cool grey atmosphere of the quiet old Cathedral town, and that much of the harshness and discordance of his score is, at all events, in keeping with the iron tyranny of the Bishop. 'Le Rêve' at any rate was not a work to be passed over in silence: it was intended to create discussion, and discussion it certainly created.
In 'L'Attaque du Moulin' (1893), another adaptation of Zola, Bruneau set himself a very different task. The contrast between the placid Cathedral close and the bloody terrors of the Franco-Prussian war was of the most startling description. 'L'Attaque du Moulin' opens with the festivities attendant upon the betrothal of Françoise, the miller's daughter, to Dominique, a young Fleming, who has taken up his quarters in the village. In the midst of the merry-making comes a drummer, who announces the declaration of war, and summons all the able-bodied men of the village to the frontier. In the second act, the dogs of war are loose. The French have been holding the mill against a detachment of Germans all day, but as night approaches they fall back upon the main body. Dominique, who is a famous marksman, has been helping to defend his future father-in-law's property. Scarcely have the French retired when a division of Germans appears in the courtyard of the mill. The captain notices that Dominique's hands are black with powder, and finding that, though a foreigner, he has been fighting for the French in defiance of the rules of war, orders him to be shot. By the help of Françoise, Dominique kills the sentinel who has been set to watch him, and escapes into the forest; but the German captain, suspecting that the miller and his daughter have had a hand in his escape, orders the old man to be shot in Dominique's place. Dominique creeps back in the grey dawn from the forest, and Françoise, torn by conflicting emotions, knows not whether she should wish him to stay and face his sentence or escape once more and leave her father to his fate. The miller determines to sacrifice himself for his daughter's lover, and by pretending that his sentence has been revoked induces Dominique to depart. The old man is shot by the Germans just as the French rush in triumphant with Dominique at their head.
'L'Attaque du Moulin' was received with more general favour than 'Le Rêve.' In it Bruneau shows an inclination to relax the stern principles of his former creed. The action is often interrupted by solos and duets of a type which approaches the conventional, though for the most part the opera follows the Wagnerian system. The result of this mixture of styles is unsatisfactory. 'L'Attaque du Moulin' has not the austere sincerity of 'Le Rêve,' and the attempts to bid for popular favour are not nearly popular enough to catch the general ear. Bruneau has little melodic inspiration, and when he tries to be tuneful he generally ends in being merely commonplace. The orchestral part of the opera, too, is far less satisfactory than in 'Le Rêve.' There, as has already been pointed out, the monotony and lack of colour were to a certain extent in keeping with the character of the work, but in 'L'Attaque du Moulin,' where all should be colour and variety, the dull and featureless orchestration is a serious blot. 'Messidor' (1897) and 'L'Ouragan' (1901) had very much the same reception as the composer's earlier operas. The compact little phalanx of his admirers greeted them with enthusiasm, but the general public remained cold. 'Messidor,' written to a prose libretto by Zola, is a curious mixture of socialism and symbolism. The foundation of the plot is a legend of the gold-bearing river Ariège, which is said to spring from a vast subterranean cathedral, where the infant Christ sits on his mother's lap playing with the sand which falls from his hands in streams of gold. Intertwined with this strange story is a tale of the conflict between a capitalist and the villagers whom his gold-sifting machinery has ruined. There are some fine moments in the drama, but the allegorical element which plays so large a part in it makes neither for perspicacity nor for popularity. 'L'Ouragan' is a gloomy story of love, jealousy, and revenge. The scene is laid among the fisher-folk of a wild coast—presumably Brittany—where the passions of the inhabitants seem to rival the tempests of their storm-beaten shores in power and intensity. It contains music finely imagined and finely wrought, and it is impossible not to feel that if Bruneau's sheer power of invention were commensurate with his earnestness and dramatic feeling he would rank very high among contemporary composers. In 'L'Enfant Roi' (1905), a 'comédie lyrique' dealing with bourgeois life in modern Paris, which plainly owed a good deal to Charpentier's 'Louise,' the composer essayed a lighter style with no very conspicuous success, but his latest work,'Naïs Micoulin' (1907), a Provençal tale of passion, revenge and devotion seems to contain more of the elements of lasting success.
Bruneau's later works can hardly be said to have fulfilled the promise of 'Le Rêve,' but they unquestionably show a fuller command of the resources of his art. He is a singular and striking figure in the world of modern music, and it is impossible to believe that he has spoken his last word as yet. His career will be watched with interest by all who are interested in the development of opera.
Of the younger men the most prominent are Vincent d'Indy, Gustave Charpentier, and Claude Debussy. Vincent d'Indy's 'Fervaal' was produced at Brussels in 1897 and was given in Paris shortly afterwards. It is a story of the Cevennes in heroic times, somewhat in the Wagnerian manner, and the music is defiantly Wagnerian from first to last Clever as 'Fervaal' unquestionably is, it is valuable less as a work of art than as an indication of the real bent of the composer's talent. The dramatic parts of the opera suggest nothing but a brilliant exercise in the Wagnerian style, but in the lyrica scenes, such as the last act in its entirety, there are evidences of an individuality of conspicuous power and originality. 'L'Étranger' (1903) hardly bore out the promise of 'Fervaal,' in spite of much clever musicianship. The plot is an adaptation of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, and the unmitigated gloom of the work prevented it from winning the degree of favour to which its many merits entitled it. Gustave Charpentier's 'Louise,' produced in 1900, hit the taste of the Parisian public immediately and decisively. It tells the story of the loves of Louise, a Montmartre work-girl, and Julien, a poet of Bohemian tendencies. Louise's parents refuse their consent to the marriage, whereupon Louise quits her home and her work and follows Julien. Together they plunge into the whirl of Parisian life. Louise's mother appears, and persuades her daughter to come home and nurse her sick father. In the last act, the parents, having, as they think, snatched their child from destruction, do all in their power to keep her at home. At first she is resigned, but afterwards revolts, and the curtain falls as she rushes out to rejoin Julien with her father's curses ringing in her ears. The strongly marked Parisian flavour of the libretto ensured the success of 'Louise' in Paris, but the music counts for a good deal too. Charpentier owes much to Bruneau, but his music is more organic in quality, and his orchestration is infinitely superior. Nothing could be more brilliant than his translation into music of the sights and sounds of Parisian street life. The vocal parts of 'Louise' are often ugly and expressionless, but they are framed in an orchestral setting of curious alertness and vivacity. It remains to be seen how Charpentier's unquestionable talent will adapt itself to work of a wider scope than 'Louise.'
The fame of Claude Debussy is a plant of recent growth, and dates, so far as the general public is concerned, from the production of his 'Pelléas et Mélisande' in 1902, though for some years before he had been the idol of an intimate circle of adorers. 'Pelléas et Mélisande' is founded upon Maeterlinck's play of that name, the action of which it follows closely, but not closely enough, it seems, to please the poet, who publicly dissociated himself from the production of Debussy's opera and, metaphorically speaking, cursed it root and branch. Golaud, the son of King Arkel, wandering in the wood finds the damsel Mélisande sitting by a fountain. He falls in love with her and carries her back to the castle as his wife. At the castle dwells also Pelléas, Golaud's brother, whose growing love for Mélisande is traced through a succession of interviews. In the end, Golaud kills the lovers after a striking scene in which, as he stands beneath the window of the room in which Pelléas and Mélisande have secretly met, he is told what is passing within by a child whom he holds in his arms. The story is of course merely that of Paolo and Francesca retold, but placed in very different surroundings and accompanied by music that certainly could never have been written by an Italian, of Dante's or any other time.
Debussy has aimed at creating a musical equivalent for the Maeterlinck 'atmosphere,' The score of 'Pelléas et Mélisande' is a pure piece of musical impressionism, an experiment in musical pioneering the value of which it is difficult to judge offhand. He has wilfully abjured melody of any accepted kind and harmony conforming to any established tradition. His music moves in a world of its own, a dream-world of neutral tints, shadowy figures, and spectral passions. The dreamy unreality of the tale is mirrored in the vague floating discords of the music, and whatever the critics may say the effect is singularly striking and persuasive. At present there are no rumours of a successor to 'Pelléas et Mélisande,' but whatever the future of Debussy may be, he at any rate deserves the credit of striking a note entirely new to the history of music.
There are many other living French composers who, if not destined to revolutionise the world of opera, have already done admirable work, and may yet win a more than local reputation. Charles Marie Widor has recently in 'Les Pêcheurs de Saint Jean' (1905) given a worthy success to his twenty-year-old 'Maître Ambros.' Navier Leroux, a pupil of Massenet, has carried on his master's traditions, somewhat Wagnerised and generally speaking brought up to date, in 'Astarté' (1900), 'La Reine Fiammette' (1903), 'William Ratcliff' (1906), and 'Théodora' (1907). Remarkable promise has been shown by Paul Dukas in 'Ariane et Barbe-Bleue' (1907); by Camille d'Erlanger in 'Le Fils de l'Étoile' (1904) and 'Aphrodite' (1906); by Georges Marty in 'Daria' (1905); by Georges Hüe in 'Titania' (1903), and by Gabriel Dupont in 'La Cabrera (1905), while a characteristic note of tender sentiment was struck by Reynaldo Hahn in 'La Carmélite' (1902).
André Messager's name is chiefly associated in England with work of a lighter character, but it must not be forgotten that he is the composer of two of the most charming opéras comiques of modern times, 'La Basoche' (1890) and 'Madame Chrysanthème' (1893).
This is perhaps the most convenient place to refer to the remarkable success recently achieved by the Flemish composer Jan Blockx, whose 'Herbergprinses,' originally produced at Antwerp in 1896, has been given in French as 'Princesse d'Auberge' in Brussels and many French towns. The heroine is a kind of Flemish Carmen, a wicked siren named Rita, who seduces the poet Merlyn from his bride, and after dragging him to the depths of infamy and despair, dies in the end by his hand. The music, though not without a touch of coarseness, overflows with life and energy, and one scene in particular, that of a Flemish Kermesse, is masterly in its judicious and convincing use of local colour. Jan Blockx's later works, 'Thyl Uylenspiegel' (1900), 'De Bruid van der Zee' (1901) and 'De Kapelle' (1903) do not appear to have met with equal success. Another Belgian composer, Paul Gilson, has of late won more than local fame by his 'Princesse Rayon de Soleil,' produced at Brussels in 1905.
In modern times the stream of opéra comique has divided into two channels. The first, as we have seen, under the guidance of such men as Bizet, Delibes, and Massenet, has approached so near to the confines of grand opera, that it is often difficult to draw the line between the two genres The second, under the influence of Offenbach, Hervé, and Lecocq, has shrunk into opéra bouffe, a peculiarly Parisian product, which, though now for some reason under a cloud, has added sensibly to the gaiety of nations during the past thirty years. The productions of this school, though scarcely coming within the scope of the present work, are by no means to be despised from the merely musical point of view, and though the recent deaths of Audran, Planquette and other acknowledged masters of the genre have left serious gaps in the ranks of comic opera writers, there seems to be no valid reason for despairing of the future of so highly civilised and entertaining a form of musical art.
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