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- A Second Book Of Operas - 6/31 -

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 dramatic. For stage purposes the dramatists have associated the massacre of a mother and her seven sons and the martyrdom of the aged Eleazar, who caused the uprising of the Jews, with the family history of Judas himself. J. W. Franck produced "Die Maccabaische Mutter" in Hamburg in 1679, Ariosti composed "La Madre dei Maccabei" in 1704, Ignaz von Seyfried brought out "Die Makkabaer, oder Salmonaa" in 1818, and Rubinstein his opera in Berlin on April 17,1875.

The romantic career of Jephtha, a natural son, banished from home, chief of a band of roving marauders, mighty captain and ninth judge of Israel, might have fitted out many an opera text, irrespective of the pathetic story of the sacrifice of his daughter in obedience to a vow, though this episode springs first to mind when his name is mentioned, and has been the special subject of the Jephtha operas. An Italian composer named Pollarolo wrote a "Jefte" for Vienna in 1692; other operas dealing with the history are Rolle's "Mehala, die Tochter Jephthas" (1784), Meyerbeer's "Jephtha's Tochter" (Munich, 1813), Generali, "Il voto di Jefte" (1827), Sanpieri, "La Figlia di Jefte" (1872). Luis Cepeda produced a Spanish opera in Madrid in 1845, and a French opera, in five acts and a prologue, by Monteclaire, was prohibited, after one performance, by Cardinal de Noailles in 1832.

Judith, the widow of Manasseh, who delivered her native city of Bethulia from the Assyrian Holofernes, lulling him to sleep with her charms and then striking off his drunken head with a falchion, though an Apocryphal personage, is the most popular of Israelitish heroines. The record shows the operas "Judith und Holofernes" by Leopold Kotzeluch (1799), "Giuditta" by S. Levi (1844), Achille Peri (1860), Righi (1871), and Sarri (1875). Naumann wrote a "Judith" in 1858, Doppler another in 1870, and Alexander Seroff a Russian opera under the same title in 1863. Martin Roder, who used to live in Boston, composed a "Judith," but it was never performed, while George W. Chadwick's "Judith," half cantata, half opera, which might easily be fitted for the stage, has had to rest content with a concert performance at a Worcester (Mass.) festival.

The memory of Esther, the queen of Ahasuerus, who saved her people from massacre, is preserved and her deed celebrated by the Jews in their gracious festival of Purim. A gorgeous figure for the stage, she has been relegated to the oratorio platform since the end of the eighteenth century. Racine's tragedy "Athalie" has called out music from Abbe Vogler, Gossec, Boieldieu, Mendelssohn, and others, and a few oratorios, one by Handel, have been based on the story of the woman through whom idolatry was introduced into Judah; but I have no record of any Athalia opera.



I have a strong belief in the essential excellence of Biblical subjects for the purposes of the lyric drama--at least from an historical point of view. I can see no reason against but many reasons in favor of a return to the stage of the patriarchal and heroic figures of the people who are a more potent power in the world to-day, despite their dispersal and loss of national unity, than they were in the days of their political grandeur and glory. Throughout the greater part of his creative career Anton Rubinstein was the champion of a similar idea. Of the twenty works which he wrote for the theatre, including ballets, six were on Biblical subjects, and to promote a propaganda which began with the composition of "Der Thurmbau zu Babel," in 1870, he not only entered the literary field, but made personal appeal for practical assistance in both the Old World and the New. His, however, was a religious point of view, not the historical or political. It is very likely that a racial predilection had much to do with his attitude on the subject, but in his effort to bring religion into the service of the lyric stage he was no more Jew than Christian: the stories to which he applied his greatest energies were those of Moses and Christ.

Much against my inclination (for Rubinstein came into my intellectual life under circumstances and conditions which made him the strongest personal influence in music that I have ever felt), I have been compelled to believe that there were other reasons besides those which he gave for his championship of Biblical opera. Smaller men than he, since Wagner's death, have written trilogies and dreamed of theatres and festivals devoted to performances of their works. Little wonder if Rubinstein believed that he had created, or could create, a kind of art-work which should take place by the side of "Der Ring des Nibelungen," and have its special home like Bayreuth; and it may have been a belief that his project would excite the sympathetic zeal of the devout Jew and pious Christian alike, as much as his lack of the capacity for self-criticism, which led him like a will-o'-the-wisp along the path which led into the bogs of failure and disappointment.

While I was engaged in writing the programme book for the music festival given in New York in 1881, at which "The Tower of Babel" was performed in a truly magnificent manner, Dr. Leopold Damrosch, the conductor of the festival, told me that Rubinstein had told him that the impulse to use Biblical subjects in lyrical dramas had come to him while witnessing a ballet based on a Bible story many

A Second Book Of Operas - 6/31

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