About this Recording
8.223406-07 - WALLACE: Maritana [Opera] (RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Duinn)

William Vincent Wallace (1812–1865)


The most enduring operatic legacy from Victorian England remains the canon of comic masterpieces produced by William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan during the last quarter of the 19th century. But, wrapped around this period, there was a now largely forgotten school of Romantic English opera whose lifespan stretched from the mid-1830s through to the outbreak of World War I. Ironically, the foremost composers in the early decades of this period were two Irishmen, Michael William Balfe and William Vincent Wallace.

Maritana, which had a triumphant première at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 15th November, 1845, was both the first stage work composed by Waterford-born Wallace and the greatest achievement of his career, although he went on to write five further operas before his early death in 1865. The libretto, a poor thing by any standards, was the work of Edward Fitzball (with some help from the equally inept Alfred Bunn, who contributed the lyrics for “Scenes that are brightest” and “In happy moments”). Based on D’Ennery and Dumanoir’s play Don César de Bazan, it is nothing more than a hotch-potch of cardboard characters caught in improbable situations, noticeably the central device wherein the eponymous heroine, heavily veiled, is married to the about-to-be-executed Don Caesar. And if that sounds familiar, it is because W.S. Gilbert used the same scenario in The Yeomen of the Guard some 40 years later, causing Punch to sub-title that work The Merryman and his Maritana.

But the fictitious escapades of the intrepid Don and his winsome, if gullible, gypsy bride are as nothing compared to the real life happenings in the career of the peripatetic musician who set them to music. William Wallace (the Vincent was added when he converted to Catholicism in 1830) was born in Waterford on 11th March, 1812. His father, a Scottish-born regimental bandmaster, gave the young Wallace lessons in piano and clarinet and these were supplemented later by violin and organ studies. By the time he reached his late teens he was already an accomplished violinist and pianist in Dublin, where he played in the orchestra at the Theatre Royal. In 1830 he secured a post as church organist in Thurles where he met and married Isabella Kelly, with whom he settled in Dublin before emigrating to Australia in late 1835. Within five years, though, he deserted his family in Sydney and is said to have complemented his earnings from music with stints at, among other things, sheep farming and whale hunting before heading further afield. There are also tales of how he narrowly escaped being eaten by cannibals, was mauled by a tiger in India and caught in an earthquake in the South Seas. But these may well have been embellished by the imaginative Waterford man himself. What is not in dispute is the extent of his travels during those years, an odyssey which took him all the way from the Antipodes to South America.

Back in Europe for a period of composing, including the completion of the music for Maritana, some of which had been in gestation since his time in Tasmania, and the beginning of Lureline (eventually finished in 1860), he was threatened by blindness and sent by his doctor back to South America for treatment. The following year, having survived the attentions of the Inquisition in Mexico and a shipboard explosion on route to North America (more fanciful invention?), he reached New York. In 1850 he became an American citizen and, in the same year, bigamously married the 23-year-old pianist Helen Stoepel. Returning again to this side of the Atlantic he settled in London where he lived for another 20 years before ill health forced him to head for the Pyrenees, where he died in 1865.

After its initial triumph at Drury Lane, where it played for more than 50 consecutive performances, Maritana was quickly taken up by opera houses abroad. Dublin and Philadelphia heard it in 1846 and it reached New York and Vienna two years later. Twelve years after Wallace’s death, a Dublin revival was sung in Italian, with the obligatory recitatives composed by the Neapolitan writer and musicologist Severio Mattei. In this form that it was also heard at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1880 and, as recently as the early 1970s, with the recitatives back-translated into English, at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.

The opera continued to pull in the punters all through the remaining years of the 19th century and right into the 1920s and early '30s when, together with Balfe’s Bohemian Girl and Benedict’s Lily of Killarney, it formed a trio of inseparable works known collectively as The English Ring, which appellation must surely have been applied jocularly, if not derisively, for the three operas are light years removed from the four music dramas that make up Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring cycle. In fact, the only link, and it’s a tenuous one, is that two of the operas were by Irish-born composers and the third, written by German, has an Irish setting. If we are looking for similarities, they are to be found in certain elements they have in common, not only with each other but with the general run of “serious” English operas of their time: the plots are absurd, the characters two-dimensional and the versification risible, often sounding like bad translation rather than original English. But the tunes are marvellous; and this fund of bright melody was the real reason for their phenomenal popularity in their day.

The music is derivative, of course, Aficionados of early romantic opera playing ‘spot the source’ will find echoes of Auber, Weber, Marschner and Meyerbeer alongside the more obvious ottocento Italians. Not that this worried the original audiences. They liked their tunes short and sweet and preferably free of chromatic harmonies or heavy characterisation. And they weren’t content to just listen. Many a Victorian drawing room enjoyed the strains of “Scenes that are brightest”, “Alas, those chimes” and “Sainted Mother” warbled by aspiring sopranos and mezzos. Not to be outdone, the male contingent wooed with soft renderings of “In happy moments” and “There is a flower”, while the more adventurous thundered out “Yes, let me like a soldier fall”, unwritten high C and all!

The three operas continued to flourish up to the outbreak of the Great war. Even after they had disappeared from the world’s major opera stages, they remained in the repertories of touring companies in the English-speaking countries. In the early days of the Vic / Wells they were trotted out regularly on Saturday nights. They even crossed to Sadler’s Wells in North London when Lilian Baylis moved her opera company there in 1931, but quickly disappeared. In our time the works have been kept alive mainly by amateurs, often with professional bolstering, with Maritana, probably the best of the three, being given most frequently.

© John Allen 1996


CD 1

[1] Overture

[2–9] Act I: A square in Madrid

We are in the heart of Madrid on a beautiful Spring morning. People have gathered in one of the city’s great squares. They have come to listen to the singing of Maritana (soprano), a young Gypsy girl who entertains them in exchange for a few small coins (Chorus: “Sing, pretty maiden, sing”). Lurking in the crowd, heavily disguised, is no less a personage than the King of Spain (bass) himself. His Spanish Majesty, it would appear, is not just an avid music lover, he also has an eye for a pretty face when he sees one (Romance and chorus: “It was a knight of princely mien”).

The King rewards Maritana for her song with a gold coin, but his gesture is spotted by an unserupulous courtier, one Don José de Santarem (baritone). As it happens, Don José has his eye on the King’s wife and he is in the process of hatching a plan to win her for himself by disgracing her husband. But first, he asks Maritana to sing again, which she duly does (Romance and Chorus: “Tis the harp in the air”).

And after he has presented her with yet another gold coin, everyone pauses for prayer as the Angelus rings out (Chorus: “Angels that around us hover”). While others are praying, Don José’s thoughts have been focused on less edifying matters. He senses that he can somehow use the King’s interest in this charming young Gypsy to further his plans. Drawing her out in conversation, he gets her to tell him about her aspirations of a better life for herself. And as she sings, his cunning mind ponders on the possibilities (Duet “Of fairy wand had I the power”).

While Maritana nurses these dreams, Don José’s plot is rapidly developing in his mind. He will somehow acquire a title for the girl, then use the King’s infatuation with her to persuade the Queen of her husband’s infidelity. But first, he needs a dupe. Some un-married nobleman gullible enough to wed the Gypsy girl and then conveniently disappear.

Enter, on cue, Don Caesar de Bazan (tenor), a happy-go-lucky knight who survives on his wits, his nifty way of avoiding creditors, and his duelling skills. It is this penchant for swordplay which will shortly get him into trouble, for he soon finds himself rushing to the defence of a terrified apprentice boy, Lazarillo (travesti mezzo), who is pursued by guards whilst trying to escape from his cruel master (Quartet and chorus: “See the culprit”).

Pausing only to hear Maritana offer her listeners some matrimonial advice in yet another song, (Solo and chorus: “Pretty Gitana”), Don Caesar challenges and wounds the pursuing Captain (baritone). Unfortunately, he has forgotten that this is Holy Week, and in Holy Week duelling is a capital offence, punishable by hanging. He is arrested on the spot, much to the horror of the onlookers, including Maritana, who vows to find money for his ransom as he is ignominiously hauled off to jail (Finale Act I: “Farewell my gallant Captain”).

[10–15] Act II, Scene 1: A prison cell

In a cell in one of Madrid’s prison fortresses, Don Caesar is sleeping soundly, watched over by the faithful Lazarillo. And as a clock chimes five, and the hour of execution gets nearer, the boy laments his companion’s fate and sings a gentle lullaby over his sleeping form (Romance: “Alas, those chimes so sweetly stealing”). As Lazarillo’s song comes to anend, the condemned man wakes up. While he is assuring the lad that nobody apart from his creditors, that is—will mourn his death, they are joined by Don José (Duet: “Hither as I came” and trio: “Turn on old time”).

When Caesar expresses his desire for a chance to die nobly like a soldier, rather than face the ignominy of the scaffold (Song: “Yes! Let me like a soldier fall”), Don José promptly comes up with an offer. If Don Caesar will agree to go through a marriage ceremony with a certain veiled lady, he, Don José, will see to it that the sentence is amended to one of death by firing squad.

Left to himself, Don José gloats at the way his scheme is progressing. Unknown to anyone, he has intercepted a pardon sent to Don Caesar by the King in recognition of some former services to the crown. And he has persuaded Maritana to marry an un-named husband. So, Don Caesar will die; his widow will be used to lure the King into a compromising situation; and the way will be clear for Don José to proceed with his wooing of the Queen. He pauses while he recalls the happy moment when he first set his eyes on the lady who is the object of his desires (Ballad: “In happy moments day by day”).

Now it is time for the wedding, but not before the bridegroom and his veiled bride-to-be take a celebratory drink with the members of the firing squad. And, while the main characters voice their thoughts on these strange happening, the enterprising Lazarillo quietly replaces the soldiers’ bullets with dummy rounds. Then it’s off to the nuptials, and the supposed execution. (Quartet and chorus: “Health to the lady”)

CD 2

[1–5] Act II, Scene 2: A room in a palace

The scene has changed to a salon in a palace where a party in honour of Maritana, now the Countess of Bazan, is in full swing (Chorus: “Oh! What pleasure” and orchestral waltz). As the courtiers and attendant nobles make their exit, the King enters. Maritana has no idea who this man is, but he assures her that he is, in fact, the mysterious knight she married, and proceeds to woo her (Song: “Hear me, gentle Maritana”).

The King’s wooing is short-lived, however, because Don José arrives and advises him to scarper before he is recognised. He will, he assures the infatuated monarch, deliver the young Countess to him in a more discreet location later that same evening. As the King and Maritana exit through different doorways, a cowled monk enters through a window. To the horror of Don José, who thinks he is seeing a ghost, the monk reveals himself as Don Caesar, very much alive and now seeking the lady he married shortly before his mock execution. Although she was heavily veiled during the wedding ceremony, he feels sure he will know her as soon as he sets he eyes on her (Song: “There is a flower that bloometh”).

Suddenly, Don Caesar hears a voice singing in another room. He instantly recognises it as that of his wife and demands that she be produced. Naturally, the unfortunate girl is now thoroughly confused and quite unsure who her husband actually is, especially when the crafty Don José tries to persuade her that a certain elderly Marchioness is in fact Don Caesar’s wife. As the scene develops into a classic operatic ensemble de perplexité, Don Caesar is re-arrested and Maritana is led away to her assignment with the King. (Finale Act II: “That voice! ’Tis hers”).

[6–12] Act III: A room in the Villa d’Aranguez

Maritana is alone in a magnificent apartment. Unhappily, as she observes the splendid fabrics and other trappings of wealth, she realises that all these riches mean nothing if she cannot be re-united with the man she married earlier that day (Recitative and ballad: “How dreary to my heart… Scenes that are brightest”).

As Maritana departs, Don José enters and sings of his gratification at the way his plans are progressing (Song: “So! My courage now regaining”). Now the King arrives, eager to have his carnal way with the lovely Maritana. But as he makes his advances, posing as her unknown spouse, the real husband makes another of his sudden appearances and orders his royal liege to desist. In the exchanges that follow, the King says that he is Don Caesar, while the real Don Caesar, ever ready with a quick riposte, claims that, in that case, he is the King of Spain (Cabaletta: I am the King of Spain).

During their duet, in the course of which the King appears to take rather a liking to the debonair knight, Don Caesar learns about the royal pardon which was never delivered, thus proving that Don José should not have carried out the execution in the first place, Don Caesar and Maritana are left alone. This time he has no difficulty in persuading her that he is, indeed, the man she married; and the two join in a rapturous love duet (Duet: “A Stranger here… O Maritana”).

As Maritana and Don Caesar exult in their happiness, Lazarillo arrives with more bad news. Armed guards are approaching. Maritana urges Don Caesar to run to the Queen, who is now their last hope of justice. Caesar rushes out, leaving Maritana and Lazarillo to pray for a happy outcome. (Duet: “Sainted Mother”) Don Caesar returns, followed immediately by the King. His Majesty has discovered the full extent of Don José’s perfidy and needs help in defending his throne—and, presumably, his marriage. But the doughty Don Caesar has anticipated the danger and, armed with the evidence of José’s multiple treachery, has already run the villain through. The delighted King promptly re-pardons his saviour and rewards him by appointing him Governor of Valencia. Whereupon the entire company, led by Maritana, burst into a great song of rejoicing (Finale Act III: “With rapture glowing”).

John Allen

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