About this Recording
8.660464-65 - MASSENET, J.: Don César de Bazan (1888 version) [Opera] (Naouri, Dreisig, Lebègue, Ensemble Aedes, Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes, Romano)
English  French 

Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet (1842–1912)
Don César de Bazan

 

Background to the Opera

The story of this opera is taken from the drama by Dumanoir and Adolphe Philippe D’Ennery, in five acts and in prose (borrowed in its turn from Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, 1838) produced at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint- Martin in 1844. At a time when Romanticism was still much in favour, the characters of Victor Hugo’s drama—Ruy Blas, Maritana and Don César de Bazan—became celebrated. Vincent Wallace (1812–1865), the Irish composer, wrote his best work, Maritana (London, 1845), about these complex personalities.

The director Camille du Locle (1832–1903), after a series of failures at the Opéra-Comique, was anxious for a success, as long as it could be produced in a few weeks. The librettists put together a text, and after it had been turned down by Jules Duprato and Samuel David, it was offered to the young Jules Massenet. The creators had taken a cynical view of the venerable tradition of opéra-comique as developed since the 18th century by Grétry, Philidor, Monsigny, Dalayrac, Isouard, Berton, Boieldieu, Hérold, Auber, Halévy and Adam, and repudiated the set formulas that had characterised the genre for so long. Massenet accepted the challenge of the hurried production, and retired to the country to write the score, which was ready in a few weeks. Rehearsal began while he prepared the orchestration.

This was the first full-length opera by Massenet to be produced, the one-act La Grand’tante having been mounted five years earlier by the same company. Don César de Bazan was not a success and it would be another five years, with the premiere of Le Roi de Lahore in 1877, before Massenet rose to his place among the most prominent composers of his time.

Don César de Bazan was created by the singers Jacques Bouhy (the future Escamillo in Carmen), Paul Lhérie (the future Don José in Bizet’s opera), Neveu, François Bernard, Mme Célestine Galli-Marié (the future Carmen herself) and Mlle Marguerite Priola. It was conducted by Adolphe Deloffre. The work was performed 13 times at the Opéra-Comique, into the following year, 1873. Productions followed in German (Vienna 1874), Swedish (Stockholm 1879) and Portuguese (Lisbon 1907). The parts were destroyed in 1887 in the fire at the Salle Favart, and Massenet composed a second version from the vocal score published by Hartmann, with new orchestration. This was first performed in Geneva on 20 January 1888, then in Antwerp (1889), Lyons (1890), Nice (1895), Brussels (1896), Paris (Gaîté Lyrique, 12 May 1912), and finally The Hague (February 1925). The work contains one piece that is sometimes performed separately, the Sevillana arranged for coloratura soprano. A modern revival took place in several French cities in 2016, when the company Les Frivolités Parisiennes staged a new production, including an appearance at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, conducted by Mathieu Romano.

A German operetta on the same subject by Rudolf Dellinger (1857–1910), Don César (Operette in drei Akten; librettist: Oscar Walther) appeared in Hamburg at the Carl-Schultze Theatre, 28 March 1885, the most successful of Dellinger’s seven operettas, performed 1,350 times within 25 years.

At the time it was felt that the subject of Don César was not lyrical. The literary origins, disencumbered of emotional tirades and descriptive recitals, offers only a few dramatic incidents; the action is limited, and the episodes devoid of that feeling which is the principal source of inspiration for any composer. The dramaturgy of the opera is not always fluent, with solos and long duets following one on the other, making for concentrations of extended music without the artful conjuring of variety and swift movement. The transition from classic opéra-comique to the fuller opéralyrique was already evident, coming just a year after the national disaster of 1870–71, the war with Prussia and the Paris Commune. The young composer was building on Charles Gounod’s and Ambroise Thomas’s moves to a fuller and more continuous orchestral texture with less dialogue (see Mireille 1864 and Mignon 1866 respectively). The trend towards a more symphonic style is much in evidence in Massenet’s score with instances of considerable orchestral forcefulness. Apart from the spoken dialogue and the use of generic types like the couplet (the default sub-genre of opéra-comique), the work already reflects Massenet’s characteristic mature style.

The preference for promoting the Spanish style and flavour of the couleur locale is also overwhelmingly present. Ludwig Minkus’s ballet Don Quixote (1869) had already seen a more sustained experiment with Iberian flavour, which to that point was used only sparingly in opera for certain atmospheric effects, as in Auber’s Le Domino noir (1837). Don César looks forward to Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Massenet’s own Le Cid (1885), especially the famous ballet music. Later this trend continues in the interest shown in France by Chabrier (España, 1883) and Ravel (Alborada del gracioso, 1905, Rapsodie espagnole, 1907) in such Spanish milieu and style.

The music of Massenet’s opera was felt at the time to be symphonic rather than dramatic. Spanish motifs: fandangos, boleros, sevillanes, seguidillas, are all treated with much knowledge and talent. Among the more striking moments in the score are the Introduction; the first Entr’acte, a lovely berceuse ‘Dors, ami, dors, et que les songes t’apportent leurs riants mensonges’; the Marriage Scene, where the organ and the bells produce a charming effect; and a rather dramatic quartet.

The destiny of Don César, mounted 13 times before being largely forgotten, constitutes a series of failed opportunities, despite its extraordinary intrinsic qualities. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote about these in 1872 in La Renaissance littéraire:

M. Massenet has a marvellous musical organisation. He has the gift of melody, a feeling for the picturesque, a vivacity of rhythm; he has a manner of treating the orchestra which make him recognisable among thousands. It is a mixture of refined research and violent strokes, with exquisite gentleness, which recalls certain Oriental materials, embroidered and spangled. He brings together all that can seduce and charm, and joins these to a prodigious facility… To return to Don César, it is a light score, brilliant, spruce, evidently written by a flowing pen which can be heard without fatigue. It can be said that it has nothing in common with the platitudes which are the favourites of a certain public. M. Massenet seems to have taken on the task of taming the ogre of criticism: he has carefully concealed his lyricism and his symphonic temperament, and has given us only the basic worth of his talent, which is indeed much superior in joyful craftedness to most of his confreres.

Massenet used his resources economically: he nonetheless composed a series of captivating numbers for this score. The characters of each personage, be they sombre, passionate, joyful or comical, are magisterially conveyed. Don César is a crafted work of movement, fully sonorous and fiery. Its time has at last arrived and all the most propitious conditions have united to provide a magnificent revival. Because the original material was burned in the great fire at the Salle Favart in 1887, a new edition was researched by Les Frivolités Parisiennes for the 2016 version, adding to the author’s original vision, opening the cuts which were thought appropriate at the time. The vocal score of the first version was engraved by Hartmann, and it was possible to recreate and orchestrate the airs which Massenet composed for his first Lazarille, Célestine Galli-Marié, the famous creator of Carmen, the most talented singer available in 1888. The full score has been reconstituted from material at the publisher Heugel, using in part the manuscript from 1910–11 for three one-off Parisian performances in 1912. The first instrumentation was lighter, as witnessed by the perceptible stylistic differences between the numbers added in 1888 to the last act, with certain pieces dating from the first version. In effectively tightening and unifying the score, good sense has been made of some of these discrepancies and a dynamic balance of sonority made possible.

A single character is key to the plot. Don José de Santarém is rather Mephistophelian: he arrives to disturb everything, obsessed by his own interests. This devil, so useful and delightful on stage, a puppeteer amused or furious, manipulates the hero out of envy. Schizophrenia becomes the emotional law of the heart in this work, the driving force of all the characters: Don César, Maritana, Lazarille, and the King of Spain make up a lost quartet. Each one is caught up in an intimate psychological meandering, inexorably towards a process of personal stripping, each exposing a soul thirsting for authenticity. Is nobility only an inherited title? This question is at the heart of this opera: Don César, the Count of Bazan, asks himself: ‘Who am I?’ In conferring his title on Maritana, a girl of the streets, he provokes the question concerning nobility: what does nobility actually mean? In disappearing, Don César reappears transfigured; in braving death without dying, he is re-born as he at last needs to be. He strips himself of his privileged position to become simply César; he disencumbers himself of social title to embrace his own inner being. His song is the rapture of the present, of unencumbered life, and it is the stamp of his uniqueness and his labour of freedom. Jules Massenet’s music is correspondingly ecstatic, eschewing all frivolity.

‘The stage at every representation, we hope, will be a casquet: swaggering, febrile, dark, frozen, festive, effervescent, waking us from sleep, any dozing, any faintness, to be hypnotised by that which is Don César’ (Les Frivolités Parisiennes).

 

Synopsis

Don César de Bazan (created by the baritone Jacques Bouhy), an impoverished Spanish grandee, lives an adventurous life, but is noble at heart. He fights a duel during Holy Week to save a young boy Lazarille (Célestine Galli-Marié) from the brutalities of a Captain of Arquebusiers. But there is a royal edict against dueling: those caught at it are to be shot, but if caught during Holy Week, they are to be hanged. Don César is arrested and condemned.

Don César is visited in prison by his old friend Don José de Santarém (Neveu) who conceals the fact that he is now first minister to Charles II, King of Spain. Don José is in love with the Queen, who, however, refuses to take a lover unless the King can first be proven to be unfaithful to her. Charles II (Paul Lhérie) is in love with the beautiful street-singer Maritana (Marguerite Priola), but cannot approach her because of her low social station. Don José’s plan is to have Maritana married to Don César an hour before his execution, so raising her to the station of Countess of Bazan. He does not disclose his plan but merely promises benefits if his suggestion is followed: for Maritana, riches and honour; for Don César, commutation of his sentence from hanging to death by gunfire, and assurance that the boy Lazarille will be looked after.

The marriage takes place in the prison, Maritana’s face veiled so that she can neither see nor be seen. The execution follows immediately. The young widow (who does not know she is a widow) is taken to the palace of San Fernando to acquire the fine manners suitable for a noble lady. They tell her that her husband will soon be returning from exile. But it is the King who visits her, saying he is Don César. Maritana says she does not love him. Charles II is about to use force when the real Don César arrives. Lazarille, in charge of the armaments, had removed the balls from the muskets. After a comedy of reversed identity, with each man claiming to be the other, Lazarille enters to warn the King that the Queen is compromised at the Palace of Aranjuez. The King leaves hurriedly. Don César and Maritana left alone, relive their arranged wedding, and profess their unexpected love for each other.

Don César goes to seek the aid of the Queen, while Maritana takes refuge in an oratory with Lazarille. The King returns to press his case with Maritana again. She reveals that she knows his identity and tries to shame him. Don César now enters, and locks the door to confront his monarch. Don César refuses to fight with the enraged King. Don César tells him how at Aranjuez he surprised Don José at the feet of the Queen, pressing his illicit attentions (claiming that the King was in the arms of a mistress), and has killed Don José in a duel. The deflected Officers of the Court now burst in only to find the King safe, protected by the truly chivalrous Don César, his ‘most loyal servant’. In gratitude, Charles makes Don César Governor of Grenada where he goes to live happily with his beautiful bride Maritana, as all ironically acclaim their ruler.

CD 1

 1  A brief overture establishes the military theme of much of the action, and depicts the Spanish milieu.

 2  The introduction depicts a street scene which conjures up the local Spanish colour, and presents the characters of Maritana, an enchanting street singer, King Charles II of Spain, her admirer, and Don José de Santarém, the first minister and arch-manipulator, who closely observes the scene. The heroine sings her opening couplets, with brilliant vocal decoration. The Iberian atmosphere is everpresent and the orchestral writing unusually heavy for opéra-comique.

 3  The King’s passion for Maritana is expressed in his fastmoving Mélodie, with pulsing rhythms, the tenor part quick and nervous, in the syllabic style, with high tessitura.

 4  Don César’s entrance air is in ternary form, confident, even swaggering, in the outer movements, more reflective even pensive in the middle sections, with prominent woodwind writing.

 5  The quartet for Lazarille, Don César, the Captain of the Arquebusiers, and Don José, becomes dramatic as Don César intervenes to rescue Lazarille. The latter sings a beautiful song about the sadness of his life, couplets with cor anglais accompaniment. The situation leads into confrontation between Don César and the Captain, who rush off to fight a duel.

 6  The finale sees Maritana re-appear; she offers to tell fortunes, but instead Don José predicts a great future for her. Don César returns with Lazarille and is arrested for dueling. Lazarille promises to remain with his rescuer. In his prison cell Don César receives a visit from Don José (who does not reveal that he is the first minister of the King). Don José is secretly in love with the Queen, but she refuses his love because the infidelity of the King has not been proven. Charles II is indeed in love with Maritana, but he is not able to approach her because of her inferior social position. Don José devises a plot whereby the condemned man is to marry Maritana halfan- hour before his execution, so making her Countess of Bazan. Without explaining this plan, he promises riches and nobility to Maritana on the one hand, and on the other hand, offers Don César the possibility of evading the infamy of execution by hanging, and assuring protection to the young Lazarille. Unknown to all, Lazarille removes the balls from the muskets of the firing squad. The false marriage, as well as the fake execution, take place at once, one after the other.

 7  The Act II Entr’acte is solemn and restrained, like the Act II introduction in Carmen.

 8  Lazarille comforts Don César in another beautiful solo, a lullaby, this time with prominent horn solo.

 9  Don César’s Couplets express his bold and resigned outlook on life.

 10  The extended duet, for Don César and Don José, is (unusually for two baritones) thematically central in establishing the opposing worldviews and dramaturgical interplay between these two characters. The mood is rather comical as Don José tries to interest Don César in his plans of marriage as a means of escaping dishonourable execution. His ‘temptation music’ is couched in nasal tones with comic coloratura (rather like Beckmesser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1868). The melodic writing is rather dry, despite being couched largely in the buffo style, with long patter passages. The situation is reminiscent of Donizetti’s duet for Dr Malatesta and Don Pasquale (1843), and even more pertinently, the comedy Treasure Duet in Meyerbeer’s Dinorah (1859).

 11  The lengthy piece that follows the condemnation of Don César presents a generic ensemble, based on the topoi of the march and the drinking song, so much part of the regular language of opera. The sprightly rhythm and attractive melody capture a rapture ironic in the situation. Don César, about to be married and then executed, appears before the execution squad, dressed splendidly for his wedding, and proffering a banquet provided as his last supper. He sings a hedonistic song, defying tragedy in the face of death. He toasts his future unknown wife. The chosen vector is a ballad about a robber called Matalobos, suggesting that life should be seized and lived to the full while we have it. Here, the military prototypes of Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment (1840), but especially Auber’s in Fra Diavolo (1830) (where robbers, the military, and drinking songs are combined), are at work. The tense merrymaking is interrupted by the advent of the judge, his read statement of the death penalty, and preparations for the false marriage. The organ is heard from the chapel, with the orchestral imitation of bells.

 12  Lazarille once again sings a serene romance, with prominent clarinet arpeggios, a commentary on the events, affirming devotion to Don César and his intention to save the life of his patron.

 13  The serious, melancholic finale finds Maritana alone with Don José and the witnesses, filled with apprehensive reflections on her situation and the unknown place to which she is being taken. Don José assures her of the transformed fortune awaiting her, while the chorus comfort her. As they depart, Lazarille opens a side door to reveal the dazed Don César. In a rapid melodrama, Don José marvels that he is not dead; Lazarille hurriedly tells him how he removed the bullets from the muskets, he being the guardian of the arquebuses. He produces the key to the postern gate, and Don César escapes.

CD 2

 1  The Act III Entr’acte is strongly reminiscent of the later Le Cid ballet, a picture book piece of Spanish local colour.

 2  The ‘widowed’ Maritana is taken to the Palace of San Fernando to learn refined manners appropriate to her new station in life, with the assurance that her husband will soon return from exile. Grandiose processional music marks her entry into the splendour of her new situation. She reflects wistfully in a strophic aria, minor keyed, with prominent clarinet accompaniment, and gentle vocalisation (reminding one of Reiza’s sad reflections in Weber’s Oberon, 1826).

 3  The King enters, pretending to be Don César. He gives utterance to his adoration in a passionate cavatina, marked by the pull to high notes. But Maritana tells him that she cannot love him.

 4  The King is about to use force, when the real Don César bursts in, generating a favoured comic trope of mixed identities (‘Who am I?’): the King pretends to be Don César, so the latter professes to be the King of Spain (with appropriately grand vocal gestures and orchestral flourishes). The confusion continues in a brisk march movement. Don César reveals that Lazarille removed the bullets from the muskets of the firing squad.

 5  The real married couple, now left alone, profess their love in an extended duet, the emotional heart of the work, full of tender lyricism and regularly reaching little climaxes in unison singing, a favourite technique of the composer in all the love duets in his operas. There are several movements as both characters live out their confusion, surprise and eventual joyful and impassioned union of mind and heart. This is already the territory of Massenet’s own Manon (1884).

 6  The Act IV Entr’acte is hushed and reflects on the love music, with the return of the bells that punctuate the score.

 7  Lazarille is with Maritana in an oratory as they await the return of Don César who has gone to implore the help of the Queen. They join in a beautiful cantabile Nocturne, with smooth writing for the winds, the horns and harps. This duet is in the same mellifluous mode as Delibes’s idyll for Lakmé and Malika (1883).

 8  In a melodrama Don César informs the King and Maritana how he surprised Don José at the feet of the Queen. A tumultuous trio now follows. The King in high anxiety tries to leave room, but Don César assures him that he has killed Don José in a duel. The Officers of the Guard now arrive and burst into the room. The King is safe, protected by a true gentleman. Having succeeded in exposing and foiling Don José’s plot, and having protected the Royal honour in more ways than one, Don César is now named Governor of Grenada by the King, and leaves on the arm of his beautiful wife to take up his new position, as the chorus hail the monarch.

 

Robert Ignatius Letellier


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