THIS work is a mixture of the French, Italian, and German styles. The orchestra has so important a part that it may be said to have a dramatic rôle of its own. The overture is original, clearly written, and brilliant.
ACT I. This opens in the royal gardens of the palace of the Duke of Arcos, Viceroy of Naples, decorated for the nuptials of his son, Alphonse, and Elvire, a Spanish princess. On the left, a chapel ; on the right, a throne. Selva, an officer of the Duke (bass), crosses the stage leading his soldiers. The orchestral introduction merges with ease into the chorus that rejoices behind the scenes upon Alphonse’s approaching marriage. Alphonse (tenor) enters, greatly disturbed, and in melodious phrases condemns him-self bitterly for having wronged Fenella. The contrast of rhythm and sentiment, as he breaks through the rigid form of the joyful chorus, and the antiphonal use of the chorus have been much admired. Lorenzo, Alphonse’s confidant (tenor), enters, and their conversation is of Fenella. Lorenzo can find no trace of her. Alphonse explains how a real and lasting love for Elvire has taken the place of a temporary passion for Fenella ; yet he is distressed about her, and explains to Lorenzo that she is dumb. But Lorenzo must banish dark thoughts and come with him to greet his bride. As they go out, the bridal train enters with its joyful nuptial chant, preceding Elvire (soprano), with Emma, her attendant (soprano). The bride expresses her happiness in an aria di bravoura, Plaisir du rang suprême.
A Guaracha and Bolero are danced, at the close of which the festivities are disturbed by Fenella, the dumb girl of Portici (danseuse), rushing in to claim the protection of Elvire from the pursuit of Selva and soldiers, who follow. Fenella, in dumb show, aided by the sympathetic orchestra, depicts her sad history ; she has been the victim of some unknown cavalier, from whom she has received a scarf; she has been arrested and imprisoned, but has escaped, her life being in danger from a sentinel’s musket. Elvira promises to protect her, intrusts her to two ladies, who escort her to a retired spot, and enters the chapel with Alphonse, who comes in followed by pages, nobles, and soldiers. Selva orders sentinels to keep back the crowd, but Fenella comes forward and tries to look within the church. The kneeling chorus invoke blessings on the bridal couple, O Dieu puissant ; but during the ceremony in the chapel Fenella has recognized in Alphonse her seducer; the soldiers bar her entrance, and with dismay she hears that the ceremony is completed. As Elvire and Alphonse issue from the chapel, the former presents Fenella to her husband, and then dis-covers that he is the betrayer of the girl she has promised to protect. The finale is one of disorder and excitement ; Fenella regards Alphonse and Elvire with sad looks, and rushes through the crowd. Everybody leaves in confusion as the curtain falls.
AcT II. The curtain rises on the seashore near Portici. Fishermen are preparing their nets and boats. A short orchestral introduction leads into the opening chorus, Amis, le soleil va paraître. Masaniello, a fisherman tenor), is seen brooding. His comrades ask Borella, also a fisherman (bass), the cause of Masaniello’s grief. Borella explains that he grieves for freedom, and, accosting Masaniello, begs him to cheer them with one of his songs; but Masaniello is watching for Pietro. Borella repeats his re-quest, and Masaniello sings his famous barcarolle, Amis, la matinée est belle, promising that the day of freedom will soon come, and impressing upon them the policy of caution, ” to cast their nets with silence and skill, to make their prey more sure.” As the chorus repeats this burden, Pietro, the friend of Masaniello (baritone), descends the hill. He enters, and Masaniello asks if he has found his sister. Pietro has no tidings of Fenella. An impassioned duet follows in which are expressed Masaniello’s grief for his missing sister, and the mutual resolution of the friends to strike a blow for freedom (Mieux vaut mourir que rester miserable ). At its close, Masaniello perceives Fenella, who is about to throw herself into the sea, but on recognizing her brother she descends the hill and indicates that she wishes to communicate with him alone. Masaniello motions to Pietro to retire. Everyone leaves, and then in animated signs Fenella tells her brother the story of her wrongs and sufferings, and explains that she was going to drown herself. It is interesting to notice how the orchestra aids Fenella’s pantomime ; it is the medium through which she speaks.
Masaniello vows vengeance. Fenella tries to calm him and to prevent his calling his comrades. Borella and the fishermen enter, and, as Masaniello is addressing them, the women and children come pouring in. The chorus is thus reinforced, and while all are singing, Pietro enters with news that the soldiers are approaching. Masaniello, aided by Pietro and Borella, organizes a rising of the people. This spirited finale is logical and works up to a fine climax.
AcT III. — A room in the palace of the Duke of Arcos Elvire is alone, and in a recitative and aria sighs with love for her husband. What if he should one day cease to love her ! May Heaven grant that she keep his affection Her joy and her happiness are almost too great; doubts are tearing her heart. Alphonse joins her. She asks if he will send Fenella to her. Her wish shall be obeyed ! At a sign from Alphonse, Selva and his soldiers enter. He orders them to find Fenella and bring her to Elvire.
Alphonse, Elvire, Selva, and soldiers disperse in opposite directions. The scene changes to the Market Place. Citizens, followed by their servants, enter to make purchases. Fenella, seated with her companions in front of the stage, is pensive, and rises now and then to look for her brother, or for someone from the court.
The composer has treated with much skill the various noises, the bursts of laughter, and all the sounds of a joyous crowd of Italians disporting in the gay sunshine. Upon a persistent motiv, which continues until the end of this tumultuous scene, in which, amid the turmoil and confusion, the stormy passions of an enraged populace are slumbering, we hear the cries of the vendors offering their wares, wine, cheese, maccaroni, olives, poultry, flowers, peas, fish, purple grapes, and melons. A Tarantella is danced, immediately after which Selva enters with his soldiers and searches for and seizes Fenella. She appeals to the people, who are too frightened to help her; but Masaniello, entering with Pietro, Borella, and fishermen, defies Selva and puts him to flight. The people determine to follow and fight, and at Masaniello’s suggestion they kneel and sing their celebrated prayer, Saint bienheureux, and rush off eager for the fray.
AcT IV. Masaniello is alone in his cottage, the back of which is covered with a sail. In an aria, he deplores the terrible day of slaughter and horror, and laments that he has not strength of mind for such a cruel task. He appeals to the God of Heaven to appease the rage of the people or to fill him with the sense of fury.
Fenella enters ; she is very sad, and, after describing the horrors and disorder of the city, sinks exhausted upon a net. Masaniello sings to her the beautiful Air du sommeil. ” Descend, oh, balmy sleep, friend of the unhappy, disperse cruel thoughts and sorrow and restore calm and peace to this celestial being !” (Du pauvre seul ami fidèle.) On its termination, Pietro enters with the fishermen and excites Masaniello to further revenge, announcing that Alphonse, the son of the Duke of Arcos, has escaped, but they wish to find him; they will take his life. Fenella hears this, and shows grief. She now feigns sleep in order to listen. Masaniello cautions them not to let Fenella hear, and they all go into another part of the cottage. Fenella, left alone, hears a knocking at the door (sounded in the orchestra). It is repeated. She opens the door and admits Alphonse, who is disguised in a large cloak, and Elvire, who is veiled. On recognizing Alphonse, Fenella covers her face with both hands. They do not know whose house they have entered, but Alphonse asks for protection. He soon recognizes Fenella. Elvire pleads for her husband’s life. At first Fenella is disposed to take revenge, but she is moved by Elvire’s appeal for mercy (cavatina, Arbitre d’une vie), and, taking the hands of Elvire and Alphonse, vows to save them, or die with them. Masaniello, coming in, demands who they are and what they desire. Protection from the insurgents, Alphonse explains. No one has ever sought shelter under Masaniello’s humble roof in vain, and who-ever they are, they shall be safe ! Fenella manifests the greatest joy.
Now Pietro enters with Borella and fishermen, announcing that the magistrates and the people are coming to bring the keys of the city to Masaniello; but he is astonished to see the Viceroy’s son here. Masaniello is more astonished and disturbed to learn that Alphonse is under his roof. Pietro declares Alphonse shall die. Elvire pleads for her husband’s life, and Masaniello assures the beseeching Fenella that he will remember his pledge of hospitality. This quartette, in which the chorus joins, is strong and varied to suit the sentiments of the individuals. Masaniello consigns Alphonse and Elvire to Borella’s care, instructing him to take them in his (Masaniello’s) boat to Castel Nuovo, and, seizing an axe, threatens anyone who tries to follow. Pietro and his companions vow revenge. Alphonse and Elvire leave, looking gratefully at Fenella.
The sail in the background of the cottage being with drawn, the magistrates and citizens enter, to present Masaniello with the keys of the city and the royal insignia. The orchestra plays a short instrumental piece, and the people proclaim Masaniello, not only hero of their victory, but their king. While they sing ” Hail to Masaniello,” to the motiv we heard in the orchestra, he is invested with the insignia. Then he sings farewell to his humble home, doubting if he will ever be so happy as he has been under its roof. Pietro and the fishermen are enraged with him. Masaniello mounts a richly-caparisoned charger and departs, followed by the magistrates and people. Pietro and his comrades look menacingly after him, and Fenella, noticing their threatening glances, gazes appealingly to heaven, as if praying for her brother’s safety.
AcT V. After a short introduction, the curtain rises upon the vestibule of the Viceroy’s Palace, with a view of Mount Vesuvius. Pietro, fishermen, and girls enter. Evidently they come from a banquet, for some of them have cups of wine in their hands. Others carry guitars.
Pietro, accompanying himself on the guitar, sings a barcarolle, [“oyez du haut de ces rivages. At the end of this admired number, Pietro hears someone coming. It is Borella. ” Friends, to arms ! the troops are marching here, and Vesuvius, too, is roaring, a terrible amen!” The frightened men cry, ” Who can aid in this hour of danger.” “Masaniello is the only one,” the women reply. ” Too late,” says Borella, and, in answer to inquiry, informs the people that he has lost his reason ; the horrors of the revolt have unsettled him. Masaniello enters in disordered attire and gives evidence of his insanity. The night is fine, the fisherman king would enjoy the short span of life !
Fenella enters, and rushes into his arms. She succeeds in rousing him. Learning of the approach of the foe, Masaniello confides his sister to Borella’s care, and leads his companions once more. Fenella looks after her brother, and, returning to the front of the stage, kneels and prays for him. Then she contemplates the scarf given her by Alphonse. She cannot destroy it, and, hearing footsteps, conceals it. Elvire and Borella enter. Fenella would leave, but Elvire begs her to remain. Borella hears shouts of rejoicing; he hopes Masaniello has been victorious. Alphonse and his suite enter, and Fenella rushes to him for news of her brother.
Alas ! Masaniello was killed in the battle, and by his own comrades ! Fenella faints in Borella’s arms at these tidings. There is more for Alphonse to tell. Upon Masaniello’s fall, the soldiers easily defeated the revolted fishermen. Fenella, having recovered, casts a look of tenderness upon Alphonse, and then joining his hand with Elvire’s, rushes towards the staircase. Alphonse and Elvire turn to bid her farewell. At this moment Mount Vesuvius begins to emit smoke and flames. Fenella, standing on the terrace, contemplates the spectacle; then she throws her scarf to Alphonse, raises her eyes to heaven, and plunges into the burning lava, which is now rolling in like a river of fire. Alphonse and Elvire shriek, and the people, rushing in for safety, kneel and pray that Heaven may pity their sins. The orchestra plays a kind of postlude, closing the work in a solemn manner.