WE are prepared for a rustic scene by a prelude on the bagpipe. As the curtain rises, we see a Dutch landscape in the neighbourhood of Dordrecht with the Meuse in the background. On the right is a feudal castle ; on the left are dependent cottages and farm buildings ; and in the left foreground are sacks of wheat, rustic benches, tables, etc.
Peasants enter for their morning meal, and join in a chorus effectively and fancifully scored, ” La brise est muette.” In the ritournelle, an echo is played on the clarinet with a very pretty effect, and the chorus in itself, with its drone bass and accompaniments of piccolo and triangle, is very fresh and characteristic, though somewhat reminiscent of the opening chorus in Guillaume Tell.
Bertha (soprano) enters from one of the houses, and, in a lively cavatina in 3/4 time, rejoices at her approaching marriage. Fidès (mezzo-soprano) enters to take Bertha to Leyden, where she and her son John keep an inn. John (tenor) impatiently awaits his bride, who is an orphan and a vassal of the Count of Oberthal; so Bertha must first obtain his permission. At the close of this recitative, they are about to ascend to the castle, when they are surprised at the boding apparition of three sombre figures, Zacharie, Jonas, and Mathisen. They are Ana-baptists, leaders of a revolt in Westphalia, and have come to incite insurrection in Holland also. Their approach is announced by a lugubrious symphony of bassoons and clarinets, which prefaces their chant, Ad nos, ad salutarem undam. In a concerted piece of ponderous and sinister strains, thickly instrumented and worked up into a striking choral climax, they excite the peasants to revolt. The latter seize scythes and pitchforks, while a gradual and cleverly-managed crescendo leads to a reprise of the chant, fortissimo with choral reinforcement, followed by a riotous chorus, Aux armes ! au martyr, accompanied by full orchestra, brilliantly scored, with prominence given to the cornets-à-piston in the Anabaptists’ apostrophe to liberty. At this climax, the Count and his companions jovially issue from the castle, and his vassals are abashed. His eye falls on the firebrands, and he recognizes Jonas as an old drunken servant dismissed for theft. He orders them away from his domains, under penalty of the cord if they ever return. Then Bertha timidly advances, encouraged by Fidès, to make her request. In a duet of striking beauty, in F, 6/8 time, Un jour dans les flots de la Meuse, we learn that she is an orphan and that she loves John, who once saved her from drowning; and she and Fidès ask permission for the marriage. Bertha’s beauty makes the Count unwilling to forego his seignorial rights, and, to the indignation of the peasantry, the Count’s pages conduct Fidès and Bertha into the Castle, followed by the Count and his party. The Anabaptists return, and again their sinister chant is heard. The cowed people run and prostrate themselves before them, while they make menacing gestures towards the castle. Their sombre and savage strain constantly returns as a fundamental idea throughout this revolutionary drama.
AcT II. John’s hostelry, with doors to right and left ; an open door and windows at the back, through which we see his gay companions dancing, singing, and constantly entering to drink the beer he pours out for them (chorus : Valsons, valsons toujours ). However, he is uneasy ; it is getting dusk and his mother and betrothed tarry. He sings (C in 3/8), Le jour baisse et ma mère, the accent, modulation, and harmony of which tenderly convey his love for Bertha. Meanwhile, the three Anabaptists enter and join several peasants at a table, and are invited to drink. John has a presentment of evil. Jonas calls his brethren’s attention to the extraordinary resemblance of John to a venerated picture of King David in Münster. They learn from a convive that John is given to exaltation and is brave ; they therefore consult to make a tool of him. It is getting late, and the guests take leave in beautiful chorus. The Anabaptists then approach John and ask what ails him. He explains that the delay of his mother and bride intensifies the trouble caused by a recent dream. Beneath the arches of a magnificent temple, while a crown adorned his head, and people, prostrate before him, saluted him as David the Messiah, he read in letters of flame on the marble, ” Woe to thee ! ” and a river of blood soon overwhelmed his ephemeral throne. The dream is prefaced and interrupted by a beautiful phrase, sung by his hearers as a prophetic interpretation, which is afterwards heard as the children’s chorus at John’s coronation, Le voilà le roi prophète ! As he begins the narration, we hear a soft and aerial combination of the flute in its low octave, accompanied by muted violins with a tremolo on their highest notes, while low tones of the clarinet serve as bass, producing a beautiful, mysterious effect. Violins are stationed beneath the stage here. Drums and cymbals evoke the idea of public ceremony and pomp. Interrupted by a broken cadence, and left unfinished to add to the sense of mystery, this strain is now taken up by the Ana-baptists with new combinations of horns, bassoons, violins, violas, and ‘cellos. In Act IV, it reappears under various forms with developments, rendering it solemn and colossal. The Anabaptists assure John that the dream was a revelation, and he shall reign. He only smiles, and in a beautiful romance, really the coda to the dream, delightfully accompanied by the harp, dwells on his future joys with Bertha. The refrain of his couplets, Il est un doux empire, becomes a quartette with the three tempters, and ends the scene. They scorn his folly and leave, to his great relief. Approaching the window, he hears the gallop of cavalry. Bertha rushes in, dishevelled. In the orchestra, there is a cross rhythm of two bassoons imitating hurried steps ; and the gallop of horses, in a march time moderato, executed by the clarinets, horns, violins, violas, and basses. Flight and pursuit are finely suggested. Bertha has escaped the tyrant, and claims her lover’s protection. He hides her under the stairs. One of the Count’s officers enters and demands her, threatening to slay John’s mother unless he complies. He hesitates, while Bertha comes forward, and Fidès is brought in and falls on her knees in supplication under the uplifted axe. The notes sung by Bertha as she hides return as Fidès is menaced with death. John is horrified, and hands the fainting Bertha to the soldiers in desperation. Left alone, Fidès, in a famous aria, Ah! mon fils, sois beni ! in F-sharp, blesses and vainly tries to console her son, who rails against the feudal lords. She retires to rest at his command. He rages at his wrongs, and thirsts for blood, when the Anabaptist chant is heard without. He calls them in. A quartette follows in which they repeat their offers of sovereignty and vengeance, working upon his feelings until they induce him to depart secretly with them. He is unwilling to abandon his mother, but vengeance draws him on. The piece begins with long recitatives that laboriously prepare the blossoming of the principal idea; but the fragment of trio that the fanatics sing to overcome John’s hesitation has beautiful melodic colour. The concluding ensemble is full of vigour. He is finally persuaded to head the religious revolt and personate the Prophet.
Act. III. A frozen forest-fringed lake in Westphalia, with Munster in the distance. On the opposite shore are the tents of the rebels. Day is declining. In the distance, sounds of combat are heard, constantly increasing till, from the right, Anabaptist troops come upon the stage and are welcomed by women and children from the camp, while other troops commanded by Mathisen enter from the left, bringing captive men and women richly attired, great barons and chatelaines of the district, a monk, children, etc. The troops sing an exultant chorus, of savage ferocity, Du sang ! que judas succombe, in B-minor with characteristic rhythm in 3/8. Mathisen adds fuel to the fire by proclaiming that the Prophet shall trample their enemies under their feet. The women and children then dance around the captives, who fall on their knees, and the axes are raised over their heads when Mathisen interferes, suggesting that they had better be spared for ransom. This appeals to the mob, and, as the prisoners are led away, a brilliant march is heard to the right, ushering in Zacharie with his men. In the same rhythm as, Du sang, Zacharie sings the stirring Aussi nombreux que les étoiles, a pæan of triumph. Then, just as Mathisen suggests that glory will not fill an empty stomach, celestial manna falls in the guise of provision wagons driven by women, and men, women, and children with baskets and jars on their heads, coming to the camp. Zacharie gives Mathisen a piece of paper and sends him off on a secret mission. The troops sing a chorus of welcome in C, and exchange their spoil for provisions.
An ice ballet follows to a double rhythm, for the accompaniment finely marks the movement of impulsion of the skates, and that of the melody is at the same time elegant and well marked. The contrast of the peasant dances with the savage fanaticism of the troops is very striking and effective. The military and pastoral styles are skilfully combined. The music includes a redowa, a galop, and a quadrille, and graphically indicates the gaiety and confusion of the situation. Night falls on the forest, and the girls depart. Zacharie dismisses his troops to repose ; sentinels are posted; and the scene changes to Zacharie’s tent, with tables, chairs, etc. Zacharie and Mathisen enter. The latter returns from Munster discouraged. The old Count of Oberthal is governor of Munster, and will not capitulate because he is furious at his son’s castle having been reduced to ashes. The Anabaptist dogma is in a bad way, if he holds out, for the Emperor is coining. Zacharie sends Mathisen to inflame the soldiers for the assault, promising them glory and pillage, by order of the Prophet. Zacharie soliloquizes that John stays in his tent, consumed by remorse, when Jonas and soldiers with Oberthal enter. They have caught him prowling around the camp, but the darkness prevents their recognizing him. He says he wants to enlist under their banner. This trio in C, Sous votre bannière, is one of the most striking pieces in the whole opera. It is full of dramatic humour and contrapuntal cleverness, and, moreover, it is exceedingly difficult. Jonas brings out goblets, and, masking their sinister intentions, the characteristic quality of the music allotted throughout to these profound impostors is but half concealed under the veil of boisterous hilarity in which they indulge. They explain their tenets to the Count, who tremblingly swears to all. He must respect the peasant in his cabin always; purify every abbey or convent with fire ; hang every noble to the first oak ; seize all their gold ; and, for the rest, live ever as a good Christian. They vow good fellowship over their cups, Versez, versez, frères, in a rollicking, drinking trio ; and Oberthal must swear to slay the old Count of Oberthal and hang the young one over the ramparts. Jonas now wants to know why such good fellows should stay in the darkness, and takes a flint and steel from his pocket. A delightful effect of imitative music occurs here. As the sparks fly from the flint and Jonas sings, La flamme scintille, the scintillations are heard all through the orchestra. After the mutual recognition comes a fine trio. Zacharie orders Oberthal to execution, scouting Jonas’s suggestion that John had better be consulted. The latter enters; he is sick of carnage and means to resign his mission. Zacharie is about to stab the backslider, when John suddenly sees the Count being led away. He resents not being consulted, orders privacy, and, when alone with Oberthal, questions him. He learns that Bertha sprang into the river and escaped, and has been seen in Munster by one of Oberthal’s servants. John no longer thinks of resigning, but cries, “To Munster ! ” Oberthal is safe for the present. Bertha shall pronounce upon him ! At this moment, there is a noise in the camp ; and Mathisen enters to say that there has been a successful sortie from Munster, and, John alone can quell the resulting disorder.
The scene changes back to the open camp, where the demoralized troops are in tumult and singing a chorus of revolt, Trahis, trahis ; they will put their false Prophet to death. John enters and asks who ordered the assault : the three Anabaptists cast the blame on each other. John reproaches them; and orders his insubordinate soldiery to fall on their knees and implore the Divine mercy. The music here is sublime, as is the prayer and chorus that follow, Seigneur, qui voie notre faiblesse, and the hymn of triumph directly afterwards, Roi du ciel et des anges, which John sings in mighty and moving accents, is quite biblical and inspired in its colour and phrasing. When the distant trumpets sound, and he affects to see a vision, the two harps in the accompaniment are particularly striking and suggestive. He says in an aside, “Bertha will be saved ! ” and indeed the soldiers are excited by his religious chants, and march on the city as the dawn illuminates its distant walls.
ACT IV. The public square of the captured Münster, with the town-hall on the right. Citizens meet in dread, Courbons notre tête. Soldiers pass, crying, ” Vive le Prophète ! ” The citizens join in, and then in low tones, when again alone, cry, ” A’ bas le prophète ! ” This chorus is most happy in its contrasts. They tell each other that the victorious Prophet is about to be crowned king, and again acclaim him to the soldiers and revile him to each other. A beggar enters and sits on a bench on the other side of the square ; she asks alms to buy masses for the soul of her son, in a plaintive air in E-minor, Donnez pour une pauvre âme. This is full of profound sorrow and tenderness. The ritournelle, written for violas, bassoons, and ‘cellos, is very touching. The bell rings in the town-hall, and the citizens hurry away. Bertha enters, disguised as a pilgrim, and Fidès recognizes her. Their duet is one of the best numbers of the opera. Bertha describes her escape and vain search for John, who, Fidès tells her, is dead. Fidès found his blood-stained clothes, and a voice told her that Heaven needed him; it was the Prophet’s decree that she should see him no more. Bertha in fury vows to kill that tyrant who has robbed them both of him they love, ” Dieu m’inspirera,” and rushes out like one possessed.
Half the procession has already entered the Cathedral, the grand electors are passing, bearing the imperial insignia, and John follows bareheaded to the high altar. The people press after, and are pushed back by the soldiers into the lateral chapels. A symphonic march accompanies the pro-cession ; it is pompous and brilliant, of powerful and sonorous instrumentation. Fidès is left alone, kneeling in the left foreground, in prayer and revery. Suddenly a grand flourish announces the coronation, and four voices chant, ” Domine, salvum fac regem nostrum prophetam,” in G-flat, the ophicleide doubling the bass. This is then taken up in chorus by the people. The organ sounds, and, indignant at such profanation, Fidès raises her head and, in recitative of highest elevation, calls down Heaven’s curse upon her son’s slayer, Grand Dieu, exauce ma prière. The re-prises of the chorus, grouping around this principal voice, produce great breadth and majesty. Then the music changes its character, as a band of white-robed children advance, singing a limpid and graceful melody, Le voilà, le roi prophète. To the first phrase in D, succeeds a modulation in F, when the theme is repeated in a charming manner, and is followed by one of Meyerbeer’s characteristic re-entries of key. On the last note, a chorus of women is heard weaving into the children’s, and, being developed, it is taken up by the people, and the organ displays its full wealth and power, while the orchestra adds mighty chords. The effect is grand, solemn, and crushing. On this grand ensemble, the ceremony is completed in the distance, and then the return commences, and, as the sonorous mass dies away in the final bars, everybody falls prostrate. John, crowned, appears in imperial robes at the head of the altar steps, and, exalted at the realization of his dream, says, on the soft harmony of a few instruments, ” John ! thou shalt reign ! yes, it is true, then I am the elect, the son of God ! ” At that moment Fidès rises; she looks at him and cries, ” My son ! ” He is about to spring towards her, when Zacharie and Jonas approach Fidès with drawn daggers, and Mathisen says in a low tone to John, ” If you speak ! ” The people are indignant at the woman. John sees he is powerless, and therefore calmly asks, ” ‘Who is this woman ? ” ” Who am I ? ” she cries ; then begin the pathetic words, ” 7e suis la pauvre femme,” that give such dramatic force to this scene. The touching melody ends with that fine outburst that becomes the remainder of the finale under beautiful developments, ” L’ingrat ne me reconnait pas.” Passing alternatively over all the parts of the choral mass, and gradually enriched by all the resources of instrumentation and all the artifices of composition, this theme, at first only a cry from the heart, becomes a mighty thought that profoundly moves the hearer. To save his mother from the threatening daggers, John now proclaims her mad, and tries to silence the mutterings of imposture by declaring his power to cure her by a miracle. He ad-dresses her kindly, and begs her to acknowledge her mistake or her deception, appealing to those around him to plunge their daggers into his bosom if, when he has put the question to her, she does not deny all knowledge of him. The bass clarinet supports his words, ” Tu cherissais ce fils?” Fidès, overwhelmed by his resolution, wildly and equivocally cries, “That is not my son ! ” (sadly) ” I no longer have one! ” The crowd are satisfied that a miracle has been performed, and Fidès is consigned to a dungeon, while her son is glorified as a prophet and goes out to the shouts of, ” Miracle!” Fidès, left behind in custody, suddenly remembers, and wrings her hands, crying, “And Bertha ! O Heaven ! She is going to assassinate him!”
ACT V. A vault under the palace with stairs leading up. The three Anabaptists are in consultation. The Emperor is approaching, and their lives will be spared if they deliver up the Prophet, says Jonas. ” God’s will be done ! ” the traitors cry in chorus, and depart by a side iron door, as soldiers bring Fidès down the steps. She first condemns and then excuses her son. The character of the principal phrase, ” O toi qui m’abandonne! ” is noble and touching, with an original rhythm. At the words, “Mon cher enfant, mon bien aimé,” there is a kind of dialogue between the voice and the cor anglais that is full of tender melancholy. The cavatina, Comme un éclair précipite, when the soldier announces John’s approach, is also admirable. Four harps are required in the orchestra. The duet is full of fire and dramatic force, being especially energetic at, ” Mais toi, tyran, que la terre deteste,” and the theme of the second movement, “Il en est temps encore.” John, who is still in imperial robes, finally abjures his imposition and obtains her forgiveness, after her indignant, ” Va-t’en, va-t’en, tu n’es plus rien pour moi.” Bertha, robed in white and bearing a torch, comes in by a subterranean passage. Her grandfather was keeper of the palace and she knows all its secrets. She is going to blow it up with the Prophet and his followers : so she tells Fidès.
On recognizing John, she is in rapture. A delicious trio follows. Her hatred of the Prophet makes John tell his mother that Heaven has not yet pardoned him. Fidès tries to prevent Bertha from cursing the Prophet. They will all depart together. (Ensemble, Loin de la ville.) An officer comes to warn John of a plot to kill him, and addresses him by his title of ” Prophet.” Bertha (O spectre epouvantable), in despair at finding in her lover the author of so many atrocities, will not listen to the imploring Fidès, curses John, and stabs herself, vowing with dying breath that though she despises she cannot cease to love him, and prefers death to the dishonour entailed by his connection. John will not depart now ; he takes up his crown again and will stay to punish the guilty. He sends Fidès away under guard, gazes at the cellar of explosives pointed out by Bertha, and mutters, ” Yes, all shall be punished.”
John is presiding at a splendid banquet in the great hall. The guests chorus, Hourra ! gloire au prophète. There is wild dance and song. Harps are specially noticeable in the orchestra. Officers come to tell John that the foe is at the gates. He gives his final orders to these trusty friends, and then sings a Bacchanalian song, Versez ! que tout respire, in the middle of which the three Anabaptists enter and come to his side. As he ends, the Bishop of Munster, the Elector of Westphalia, and other imperial officers enter with drawn swords. Zacharie points John out and says he delivers him into their hands. John proudly thanks this “new Judas.” The great gates are now heard to clang as they shut, and John cries, ” Let those brass gates be the gates of the tomb ! ” He is not in anyone’s power, they are all in his hands ! Then comes a mighty ex-plosion and flames, and walls fall as he defies them all. Fidès rushes in to die with her son, and, in a final chorus, O fureur ! O delire ! the lords and fanatics curse one another, while the palace falls in and John and Fidès die in one another’s arms.