THE opera-goers of New York enjoyed a novel experience when Giordano’s “Madame Sans-Gêne had its first performance on any stage in their presence at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 25, 1915. It was the first time that a royal and imperial personage who may be said to live freshly and vividly in the minds of the people of this generation as well as in their imaginations appeared before them to sing his thoughts and feelings in operatic fashion. At first blush it seemed as if a singing Bonaparte was better calculated to stir their risibilities than their interest or sympathies ; and this may, indeed, have been the case ; but at any rate they had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of Napoleon before he rose to imperial estate. But, in all seriousness, it is easier to imagine the figure which William II of Germany would cut on the operatic stage than the “grand, gloomy, and peculiar” Corsican. The royal people with whom the operatic public is familiar as a rule are sufficiently surrounded by the mists of antiquity and obscurity that the contemplation of them arouse little thought of the incongruity which their appearance as operatic heroes ought to create. Henry the Fowler in “Lohengrin,” Mark in “Tristan und Isolde,” the unnumbered Pharaoh in “Aida,” Herod in. “Salomé” and “Hérodiade,” and the few other kings, if there are any more with whom the present generation of opera-goers have a personal acquaintance, so to speak, are more or less merely poetical creations whom we seldom if ever think of in connection with veritable history. Even Boris Godounoff is to us more a picture out of a book, like the Macbeth whom he so strongly resembles from a theatrical point of view, than the monarch who had a large part in the making of the Russian people. The Roman censor-ship prevented us long ago from making the acquaintance of the Gustavus of Sweden whom Ankerstrom stabbed to death at a masked ball, by transmogrifying him into the absurdly impossible figure of a Governor of Boston; and the Claudius of Ambroise Thomas’s opera is as much a ghost as Hamlet’s father, while Debussy’s blind King is as much an abstraction as is Mélisande herself.
Operatic dukes we know in plenty, though most of them have come out of the pages of romance and are more or less acceptable according to the vocal ability of their representatives. When Caruso sings “La donna è mobile” we care little for the profligacy of Verdi’s Duke of Mantua and do not inquire whether or not such an individual ever lived. Moussorgsky’s Czar Boris ought to interest us more, however. The great bell-tower in the Kremlin which he built, and the great bell a shattered monument of one of his futile ambitions have been seen by thousands of travellers who never took the trouble to learn that the tyrant who had the bell cast laid a serfdom upon the Russian people which endured down to our day. Boris, by the way, picturesque and dramatic figure that he is as presented to us in history, never got upon the operatic stage until Moussorgsky took him in hand. Two hundred years ago a great German musician, Mattheson, as much scholar as composer if not more, set him to music, but the opera was never performed. Peter the Great, who came a century after Boris, lived a life more calculated to invite the attention of opera writers, but even he escaped the clutches of dramatic composers except Lortzing, who took advantage of the romantic episode of Peter’s service as ship carpenter in Holland to make him the hero of one of the most sparkling of German comic operas. Lortzing had a successor in the Irishman T. S. Cooke, but his opera found its way into the limbo of forgotten things more than a generation ago, while Lortzing’s still lives on the stage of Germany. Peter deserved to be celebrated in music, for it was in his reign that polyphonic music, albeit of the Italian order, was introduced into the Russian church and modern instrumental music effected an entrance into his empire. But I doubt if Peter was sincerely musical ; in his youth he heard only music of the rudest kind. He was partial to the bagpipes and, like Nero, played upon that instrument.
To come back to Bonaparte and music. “Ma-dame Sans-Gêne” is an operatic version of the drama which Sardou developed out of a little one-act play dealing with a partly fictitious, partly historical story in which Napoleon, his marshal Lefèbvre, and a laundress were the principal figures. Whether or not the great Corsican could be justified as a character in a lyric drama was a mooted question when Giordano conceived the idea of making an opera out of the play. It is said that Verdi remarked something to the effect that the question depended upon what he would be called upon to sing, and how he would be expected to sing it. The problem was really not a very large or difficult one, for all great people are turned into marionettes when transformed into operatic heroes.
In the palmy days of bel canto no one would have raised the question at all, for then the greatest characters in history moved about the stage in stately robes and sang conventional arias in the conventional manner. The change from old-fashioned opera to regenerated lyric drama might have simplified the problem for Giordano, even if his librettist had not already done so by reducing Napoleon to his lowest terms from a dramatic as well as historical point of view. The heroes of eighteenth-century opera were generally feeble-minded lovers and nothing more; Giordano’s Napoleon is only a jealous husband who helps out in the dénouement of a play which is concerned chiefly with other people.
In turning Sardou’s dramatic personages into operatic puppets a great deal of bloodletting was necessary and a great deal of the characteristic charm of the comedy was lost, especially in the cases of Madame Sans-Gène herself and Napoleon’s sister ; but enough was left to make a practicable opera. There were the pictures of all the plebeians who became great folk later concerned in the historical incidents which lifted them up. There were also the contrasted pictures which resulted from the great transformation, and it was also the ingratiating incident of the devotion of Lefèbvre to the stout-hearted, honest little woman of the people who had to try to be a duchess. All this was fair operatic material, though music has a strange capacity for refining stage characters as well as for making them colorless. Giordano could not do himself justice as a composer without refining the expression of Caterina Huebscher, and so his Duchess of Dantzic talks a musical language at least which Sardou’s washer-woman could not talk and remain within the dramatic verities. Therefore we have “Madame Sans-Gêne” with a difference, but not one that gave any more offence than operatic treatment of other fine plays have accustomed us to.
To dispose of the artistic merits of the opera as briefly as possible, it may be said that in more ways than one Giordano has in this work harked back to “Andrea Chenier, ” the first of his operas which had a hearing in America. The parallel extends to some of the political elements of the book as well as its musical investiture with its echoes of the popular airs of the period of the French Revolution. The style of writing is also there, though applied, possibly, with more mature and refined skill. I cannot say with as much ingenuousness and freshness of invention, however. Its spirit in the first act, and largely in the second, is that of the opéra bouffe, but there are many pages of “Madame Sans-Gêne” which I would gladly exchange for any one of the melodies of Lecocq, let us say in “La Fille de Mme. Angot.” Like all good French music which uses and imitates them, it is full of crisp rhythms largely developed from the old dances which, originally innocent, were de-graded to base uses by the sans-culottes; and so there is an abundance of life and energy in the score though little of the distinction, elegance, and grace that have always been characteristic of French music, whether high-born or low. The best melody in the modem Italian vein flows in the second act when the genuine affection and fidelity of Caterina find expression and where a light touch is combined with consider-able warmth of feeling and a delightful daintiness of orchestral color. Much of this is out of harmony with the fundamental character of Sardou’s woman, but music cannot deny its nature. Only a Moussorgsky could make a drunken monk talk truthfully in music.
If Giordano’s opera failed to make a profound impression on the New York public, it was not because that public had not had opportunity to learn the quality of his music. His “Andrea Chenier” had been produced at the Academy of Music as long before as November 13, 1896. With it the redoubt-able Colonel Mapleson went down to his destruction in America. It was one of the many strange incidents in the career of Mr. Oscar Hammerstein as I have related them in my book entitled “Chapters of Opera”‘ that it should have been brought back by him twelve years later for a single performance at the Manhattan Opera House. In the season of 1916-1917 it was incorporated in the repertory of the Boston-National Opera Company and carried to the principal cities of the country. On December 16, 1906, Mr. Heinrich Conried thought that the peculiar charms of Madame Cavalieri, combined with the popularity of Signor Caruso, might give habitation to Giordano’s setting of an opera book made out of Sardou’s “Fédora” ; but it endured for only four performances in the season of 1906-1907 and three in the next, in which Conried’s career came to an end. In reviving “Andrea Chenier” Mr. Hammerstein may have had visions of future triumphs for its composer, for a few weeks before (on February 5, 1908) he had brought forward the same composer’s “Siberia,” which gave some promise of life, though it died with the season that saw its birth.
The critical mind seems disposed to look with kindness upon new works in proportion as they fall back in the corridors of memory ; and so I am inclined to think that of the four operas by Giordano which I have heard “Andrea Chenier” gives greatest promise of a long life. The attempt to put music to “Fédora” seemed to me utterly futile. Only those moments were musical in the accepted sense of the word when the action of the drama ceased, as in the case of the intermezzo, or when the old principles of operatic construction waked into life again as in the confession of the hero-lover. Here, moreover, there comes into the score an element of novelty, for the confession is extorted from Lorris while a virtuoso is entertaining a drawing-roomful of people with a set pianoforte solo. As for the rest of the opera, it seems sadly deficient in melody beautiful either in itself or as an expression of passion. “Andrea Chenier” has more to commend it. To start with, there is a good play back of it, though the verities of history were not permitted to hamper the imagination of Signor Illica, the author of the book. The hero of the opera is the patriotic poet who fell under the guillotine in 1794 at the age of thirty-two. The place which Saint-Beuve gave him in French letters is that of the greatest writer of classic verse after Racine and Boileau. The operatic story is all fiction, more so, indeed, than that of “Madame Sans-Gêne.” As a matter of fact, the veritable Chenier was thrown into prison on the accusation of having sheltered a political criminal, and was beheaded together with twenty-three others on a charge of having engaged in a conspiracy while in prison. In the opera he does not die for political reasons, though they are alleged as a pretext, but because he has crossed the love-path of a leader of the revolution.
When Giordano composed “Siberia,” he followed the example of Mascagni and Puccini (if he did not set the example for them) by seeking local color and melodic material in the folk-songs of the country in which his scene was laid. Puccini went to Japan for musical ideas and devices to trick out his “Madama Butterfly” as Mascagni had done in “Iris.” Giordano, illustrating a story of political oppression in “Siberia,” called in the aid of Russian melodies. His exiles sing the heavy-hearted measures of the bargemen of the Volga, “Ay ouchnem,” the forceful charm of which few Russian composers have been able to resist. He introduced also strains of Easter music from the Greek church, the popular song known among the Germans as “Schöne Minka” and the “Glory” song (Slava) which Moussorgsky had forged into a choral thunderbolt in his “Boris Godounoff.” It is a stranger coincidence that the “Slava” melody should have cropped up in the operas of Giordano and Moussorgsky than that the same revolutionary airs should pepper the pages of “Madame Sans-Gêne” and “Andrea Chenier.” These operas are allied in subject and period and the same style of composition is followed in both.
Chenier goes to his death in the opera to the tune of the ” Marseillaise ” and the men march past the windows of Caterina Huebscher’s laundry singing the refrain of Roget de Lisle’s hymn. But Giordano does not make extensive use of the tune in “Madame Sans-Gêne.” It appears literally at the place mentioned and surges up with fine effect in a speech in which the Duchess of Dantzic overwhelms the proud sisters of Napoleon ; but that is practically all. The case is different with two other revolutionary airs. The first crash of the orchestra launches us into “La Carmagnole,” whose melody provides the thematic orchestral substratum for nearly the entire first scene. It is an innocent enough tune, differing little from hundreds of French vaudeville melodies of its period, but Giordano injects vitriol into its veins by his harmonies and orchestration. With all its innocence this was the tune which came from the raucous throats of politically crazed men and women while noble heads tumbled into the bloody sawdust, while the spoils of the churches were carried into the National Convention in 1793, and to which “several members, quitting their curule chairs, took the hands of girls flaunting in priests’ vestures” and danced a wild rout, as did other mad wretches when a dancer was worshipped as the Goddess of Reason in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Caterina’s account of the rude familiarity with which she is treated by the soldiery (I must assume a knowledge of Sardou’s play which the opera follows) is set to a melody of a Russian folk-song cast in the treatment of which Russian influences may also be felt ; but with the first shouts of the mob attacking the Tuileries in the distance the characteristic rhythmical motif of the “Ça ira” is heard muttering in the basses. Again a harmless tune which in its time was perverted to a horrible use ; a lively little contradance which graced many a cotillion in its early days, but which was roared and howled by the mob as it carried the beauteous head of the Lam-balle through the streets of Paris on a pike and thrust it almost into the face of Marie Antoinette.
Of such material and a pretty little dance (“La Fricassée”) is the music of the first act, punctuated by cannon shots, made. It is all rhythmically stir-ring, it flows spiritedly, energetically along with the current of the play, never retarding it for a moment, but, unhappily, never sweetening it with a grain of pretty sentiment or adorning it with a really graceful contour. There is some graciousness in the court scene, some archness and humor in the scene in which the Duchess of Dantzic submits to the adornment of her person, some dramatically strong declamation in the speeches of Napoleon, some simulation of passion in the love passages of Lefebvre and of Neipperg; but as a rule the melodic flood never reaches high tide.