“Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame” or “The Juggler of Notre-Dame” an opera in three acts with score by Jules Massenet and as text the poem of Maurice Una, was first produced in 1902 at the theatre of Monte Carlo.
Jean, the juggler. Boniface, the cook of the abbey. The priest. A poet monk. A painter monk. A musician monk. A sculptor monk. Two angels. The Virgin, an apparition.
Monks, voices of invisible angels, cavaliers, villagers, peasants, merchants, clerks, a crier monk, a comical fellow, a drunkard.
On a May-day in the Fourteenth Century, the people are frolicking in the square overlooked by the abbey, above whose door is placed a statue of the Virgin. With their songs mingle the cries of the merchants extolling such articles as leeks, cream cheeses, and white cabbages. Soon into the general tumult steal the notes of a hurdy-gurdy. The peasants, glad of a new diversion, give attention, and Jean arrives, grinding out a tune and bowing right and left. “Give place for the king of jugglers ! ” he says, quite grandly. He is very thin and wan and shabby and titters are heard from the crowd. ” The king is not very splendid, truly a king of pitiful mien,” comments one. ” His Majesty, King Famine,” announces another and the titters become roars.
Jean begins a grand harangue about the wonders of his performance but the crowd interrupts him to dance about the pathetic figure. As soon as he can evade them, he passes the wooden bowl. Only one piece of money rattles into it. A look of radiant gratitude comes into his face but a second glance drives it away, for the coin is bad.
Still hopeful, he begins his performance. ” I can draw eggs from a hat,” he suggests. ” That old trick,” sniffs the contemptuous audience. ” I know the hoop dance,” and he makes a few heavy turns. ” Such lightsome grace,” they remark, ironically, and dance about him again. ” Shall I sing then?” he pleads, hoping against hope to light upon some way to please them. ” Will the gentlemen have a love song ? ” The cries of the vendors drown his voice. “A battle song ? ” “No! no ! He mentions several by name. All are old stories and they will have none of them. He timidly enumerates all his repertory. At last in his desperation and against the inclinations of his truly pious soul, he proposes a sacrilegious drinking song and, behold ! it is what they want. First he turns to the Virgin to implore her pardon, explaining his hunger and necessity, and then playing a prelude on the hurdy-gurdy, he regret-fully begins his song, the people joining boisterously in the chorus.
Suddenly the abbey doors open and the priest appears upon the steps to hurl reproaches and maledictions at the irreverent crowd. All run away but Jean, who falls upon his knees and begs piteously to be forgiven. The priest has no leniency. Only hell is for such as he. Jean, crushed, falls on his face and finally drags himself before the Virgin to plead with her. The holy man, softened at last by his agony of soul, admits that there is one way to secure forgiveness for his transgression and that is to become a monk.
All his life Jean has had but one mistress, Liberty. It is hard to give her up but the priest argues unanswerably, and to crown it all, Friar Boniface, the cook, comes in carrying paniers full of flowers and food and bottles. Savory odors issue from the refectory and he hears the chanted grace. “Come,” invites the priest, ” to the table.” ” To the table ! ” repeats hungry Jean in ecstasy, and with a humble genuflection, he goes in, carrying his juggler’s box.
In the second act, we find Jean a monk but humble, contrite and regretful. What homage can he do the Virgin? He cannot even sing, or pray to her in Latin. Feeling keenly his unworthiness, he remains silent and apart and the others chide him, all save Boniface, the cook. Humbly he acknowledges his fault. Well he knows that not one day since gentle Mary led him to this shelter has he earned his bread. Stupid, ignorant, he does nothing but eat and drink.
“A’ juggler, what a trade!” mocks the sculptor monk. Jean may be his pupil. There is nothing so great as sculpture. “Ah,” says the painter monk, ” You forget the brush. Painting is the great art.” “No,” cries the poet monk, coming up, “the place of honor goes to poetry,” ” But music ascends straight to heaven,” insists a fourth voice. It is the musician monk. The discussion is heated indeed when the priest arrives to still the troubled waters with Latin admonitions.
Jean sits with his head in his hands. “Only I offer nothing to Mary,” he sighs pathetically. But comforting Boniface is near. ” Do not envy them, Jean,” he counsels. ” They are proud and Paradise is not for such as they. When I prepare a good repast, do I not do a work as meritorious? I am a sculptor of nougats ; a painter in the color of my creams; a capon cooked to perfection is worth a thousand poems; a ravishing symphony is a table where order reigns. But, you see, to please the Virgin I remain quite modest, quite simple.” ” But, alas, I am too simple. She loves Latin and I know it not.” “But she listens to French too,” says the reassuring Boniface. He reminds Jean that Jesus greeted with the same smile the magi with their gold and myrrh and frankincense and the poor shepherd who had nothing to bring but an air played upon a reed pipe.
The last words linger in Jean’s ears : “The poor shepherd his reed pipe.” What light illumines his soul! The shepherd, the juggler are worth as much to Mary as the king !
In the last act is seen the painter monk’s new representation of the Virgin placed over the altar. The monks enter the chapel. Jean is before them, though he does not see them. He is on his knees in humble prayer. His hurdy-gurdy and his juggler’s wallet are beside him. ” He is mad,” whisper the monks watching, “let us warn the priest.” They see Jean salute the Virgin. “Give place,” he cries in the accustomed words, “It is Jean, king of the jugglers ! You prefer, perhaps, a love romance?” he inquires naively. He begins on several, but his memory fails him. “And now do you wish some juggling, some sorcery? Shall devils and griffins be evoked?” He stops ashamed. “It is force of habit. Between us, I do exaggerate,” he falters, “the harangue is never absolutely true, you know.” He juggles, he dances. The priest comes and would fall upon him but Boniface restrains him. At last, dizzy and exhausted, Jean falls prostrate in profound adoration. The indignant monks are about to precipitate themselves upon him when Boniface points to the Virgin. A light glows in her eyes. A divine smile touches her lips. From the canvas her hands extend over him in a maternal gesture. About them sound the voices of invisible angels.
“A miracle ! A miracle ! ” cry the brotherhood. “Here am I,” cries Jean, rapturously, and he falls dying into the arms of the priest. And voices of monks and of angels mingle as his soul takes its flight.