“Le Prophete,” or “The Prophet,” is a grand opera in five acts, the music by Giacomo Meyerbeer and the text by Scribe. It was first presented in Paris, April 16, 1849. Meyerbeer bestowed the greatest care upon its creation, working upon it intermittently for thirteen years.
John of Leyden, the Prophet, chosen leader of the Anabaptists. Bertha, his sweetheart. Fides, mother of John of Leyden. Count Oberthal, ruler of the domain about Dordrecht. Zacarie, Gione, three Anabaptist preachers. Mathisen, Nobles, citizens, peasants, soldiers, prisoners.
The scene of the opera is laid in Holland and Germany in 1543, at the time of the Anabaptist uprising and has for its hero the historical character, John of Leyden. The first act opens in Dordrecht, where Fides, mother of John of Leyden, keeps an inn and where is located the castle of the Count of Oberthal. Bertha, a beautiful peasant girl, has just been betrothed to John of Leyden but it is necessary to gain the permission of the Count before the union may be consummated. Fides and the lovers seek the nobleman’s presence but he is so charmed with the girl’s loveliness that he refuses his sanction and claims her for himself, taking her and Fides prisoner.
Meantime, the Anabaptists from Westphalia arrive for the purpose of stirring the people to an insurrection against their rulers. Having spread abroad their false promises, they repair to the hostelry of John of Leyden. They perceive in him a wonderful resemblance to the portrait of David which hangs in the cathedral. John speaks in words of prophecy and his deeply religious bearing convinces them that he will suit their needs as a nominal head. They offer to make him ruler but this affects him little and he assures his tempters that the heart of Bertha is the only kingdom he craves. As they depart, the girl, who has escaped the Count’s vigilance, rushes in to ask protection of her lover. He helps her to conceal herself but the Count follows with Fides and threatens to kill the mother unless the sweetheart is delivered to him. To save his mother, John complies. The Anabaptists coming again to renew their entreaties, he this time submits, hoping that his new power will enable him to crush Oberthal and, without his mother’s knowledge, he is carried forth as their Prophet-King.
The scene now shifts to the Anabaptist camp overlooking Münster, which is in a state of siege. Count Oberthal is brought in a captive and when one of the Anabaptists recognizes him and is about to kill him, John of Leyden interferes. Finding that Bertha has escaped and is now in Münster, John plans to take the city and he and the Anabaptists march upon it, his conscience troubling him, however, at the thirst for blood displayed by his followers.
The next act takes place in the city after its capture.
Fides and Bertha, from the blood-stained clothes left to deceive them, believe that John is dead, and that this new, great Prophet whom they never have seen has been the cause of his death. In the cathedral where the Prophet is to be crowned with great ceremony, Fides recognizes this mighty one as her son and cries aloud, but John disavows her and tells the fanatics to slay him if she does not confirm his denial. In her love for him she declares that she has been mistaken. The Anabaptists fall upon her and take her prisoner. Soon the news comes that the emperor is near the gates and, to save themselves, Zacarie, Gione and Mathisen plot to deliver the Prophet into his hands. John, meanwhile, visits his mother in prison and, convinced by her that he is in error, promises to leave the party.
To the dungeon of the castle comes Bertha who knows that the Prophet is within. She has sworn to kill him and is about to set fire to the gunpowder hidden below them. When she sees the Prophet and realizes that he and John of Leyden are the same, she stabs herself and dies cursing him for his perfidy. John resolves to follow her example. He goes to the banqueting-hall of the castle and joins the revelers. The three betraying Anabaptists enter to give him up. Sending his mother away, he fires the gunpowder he has placed beneath the castle and all perish together in the flames, Fides coming back to share their death.
For magnificent pageantry ” The Prophet ” has few equals. Musically, the work is hardly the equal of its composer’s masterpiece The Huguenots,” but so far as opportunities for the display of stage splendor is concerned it is unsurpassed. The Coronation scene gives opportunity for unlimited pomp and show and the final destruction of the castle permits the theatre mechanician to employ his utmost skill and exhaust all his resources for producing startling effects. The music is dramatic and declamatory rather than pronouncedly lyric.
Among the best of the numbers are Bertha’s brilliant cavatina, “Il cor nel sen” (” My heart beats joyous”); the trio of Anabaptists, ” O, libertade ” (” O liberty”); John’s solo, “Un impero più soave” (” Oh, there’s an empire sweeter”); Fides’ famous aria, “O figlio mio” (“Ah, my son”), the gem of the entire opera; the ballet music of the skaters ; Fides’ song when she is reduced to beggary, ” Pieta, pieta” (” O Give, 0 Give”); the porn-pous coronation music; the duet for John and Fides and John’s drinking song, ” Beviam e intorno ” (” Let us drink, and pass the cup”).