“Nero,” an opera in four acts with music by Anton Rubinstein and text by Jules Barbier, was produced in Hamburg in 1879.
Nero Claudius, Imperator. Julius Vindex, Prince of Aquitania. Tigellinus, Prefect of the Pretorians. Balbillus, an astrologer. Saccus, a poet. Sevirus, High Priest of Evander’s temple. Terpander, Citharist, Agrippina’s freedman. Poppaea Sabina, Otho’s wife, Nero’s mistress. Epicharis, a freedwoman. Chrysa, her daughter. Agrippina, widow of the Emperor Claudius and mother of Nero. Lupus, a Roman gamin. Calpurnius Piso, Faenius Rufus, Sporus, plotters. Valerius Messala, Thraseas Paetus, Senator. Salvius Otho, Governor of Lusitania. Delia, Poppaea’s slave. An aged Christian. The leader of a band of jugglers. A public crier, a street vender, a centurion. Shades: The Emperor Claudius, Britannicus, Seneca, Burrus, Lucanus, Petronius, Octavia and others. Senators, patricians, Augustans, priests, lictors, players, musicians, Christians, Greeks, Gauls, Germans, Ethiopians, slaves, vestals, courtesans, dancers, female slaves.
The opera, like all other chronicles of this ill-famed person, deals in unpleasant deeds. It opens in the house of Epicharis, a courtesan, where a number of prominent Romans are assembled for a feast. Of the company is Vindex, Prince of Aquitania, a man somewhat above the moral standard of the age. As the hostess leads the way to the banquet hall, Chrysa, a lovely young girl, rushes in, falls at the feet of the tarrying Vindex, and, white and trembling, tells him of pursuit by a band of ruffians who, having killed her slave, have cast his body into the river and are now hard upon her track. She begs piteously for protection and, as he promises it, shouts are heard and a party of masked men burst into the apartment. Epicharis indignantly demands the reason of the intrusion and, to the general astonishment, the leader throws off his mask and reveals the dissipated features of the Emperor. Saccus, the poet and sycophant, who by some remark has aroused the imperial anger, now, to divert him, proposes that the victim shall be brought forth and a mock marriage celebrated. Nero welcomes this prospect of a new entertainment with delight and the miserable girl is dragged in to play the bride. Epicharis and Chrysa utter simultaneous cries of astonishment, for they are mother and daughter, the latter being ignorant of the former’s mode of life and living apart from her. Vindex has been upon the alert to protect the girl, but now that he discovers her relationship to this notorious woman, he abandons her cause. The mocking maidens deck her with ornaments; place the bridal wreath upon her brow and admonish her in the duties of wifehood. Nero chooses Saccus for his groomsman and ceremoniously signs the contract. The dice are thrown by Balbillus the astrologer and a joyous life predicted for the two, the company being in convulsions of laughter over the chaste nuptials. Just before the ceremony takes place, Chrysa’s mother brings her a bowl of wine and commands her to drain it and, as the procession starts, the girl suddenly reels and falls as if dead. To save her from a horrible fate, the mother has drugged the wine and Nero is cheated of his bride.
The second act opens in the Imperial Palace in the apartments of Poppaea, the favorite of Nero. She has just learned of the death of Octavia, the wife of Caesar, and believes that now her ambition to share the throne is about to be realized. Nero’s mother, Agrippina, who is in banishment, has heard of her son’s last escapade and has captured Chrysa, whom she plans to present to him as a means of effecting a reconciliation. She has sent Terpander to Rome to pray Nero’s pardon and while the Emperor is singing of the ” loves and griefs of Iphigenia ” and occasionally glancing contemptuously at some victim doomed to death, who is brought before him, Epicharis enters and pleads for the return of her daughter, who has disappeared from her house. Thus Nero learns for the first time that Chrysa is not dead. He rushes forth to find her and in the public square meets Agrippina, to whom he becomes wholly reconciled when she tells him of the gift she has in her power to bestow. In honor of the event, he invites the people to the Circensian games. In the midst of the revelry, the jealous Poppaea leads Vindex and Epicharis to Chrysa, who carry her to temporary safety. Above the tumult is heard the voice of Nero proclaiming himself not only Emperor but God.
The third act discovers Chrysa hidden in a secluded cottage of her mother’s and guarded by Vindex, who declares his honorable love for her. Nero has released the imprisoned Epicharis in order to follow her as a decoy to Chrysa and while Vindex goes to seek a refuge for the women outside the city, Nero appears. He offers the girl a place beside him on the throne but she spurns him and his softness turns to fury. Poppaea follows to remind him that Rome is in flames and with sinister laughter he remembers that it was he who started the conflagration. With Chrysa and her mother dragged in his footsteps, he goes forth gleefully to watch his work. He stops to sing and play upon the wall and intersperses his song with imprecations upon the Christians. At this, Chrysa, who is a convert to the faith, publicly announces the fact and is struck down by the people. In a moment the house, upon the steps of which she lies with her penitent mother bending over her, falls and buries them in its ruins.
In the fourth act, Nero flying from the infuriated people, takes refuge in the mausoleum of Augustus, where the shades of his numerous victims pass before him in review. Terror stricken, he rushes out into the storm. Vindex, who has mustered the legions, is close upon his heels, and the Emperor realizes that the end is near. Exclaiming “Ah! what an artist here will be lost!” he points the dagger at his own breast. As he hesitates, Saccus, who accompanies him, aids him to the accomplishment of the best of his deeds, plunging the weapon into his body and the earth is rid of the greatest of its tyrants. As he falls, dying, there appears in the heavens a shining cross to proclaim the triumph of Christianity.
Rubinstein’s setting of this elaborate tale of lust, vanity and bloodshed is brilliantly colored and, while uneven in values, includes some passages of great beauty. The ballet music in the second act has endured and Chrysa’s song ” Oh mother, oh mother, why from me wert taken? ” is much admired. Other numbers that are attractive are the chorus of maidens at the mock marriage, ” Deck thee with the tunic fair; ” the intonation of the bridal song by Vindex, ” My song to thee, guardian of marriage ; ” ” Crowned my dreams by love,” sung by Poppaea; ” Oh my fate, how remorseless,” the song of Iphigenia sung by Nero ; Chrysa’s prayer, “Father in Heaven, Father of Mercy;” the berceuse of Epicharìs, “Oh sleep my child, free from all sorrow;” Nero’s song while Rome is burning, “O Ilion, O Ilion, thou by the gods upreared in pride ” and the chorus of Gallic Legions, “He sang so much, so much did Casar.”