Herbergprinses in Manhattan
[Het was de legendarische operadirecteur en impresario Oscar Hammerstein (1846-1919) die in het seizoen 1908-1909 Princesse d'Auberge van Jan Blockx naar de Verenigde Staten haalde en in zijn Manhattan Opera House monteerde. Hammerstein had een neus voor succes: hij zorgde ook voor de Amerikaanse premières van Elektra en Pelléas et Mélisande. Zijn operagezelschap telde een Belgische zanger, met name de bariton Armand Crabbé. Crabbé zong mee in de New Yorkse opvoering van Blockx' Princesse d'Auberge. U leest eerst een voorbeschouwing bij de uitvoering, gevolgd door de recensie na de eerste opvoering.]
Belgian Opera for Hammerstein
Princesse d'Auberge by Jan Blockx of Antwerp to Be Given at Manhattan Opera House.
Though the opera Princesse d'Auberge, by the Belgian composer, Jan Blockx, announced for the coming season at the Manhattan Opera House, is entirely new to this country, it has been known in Europe since 1896, when it was first performed, with the original libretto in Flemish, at the Flemish Opera House at Antwerp. Their its success was so great that the Flemish words of Nestor de Tière were put into French by Gustave Lagye and the opera in its new form was soon given at Brussels, Ghent, Bordeaux, and other cities, while the original version continued triumphant in other opera houses of Belgium. It has also been given in Amsterdam and other success.
Jan Blockx, the composer, was born at Antwerp in 1851, and got his first taste of music as a choir boy in his native city. Subsequently he was a pupil at the Antwerp School of Music. At an early age he composed a number of songs in the old Flemish style which at once became popular. Next he essayed chamber music and cantatas, producing four successful works of the latter kind Het Droom van 't Paradies, De Klokke Roelandt, Vredesang and Op den Stroom. With the one-act opera Iets Vergeten he made his Dutch cities and has everywhere met with début as a dramatic composer in 1877.
Having finished his musical education at the Leipzig Conservatorium, he settles at Antwerp, where, in 1888, he obtained the position of teacher at the local conservatory. After being made Director of the Cercle Artistique, he, in 1902, succeeded Benoit, the pioneer of the National Flemish movement music in music, as Director of the Antwerp Conservatory. Fame first came to Blockx through the ballet Milenka, which was given with great success at the Théâtre de la Monnaie at Brussels in 1886. After that came his comic opera Maître Martin, performed also at Brussels, in 1892.
Princesse d'Auberge, composed four years later, was welcomed with enthusiasm throughout his native land, and made Blockx' fame secure. But he has not rested on the laurels won by the work to be given next season at the Manhattan. His Thiel Uylenspiegel, performed at Brussels in 1900, heightened his fame, while La Fiancée de la Mer, first produced in 1903, won even greater success. Since then he has produced another opera entitled Kapel, and a cantata Die Scheldenzang, performed five years ago at Antwerp in open air. Blockx' music is said to show an interesting personality. In his harmony and orchestration, he betrays the influence of the ultra-modern school, but, unlike so many of his fellow-moderns he has been singularly successful in avoiding slavish imitation of Wagner.
The scene of Princesse d'Auberge is laid at Brussels about 1750, when the city was under Austrian rule. The curtain rises on a square, in the vicinity of the Grande Place. On the right is a small inn. Day is breaking. Rabo, a blacksmith, a former lover of Rita, the mistress of the inn, is lying on the threshold of the inn, sunk in drunken sleep. Country people begin to troop in with little carts filled with fruits and vegetables. Some of these carts are drawn by dogs, as is the custom in Belgium. The country people are singing a joyous song. One young fellow, coming on with his father, points out the inn, remarking that it is the house of Rita. His father hastily leads the young man away, observing that Rita is a demon.
Then Reinhilde, a young girl of the bourgeois class, crosses the square on her way to church and avows her love for Merlyn, a musician, the son of Katelyne, whose adopted daughter Reinhilde is. But Merlyn, she fears, has fallen into the clutches of Rita, the demonlike mistress of the inn. As Reinhilde is about to leave the stage, Marcus, another young musician, supposedly a friend and admirer of Merlyn, approaches Reinhilde and avows his love for her, but she indignantly spurns him, reproaching him with the faithlessness to his friend.
Merrymakers now rush in and proceed to decorate the balcony of Rita's room with flowers in honour of her twentieth birthday. They sing a song extolling her as the most beautiful of women. She appears on the balcony together with her three sisters and thanks them for their good wishes, adding that throughout the day wine and beer will be free for them at the inn. This piece of news makes them surge joyously over the threshold into the drinking room. As they do so, Bluts, Rita's father, the innkeeper, appears with three friends, all intoxicated, singing a wild song. Then Merlyn, the young musician, arrives upon the scene. Marcus, his faithless friend, still smarting under the rebukes administered by Reinhilde, begins to point out insidiously to Merlyn that life is nothing without love, that he cannot hope to compose good music without tasting of the good things on earth. When Merlyn combats this theory, placing art before all else, and announcing that he hopes to compose a song which shall win the prize offered by the Prince of Lorraine for the coming carnival, Marcus continues the same sort of tempting talk, informing his friend that there are other victories beside those in art, the best of all being victories in love.
At this point Rita and groups of wild merrymakers come on the square. Merlyn, visions of glory still strong within him, at first pays no attention to Rita. But she insists on drinking with him, and finally overcomes his better resolutions. He decides to sacrifice all for her. And amid the growlings of the respectable citizens standing at their windows the curtain goes down on an uproarious scene of drinking and revelry, in which Rita and Merlyn take the lead.
The second act takes place in the humble parlor of the house of Katelyne, on the Grande Place of Brussels. The walls are hung with musical instruments belonging to Merlyn, her son. As the curtain goes up Katelyne looks into Merlyn's room and bewails the fact that he is still sleeping, though it is already noon, and that for three months, given over completely to dissipation, he has entirely neglected his musical work. Reinhilde, Katelyne's adopted daughter, whom Merlyn loved before falling under the spell of Rita and her wild companions, now comes on the scene and promises to help the mother in reclaiming her son.
While a carnival chorus resounds on the Grande Place, Merlyn, in a dishevelled state from his last night's debauch, staggers in from his room. He has no more money and decides to give up his idle, vicious life and set to work on the song which he hopes will win him the Prince of Lorraine's prize. He sits at a table and tries to think. Suddenly Reinhilde, whom, he has not as yet perceived, begins to sing softly one of the songs he wrote in other days - a little song about his mother and herself. Deeply moved, the young man promises to mend his ways.
But at this moment the mad songs of the crowds outside sound louder than ever, and Bluts, the innkeeper, with Rabo, the blacksmith, both drunk, lurched into the parlor. Bluts reminds Merlyn that he owes money for drinking bouts at the inn. Reinhilde contemptuously pays the fellow. Merlyn, much ashamed at having sunk so low that drunkards like Bluts and Rabo dare to enter his mother's house and get money from Reinhilde, bewails his unhappy fate in being a slave to Rita.
Again the sounds of carnival resound. Marcus enters. Merlyn upbraids him. 'You taught me to live', he tells Marcus, 'and Rita has taught me to love. But what have I gained?' At this point, when Merlyn is pretty well disgusted with his way of life, Rita herself suddenly appears. She is accompanied by her three sisters and eight others, all in carnival costume. Rita represents the goddess Flora, and is dressed in a white garment covered with flowers. In one hand she carries a blue cloak. In her role of Flora, she announces to Merlyn that he is Zephir, her bridegroom. At first he tries to withstand her cajoleries, but finally yields completely. She places over his shoulders the blue cloak, and crowns him with a wreath of flowers. As she disappears with the revelers, his mother and Reinhilde arrive from church. At sight of the young girl's despair, Marcus, smiles wickedly and vows that Reinhilde shall be his. The scene changes, showing the Grande Place at the very height of the carnival revelry. After wild songs in praise of love and youth all make way for a grand procession. In the centre, crowned with flowers, are Rita and Merlyn.
The third act shows the interior of Rita's inn. Rabo, the blacksmith, her discarded lover, reproaches the girl with her abandonment of him, an honest man of her own class, for the musician Merlyn. She answers haughtily. Rabo gives way to uncontrolled anger. 'You have made a dog of me', he cries. 'Take care, the dog will bite!' Katelyne, Merlyn's mother, and Reinhilde now come in and beg Rita to give up Merlyn, who, the surmise, is at the inn. Rita denies it, and orders them away. Reinhilde, losing her temper, announces that she will complain to the Prince of Lorraine and have the inn closed, but Rita laughs in her face.
Merlyn appears from the interior of the inn. In the midst of a group of artists and other costumers of the place, he gives himself up once more to drinking and revelry. Marcus enters, and calls for a song. Rita responds with one which Merlyn has composed for her. It is received with great applause. He orders drink for all. 'Tomorrow I'll pay for it', he declares. 'That song to Rita will win the prize offered by the Prince of Lorraine.' All drink to his success. Suddenly Rabo enters with five friends, men of the lower class like himself. The call for drink. Nobody pays any attention. Rabo and his friends begin to destroy furniture and glasses. The rest of the customers, picking up chairs and stools, make preparations to fight the newcomers. Rita orders Rabo and his companions to leave. 'I am the mistress here!' she cries.
'You were mine long enough', growls Rabo. 'You lie!' declare Rita and Merlyn.
Rabo insults Merlyn and draws his knife. Then he throws it at Merlyn's feet. The musician picks it up. Rabo, seizing the knife of a friend, cries, 'Victory to the strongest.' 'So be it!' agrees Merlyn. The partisans of each fall back, allowing the two rivals a clear field. They begin to fight. Merlyn wounds Rabo in the arm. The blacksmith, with a savage yell, hurls himself at Merlyn. Unable to withstand the assault, the musician receives the blade of the knife squarely in his breast. He falls. 'Victory to the strongest!' repeats Rabo. And he quietly gives himself up to the soldiers summoned by some of the bystanders.
Suddenly loud cries of 'Merlyn! Glory to Merlyn!' are heard on the square outside. People crowd into the room, with them Katelyne, Merlyn's mother and Reinhilde. Both are radiant, for Merlyn's song has won the prize. Seeing Merlyn stretched on the floor dying, both women kneel beside him, heartbroken. Then Reinhilde, standing up, seizes a knife and approaches Rita. Rita makes no attempt to defend herself. But suddenly Reinhilde stops.
'Eternal remorse is worse than death!' she cries, dropping the knife. And while Merlyn expires on the floor his prize song peals forth joyously from the chimes on the city's churches.
New Blockx Opera at the Manhattan
First Performance in This Country of Princesse d'Auberge
Large Audience Hears it.
Flemish Opera with Little Local Color in Music - Mme. Labia, M. Vallès, Mme. Zeppilli, and M. Crabbé in Chief Parts.
At the Manhattan Opera House last evening another of the promised novelties of the season was produced, Princesse d'Auberge, music by Jan Blockx, libretto by Nestor de Tière. It was given for the first time in America. There was a large audience that heard the performance with interest, if not often with positive enthusiasm; yet the enthusiasm rose to a high pitch after the close of the carnival scene of the second act, and was so great as to cause the repetition of the duet and the final chorus. The title of the opera is French, and was produced in French, but its original tongue is Flemish, and both composer and librettist, lay much stress on the nationality of their work.
They have accepted the translation of it into French as an unavoidable necessity with as much resignation as they could command. Both are Flemish, and both belong to the school of musicians and literary men who are engaged in bringing about a revival of Flemish art in music, the drama, and literature. They are seeking to re-establish the native Flemish tongue and the Flemish spirit in art on its native soil, from which it has been ousted for long years by the French influences that have prevailed among the educated classes in Belgium recently.
Princesse de Auberge, as it has been described in this journal, represents the life of Brussels in the middle of the eighteenth century. It turns upon the passion of Rita, the mistress of an inn, for Merlyn, a young musician, and the demoralizing influence of his seduction from the soberer parts of his art, his home, and the love of the gentle Reinilde. There are cross currents of rivalry and jealousy, as of the false friend Marcus, who first turns the young musician's fancy toward the charms of Rita, in order himself to gain the affections of Reinilde, and of Rabo, a blacksmith, who is in love with Rita, and in the end kills his rival in her affections. There are brilliant choral scenes, representations of the bustling life of burgess Brussels, the noisy and demonstrative popular festivals, culminating in an elaborate carnival pageant in the finale of the second act.
It is presumably easier to found a Flemish art in literature and the drama than in music. The language, the scene, the action of people, and the depiction of life, characters, manners and customs may all be made as Flemish as possible; but is there a substratum of Flemish folk song, of Flemish national music, of sufficiently pronounced individuality and special character to make the music of a Flemish opera recognizably Flemish to the outside world? Flemish critics have declared that Blockx's music, in its melodies is drawn from the Flemish soil. It is impossible, in this latitude and longitude, to discover, much of this in Princesse d'Auberge.
There is but one recognizably Flemish theme in the work, a popular song introduced deliberately, and marked as a Flemish popular tune in the score. There are a few themes in the popular choruses that might turn out to be such tunes. Otherwise there is nothing that is not the invention of the composer, and he has clearly sought for themes that shall illustrate the situation, the persons, the feelings and emotions of his characters without regard to the local colour of their surroundings. He has not sought, for instance, to make his music as unmistakably Flemish as Smetana in The Bartered Bride sought to make his Bohemian. And very probably Blockx had not the material to do it with.
Blockx in his music is an "eclectic" so far as Princesse d'Auberge discloses his musicianship. He has obviously been influenced by Wagner both in the quality and outline of some of his themes and in his use of them, for he makes them "leading motives" and has filled his score with them. He has even marked the names of them for the satisfaction of the curious. He is far, however, from using them in the Wagnerian manner of developing them into a broad symphonic fabric. They are juxtaposed, repeated, reiterated in various harmonic guises and rhythmic forms, but scarcely developed. There is a remarkable diversity in the musical character of these themes; some are of the severest sort, hinting of tragedy; there are a number of frank waltz rhythms and other dance tunes that the composer does not hesitate at times to combine with them. He seems to have indeed, a special fondness for the slow waltz, and this movement is not absent from any of his scenes for long.
That Blockx's music has a strongly melodic character and a vivid picturesque effect in many passages is undeniable. It is also true that there are stretches of dullness. He has been especially successful in the choruses of the people, not only the elaborate scene in the second act, but also in the first, where the active, everyday life of a public square in Brussels is depicted and where the very taking morning serenade to Rita is sung by a chorus of men; also in the tavern scene of the last act. His orchestration is often effective, though not to be put among the finest specimens of modern skill in that art, and there seems to be conditions, and even deficiencies, at times that are not easily explicable. He has used bells, large and small, in the carnival scene with some striking results.
As a lyric drama Princesse d'Auberge shows certain defects on the part of both the librettist and the composer that go hand in hand with each other. The action of the drama is very little developed until the last act, which had vigorous and direct movement of a melodramatic order. The characters engage in long musical dialogues or soliloquies, but they do little of immediate dramatic interest through the first two acts of the opera. The story that is unfolded is, as was suggested in these columns the other day, one that has often done duty before on the stage, and there are not a few operatic prototypes of the heroine, Rita, the most obvious being Carmen.
The action is not of a sort deeply to interest or to engage the listener's attention. Nor are the personages either strongly drawn by the dramatist or strongly characterized by the composer's music. Rita, as she passes through the scenes of the opera, scarcely suggests the power she has upon the young musician, nor the place she seems to occupy in the minds of the townspeople. Merlyn seems to lack positive character or will, and there is no evidence in his doings or his musical utterance of any inward struggles that would leave a strong impression upon the observer or interest him greatly in his doings. Reinhilde, the good angel of the piece, has something more than the force and individuality of Micaela in Carmen, and her music has likewise something more of individual suggestion than that of the rest. Katelyne is a conventional stage mother in most aspects. It is not, therefore, strange that the composer has not found strong differentiation and characteristic traits in his music for personages whom the librettist has outlined so indifferently.
It seems evident that Mr. Tière, the librettist, devised his book with the special object of giving the composer an opportunity for his popular scenes, his choral ensembles, and put his work into this sort of a frame, seeking, as far as possible, to multiply the picturesque episodes which can be vivified and heightened in effect by music. It is to such passages, it may be conjectured, that Blockx owes much of the success of his work, not only in Belgium, but outside of it as well. There are absurdities in Princesse d'Auberge of a purely and conventionally operatic description as the lovemaking between Rita and Merlyn in the first act in the public square before the assembled multitude, and, in the second act, the extraordinary freedom of entrance into the Widow Katelyne's house, which everybody in Brussels seems to possess, down to the innkeeper and the blacksmith.
On the other hand, it is well to consider the probability that none of the principal characters of Princesse d'Auberge as it is presented here, are set forth as the librettist and the musician conceived them, and that, therefore, their work is not finally to be judged from this presentation. There is need of a certain downright vigor, a vehemence at times bordering on boisterousness, a broad Netherlandish heartiness and romantic sentimentality in the depiction of these personages. Big voices, strongly marked dramatic action, a strong flavor throughout are the requisites. The picture must be painted in vivid and impressionistic coloring. Now the chief characters are all given to singers of Latin blood, who are strangers to the rude growths of the Netherlandish soul.
Mme. Labia as Rita, Mr. Vallès as Merlyn, Mme. Gerville-Réache as Kateleyne, Mme. Zeppilli as Reinhilde give sincere and painstaking impersonations of those parts, but there is just the difference between the Italian and the Flemish that they do not bridge over. There is also some pretty inefficient singing from Mr. Vallès, Mme. Labia, and Mme. Zeppilli. Mr. Vallès's' voice, is far from having the power or the high range that the music requires. It should be said for him, however, that he learned the part at very short notice after others to whom it had been assigned had declined it.
There are three members of the cast who have taken part in representations of Princesse d'Auberge in Belgium - Messrs. Gilibert as Bluts, the innkeeper; Dufranne as Rabo, the jealous blacksmith, and Crabbé as Marcus the false friend of Merlyn. These, though they appear in parts which are more or less subordinate, give the truest interpretations of them - they gave a taste of the flavor which should strongly pervade the whole opera. Mr. Dufranne is immensely vigorous and has the true touch of brutality as the blacksmith both in his singing and his acting. Mr. Gilbert presents a rich and unctuous study of comic character, and Mr. Crabbé is intelligent in his impersonation, though he scarcely makes of it a sharply defined picture, and sings well.
The performance bore some evidences of hasty preparation, and did not progress with the security and swinging vigour, the finish of detail that there might have been. There have been pains spent on the mounting of the piece. The scenery representing the public squares in Brussels, especially that of the great market place, reproducing the picturesque old buildings there, are well painted. There had been additions to the chorus for the carnival scene, and this was presented with a real magnificence of effect, in the massing and movement of the choral forces, the variety of costume and colour, the picturesque floats, and all that went to make up a rich ensemble. Mr. Campanari conducted the opera with great zeal and energy.
[N.N.]: Belgian Opera for Hammerstein, in: The New York Times, 30 augustus 1908] & [N.N.]: New Blockx Opera at the Manhattan, in: The New York Times, 11 maart 1909]