Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Opera that Caused a Revolution

In the 20th century the values and dreams of the middle class were expressed in the cinema, but in the 19th century it was opera. But opera, as it was largely supported by the state, was also the site for nationalism and the expression of the shared history of the nation. In France, the government was the direct sponsor of opera and one opera in particular had a fascinating history as it is linked to not one, but two revolutions. This was La muette de Portici an unusual opera in several ways, not least because it took its name from a non-singing character. The libretto was by Eugene Scribe, creator of dozens of dramas set by every opera composer of the era. La muette, with music by Daniel Auber, is a five-act tragedy very like a Hollywood blockbuster of today. In the last act the characters and complications accumulate on stage in a truly grand finale with the leading characters, members of a love triangle, a crowd of fishermen, the advancing army of the Viceroy, a crowd of revolutionaries, and the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. Spielberg and Lucas have nothing on this!

The regime felt perfectly comfortable promoting this story because the moral was that revolutions, all revolutions, go badly, with the ordinary people suffering the most. The audiences however, took rather a different moral and were inspired by the heroic way the people were depicted. The opera was performed in 1828 by the Paris Opera and has been described as an "accessory before the fact" to the July Revolution of 1830 that ended the Restoration and made France a constitutional monarchy.

The runaway hit bestseller from the opera, disseminated in sheet music and barrel organ cylinders where it was heard everywhere on the street was a duet from Act II, "Amour sacree de la patrie" (Sacred love of fatherland). This was applauded with special fervor at every performance as a kind of anti-government demonstration.

When the opera was premiered in Belgium, then a protectorate of the Netherlands, in August of 1830, the authorities were especially concerned and cut out great portions of the opera, particularly scenes of mob violence. But they left in "Amour sacre de la patrie". It was so well-known by then that the whole audience was on their feet singing along. By the end of Act IV, most of the audience had left the theater and joined a growing crowd that occupied the offices of the newspaper, courthouse and Hotel de Ville, the main government offices. Then they stormed the municipal armory. In a few days the revolution had spread to the rest of Belgium and the Dutch withdrew. Within a few months, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had been installed as king of the Belgians. His descendants still rule Belgium as sovereign monarchs to this day.

Now let's listen to that rabble-rousing duet from La Muete de Portici. For some reason, Blogger refuses to embed the link. Here is the URL on YouTube. The big tune starts at the 1:26 mark:

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