Here I am, yet again, deeming with the intricacies of a period of time I particularly love: Paris in the second half of the 19th century. This era has always fascinated me: it’s the time of Rodin and Camille Claudel, of Debussy, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. And, of course, the time of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in its catastrophic French debut (160 rehearsals and then some for 3 performances!): this started a querelle between pro-Wagnerian and anti-Wagnerian that would last until after World War I. Georges Bizet came up as the quintessence of anti-wagnerism with his most famous masterpiece, Carmen, endorsed by a Wagnerian of the first hour like Nietzsche, who, as much as was a fan of Wagner in his early years became later one of his most poignant critics.
What captured my attention this time is a rather obscure one-act opera by Bizet: Djamileh. I bumped into it by chance, looking around the web for something totally different.
Carmen has had the merit of making Bizet immortal, but also the flaw of obscuring most of his other works. And yet, Djamileh, written one year ahead of Carmen, was greatly admired by Gustav Mahler, who programmed it and conducted it in Hamburg and Vienna, and, later on, by Richard Strauss, who viewed it as a source of inspiration for his Ariadne auf Naxos. At its first production, though, it was a flop, targeted by the critics as drawing too much from Wagner (quite ironic). The opera disappeared after a handful of performances and is today unknown to large audiences and musicians alike – personally, I had never heard of it till a few days ago.
Bizet himself was aware of the fact that the first production of Djamileh was everything but a success: but not because of the music; too little action and a bunch of so-so singers who barely knew their part, to the point where the soprano skipped some 30 bars in one go. Yet, this first mature opera of Bizet respects all the canons of the time: an exotic country, the rhythm and colors of its music mixed with french tradition, colorful settings and room for a ballet.
Bizet was not much of a traveller, but Djamileh, like most operas of that period takes place in a foreign country: librettists tended to set operas in countries where French economic interests were strong. Like every good artist, he travelled with his imagination: the opera sets the mood right from the start for a fairy tale, in a Cairo palace with backstage choir and smoking water pipes with Bizet overcoming the lack of action in the libretto with evocative music and wonderful orchestration. This is certainly one of those works that would deserve to be revived.
Oh, and for once, I like an opera in which nobody dies!
Here’s a (vocal) score of the opera: https://archive.org/stream/djamilehopraco00bize#page/n5/mode/2up
and here‘s a YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBgp-vBQuLw