13 Mar 2006


Some opera sets are meant to be an introduction to the work presented. They contain a booklet which tells you about the life of the composer, the history of the work, some analysis, a synopsis of the story, and maybe (if you're lucky) the libretto translated into your language.

Other sets are merely documents of a performance—of a particular night at the opera house when everything came together, or perhaps a monument to a particular singer's talent. A recently released recording of Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1859 opera Dinorah quite clearly falls into the latter category, as the label's moniker, Living Stage, perhaps suggests. I have never seen so sparsely documented a recording. A cast list and track list are included, but that's it—not a word about the opera, or even biographical sketches of the featured singers.

On the plus side, the set does feature a tour-de-force performance by soprano Luciana Serra, who sang the title role in the 1983 performance from Trieste that is here immortalized. Dinorah is the Italian title of the opera, which Meyerbeer christened Le pardon de Ploërmel for its Paris unveiling.

After a parade of vast, imposing dramas such as Robert le diable, Les Huguenots, and Le prophète which had made him rich, established his fame, and made his name synonymous with French grand opera of the grandest sort, Meyerbeer was clearly looking for a change of pace. Dinorah was Meyerbeer’s second straight opéra comique, and is a work of relatively modest length that features a simple (some might say "silly") plot in a pastoral setting. The opera was clearly intended to be a showpiece for coloratura sopranos, as Dinorah’s music is filled with complex passagework, trills, and all manner of vocal fireworks. Though originally written with passages of spoken dialogue, recitatives were eventually substituted.

Since his death, Meyerbeer has gone from being one of opera’s most performed composers to being one of its most neglected. He suffered greatly from post-Wagnerian criticism, which found his showy, entertaining operas wanting in comparison with the high-minded music dramas with intellectual aspirations that were favored by Wagner and his burgeoning band of disciples. Much of this criticism was unfair, as Meyerbeer was a composer of no small talent, and he invests Dinorah with an abundance of stirring, worthwhile music. Yet even Meyerbeer’s most ardent admirers would likely admit that with Dinorah’s libretto, the composer provided his critics a juicy target.

Meyerbeer and his librettists work mightily to stretch a rather brief tale, filled with logical and motivational problems, over three acts. The action takes place among superstitious peasants in rural Brittany. There are a number of subsidiary characters who briefly show their faces, but only three of any importance. The first two are Dinorah and her fiancé Höel, who were on their way to be married before a terrible storm intervened, destroying Dinorah’s cottage. There is no money to rebuild. Höel learns from a wizard that a supernatural treasure may be claimed by anyone who is willing to leave human society for a year. The catch? The first to touch the treasure will die. Höel works out a solution. He will find a gullible dupe, promise him half the treasure, and make sure that this poor fellow will be the first to touch the treasure! He leaves Dinorah without a word (Life lesson: How many problems might be avoided with a simple word of explanation!). Believing herself abandoned, she immediately embodies one of the most popular of nineteenth-century operatic clichés by going mad. She spends much of the opera’s length wandering around the countryside searching for her little goat Bellah, and alternately bewailing her abandonment and imagining that everything’s fine.

Höel finds his dupe in the person of our third character, the bagpiper Corentino. But his plot is complicated by Corentino’s limitless cowardice. The two share a number of slapstick scenes in which Höel harangues Corentino, tries to get him drunk, and repeatedly reminds him of the riches they’ll share in order convince him to join his quest. They also encounter Dinorah, but mistake her for the “Lady of the Meadows”, a malevolent fairy who coincidently also wanders the countryside in a wedding dress, and preys on single men.

In the second act, during a terrible nocturnal storm, Höel descends into a ravine where the treasure is supposed to be hidden while Corentino cowers above. Dinorah madly wanders by, singing a song which betrays the secret of the treasure’s curse. Höel’s plot is thus revealed to Corentino, who, while refusing to touch the treasure, hardly seems sufficiently disturbed by Höel’s plan to effectively murder him. Rather, he suggests they send the mad girl into the ravine to touch the treasure first (apparently chivalry isn’t one of Corentino’s principal virtues). When Dinorah pitches into the ravine while trying to follow Bellah across a fallen tree which has bridged it, Höel recognizes his abandoned love, and, stricken with guilt, follows, hoping to rescue her.

The brief third act opens with good-natured arias from a hunter, a reaper, and two female goat-herds. Höel enters holding an unconscious Dinorah in his arms. He fears that she is dead, but she awakens, and, seeing her beloved, regains her sanity. Fortunately, she also has no memory of all that has transpired. Inexplicably, Höel points out her house—now perfectly rebuilt (How did this happen? No explanation is given.). As pilgrims on their way to Ploërmel sing a noble chorus, the happy couple resumes their nuptial journey.

Having never seen Dinorah in the opera house, it is hard to judge it fairly in dramatic terms. The comic scenes with Höel and Corentino didn’t strike me as all that funny, especially since Höel’s sinister purpose undermines our sympathy for him. Corentino’s later willingness to lead a hapless girl to her death hardly makes him the most likeable fellow either. On the other hand, Dinorah herself is a charming and compelling figure in her own way, and goes some distance in redeeming the opera as a whole. She is an impossibly innocent, childlike figure who compels our sympathy with her faith in Höel and her devotion to her little Bellah, whose bell can be heard tinkling in the orchestra. Dinorah’s famous second act “Shadow Song” is remarkable, and the music as a whole was clearly a labor of love. Indeed, the final chorus wouldn’t sound out of place in Tannhäuser, well demonstrating the musical kinship the two composers shared (despite all Wagner’s protestations to the contrary).

In the end though, this particular set is about the singing, and the standard here is high. Serra is clearly the star of the show, but both Angelo Romero’s Höel and Max Rene Cosotti’s Corentino are also sung superbly. The sound is clear, if not particularly rich. Baldo Podic leads his orchestral forces with real energy. Fans of Serra will want to own this set. Others—especially those who want to know the opera as a whole—might be better served by this set’s chief rival, a fine performance on the Opera Rara label featuring soprano Deborah Cook, which includes full notes and a translated libretto (in the opera’s original French). Another recently released option is a DVD featuring soprano Isabelle Phillipe.

Eric D. Anderson