Music with Ease > Maritana (Wallace)
An Opera by William Vincent Wallace
Some little notice of "Maritana" may fittingly follow "The Bohemian Girl," for the composer, William Vincent Wallace, was, like Balfe, an Irishman: born at Waterford in 1814, the son of a military bandmaster. The two might also come together if only because a very exalted critic has written of "Maritana" and "The Bohemian Girl" as "those tiresome English operas which have enjoyed the favour of the lower class of operatic audiences for so very long." Wallace had a most adventurous career. After serving as a violinist in a Dublin theatre (he was a brilliant violinist and pianist too), he emigrated to Australia while still in his teens, and spent some time in the bush, chiefly as a sheep-farmer. During a casual visit to Sydney, his ability as a violinist attracted the notice of the Governor, General Sir Richard Bourke, and under Bourkes patronage he settled for a time in Sydney. But the demon of restlessness possessed him, and he set out on a cruise in a whaler. There was a murderous mutiny aboard, and Wallace narrowly escaped with his life. Undeterred by this experience, he ventured among the rebel Maoris of New Zealand, was captured, and was within an ace of being sacrificed. He visited India, and gave concerts in South, Central, and North America. In 1841 he conducted the Italian Opera at Mexico. Twelve years later, he returned finally to Europe; lived partly in London, partly in Paris, and died in October 1865. In later years his sight became impaired, and he suffered much from rheumatic gout.
Wallace was a better musician than Balfe, but critics will not allow that "Maritana" is much superior to "The Bohemian Girl." It has never been so popular, certainly, and it is the fashion to sneer at it. When it was revived in London in 1902, a newspaper paragraphist wrote: "Maritana, one of the most popular operas for half a century in the suburbs, the provinces, and the Colonies, will be seen and heard amid the superior surroundings of Covent Garden this evening." But there is a vein of rich, spontaneous melody in the work which might well give it a more vigorous life than it now enjoys. Wallace, talking once to a friend about "rising composers," declared that there was "not the ghost of a tune in the whole lot." There is plenty of tune in "Mary Turner," as the old travesty title was. The air, "Scenes that are brightest," was once sung everywhere. The opera has always been especially popular with the Australians, who claim, as a traditional belief, that it was partially composed on their soil. The original production was at Drury Lane, in November 1845.
The story evolved in the libretto is founded on the French drama of "Don Caesar de Bazan." Maritana is a street-singer. She has attracted the notice of the King of Spain, and a courtier, Don José, determines to aid the King in his amour -- this in order that José may afterwards expose the Kings infidelity as a means of advancing his own favour with the Queen. Duelling is forbidden in Madrid, and a spendthrift nobleman, Don Caesar de Bazan, has incurred the death-penalty for protecting a poor youth named Lazarillo from arrest. José promises De Bazan that he shall be shot instead of hanged if he will marry a veiled lady an hour before the execution. The intention is to give Maritana a position at Court as a noblemans widow. Don Caesar agrees to the arrangement; but Lazarillo removes the bullets from the soldiers rifles, so that there is no execution and no widow. Don Caesar makes his way to a suburban villa, and succeeds in putting an end to both the Kings attentions to Maritana and Don Josés attentions to the Queen. The latter performance secures him a free pardon, and his operatic history ends when he is made Governor of Valentia.
Wallace wrote other operas which used to be occasionally staged. "Lurline," founded on the Rhenish legend of the Loreley, used by Mendelsohn, has more genuine musical merit than "Maritana," but is spoiled by a confused libretto. "The Amber Witch" has also some clever and charming pieces. But Wallace survives by the one opera.