Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Masaniello (Auber)
An Opera by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
This work was written for the Paris Grand Opera, where it was produced in 1828. The theme of the libretto was intimately related to the political agitations of the time. The established Government of France remained but two years longer; and it was a performance of the opera in Brussels, in August 1830, which indirectly led to the riots that ultimately ended in the separation of Belgium and Holland. The subject is more clearly expressed by the original French title, "La Muette de Portici."
Fenella, a dumb girl of Portici, has been seduced by Alfonso, son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. She is subjected to confinement, but escapes, and denounces her betrayer immediately after his marriage to the Princess Elvira. Her brother, the fisherman Masaniello, incensed by her wrongs, organizes a popular revolt, overturns the Spanish rule, and is proclaimed King of Naples by his exultant followers. At the instance of the forgiving Fenella, he spares the lives of Elvira and Alfonso; but the generous action costs him his own life, and, in despair, Fenella plunges into a stream of boiling lava pouring from Vesuvius.
As regards the music of "Masaniello," it should be enough for modern opera-goers that Wagner praised it. He at least could not be prejudiced! He acknowledges "the bold effects in the instrumentation, particularly in the treatment of the strings, the dramatic grouping of the choral masses, which here for the first time take an important part in the action, no less than original harmonies and happy strokes of dramatic characterization." Superfine critics talk of its formality, and protest that its "pretty tunes" are inconsistent with the seriousness of the theme. The mad scene, too, is said to be conventional. But there is impulse, fire, and passion in the work; and it is certainly, in point of date, the first example of the grand style of French opera that we have. The role of Fenella is notable as introducing a dumb but dancing principal character, a feature which Auber repeated in a later opera. Many famous dancers have been associated with the part.