Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Le Prophète - Meyerbeer
(English title: The Prophet)
An Opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer
Opera in five acts, by Meyerbeer; words by Scribe. Produced, Grand Opéra, Paris, April 6, 1849. London, Covent Garden, July 24, 1849, with Mario, Viardot-Garcia, Miss Hayes, and Tagliafico. New Orleans, April 2, 1850. New York, Niblos Garden, November 25, 1853, with Salvi (John of Leyden), Steffanone and Mme. Maretzek. Revived in German, Metropolitan Opera House, by Dr. Leopold Damrosch, December 17, 1884, with Anton Schot as John of Leyden, Marianne Brandt as Fides and Schroeder-Hanfstaengl as Bertha. It was given ten times during the season, in which it was equaled only by "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin." Also, Metropolitan Opera House, 1898-99, with Jean de Reszke, Brema (Fides), Lehmann (Bertha); January 22, 1900, Alvarez, Schumann-Heink, Suzanne Adams, Plançon and Edouard de Reszke; by Gatti-Casazza, February 7, 1918, with Caruso, Matzenauer, Muzio, Didur, and Mardones.
JOHN OF LEYDEN
FIDES, his mother
BERTHA, his bride
Nobles, citizens, Anabaptists, peasants, soldiers, prisoners, children.
Place: Dordrecht, Holland, and Munster.
Act I. At the foot of Count Oberthals castle, near Dordrecht, Holland, peasants and mill hands are assembled. Bertha and Fides draw near. The latter is bringing to Bertha a betrothal ring from her son John, who is to marry her on the morrow. But permission must first be obtained from Count Oberthal as lord of the domain. The women are here to seek it.
There arrive three sombre looking men, who strive to rouse the people to revolt against tyranny. They are the Anabaptists, Jonas, Matthisen, and Zacharias. The Count, however, who chances to come out of the castle with his followers, recognizes in Jonas as steward who was discharged from his employ. He orders his soldiers to beat the three men with the flat of their swords. Johns mother and Bertha make their plea to Oberthal. John and Bertha have loved ever since he rescued her from drowning in the Meuse. Admiring Berthas beauty, Oberthal refuses to give permission for her to marry John, but, instead, orders her seized and borne to the castle for his own diversion. The people are greatly agitated and, when the three Anabaptists reappear, throw themselves at their feet, and on rising make threatening gestures toward the castle.
Act II. In Johns inn at Leyden are the three Anabaptists and a throng of merrymaking peasants. Full of longing for Bertha, John is thinking of the morrow. The Anabaptists discover that he bears a remarkable resemblances to the picture of King David in the Cathedral of Munster. They believe this resemblance can be made of service to their plans. John tells them of a strange dream he has had, and in which he found himself standing under the dome of a temple with people prostrate before him. They interpret it for him as evidence that he will mount a throne, and urge him to follow them. But for him there is but one throne -- that of the kingdom of love with Bertha.
At that moment, however, she rushes in and begs him quickly to hide her. She has escaped from Oberthal, who is in pursuit. Oberthal and his soldiers enter. The Count threatens that if John does not deliver over Bertha to him, his mother, whom the soldiers have captured on the way to the him, shall die. She is brought in and forced to her knees. A soldiers with a battle-axe stands over her. After a brief struggle Johns love for his mother conquers. He hands over Bertha to Oberthal. She is led away. Fides is released.
The three Anabaptists return. Now John is ready to join them, if only to wreak vengeance on Oberthal. They insist that he come at once, without even saying farewell to his mother, who must be kept in ignorance of their plans. John consents and hurries off with them.
Act III. In the winter camp of the Anabaptists in a forest of Westphalia, before Munster. On a frozen lake people are skating. The people have risen against their oppressors. John has been proclaimed a prophet of God. At the head of the Anabaptists he is besieging Munster.
The act develops in three scenes. The first reveals the psychological medley of fanaticism and sensuality of the Anabaptists and their followers. In the second John enters. Oberthal is delivered into his hands. From him John learns that Bertha again has escaped from the castle and is in Munster. The three Anabaptist leaders wish to put the Count to death. But John, saying that Bertha shall be his judge, puts off the execution, much to the disgust of the three fanatics, who find John assuming more authority than is agreeable to them. This scene, the second of the act, takes place in Zachariahs tent. The third scene shows again the camp of the Anabaptists. The leaders, fearing John's usurpation of power, have themselves headed an attack by their followers on Munster and met with defeat. The rabble they have led is furious and ready to turn even against John. He, however, by sheer force of personality coupled with his assumption of superhuman inspiration, rallies the crowd to his standard and leads it to victory.
Act IV. A public place in Munster. The city is in possession of the Anabaptists. John, once a plain inn-keeper of Leyden, has been swept along on the high tide of success and decides to have himself proclaimed Emperor. Meanwhile Fides, has been reduced to beggary. The Anabaptists, in order to make her believe that John is dead -- so as to reduce to a minimum the chance of her suspecting that the new Prophet and her son are one and the same -- left in the inn a bundle of Johns clothes stained with blood, together with a script stating that he had been murdered by the Prophet and his followers.
The poor woman has come to Munster to beg. There she meets Bertha, who, when Fides tells her that John has been murdered, vows vengeance upon the prophet.
Fides follows the crowd into the cathedral, to which the scene changes. When, during the coronation scene. John speaks, and announces that he is the elect of god, the poor beggar woman starts at the sound of his voice. She cries out, "My son!" Johns cause is thus threatened and his life at stake. He has claimed divine origin. If the woman is his mother, the people, whom he rules with an iron hand, will denounce and kill him. With quick wit he meets the emergency, and even makes use of it enhance his authority by improvising an affirmation scene. He bids his followers draw their swords and thrust them into his breast, if the beggar woman again affirms that he is her son. Seeing the swords held ready to pierce him, Fides, in order to save him, now declares that he is not her son -- that her eyes, dimmed by age, have deceived her.
Act V. The three Anabaptists, Jonas, Matthisen, and Zacharias, had intended to use John only as an instrument to attain power for themselves. The German Emperor, who is moving on Munster with a large force, has promised them pardon if they will betray the Prophet and usurper into his hands. To this they have agreed, and are ready on his coronation day to betray him.
At Johns secret command Fides has been brought to the palace. Here her son meets her. He, whom she has seen in the hour of his triumph and who still is all powerful, implores her pardon, but in vain, until she, in the belief that he has been impelled to his usurpation of power and bloody deeds only by thirst for vengeance for Berthas wrongs, forgives him, on condition that he return to Leyden. This he promises in full repentance.
They are joined by Bertha. She has sworn to kill the Prophet whom she blames for the supposed murder of her lover. To accomplish her purpose, she has set a slow fire to the palace. It will blaze up near the powder magazine, when the Prophet and his henchmen are at banquet in the great hall of the palace, and blow up the edifice.
She recognizes her lover. Her joy, however, is short-lived, for at the moment a captain comes to John with the announcement that he has been betrayed and that the Emperors forces are at the palace gates. Thus Bertha learns that her lover and the blood-stained Prophet are one. Horrified, she plunges a dagger into her heart.
John determines to die, a victim to the catastrophe which Bertha has planned, and which is impending. He joins the banqueters at their orgy. At the moment when all his open and secret enemies are at the table and pledge him in a riotous bacchanale, smoke rises from the floor. Tongues of fire shoot up. Fides, in the general uproar and confusion, calmly joins her son, to die with him, as the powder magazine blows up, and, with a fearful crash the edifice collapses in smoke and flame.
John of Leydens name was Jan Beuckelszoon. He was born in 1509. In business he was successively a tailor, a small merchant, and an inn-keeper. After he had had himself crowned in Munster, that city became a scene of orgy and cruelty. It was captured by the imperial forces June 24, 1535. The following January the "prophet" was put to death by torture. The same fate was meted out to Knipperdölling, his henchman, who had conveniently rid him of one of his wives by cutting off her head.
The music of the first act of "Le Prophéte" contains a cheerful chorus for peasants, a cavatina for Bertha. "Mon Coeur sélance" (My heart throbs wildly), in which she voices her joy her expected union with John; the Latin chant of the three Anabaptists, gloomy yet stirring; the music of the brief revolt of the peasantry against Oberthal; the plea of Fides and Bertha to Oberthal for his sanction of Berthas marriage to John, "Un jour, dans les flots de la Meuse" (One day in the waves of the Meuse); Oberthals refusal, and his abduction of Bertha; the reappearance of the three Anabaptists and the renewal of their efforts to impress the people with a sense of the tyranny by which they are oppressed.
Opening the second act, in Johns tavern, in the suburbs of Leyden, are the chorus and dance of Johns friends, who are rejoicing over his prospective wedding. When the three Anabaptists have recognized his resemblance to the picture of David in the cathedral at Munster, John, observing their sombre yet impressive bearing, tells them of his dream, and asks them to interpret it: "Sous les vastes arceaux dun temple magnifique" (Under the great dome of a splendid temple). They promise him a throne. But he knows a sweeter empire than the one they promise, that which will be created by his coming union with Bertha. Her arrival in flight from Oberthal and Johns sacrifice of her in order to save his mother from death, lead to Fides solo, "Ah, mon fils" (Ah, my son), one of the great airs for mezzo-soprano.
Most attractive in the next act is the ballet of the skaters on the frozen lake near the camp of the Anabaptists. The scene is brilliant in conception, the music delightfully rhythmic and graceful. There is a stirring battle song for Zacharias, in which he sings of the enemy "as numerous as the stars," yet defeated. Another striking number is the fantastic trio for Jonas, Zacharias, and Oberthal, especially in the descriptive passage in which in rhythm with the music, Jonas strikes flint and steel, ignites a lantern and by its light recognizes Oberthal. When John rallies the Anabaptists, who have been driven back from under the walls of Munster and promises to lead them to victory, the act reaches a superb climax in a "Hymne Triomphal" for John and chorus, "Roi du Ciel at des Anges" (Ruler of Heaven and the angels). At the most stirring moment of this finale, as John is being acclaimed by his followers, mists that have been hanging over the lake are dispelled. The sun bursts forth in glory.
In the next act there is a scene for Fides in the streets of Munster, in which, reduced to penury, she begs for alms. There also is the scene at the meeting of Fides and Bertha. The latter believing, like Fides, that John has been slain by the Anabaptists, vows vengeance upon the Prophet.
He great procession in the cathedral with its march and chorus has been, since the production of "Le Prophète" in 1849, a model of construction for striking spectacular scenes in opera. The march is famous. Highly dramatic is the scene in which Fides first proclaims and then denies that John is her son. The climax of the fifth act is the drinking song, "Versez, que tout respire livresse et le délire" (Quaff, quaff, in joyous measure; breathe, breathe delirious pleasure), in the midst of which the building is blown up, and John perishes with those who would betray him.
During the season of opera which Dr. Leopold Damrosch conducted at the Metropolitan Opera House, 1884-85, when this work of Meyerbeers led the repertoire in number of performances, the stage management produced a fine effect in the scene at the end of Act III, when the Prophet rallies his followers. Instead of soldiers tamely marching past, as John chanted his battle hymn, he was acclaimed by a rabble, wrought up to a high pitch of excitement, and brandishing cudgels, scythes, pitchforks, and other implements that would serve as weapons. The following season, another stage manager, wishing to outdo his predecessor, brought with him an electric sun from Germany, a horrid thing that almost blinded the audience when it was turned on.