Music with Ease > Other 19th Century Opera (Russian, English, Czech, etc.) > Esmeralda (A. G. Thomas)
An Opera by Arthur Goring Thomas
Of works by later English composers, only "Esmeralda" holds the stage. The composer, Arthur Goring Thomas, was born in Sussex in 1851. He only began to study music seriously after he was grown up, but he became a pupil of the Royal Academy of Music, and greatly distinguished himself there. He finished his artistic education in France, and of that fact his music shows many traces. His death in 1892 was tragic and melancholy. He had been suffering from mental depression. One Sunday evening, his medical attendant being with him, he suddenly threw himself in front of a train at West Hampstead Station and was killed. A Goring Thomas Scholarship was founded the same year, as a memorial, at the Royal Academy of Music.
"Esmeralda" was written to the commission of the late Carl Rosa, who in 1875 had founded the Company still bearing his name. It was produced in London in 1883. The libretto is based on Victor Hugos "Notre Dame." Esmeralda is a gipsy street-singer. A profligate priest. Claude Frollo, is in love with her, and, aided by Quasimodo, the dwarf bell-ringer of Notre Dame, he endeavours to carry her off under dark. The captain of the guard, Phoebus de Châteaupers, rescues her, and in turn succumbs to her charms. Frollo gets away, but Quasimodo is arrested. Esmeralda pleads for him, and he is liberated. In gratitude Quasimodo vows himself her slave for the future. Frollos wrath is roused by Esmeraldas preference for Phoebus, whom he therefore assassinates, fixing the crime on Esmeralda. The latter is condemned to death, but Phoebus was not killed after all, and turns up opportunely to save the gipsy. His murder is once more attempted by Frollo; but Quasimodo, sacrificing himself for Esmeraldas happiness, receives the blow instead.
This is the story as in the original score. Various changes were made by the composer when the opera was produced in French at Covent Garden, in 1890, and an important addition, in the form of an elaborate scene for Esmeralda in the prison, was introduced. But the first version is generally preferred as being better.
Goring Thomas was a facile, refined, and musicianly writer, with a rich endowment of melody, and these qualities are all reflected in his chef-doeuvre. The libretto offered him plenty of romantic material, and he made good use of it. "The work," says Mr. Fuller Maitland, "is dramatic and effective in no ordinary degree; every part is not merely grateful to the singer, but is characteristic of the personages invented by Victor Hugo. In spite of this, such are the strange ways of English operatic managers, that it has never taken the place in the regular repertory which it would have held if it had been written by a Frenchman for the French."
Nevertheless, "Esmeralda" speedily became popular in London and the provinces, and was even performed (in 1885) at Cologne and Hamburg. Subsequently it was produced, as indicated, at Covent Garden, by Sir Augustus Harris, with Melba and Jean de Reszke in the cast. The song, "Oh, vision entrancing!" was long a favourite in Mr. Edward Lloyds repertoire. "Nadeschda," an opera dealing with a Russian subject, achieved much popularity when first produced by the Carl Rosa Company in 1885, but although it contains some attractive music, notably for the ballet, it has not maintained its hold on the opera-going public. Its mezzo-soprano air, "My heart is weary," used to be one of the most hackneyed pieces in popular usage, and the tenor song, "Now is the hour of soft enchantment," came near it in that respect.