Djamileh or Bizet’s lost slave
Here I am, yet again, deeming with the intricacies of a period of time I particularly love: Paris in the second half of the 19th century. This era has always fascinated me: it’s the time of Rodin and Camille Claudel, of Debussy, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. And, of course, the time of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in its catastrophic French debut (160 rehearsals and then some for 3 performances!): this started a querelle between pro-Wagnerian and anti-Wagnerian that would last until after World War I. Georges Bizet came up as the quintessence of anti-wagnerism with his most famous masterpiece, Carmen, endorsed by a Wagnerian of the first hour like Nietzsche, who, as much as was a fan of Wagner in his early years became later one of his most poignant critics.
What captured my attention this time is a rather obscure one-act opera by Bizet: Djamileh. I bumped into it by chance, looking around the web for something totally different.
Carmen has had the merit of making Bizet immortal, but also the flaw of obscuring most of his other works.
And yet, Djamileh, written one year ahead of Carmen, was greatly admired by Gustav Mahler, who programmed it and conducted it in Hamburg and Vienna, and, later on, by Richard Strauss, who viewed it as a source of inspiration for his Ariadne auf Naxos.
The origins of Djamileh
In 1871 Bizet accepted the libretto even though he found the text rather difficult. Part of his decision was due to a practical, rather than artistic, fact: he needed to keep his name out. His previous full scale opera, “La jolie fille de Perth“, had had its premiere in 1867. His next one, “Carmen“, would only premiere in 1875.
Djamileh was presented in 1872 in an evening that included three one-act operas: Paladilhe’s “Le passant in April”, “Djamileh”, and Saint-Saëns’ “La Princesse jaune”.
It was a flop, attacked by the critics for drawing too much from Wagner, which essentially meant more complex harmonies and an intensification of the role of the orchestra, not simply used to support the singers. It should be noted that a general anti-German spirit was making its way through, due the recent defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian war (not to mention Wagner’s remarks on the subject).
The opera disappeared after a handful of performances and is today unknown to large audiences and musicians alike.
Bizet himself was aware of the fact that the first production of Djamileh was everything but a success: but not because of the music; too little action and a bunch of so-so singers who barely knew their part, to the point where the soprano skipped some 30 bars in one go. Yet, this first mature opera of Bizet respects all the canons of the time: an exotic country, the rhythm, and colors of its music mixed with French tradition, colorful settings and room for a ballet.
Bizet was not much of a traveler, but Djamileh, like most operas of that period, takes place in a foreign country: librettists tended to set operas in countries where French economic interests were strong. Like every good artist, he traveled with his imagination: the opera sets the mood right from the start for a fairy tale, in a Cairo palace with backstage choir and smoking water pipes with Bizet overcoming the lack of action in the libretto with evocative music and wonderful orchestration. This is certainly one of those works that would deserve to be revived.
If you’re interested in a historical recording, here’s a one featuring Lucia Popp as Djamileh and the always incredible Franco Bonisolli as Haroun, with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Lamberto Gardelli. Enjoy!
Setting: Haroun’s palace, in Cairo
At the end of day the caliph Haroun reclines and smokes in his palace, with his servant Splendiano; an off-stage chorus sing. The slave-girl Djamileh passes through the room unseen by Haroun, gazing tenderly at him. Splendiano is looking over his master’s accounts when Haroun asks Splendiano where Djamileh is – and is told that she is near at hand, still in love. He remarks also that she will be disappointed as her month as lover to the sultan is nearly finished and she will be replaced.
Haroun denies that he is in love with her and demands that she be sent away and a new girl brought. Splendiano confides that he is taken with Djamileh. Haroun’s heart is a desert: he loves no woman, only love itself. This gives hope to Splendiano that he will have Djamileh. Haroun asks for supper to be served. Djamileh enters, dejected, and tells him of a bad dream she had where she was drowning in the sea, looking for him to save her, but there was no one. Haroun, aware of some affection for her, reassures her, and supper is served. Haroun offers Djamileh a necklace. His friends arrive to spend the night playing dice. Before Djamileh can leave she is seen by the men who express their admiration; Djamileh is left hurt and confused, while Splendiano feels sure he will succeed in his conquest.
He explains to Djamileh that she must leave and regain her freedom – and offers his love. She proposes that he present her to Haroun, disguised as the next slave-girl, and promises that if she fails to win Haroun’s heart that way she will give herself to Splendiano. Alone, she expresses her anxiety about her destiny and the fragility of love. To Haroun’s irritation, Splendiano interrupts the gambling to say that the slave merchant has brought a new girl, who then dances an almah; Haroun remains indifferent and returns to the game. Splendiano asks the merchant to replace the dancer with Djamileh, while being certain that she will soon be his. Veiled, Djamileh enters in the dancer’s costume and, shy and nervous, makes to leave. Haroun, whose interest is now aroused, sends Splendiano to take his place at the games table. Djamileh cries, but Haroun consoles her. As moonlight illuminates the room, Haroun recognizes her and begins to realize that she loves him. He tries to resist his own feelings but eventually gives in. Splendiano has lost.