Dinorah ou le Pardon de Ploermel (in two volumes)
(b. Berlin, 5 September 1791 – d. Paris, 2 May 1864)
Dinorah ou Le Pardon de Ploermel
Comic opera in three acts on a libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier
Premièred in Paris on 4 April 1859
Giacomo Meyerbeer was born in Tasdorf nr. Berlin on 5 September 1791 to Jakob Liebmann Beer. (Later, at the request of a wealthy uncle, he prefixed the latter’s name Meyer to his own surname.) The boy grew up in a well-to-do and cultivated Jewish banking family and received an encyclopedic musical education from his earliest childhood. He studied composition with Zelter and B. A. Weber in Berlin, counterpoint with Abbé Vogler in Darmstadt (Carl Maria von Weber was a fellow-student), and met Salieri in Vienna, where he perfected his great talent at the piano. At that time he was still uncertain whether to take up a pianist’s career, but Salieri advised him in 1815 to travel to Italy for the purpose of studying singing and Italian opera. Meyerbeer thereupon developed a huge liking for opera, changed his first name to Giacomo, and began to compose à la Rossini. Of the works from this Italian period, the one that held the boards the longest was Il Crociato in Egitto (Venice, 1824). In 1826 he moved to Paris to prepare a new production of Il Crociato. There he witnessed the first of the Parisian «grand operas» – Auber’s La muette de Portici and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell – and promptly composed his own Robert le Diable, which appeared in 1831 and fully solidified the new genre. At this time Meyerbeer’s music was still fairly Italianate, but with Les Huguenots (1836), on a libretto by Eugène Scribe, he found his way to the somewhat ornate French style that would bring both him and the Paris Opéra worldwide renown. Les Huguenots was a triumph, and the enthusiasm of his contemporaries knew no bounds; even Heinrich Heine paid obeisance to Meyerbeer. In less than two years it had reached its one-hundredth performance. But fame goes hand in hand with criticism, including malicious parodies, of which the deadliest and most brilliant came from the pen of Offenbach. After Les Huguenots Meyerbeer continued to work on several Scribe operas before being appointed to succeed Spontini as general music director of the Berlin Royal Opera in 1842. For his new theater he then wrote a romantic and nationalist opera in German, Das Feldlager in Schlesien (1844), a militaristic yet maudlin work that owed its meager success entirely to the art of the «Swedish nightingale» Jenny Lind, who joined the Berlin ensemble at Meyerbeer’s instigation and created the opera’s heroine, Vielka. Meyerbeer then returned to French grand opera with Le Prophète, which came out in Paris in 1849. The year 1854 saw his first comic opera L’étoile du nord, which recycled the music from Feldlager. It was followed by his second comic opera, Dinorah, in 1859. His final opera, L’Africaine (1865), had occupied him since 1830. He completed it in 1862 but was unable to witness its première, having died in Paris in 1864, aged 73, during the rehearsals. He is buried in Berlin.
Meyerbeer lived entirely for his music, and between Berlin, Italy and Paris there was little to distract him. He is said to have been cautious and intelligent with a tendency toward introversion. Ever intent on his own advantage, he could nevertheless put himself out for other people. Berlioz once said of him: «He possessed not only the good fortune to have talent, but the talent to have good fortune.»
Posterity was soon merciless in its criticism. It was said that no level of taste was so low that Meyerbeer could not go beneath it if it held out prospects of fame and a large audience. Yet he had a sizable influence on many composers, not least being the young Verdi – and Wagner. Despite Wagner’s critique of Meyerbeerean opera, the older man’s treatment of the orchestra in particular had an enormous impact on Wagner. Meyerbeer combined the instruments in new ways, generating strange sounds of great forcefulness. He allowed the orchestra to sound eerie and demonic, employing such unusual instruments as the bass clarinet, saxophone, and viola d’amore. In Dinorah he has the harps play unusual harmonics and divides the choruses, employing them to instrumental effect by using them primarily as a timbral resource.
Meyerbeer’s music is frequently contrived and sometimes even vulgar. His scores abound in extraneous embellishments and cheap effects: chromatic scales, violent dynamic crashes, crescendos bolstered by rolls on the timpani. Yet he was extremely important to opera history, not merely as the «founder» of French grand opera. He was a greatly gifted composer who never quite reached a full flowering. He was magnificent but not unique, and a born conformist, now German, now Italian, now French. Yet he had a greater understanding of the theater than most other opera composers, and while writing his scores his thoughts centered first and foremost on the dramatic structure. Great art can be found Vasco da Gama’s tenor aria «O paradis» from L’Africaine, or Fides’s alto part in Le Prophète. Even today Dinorah’s Dance with the Shadow belongs in the repertoire of every coloratura prima donna.
The première of Dinorah ou Le Pardon de Ploermel, known simply as Dinorah, took place at the Paris Opéra-Comique. It was soon being mounted in all the great opera houses, and most of the leading sopranos of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries indulged in its title role. Dinorah is clearly a late work and differs markedly from Meyerbeer’s other operas; the music is charming and simple (despite the convoluted plot), even playful and full of fresh invention. The composer of high operatic tragedy became ingeniously deft and witty in Dinorah; the title figure is «a bit crazy,» to be sure, and is made to dance a virtuoso waltz with her own shadow, «Ombre legère,» accompanied by coloratura echoes. But later she regains her sanity, and we suspect as much, for there is nothing unhinged about the music. Even a nanny-goat is given a lullaby and a motif. Indeed, the duet between Hoël and Corentin, «Quand l’heure sonnera,» is one of the most graceful buffo pieces in French opera; the choruses in this rural landscape, with its hunters and woodsmen, shepherds and reapers, are thoroughly picturesque, and the Hymn to the Virgin Mary dulcet and unadorned. The Brindisi and Corentin’s return from the tavern, with voices audibly drunk, is comic opera at its very best. Dinorah is the work of a mellowed, elderly gentleman, and a lovely final flourish.
Synopsis of the Plot
Time and place:
Brittany, nineteenth century
Hoël, a goatherd – bass
Dinorah, his beloved – soprano
Corentin, a bagpipe player – tenor
A hunter – bass
A reaper – tenor
First shepherd boy – soprano
Second shepherd boy – mezzo-soprano
Before the curtain rises
Hoël and Dinorah are meant to marry during the annual pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary in Ploermel. A sudden thunderstorm not only disperses the wedding procession but destroys the belongings of Dinorah’s father with fire and lightning. Faced with abject poverty, Hoël consults an ancient sorcerer who tells him about a buried treasure which, however, can only be unearthed if he stays away from his fellow humans for an entire year. Hoël agrees to the terms. The abandoned bride goes mad and has wandered aimlessly in the mountains ever since. – A year has now passed, and Hoël has returned. He is looking for someone to help him and to be the first to touch the treasure, for a legend has it that this person is doomed to perish. Only then will Hoël unearth the treasure.
Meyerbeer «recounts» this preliminary story in an extensive overture with chorus before the curtain rises.
Country folk pass by Corentin’s solitary dwelling. Dinorah appears in her tattered bridal gown and sings a lullaby to her goat. When she hears Corentin’s bagpipes, she rushes away in order to terrify him all the more when he finds her. Corentin imagines that she is one of those elves who force humans to dance themselves to death: Dinorah too wants to dance and forces Corentin to join her. Exhausted, they then hear a knock at the door. Dinorah flees through the window. Hoël enters and tries to persuade Corentin to seek the treasure with him. Thoroughly intimidated, Corentin is dispatched to the tavern to fetch wine. He and Hoël drink to screw up their courage and set off into the darkness, singing.
Woodsmen pass through the moonlit forest. Once they have left, Dinorah enters and sees her shadow in the moonlight. Thinking it to be a friend, she sings and dances with it. Hardly has she disappeared into the forest than storm clouds assemble. Hoël and Corentin arrive at the wild gorge where the treasure is hidden. Hoël calls the timid Corentin back and crosses the gorge alone on a narrow tree trunk. Corentin makes a second attempt, singing merry tunes. But Dinorah appears and sings the Song of the Legendary Gold: «He who first touches the treasure shall die before the year is out.» Corentin now understands what mischief Hoël is about, and a quarrel ensues when Hoël returns across the tree trunk. Corentin refuses to go ahead and be first to lay hands on the treasure. They are about come to blows when they hear Dinorah, who had slipped into a hiding place. Corentin lights on the idea of sending the mad girl ahead of them, but she will have none of it, seemingly not even hearing their words. Hoël recognizes her voice, but thinks she is a diabolical fata morgana: the Devil has sent him the simulacrum of his fiancée to warn him not to dispatch the innocent Corentin to certain death. A furious thunderstorm bursts upon the scene; Dinorah rushes toward the bridge, tears off her neckerchief – and Hoël at last recognizes her true identity. But she is already on the perilous tree trunk. A lightning bolt strikes, the bridge is shattered, and Dinorah plunges with it into the depths. Horrified, Corentin flees while Hoël rushes to Dinorah’s aid and pulls her out of the raging torrent.
Hunters, reapers, and shepherds praise the magnificent morning. Hoël carries the unconscious Dinorah in his arms and sets her down softly on the meadow. He is distraught and deeply regrets his entire scheme. After all, the treasure he was seeking is there before him, his beloved Dinorah. She wakes up and believes that she has merely been dreaming; her madness has been entirely dispelled by the shock of her plunge. Gradually she recalls the events of the previous year: as luck would have it, the annual procession is already under way, and she hears the same hymn being sung (the audience already knows it from the overture). She kneels in prayer while Hoël informs his friends and neighbors. Even the bridal wreath and veil are produced, and the wedding procession sets in motion. Bride and bridegroom are finally united in marriage.
Translation: Bradford Robinson, 2006
For performance material please contact the publisher Ricordi, Feldkirchen. Reprint of a copy from the collection Tom Zelle, Chicago.