Saturday, October 29, 2005

Imaginary opera appreciation

Translating a nonexistent aria

"Fake opera" is not an oxymoron. There is a quite remarkable example of an ersatz opus that was made to order to fill some very special requirements. True, many operas were composed in accordance with commissions to celebrate special events (Aïda for the opening of the Suez Canal, The Ghosts of Versailles for the bicentennial festivities in the United States), but I have in mind a very special case.

The storyline of Citizen Kane includes the title character's strenuous attempts to remake his second wife, a sweet-voiced soubrette, into a dramatic soprano on the operatic stage. Thus we get to see Susan Alexander Kane depicted in multiple scenes of operatic disaster. Yes, she is performing in a tragedy, but the tragic part is her performance. Susan's small voice is drowned in a deluge of orchestral music, an outpouring of notes from an opera that never was.

The score of Citizen Kane was composed by Bernard Hermann. When it came time to interpolate the operatic scenes, Hermann considered the existing operatic repertory and did not find anything he regarded as suitable. He seized the opportunity to create his own operatic composition, a brief scene adapted from Flaubert's play Salammbô, a tragedy about a Carthaginian priestess. The play inspired two earlier efforts at composition, an unfinished opera by Moussorgsky and a complete but forgotten work by one Ernest Reyer. More recently, the Bastille opera house in Paris witnessed the 1998 debut of a version by Philippe Fénelon. At the time of the production of Citizen Kane, however, nothing suitable was at hand. John Houseman (later famous for his role as the crusty law professor in The Paper Chase) cobbled together some lyrics, borrowing from Racine's Phèdre, and the end result was exactly the sort of Franco-Oriental bombast that Orson Welles needed to depict Susan Alexander Kane's descent to the edge of suicide.

Once an aria is composed, its most natural fate is to be sung (if not forgotten, that is). While Citizen Kane was not a great success in its initial release, and although the aria from Salammbô was swamped by orchestral crescendi, still there were people who noticed it. Famed soprano Eileen Farrell is said to have been fond of including it as an encore to her recitals, no doubt enjoying the confusion as she tweaked her audiences with bravura performances of a piece that none of the opera cognoscenti recognized (and, as an encore, was not identified in the program booklet). What was that?

As a relatively obscure work with an unusual origin, the aria from Salammbô cannot be found in the usual musical reference works. Fortunately, it has been recorded multiple times, both as parts of Citizen Kane soundtrack recordings and recitals (see below), but always without text or translation. What is an aficionado to do? Well, one hardy spirit embarked on a quest to winkle out the aria's lyrics and learn at last what Salammbô is singing. Although he is not a musicolologist (as Peter Schickele would have it), Dr. Anthony Barcellos published the results of his investigation on Talking Hermann, a website devoted to the works of Bernard Hermann. Barcellos is a math professor with slender credentials for such an undertaking (like I should talk), but the diligent dilettante is not to be discouraged. With crucial help from Hermann maven Bill Wrobel, Barcellos came up with the following rendition of the aria's text:

The aria from Salammbô
(Citizen Kane)
Ah, cruel.
Tu m’as trop entendue.
Les Dieux m’en sont témoins.
Ces Dieux qui dans mon flanc
Ont allumé le feu fatal
A tout mon sang.

J’ai langui.
J’ai mouri dans les larmes.
J’ai séché.
J’ai désespéré dans les feux de tes charmes.
O quelle angoisse tes yeux
Ont donné à toute mon âme.
Ah, cruel!

Dîtes-moi comment que j’éxpie
Ce peché si fort.
Toujours remplie,
Je ne peux pas résister encore.
O Dieux, arrachez-moi!
Ce feu fatal
Allume ma mort!

Voilà mon coeur!
Voilà mon coeur!
C’est là que ta main doit frapper.
Voilà mon coeur. Frappe.
Prête-moi ton épée. Frappe!
Ah, cruel one.
You understood me too well.
The gods bear witness to me.
These gods who in my side
Kindled the flame that is fatal
To all my blood.

I languished.
I died amid tears.
I withered.
I despaired before the fires of your charms.
Oh, such anguish your eyes
Inflicted upon my entire soul.
Ah, cruel one!

Tell me how I may expiate
A sin so profound,
Always renewed;
I can resist no longer.
Oh, Gods, deliver me!
This fatal flame
Illumines my death!

Behold my heart!
Behold my heart!
Here is where your hand must strike.
Behold my heart. Strike.
Ready your sword. Strike!

There are a few interesting points concerning the aria that bear discussion. The French verb mourir is irregular, but the line "J'ai mouri" uses a regular conjugation for the passé composé. (The correct French would have been "Je suis morte," as Barcellos explains at the Talking Hermann site.) Did Houseman make a mistake, or was he invoking poetic license to make the lines scan? It would help if we knew more about Houseman's facility with French (which we don't). Alternatively, did Professor Barcellos reconstruct the lines incorrectly from the handwritten transcript? He did not see the transcript himself, but redacted Bill Wrobel's initial effort. Wrobel disavows any knowledge of French and Barcellos says he relied on one year of college French and advice from a francophone colleague.

Instead of guessing, we can do our own investigation. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has at least two recordings available of the aria. The first is the compilation of Bernard Hermann film music conducted by Charles Gerhardt in which a young Te Kanawa rendered the aria as it should sound instead of playing it for mordant humor as in the movie. (The original movie soundtrack featured Jean Forward, whose role was to sing accurately with a small-scale voice.) The second Te Kanawa recording is part of Dame Kiri's fiftieth birthday celebration, the album Kiri!. (She muffs the last line rather embarrassingly, singing "Dîtes-moi ton épée" instead of "Prête-moi ton épée," but perfection is difficult in a live performance, especially with such a broad repertoire.) I've also listend to Rosamund Illing's rendition (which used to be posted on-line but has since vanished) and Janice Watson's version. My conclusion is that everyone is singing "J'ai mouri." I leave it to you to decide if any other interpretation (preferably more grammatically correct) is possible.

Hermann later went on to compose his own full-length opera, a treament of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. However, Wuthering Heights was not a success and its performances are extremely rare. We can be quite certain that many more people have heard the aria from Salammbô, an opera that never existed, than have ever heard any music from Hermann's genuine operatic composition.

Postscript: If you go Googling for web wisdom on Bernard Hermann's opera fragment, be warned that many references are contaminated by the misspelling "Salaambo."


Anonymous said...

The spelling "Salaambo" is not a "contamination" but a deliberate misspelling in the movie. I think the ideas was that the exoticism of what they intended to seem like a Mary Garden vehicle would be enhanced if they spelled it like the "salaam" they do in the Middle East. Obviously that's not the way Flaubert spelled it, but you'll notice in the movie that every time the opera's name is in print it's mispelled.

Zeno said...

I have Citizen Kane on DVD and specifically noticed that the spelling “Salammbô” is used throughout. (See the newsreel bit near the beginning, where the opera poster is clearly displayed.) The “salaam” version never appears. If you have some basis other than guesswork for your surmise about the intentions of Welles and Hermann, I'd be happy to hear more about it.

I further noticed that Flaubert used the same spelling that Welles and Hermann adopted, so I'll continue to consider “Salaambo” a misspelling.

Anonymous said...

The text of the aria reminds me of Dido, in the Aeneid.

Ronei Almeida said...

i've searched the net for something on "Salammbo" for a long time until i got to your page... wonderful and well done page... the first real insight i've seen about this work... and you're right... i couldn't find it sooner because i was spelling it wrong... if it weren't for a kiri te kanawa recording with the correct spelling, i'd be still searching... congratulations for your work and thanks, from sunny brazil

Keir said...

Terrific post! I've been in love with this fantastical aria and for the first time I've encountered information to make me appreciate it more.Even if I found you by googling the wrong spelling....

Zeno said...

Glad you found it, Keir. One of the reasons for embedding the wrong spelling in the article was to help poor lost souls find it.

Anonymous said...

This aria was last night given an amazing performance by the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC Proms, and the star from the Bolshoi Venera Gimadieva.
For a week only it's available on the BBC Listen Again website. Very worth hearing. Stunning in fact. and so please to have found this blog entry all about it.

TSa said...

I just heard the Proms version from our Finnish Broadcasting Corporation's classical radio channel. What an event it must have been! So glad to have found this info as well, this aria really has potential for a true opera star! Too bad I think I cannot here a repeat as the BBC site is probably restricted to the UK.