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2014: Jérusalem


Program notes by George W. Martin


Perhaps the best known fact about Jérusalem— and usually first stated, though among the least useful — declares it a revision of Verdi’s opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata(1843). Early in 1847 Verdi and the Opéra in Paris agreed on a work for the next season, but because time was short, he suggested a revision of I Lombardi. Whatever he then intended, the premiere of Jérusalem on 26 November 1847 revealed a revision far more drastic than the term usually implies. Not only was the language changed, but the story was completely rewritten; the opening locale and crusaders were changed from Italian to French; the work throughout was re-orchestrated; a new prelude, an extended ballet, and much other new music were added; and a new character was invented, Gaston (tenor), who by opening the opera and dominating a new, highly dramatic scene (Act 3, scene 2) became the opera’s protagonist. For which reasons, for a night at least one can lay aside thoughts of I Lombardi, and join those who treat Jérusalem, despite the origin of some tunes, as an independent work. 


In France and French-speaking cities elsewhere, notably Ghent, Brussels, and Antwerp, it had a healthy success. In Paris in its first five years it had thirty-three performances, though because of its size and expense — a double chorus of crusaders and pilgrims, spectacular scenery for the Holy Land, a double set of costumes for Christians and Muslims, and a full corps of dancers — even the Opéra, then the richest of the European theatres, soon began to cut the ballet and skimp on the size of the chorus. Seemingly other houses also dropped the ballet and made other cuts, but the work was popular. In Ghent it played for eighteen seasons and in Antwerp for fifteen; and in translations it played in Spain, Poland, Portugal, and Germany, as well as in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and even, in 1866, in Batavia. Thereafter, though its number of performances declined, it was never wholly forgotten and on occasion revived, most frequently in Europe.


Its history in the United States is unique. During the nineteenth century, of Verdi’s sixteen operas preceding Rigoletto it placed second in number of performances, out-ranked only by Ernani. In the twentieth century it apparently had no performances, not even in concert, until 1991 when Opera Peninsula, a small company in San Mateo, California, staged the opera. This odd history occurred in part because in the United States only the New Orleans French company performed the opera (always without the ballet). The record, however, is solid. In the years 1850-1890, the company, though closed for several seasons during the Civil War, gave the opera ninety performances, not including several on a tour in 1860 to St. Louis and Cincinnati. In addition in New Orleans on gala occasions excerpts were sung, which in the 1850s and at least once in 1892 New Orleans artists brought to concerts in New York and, mostly likely, other cities. And finally, in arrangements for voice or piano much of the music was on sale. Thus, despite its single-city home the opera nationally had a presence, dim but real.


By mid-twentieth century, however, it was indeed forgotten, or, by those who remembered, dismissed as a mere retread of Lombardi. Then in 1976 the Verdi scholar Julian Budden published the first volume of The Operas of Verdi, and in his chapter on Jérusalem stated bluntly that it was the “better of the two operas,” his reasons convincing some but far from all. Soon several recordings of Jérusalem surfaced, usually radio tapes of performances with large cuts and poor sound. Finally in 2000 a studio performance of the complete opera appeared, but by then even in the United States we had the San Mateo company’s staging of the opera as well as its first staged performance in New York, in July 1997, by the Grand Opera Company, followed the next year by a concert performance of the Opera Orchestra of New York. And since then the number of performances has increased.


The scene that most people, including Budden, find the most dramatic and musically interesting is the finale to Act 3, often called “The Degradation of Gaston,” a scene in which he is stripped of his claim to nobility and ordered to be executed at dawn. The decree leaves Gaston despairing, the nobles and priests calling for his death, and the crowd moved to pity. “Here for the first time in Verdi,” Budden states, “we find that canvas of contrasting musical and scenic elements which will yield impressive results in the operas to come.” Budden, however, was not the first to say this. In New Orleans in 1850 the critic for the Bee remarked that Verdi had found “a middle ground” between Italian and German styles, and “seems to me to have distanced himself from the style of his predecessors and opened a new way for himself” — that “way” led to Don Carlos and Aida.


George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.


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