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Cilèa’s Provençal femme fatale by Alexandra Wilson

She gazes out from countless paintings and drawings, sweet-faced and innocent in her traditional full-skirted dress, white neckerchief and cap. In nineteenth-century France, the Arlésienne was considered a living legend, regarded by Parisians as a captivating symbol of an idealised Provence that remained frozen in time. But as the century progressed – and industrialisation and modern fashions crept south – so the image of the archetypal ‘woman from Arles’ began to become corrupted. Those Arlésiennes who remained were increasingly enacting a fantasy for northern tourists, and contemporary commentators remarked with disappointment upon their tendency to inhabit sleazy bars. Cultural representations of the Arlésienne changed too. Van Gogh and Gauguin’s Arlésiennes are middleaged, angular, plain: the beautiful young girl of myth gone to seed. And by the turn of the twentieth century, the Arlésienne had even become a subject favoured by the manufacturers of cheap, vaguely risqué postcards. The Arlésienne that we encounter in Alphonse Daudet’s short story of that name (1869), which he adapted three years later as a play, is of this latter, ‘tainted’ type. Though still enticingly young and attractive – we assume – this Arlésienne has been another man’s mistress and her depiction was very much inspired by the then contemporary fascination with the figure of the femme fatale. But we have to imagine for ourselves her dangerous charms because she never actually appears on stage, either in Daudet’s play or in the 1897 opera inspired by it, by Francesco Cilèa and the librettist Leopoldo Marenco. Instead, she remains behind the scenes, a shadowy figure who drives an innocent youth simultaneously to distraction and to destruction, yet who remains disembodied and voiceless. L’Arlesiana, then, hardly fits the narrative norms of latenineteenth-century Italian opera. Not only is the object of the hero’s love absent but so too is her death, a convention of almost all tragic operas of this period, powerful in cathartic effect. Instead, the focus is placed firmly upon the tenor, the young country boy Federico, and it is he who, mad with love, is ultimately driven to suicide. Yet there are certainly echoes of other contemporary operas here. The motif of a naïve country boy led astray by a worldly-wise city girl evokes Carmen (1875), and Cilèa sets up a similar ‘Madonna-whore’

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dichotomy, with Federico’s aspiring bride, the chaste Vivetta, stepping into the shoes of Bizet’s Micaëla. (Cilèa was persuaded to expand the role of Vivetta in a later version of the opera to compensate for the lack of a conventional heroine.) Moreover, the archetypically close Mediterranean mother-son relationship looms large in both operas: whereas Don José’s mother is an invisible presence that hovers over Carmen, Federico’s mother, Rosa Mamai, features strongly in L’Arlesiana. Bizet, of course, knew the story of the Arlésienne well. Three years prior to the première of Carmen, he had written the incidental music for Daudet’s stage play, which he subsequently turned into two still regularly-performed orchestral suites, and Cilèa wrote of the intimidating presence of Bizet’s shadow. There are even more striking narrative connections between L’Arlesiana and Massenet’s Sapho (performed at Wexford in 2001), which was based upon another semi-autobiographical novel by Daudet that treats the subject of an inexperienced Provençal boy who falls for the charms of a Parisienne with a past. In a strange quirk of fate, the two operas received their premières on the very same night, 27 November 1897: Sapho at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and L’Arlesiana at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. The latter was a theatre owned by Cilèa’s publisher Edoardo Sonzogno, who used it as a showcase for the works of his growing stable of young Italian composers and for profitable French novelties. It is interesting that Cilèa should have chosen to compose an opera located in Provence at a time when many of his contemporaries had their sights set so firmly upon the poor regions of the Italian south. Sicily was the backdrop for Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Calabria for Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, while Umberto Giordano’s La mala vita (literally ‘The Wretched Life’) – possibly the grimmest of all verismo operas – evokes the sordid world of Neapolitan prostitutes. Cilèa hailed from Palmi, Calabria, in the ‘toe’ of Italy and a short hop across the water from Sicily. The world being evoked by his contemporaries was thus perhaps rather too close to home. Moreover, there must surely have been a certain resonance for Cilèa in the themes and preoccupations of Daudet’s Provençal play, written at a moment in French history that witnessed an uprising of regionalism and a backlash against the impact of

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2012 Wexford Festival Programme Book  

Programme Book for 2012 Wexford Festival Opera, Wexford, Ireland

2012 Wexford Festival Programme Book  

Programme Book for 2012 Wexford Festival Opera, Wexford, Ireland

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