Opera Scotland

Masaniello ou La muette de Portici; or The Dumb-Girl of Portici

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Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (born Caen, 29 January 1782; died Paris, 12 May 1871).


Eugène Scribe & Germain Delavigne.


Mémoires sur la révolution de Naples de 1647 by Raimond de Moirmoiron.



First Performance: Paris (Opéra), 29 February 1828.

First Performance in UK: London (Drury Lane), 4 May 1829.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Theatre Royal), 30 July 1829.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.



This was, in his lifetime, reckoned to be Auber's masterpiece, with 500 performances at the Opéra by 1880, though it is arguable that the comedy Fra Diavolo has a claim to having had greater, and more lasting, success. But then a pleasant opéra comique is much easier and cheaper to mount than the more respectable type of grand historical pageant in five acts with ballet preferred by the Opéra - in this case the modest scenic requirements only stretched as far as staging the eruption of Vesuvius. What is certain is that Auber concentrated on producing lighter works, and never again composed so successful a serious piece, though perhaps Gustave III came close. The legend indelibly attached to La muette is that at a performance in Brussels in 1830 the insurrection scene created such enthusiasm in the audience that they started their own revolution which brought about the separation of Belgium from the previously dominant Netherlands. The more unusual feature is suggested in the title, in that Fenella, sister of the revolutionary Masaniello, is dumb, and the part is traditionally played by a specialist mime artist, or even a dancer, who needs to explain events clearly in dumb-show to appropriate musical accompaniment. A later work, Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada, follows a similar method, though in her case she is a ghost (not that being ghostly automatically disqualifies an operatic character from singing).


Main Characters

Alfonso d'Arcos, son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples (tenor)

Masaniello, a fisherman of Naples (tenor)

Pietro, his friend (baritone)

Fenella, Masaniello's sister (dancer)

Elvira, a Spanish Princess (soprano)


Plot Summary

In 1647 there was an uprising by the people of Naples against their Spanish colonial government. In the gardens of the Governor's palace, Alfonso worries about the disappearance of a local girl Fenella, whom he has seduced and abandoned. He does love her, but he also loves the Spanish princess Elvira, to whom he is engaged. Elvira herself is then entertained by a ballet until she is told that a local girl is asking for her protection. This is Fenella, who explains her situation by mime. When the couple emerge after the wedding ceremony, it is clear to all that Lorenzo is the man responsible for Fenella's situation, and there is general consternation.

At the nearby fishing village of Portici, Masaniello and his friends are concerned about two things, firstly the oppression by their Spanish rulers, from whom they long to be free, and secondly the whereabouts of Fenella, who is still missing. When she does arrive, she explains about her seduction, without mentioning names. Masaniello swears vengeance on the perpetrator, whoever he may be.

Alfonso succeeds in persuading Elvira of his love. He orders his soldiers to find Fenella and bring her to them. However when the soldiers find her in the marketplace and try to arrest her, she is protected by Masaniello and his friends who drive them off. He then encourages the populace in a general revolt to gain control of the city.

However he is then unable to keep control of the mob, who indulge in an orgy of rioting. Fenella comes back to their hut exhausted, and he gets her to sleep. He is then approached by his friend Pietro, who needs him to take control of events once more. Elvira and Alfonso now enter the hut and Elvira begs for protection from the mob. Fenella agrees to save them, and Masaniello also agrees to give them shelter. Again, Pietro and some of the rebels come to ask Masaniello to take over the government. But he recognizes Alfonso and Elvira, and demands their immediate execution. Masaniello explains that he is bound by rules of hospitality. He gives the Spanish couple a safe conduct to help them escape. But Pietro and his friends decide that Masaniello must also be killed.

Outside the palace, Pietro reveals that he has taken steps to eliminate Masaniello by means of poison. News comes that Alfonso is leading troops in a counter-attack. Also, Vesuvius has started to erupt. The populace take this disaster as the judgment of God on their revolutionary enterprise - they need Masaniello to save them. When he arrives, it is clear the poison is affecting his mind, but he leads the mob off to battle anyway. Elvira and Alfonso soon rejoin Fenella, to explain that Masaniello had intervened to save Elvira from the mob, but had been killed in revenge. Fenella kills herself in despair (her chosen method is usually to hurl herself into the crater of Vesuvius, though a simple leap into the sea is presumably cheaper for the design department).

The Cast

Alfonso d' Arcos
 son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples
 a fisherman
 a Spanish princess, betrothed to Alfonso
 a dumb girl, Masaniello's sister
First Maid of Honour
 Alfonso's confidant
Maid of Honour
 to the Princess
 a Neapolitan fisherman
 a fisherman
 Masaniello's friend
Second Maid of Honour
 an officer of the Viceroy's guard

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