Opera Scotland

Violins of Saint-Jacques The Violins of Saint-Jacques

Music

Malcolm Williamson (born Sydney, 21 November 1931; died Cambridge, 2 March 2003)

Text

William Chappell

Source

Novel (1953) by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011).

 

Premières 

First performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 29 November 1966.

First UK performance: As above.

First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (King’s Theatre), 7 November 1967.

Scottish Opera première: N/A.

 

Background

Malcolm Williamson should be regarded as perhaps the first successful Australian composer of opera, although most of his adult life was spent in Britain. His initial studies in Sydney were under Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), who was director of the NSW Conservatory 1947-56. Williamson then moved to Britain to study with Elisabeth Lutyens. His lengthy catalogue of compositions covers most fields, including several symphonies, concertos and large-scale choral works, as well as musicals and music aimed specifically at children. He succeeded Sir Arthur Bliss as Master of the Queen’s Music in 1975. The decade of the 1960s was devoted largely to the production of operas, using literary sources including Graham Greene, Edith Sitwell, Oscar Wilde and August Strindberg. His operatic works were Our Man in Havana (1963), English Eccentrics (1964), The Happy Prince (1965), Julius Caesar Jones (1966), The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1966), Dunstan and the Devil (1967), The Growing Castle (1968), and Lucky Peter’s Journey (1969). Following a year after Bennett’s Mines of Sulphur, Violins of Saint Jacques was also well received in London and on tour. It was revived, with most of the original cast, after the company moved to the Coliseum. The situation is based on the catastrophic eruption of Mont Pelée in 1902.

 

Main Characters

Agenor, Count de Serindan (bass)

Mathilde, his wife (soprano)

Sosthène, their son (tenor)

Josephine, their daughter (mezzo-soprano)

Berthe, their niece (soprano)

Governor Sciocca (tenor)

Marcel Sciocca, his son (baritone)

Maman Zélie, a voodoo priestess (mezzo-soprano)

 

Plot Summary

In the Prologue, a band of fishermen on their boat in the Caribbean talk of the island of Saint-Jacques that vanished beneath the sea after an eruption many years ago, and how every anniversary since, the island has reappeared to the sound of violins. The rest of the opera depicts events on that final day. It is the carnival of Mardi Gras, and the Count is giving a ball. Sosthène, newly home after several years in France, is delighted because of his love for the island and for his cousin Berthe. But she had been his governess, and still thinks of him as a child. He is furious to discover his sister loves, and plans to marry, Marcel, their social inferior. The guests assemble at the ball, and the Count receives the upstart Governor with politeness. When the volcano flashes they continue to dance, and a second flash is greeted by a general salute from the guests. Sosthène explains to Berthe why Josephine seems so excited, and she is then horrified to learn from the Count that Marcel already has a wife. When she hears that Josephine and Marcel have eloped, she tells Sosthène, and they go in pursuit.

Down by the harbour, revellers try to persuade Maman Zélie to weave some spells. When Marcel and Josephine appear he is impatient to leave while she is more apprehensive. He drags her away before Berthe and Sosthène arrive. Berthe is now beginning to worry about the volcano. Sosthène orders her to row out to a ship in the harbour in case the fugitives go there, while he will follow them on horseback to the far side of the island. When he again declares his love, she realizes that she does now love this new mature action man. Back at the ballroom, the revelry continues until Sosthène arrives, having recaptured Josephine and Marcel. The facts are explained to Josephine, and Marcel, his marriage now revealed, is forbidden to see her again. As Sosthène consoles his sister, the guests all express their belief that things will work out. Then the volcano erupts, causing widespread panic. As dawn breaks Berthe is seen alone at sea in her boat, and she laments the disappearance of the island and everything she loved.

The Cast

Agenor
 Count de Serindan
Basket Man
 
Berthe
 niece of Count de Serindan
Captain Henri Joubert
 
First Netman
 
First Oarsman
 
François de Chambines
 
Gentilien
 butler to the Count
Gontran de Chambines
 his twin brother
Governor Sciocca
 
Josephine
 daughter of Count de Serindan
Maman Zélie
 
Marcel Sciocca
 son of the Governor
Mathilde
 Countess de Serindan
Mme Sciocca
 
Old Fisherman
 
Pierrot
 
Second Netman
 
Second Oarsman
 
Sosthène
 son of Count de Serindan

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