Program Notes by Camille Zamora
A recently rediscovered treasure by one of the most compelling artists of the nineteenth century resonates with themes that speak to us in the twenty-first.
One hundred fifty-five years ago, the great mezzo-soprano, composer, and pedagogue Pauline García Viardot created the salon opera Le dernier sorcier (The last sorcerer) in collaboration with her lover, the acclaimed Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. The piece centered on themes of power and progress, gender and equality, and the restoration of natural order in an ever-changing world – a feminist eco-fable in operatic form.
In a forest in a faraway land lives the old sorcerer Krakamiche. In his youth, he was a powerful, much-feared wizard with a magnificent palace and a strong manservant, but time has diminished his omnipotence. All that remains now of his palace is a hut, his servant is old and tired, and his wand serves only to summon his daily bread (and even that only with the greatest of effort). He lives with his daughter, Stella, and passes his days in fits of frustration.
In the same forest live the elves, led by Verveine and ruled by their Queen. Many years before, Krakamiche expropriated their forest lands, and the elves had been powerless to fight him. Now that Krakamiche’s power has lessened with time, the elves delight in pestering him from morning to night.
Nearby lives Price Lelio, a king’s son, who often hunts in the forest. He has fallen in love with Stella and wants to marry her, even though he is unsure of her actual identity.
The curtain rises on Krakamiche’s hut, where the elves, led by Verveine, are teasing Krakamiche (“Par ici, par ici!”). They pour water down his chimney, dousing his fire and laughing at his distress. Together with their Queen, they hatch a plan to disguise themselves as visiting dignitaries to trick Krakamiche into eating the magic Moly grass. This grass, they will lead him to believe, will restore his youth.
The elves exit, and Prince Lelio enters, pining for the lovely Stella (“Dans le bois frais et sombre”). The Queen overhears Lelio’s lament and makes a deal with him: In return for his obeying her commands, she will give him a magic flower that will enable him to become invisible at night (“Ramasse cette rose”). Having forged their alliance, the Queen and Lelio depart.
Krakamiche returns, bemoaning his fate (“Ah, la sotte existence”). He kicks his long-suffering servant Perlimpinpin out of the house and leaves. Stella enters and sings lovingly of the way in which the rains water her plants and maintain balance (“Coulez, gouttes fines”). The Queen returns and tells Stella of her forthcoming meeting with Lelio (“Sur les yeux de ton père”), assuring her that great things are in store.
Perlimpinpin enters, reminiscing of his earlier, happier days when he was still a powerful giant (“Quand j’étais un géant”). An exotic delegation of visiting dignitaries (in fact, the fairies in disguise) approaches to pay homage to Krakamiche, who receives them with delight (“Messieurs le sénateurs!”). After a self-aggrandizing welcome, Krakamiche is eager to try the visitors’ magic youth-restoring grass. Suddenly, the “dignitaries” throw off their costumes, revealing their true fairy identities, and the trick is revealed. Krakamiche is whirled into a wild waltz (“Tourne, tourne comme un tonton”), soon collapsing from exhaustion. The Queen and her fairies celebrate their victory and then curl up under the forest canopy, lulled by the gentle sounds of the woods (“Compagnes ailées”).
Lelio cannot wait to use his magic invisibility flower to draw nearer Stella (“Pourrais-je jamais aimer une autre femme?”). Hearing the approach of Krakamiche and Stella, Lelio quickly hides. Krakamiche enters carrying his enormous book of Merlin’s spells and searches for the incantation that will release him from the Queen’s power. Stella works her spinning wheel and sings a poignant duet with her father, assuring him that, rather than empty wealth, all she desires is authentic connection, a true home, and a loving heart (“Si tu ne sais pas”). Krakamiche redoubles his efforts, explaining that she can find joy in wealth and grand palaces. Stella stands her ground, explaining that such objects hold no true happiness for her. For her, joy will be found in the experience of life and love.
While Krakamiche continues to look for the right magic spell, Stella sings a little song to herself, and hears Lelio singing the third verse as though in echo (“Quand vient la saison fleurie”). Lelio then enters, having been rendered invisible by his magic flower, and he and Stella sing warmly to one another (“C’est moi, ne craignez rien”). Lelio kneels before Stella, accidentally dropping the flower. This makes him visible to Krakamiche, who thinks it was his own power that has made the prince appear. He is furious, and casts a spell to summon a monster to will annihilate the prince (“Louppola, Schibbola, Trix”). Instead of a monster, the spell brings forth a goat, and Krakamiche faints from exhaustion.
As Stella and Lelio rush to help Krakamiche, the Queen appears. The sorcerer soon comes to, and in order to help the young couple, he consents to his daughter’s marriage and promises to leave the great woods to live with his daughter and son-in-law in their castle outside of the forest. In an unaccompanied quartet, Krakamiche, Stella, Lelio, and Perlimpinpin sing of their respective futures (“Adieu, témoins de ma misère!”). The four of them depart for their new and rightful home. The Queen waves her wand and Krakamiche’s hut disappears. The fairies rejoice over the return of their forest and the restoration of the natural order (“Salut! Salut! O forêt bien aimée!”).