August De Boeck: La Route d'Émeraude (The Emerald Road) (1921)
World première: 23 januari 1921, Théatre Royal Gent
Première Muntschouwburg Brussel: 1925/26
Dutch première Koninklijke Vlaamse Opera Antwerpen: 1933
Before, during and after World War I August De Boeck’s final opera was crafted, the comédie lyrique in 4 acts and 5 tableaux La Route d'Émeraude, on a libretto by Max Hautier after the novel by Eugène De Molder. Since Hautier was mobilized at the outbreak of the war, La Route d'Émeraude had a difficult genesis. The text of the first act was completed before the War, and De Boeck also composed it in Hautier’s absence, killing time afterwards, among others, by composing a very trivial folk operetta Papa Poliet. When Hautier returned from the war and completed the libretto for La Route d'Émeraude, he rewrote large sections of Act I as well, forcing De Boeck to recompose them. The final result is considered De Boeck’s masterpiece.
The opera also has his best libretto since Reinaert de Vos. Perhaps the setting in The Netherlands of the Golden 17th century also helped him find his own musical world, since there weren’t many musical examples present for that specific setting. Our downloadprogramme offers Francesca's famous aria 'Comme une fleur', interpreted by soprano Pauline Lebbe during a concert of Flemish opera arias and duets together with baritone Joris Grouwels. The publication of this concert is available in 401Concerts Nr.2.
The Guild’s festivities in Vrijdam aan de Maas are not interesting miller’s son Kobus Barent. He only takes pleasure in the splendours of the surrounding nature. His dream is to once be(come) a painter, which scares his mother. When a few young lads arrive who are pupils of the famous painter Frans Krul in Amsterdam, Kobus wants to join them, much to the dismay of his parents, who nonetheless give him their blessings. In the second act Kobus is a pupil of Krul in Amsterdam, where he falls under the spell of the beautiful Spanish model Francesca. Dirk warns him for her charms though. Rembrandt visits the atelier and compliments Kobus on one of his sketches. He is not in his most prosperous period and sensing a kin soul in Kobus, he gives him the prophetic words that are the motto of the opera: ‘A person is only truly capable of greatness after his heart has bled, after he has loved, cried in bitter anguish; since the heart sings best when it dies from grieve.’
Alone in the atelier, Francesca appears before Kobus. She answers his feeling in a passionate love duet, only to desert him soon after. In the third act Dirk explain Kobus in an inn that Francesca gives her favours to anyone who offers her something in return, be it money, be it favours. Disillusioned Kobus leaves the inn. The pirate Barbéra enters, followed by Francesca. She tells Dirk that she still has feelings for Kobus, but he tells her that Kobus has forgotten her already.
Then Francesca throws herself on the pirate, whom she seduces with her famous cantilena, ‘Comme une fleur’ (Like a flower). Berbéra is a landsman of her from Spain, and she agrees to follow him home. At the Quay she encounters Kobus, but she once again mocks his feelings. In the fourth act the desperate Kobus finds comfort in an Amsterdam Church. He returns home to his parents, who forgive him his mistakes. His mother murmurs the song she used to sing for him as a baby.
August De Boeck: 'Lorsque tu était tout petit''
Livine Mertens, 1930s (Columbia).
Download fragments from La Route d'Émeraude and other Flemish operas
Our download program with Flemish opera arias and duets 401Concerts Nr. 2 was filmed and recorded on January 27, 2016, in Museum Vleeshuis, in a coproduction with the artists, soprano Pauline Lebbe and baritone Joris Grouwels. Lebbe sang the aria 'Comme une fleur' from La route d'Émeraude. Other arias and duets include Jan Blockx' operas De herbergprinses and De bruid der zee, and operas by François-Auguste Gevaert, Armand Limnander van Nieuwenhove and Emiel Wambach. Some highlights can be seen in the video trailer above. The complete concert is downloadable as 401Concerts Nr.2.
La Route d'Émeraude was immediately recognized as De Boeck's masterpiece. Finally his talent had found the inspiration to produce a lyric drama in which melodic flow and individual harmonies found each other in the realm where his talent was at home: sentiment. The libretto gave him ample opportunity to exploit this element rather than having to indulge himself with cliché dramatic effects that never seem to have truly inspired him. In its melancholic tunefulness and also in its subject, the opera sort of belongs to the same category as Emiel Wambach’s Quinten Massijs, although De Boeck’s work is rooted in a far better plot. As in Reinaert de Vos before, De Boeck found in Hautier's libretto a sequence of very prolific scenes. These however were much closer to his soul, and, perhaps helped by the long digestion process, he eventually found an imaginative musical idiom for them. Highlight is the famous cantilena of Francesca in the third act, which she sings to Barbéra. The act II love duet was also considered among the highlights, as was the cradle song in Act IV. The work took the Ghent audience by surprise and from there it conquered the rest of Belgium, sometimes against all odds, since both the Flemish Opera Antwerp (because it was a French language creation rather than a work for them) and De Munt Brussels (because it wasn’t premiered there) did their best to boycott it, yet they were forced to give way. De Munt already presented it in the season 1925/26, the KVO brought it in a Dutch translation as Franscesca in 1933. It remained in the repertoire there until 1965, in a version with an orchestration that had been slightly adjusted. First by Munt conductor Maurice Bastin, who made De Boeck's hastily made orchestration a bit more compact and transparent, after which Frits Celis made some more retouches in 1959. The latter also assembled the orchestra suite from the opera that was presented on CD by Phaedra.
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