August De Boeck: Winternachtsdroom (1902)

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  • DeBoeckSLWInternachtsdroomPhaedra
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  • August De Boeck (1865-1937)
  • Piano-vocal score of Winternachtsdroom, published by Breitkopf & Härtel
  • August De Boeck chronicle as published by the city of Merchtem in 2011.
  • Piano-vocal score of Winternachtsdroom
  • Liesbeth Devos sings Prinses Zonnestraal's aria from Winternachtsdroom on Phaedra CD 'In Flanders' Fields'-75.
  • Léonce du Catillon, librettist of De Boeck's 'Théroighe de Méricourt' and Winternachtsdroom

World première: December 20 1902, Nederlandsch Lyrisch Toneel, Antwerp.
Cast: dirigent Edward Keurvels; regie Fé Derickx.

The success of August De Boeck's Théroigne de Méricourt resulted in a second opera on a libretto by Léonce du Catillon, Winternachtsdroom (Winter Night’s Dream), a condensed fairy tale in one act and an epilogue, lasting a good hour. The opera was premiered on December 20, 1902, at the Dutch Lyric Stage in Antwerp. Catillon’s language for Winternachtsdroom was, either because of the success and/or because of the criticism on his previous libretto, a lot more structured and poetic in language. As a fairy tale opera it was also remarkable in not following the example of the dominant opera in the genre in the West, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (1893). In terms of atmosphere Winternachtsdroom is much closer to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurotschka (1882), which of course has exactly the same subject. Where, but a year later, Pol De Mont would transpose this simple fairy tale of the Snow Maiden to the realm of Wagnerian sages and legends for Paul Gilson's Prinses Zonneschijn, an opera full of heroism and nature symbolism, Du Catillon keeps close to the simple fairy tale, making the opera both suitable for grown ups and children.


Winternachtsdroom opens with a witches’ Sabbath.

August De Boeck: Winternachtsdroom 'Heksendans en storm'
Symfonie orkest BRT, conductor Robert Zollman (1973, CD August De Boeck biografie, Merchtem, 2011)

Prinses Zonnestraal (Prinsess Sunray) is kept prisoner in the castle of Vriezeman (King Frost) and sings her anguish out in the aria ‘O zonnebloem, gij zijt het beeld van houw en trouw’ (O sunflower, fair image of love and faith).

August De Boeck: Winternachtsdroom 'O Zonnebloem' Part 1. Intro & Funeral March'
Ning Kam (viool), Flemish Radio orchestra, conductor Marc Soustrot (1965, CD August De Boeck biografie, Merchtem, 2011)

At this point we encounter in De Boeck the late-romantic pur sang, crafted in the German school, but having the Italian cantilena and the poetic French school in the back of his head. This aria remained one of De Boeck’s most popular compositions. King Frost’s helper, the witch Kallekraai is closer to the cliché of Humperdinck’s Knusperhexe. When King Frost makes advances to Princess Sunray, she defies him. In an attempt to impress her, he unleashes the powers of nature, and a thunderous storm erupts in a ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’-like monologue, ‘Vermetel kind!’ (Defiant child!). Here De Boeck proves an eclectic, who cites as easily from Verdi’s Otello and Macbeth as from Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Just when the desperate princess wants to commit suicide at the end of the aria ‘Mijn laatste hoop verloren’ (All my hope is gone), a horn sounds. It is Prince Dageraad (Sunrise) who invites himself into the castle, feeds King Frost and Kallekraai a sleeping potion, and escapes with Princess Sunray. Their subsequent love duet is so enchanting, that all nature surrounding them is touched by it, which causes Springtime. In these lyrical passages, De Boeck continues on the work of Jan Blockx, while finding highly individual colours in his orchestral palette.


In musical terms De Boeck reaches maturity in Winternachtsdroom, although the influence of Verdi’s Macbeth (and Falstaff) on the witches’ Sabbath is very audible. Similar eclectic reservations notwithstanding, Winternachtsdroom proved one of the most successful Flemish operas in all, a work that had translations into French and German language and that was on the repertoire well until the late 1960’s. Famous was Vina Bovy’s French language creation of Princess Sunray at the Munt in Brussels. What perhaps surprises when listening to Winternachtsdroom today, is the fact that in its lyrical Wagnerian atmosphere it anticipates Paul Gilson’s Prinses Zonneschijn (Princess Sunshine) of but a year later. Almost as if Gilson decided to turn his friend’s fairy tale into a version for adults. The central theme notwithstanding, plot wise the stories are very different. De Boeck’s Princess Sunray could almost be the mother of Princess Sunshine (just as Siegfried is the offspring of Siegmund), while both celebrate their own rite of Spring.