Darius Milhaud
Esther de Carpentras Op. 89 (1925)
Opéra comique en 2 actes sur un Livret de Armand Lunel

Durée: 63 minutes

Personnages :
Le Cardinal, ténor (Légat du Pape et évêque de Carpentras)
Vaucluse, ténor (Le valet du Cardinal-Evêque)
Hadassah, mezzo-soprano (Actrice d'Avignon, joue le rôle d'Esther)
Artaban, ténor (Financier Juif prospère, joue le rôle d'Assuérus, Roi de Perse)
Cacan, baryton (Pauvre amateur d'opéra, imprésario de la pièce Esther et acteur. Il joue le rôle du Chef des Eunuques du Roi de Perse, gardien du Sérail)
Barbacan, basse (Gardien de la Synagogue. Joue le rôle de Mardochée, beau-père d'Esther)
Mémucan, ténor (Astrologue. Joue le rôle de Haman, le Grand Vizir)
Marchande de masques et de costumes, soprano
M édecin Juif de la peste, baryton (Médecin autoproclamé du théâtre)
Chœur des Juifs, chœur mixte
Les amies d'Esther, chœur de femmes
Entourage du Cardinal, ténors, chœur d'enfants

Distribution : House of Opéra CD 86245





Jane Berbié, mezzo-soprano
Georgette Spanallys, soprano
Rémy Corazza, ténor
Jacques Mars, basse
Bernard Demigny, baryton
Raymond Amade, ténor
Joseph Peyron, ténor
André Malabrera, ténor
Jacques Pruvost, baryton
Chorale Lyrique (Yvonne Gouverné)
Orchestre Lyrique de la Radio Télévision Française
Manuel Rosenthal, direction
Enregistrement de la Radio Française (INA)

(c) 2003 par David Drew

Dans l'ancienne ville de Carpentras, sur le Rhône, avant son rattachement au département du Vaucluse. Fin du 18ème siècle.

Ouverture en Do major

ACTE I (Les Juifs dans le palais de l'Evêque)

Scène I
A sumptuous antechamber. One by one appear three bearded Jews, yellow caps in their hands. The first is Cacan, amateur of the theatre, and a would-be impresario. Pushing him from behind is Artaban, a successful and self-important financier. The third is the oldest and the most timorous - the gloomy Barbacan, door-keeper of the synagogue.
Observing Artaban's swift assessment of the gold and silver in the room - he uses his fingers as a calculating machine - Cacan is astonished at his own temerity in seeking an audience with the Cardinal-Bishop when his theatrical ambitions seem of little importance even to his own kinsmen.
Half concealed at his post in one corner of the antechamber, and apparently dozing, is Vaucluse, the Cardinal's valet, who fancies himself as a poet and tunesmith. Suddenly, eyes still closed, Vaucluse begins to improvise a Christmas carol ('Noël Comtadin'). The three Jews, still unobserved, disapprove equally of his theology and his rhyme-schemes.
Vaucluse is not asleep but merely in a trance-like state of creative ecstasy. On opening his eyes he doesn't immediately notice his visitors, but then wonders whether they've come to judge his "cantata". They reply that they are seeking audience with the Cardinal. So they are proposing to convert? No, no, they cry - Barbacan more loudly than the others. His protests enrage Vaucluse, and Cacan fears that all is lost. Barbacan calls Cacan a negro. Artaban makes apologies, explaining that Barbacan is only a humble doorkeeper. By way of compensating him for the disturbance, Artaban offers Vaucluse a sequinned purse, which he accepts with alacrity.
Vaucluse explains - in polka rhythm - that a new Cardinal has just arrived, an eighteen-year-old of bad character, but a nephew of the Pope. After his own long service in Rome, Vaucluse is no stranger to the vices cultivated there, but adept in only one of them: venality.

Scène II
The Cardinal-Bishop enters "like the North Wind in some 18th Century opéra comique". He has been promenading with his official retinue, and declares that it was like being back at college. He is much amused by the bearded "monkeys" Vaucluse introduces to him. They remind him of better times in Rome.
Artaban, drawing himself to his full height, hastens to dissociate himself from Rome's East European "vagabonds". Cacan recalls that it was the Emperor Vespasian who sent the Jews to Gaul. Barbacan's muttered reference to Carpentras as a New Babylon is enthusiastically echoed by the young Cardinal - who hopes that a few Babylonian distractions might help to compensate for the punishment of exile to so remote a spot.
In this cheerful mood he seems as receptive to Artaban's flattery as to his account of the "superior" character of Carpentras's Jews. But what do these comical visitors require of him? Permission to stage a comédie, blurts out Cacan. The Cardinal tells him, kindly enough, they've just been staging one in the Palace - and without his permission! Cacan begins to tell him about the annual Jewish festival of Purim and the role played by Queen Esther in saving the Jewish people from extermination. The Cardinal, who knows his Old Testament, tries in vain to stop him. Cacan, with growing excitement, tells him that this year's carnival will feature something new and unusually attractive - a street-theatre, improvising an Esther play. As impresario, Cacan, needs only two favours from the Cardinal: his permission for the event to take place, the church police to keep order.
Promising that an early decision will be forwarded by his Chancellery, the Cardinal ends the audience. No sooner have the three Jews departed with Vaucluse than the Cardinal is convulsed with laughter. "Dear Jews!", he exclaims to himself, "you shall have your permission, you've given me a priceless moment".

Scène III
Vaucluse returns in high excitement: on the way out he had remembered his pastoral duties and had advised the Jews to embrace Mother Rome - "being a Jew isn't good business" he had told them, rather persuasively, he thought - but they had laughed in his face.
In a more ominous and conspiratorial tone, he recalls how the Cardinal's 80-year-old predecessor would pluck the children from the ghetto, like partridges from their nests, as soon as they were 'plump enough' for conversion. A change of name and a few drops of water, and hey presto, they were Christians; and in due course they would make sure that their own children were haters of Jews.
Converting children is too easy, replies the Cardinal. "My idea exactly!", Vaucluse exclaims unconvincingly, "You'll make a great career for yourself by converting people of every generation". How many souls, the Cardinal enquires, might that amount to? About two thousand, is the answer. A huge project, they agree. But why not settle for a half or even a quarter of them, suggests Vaucluse. After all, heaven doesn't demand the impossible.
"It is heaven that will guide me", concludes the Cardinal, "Leave me for a moment, my friend".

Scène IV
The Cardinal's meditation, and his prayer for guidance and mercy, reveal the secret of his exile from Rome. During the previous year's Roman Carnival he appears to have become involved in some kind of amorous escapade. The path to true salvation, he reflects lugubriously, is ever stony. The Jews are about to have their annual celebration. He will give them a surprise.
The curtain falls. Inscribed on it in enormous letters, and embellished with foliage "in the Louis XV style", is the announcement "QUEEN ESTHER - Improvised by the Jews of Carpentras". At the corners, mysteriously written in Hebrew characters, are the verses from Chapter IX of The Book of Esther, in which the requirements for the 2-day festival of Purim are specified.
Choral entr'acte - Carnival ("Purim Fugue")

ACTE II (La Reine Esther)
Overlooking the square in front of the synagogue are the old, crumbling and dangerously slanted ghetto dwellings. The Cardinal's police are standing guard. In front of one of the houses to the right is an open-air theatre. At the back of a tiny stage is a representation (in oriental style) of the gates of the Persian Royal Palace. Below the stage are smaller gates - beyond, gardens of King Ahasuerus.

Scène I
Barbacan, as door-keeper of the synagogue, glumly surveys the Scène and denounces the infamies and debaucheries of the carnival. Artaban, the financier, dismisses his complaints.

Scène II
The crowds begin to gather - among them a black-coated Plague Doctor with a false nose like a crow's beak, a fumigator of aromatics, and a Masque-Merchant and her assistant, marketing props and costumes.

Scène III
Cacan appears in full regalia, announces himself as Directeur du Spectacle, and gets a great welcome from the crowd. He then declares that he will play the role of the Grand Eunuch. And who is to play Ahasuerus, King of Persia? Cacan points to Artaban, who joins him on the stage, and starts preening himself - every inch the financier-king, and ruler of an empire stretching from India to the Bosphorus.
With a certain air of mystery and even menace, the Masque-Merchant continues to peddle her wares. The crowd seems mesmerized by the splendours she displays. Artaban calls for wine.

Scène IV
Wine is brought and a feast ordered. As the improvised play begins, Artaban-Ahasuerus is already the worse for drink, and calls for the Grand Vizier Haman - a key role which Cacan hasn't yet cast. His eye falls on Mémucan, the last surviving astrologer in the ghetto, and much disliked. An ideal Haman, thinks Cacan.

Scène V
Mémucan thinks so too, and pretends to have had foreknowledge of his ennoblement. No-one believes him. He may boast of his Latin and his algebra, cry the crowd, but his prophesies are always wrong, and he's not fit for high office.
Too late - Mémucan has already seized his opportunity, and is clambering onto the stage as Haman, the Grand Vizier. Who, he asks, is better qualified to play the role than the Nostradamus of Carpentras? The crowd relents, and tells him that the King is waiting for him.

Scène VI
Artaban, now wholly absorbed by his kingly role, returns in a fury, stumbles over his Minister, and blurts out that his Queen, the beautiful Vashti, has refused to strip naked and entertain his fellow-revellers at the banquet. Haman-Mémucan advises him to look for a new Queen who has more sense, and is yet more beautiful than Vashti.

Scène VII
Cacan, as Chief Eunuch, is delighted by this new plan, and tells the chorus that trumpets are to be sounded throughout the Persian Empire, announcing a beauty-contest whose purpose is to replenish the imperial Seraglio. Mothers and fathers in the ghetto hasten to push their daughters forward.

Scène VIII
Barbacan, still at the door of the synagogue, rebukes his faithless people and reminds them that Ahasuerus is a pagan and his proposed re-marriage illegal. The spectators mock him - whereupon he emerges from the synagogue in a role which everybody seems to have forgotten about: that of Esther's stepfather, the devout Mordecai. Reverting, however, to his true character, he reveals that his niece Hadassa has already been coached in the role of Esther (Hadassa a synonym for Esther in the Old Testament) and he wonders why she has not yet arrived.
A young girl appears, simply dressed, and moves centre-stage. It is Hadassa.

Scène IX
Hadassa announces that she has come from Avignon, and is the town's only candidate for the role of Esther. Her uncle adds that she - and she alone among the candidates - is a professional actress.
She is more than that. A Diva to her fingertips, she begins a song in which she lists her star roles - Thamar, Judith, Deborah, and now Esther. The song is in the rhythm of the Brazilian urban dance, the maxixe, associated with much hip swinging and foot dragging (an African influence). Hadassa's song is a show-stopper - she knows it, and the crowd acknowledges it with cheers. Confirmed at a stroke as the ideal Esther, she is soon gorgeously costumed by the Masques-Merchant and her assistant. The crowd is entranced by her beauty - and Cacan likewise, though the instructions he gives her are those of the character he is playing: the Chief Eunuch in charge of the Seraglio.

Scène X
Barbacan, like the Mordecai he is playing, feels responsible for Hadassa. He will protect her. One day - and here he becomes Mordecai - the King will recognise his true qualities.

Scène XI
Haman enters. The Head Eunuch (Cacan) falls to his knees, but Mordecai refuses to acknowledge the Grand Visier. Haman expresses his contempt for him and his hatred of all Jews.

Scène XII
King Ahasuerus re-appears, still the worse for drink. He has met Esther, and finds her charming - a creature from the wilds, a little timid, and reluctant to reveal much about herself. But Cacan has chosen well. The spectators welcome the benign effect that a woman's influence has had on the old tyrant.
Haman interrupts, harshly: he has read the stars, and learned that it is time for action. The Jews are not to be trusted. Skulking in every corner of the empire, they must be apprehended and done away with. Ahasuerus is only interested in Esther, who doesn't bore him with all this Jew-nonsense. He leaves Haman to his thoughts.

Scène XIII
Haman takes from his pocket a lottery-wheel, and uses it to determine the best day on which to exterminate all Jews. As Haman spins the wheel and obtains the answer - the 13th day of Adar - the spectators call upon Mordecai. Hearing the choral entreaties to his mortal enemy, Haman ironically interrogates the absent Mordecai: what better day for exterminating all Jews than the day of national mourning, traditionally commemorating the death of Moses?

Scène XIV
Mordecai obtains funeral garments from the Masques-Merchant, and calls upon Queen Esther.

Scène XV
Esther, in all her finery and accompanied by her ladies-in- waiting, answers Mordecai's call, but does so as obedient daughter rather than as Queen. Yet it is the Queen to whom Mordecai is appealing: she must go to the King and plead for her people. She warns her stepfather that to go to Ahasuerus uninvited would be to break the Seraglio's most solemn rule. And yet, while the chorus is singing the Canticle of Battle, she declares her readiness to accept any risk or indignity if that is the price to be paid for saving her people.
Esther leaves with her ladies-in-waiting. Mordecai quotes from the Book of Proverbs, and is silenced by Cacan.

Scène XVI
Leaning on Haman's arm, Ahasuerus complains of poor digestion and a bad siesta. His conscience complains. He orders Haman to summon Mordecai.
Haman descends into the square where he finds Mordecai and helps the Masques-Merchant select new garments for him. Mordecai mounts a handsomely caparisoned horse, and rides off towards the palace. Ahasuerus watches him vanish into the distance, and then, as if he had glimpsed, beyond the borders of the ghetto, something unwelcome and unexpected, he suddenly hides his eyes with his hand, and turns his back on the spectators.

Scène XVII
Cacan, in his role as stage-manager, tells Ahasuerus-Artaban to prepare for his big Scène with Esther. Suddenly Ahasuerus sees two dreaded figures approaching - one young, the other older and more fanatical. The spectators sense an impalpable change and become fearful.

Vaucluse, carrying an open umbrella, leads the Cardinal-Bishop into the square. Cacan receives them both obsequiously, and proposes to the Cardinal that he introduce him to the members of the cast, beginning with someone already known to him - Artaban, the financier who plays King Ahasuerus. The Cardinal confirms that he knows Artaban, and declares that he will be taking over his role forthwith.
Mounting the little stage, he stares coldly at the assembled Jews, and begins the 'Air des Menaces'. Aided, abetted and further incited by Vaucluse, he advises the Jews to prepare for their greatest crisis since the time of Isabella and Ferdinand. It is Vaucluse who delivers the final blow: if by evening they have not confessed that Jesus is the true Messiah, they will all, without a single day of respite, be expelled from the Comtat Venaissin - on pain of death.
Calling in despair to Hadassa, the Jews quickly disperse into the dark alleys of the ghetto. Vaucluse too has vanished, and the square is empty. Exactly like Ahasuerus after the departure of Mordecai on horseback (at the end of sc. xvii) the Cardinal-Bishop turns his back on the little stage and leans against the gateway to the King's Palace.

Scène XIX
Through the gateway beneath the little stage creeps Esther. She is followed by a furious Vaucluse, who tries to stop her. The Cardinal calls out. Esther, in her despair, addresses him as if he were King Ahasuerus. Then, realizing her error, she apologizes - she hadn't been able to find the stage-director, and was afraid of being late. But why is the square empty?
They have all gone, replies the Cardinal. Nevertheless, the Church continues to salute Esther as a sacred heroine. Sensing that the Cardinal is about to draw a Christian moral, Esther sharply dissociates herself from it. If her people must leave because of their faith, she must leave with them, or die for it with them. "No, not you!" cries the young Cardinal, appalled. And then, as if dreaming, he recalls, parlando, an encounter in the ghetto in Rome a year before, an encounter with a girl who was beautiful - not perhaps so beautiful as this one (but also presumably of the same race). Murmuring twice that he had not renounced his faith on that occasion, he calls on God to reveal His will, and on Vaucluse to show him the edict regarding the Jews. He studies it closely, and then declares that the Jews are to remain in Carpentras and their privileges are not to be suspended.
Led by Cacan, the entire community pours back into the square, praising the new Cardinal and singing allelulias. The Cardinal descends the steps from the little stage.
After a moment's total silence, the prelates from the bishopric appear in slow and solemn procession, accompanied by their choirboys. They have come to the ghetto to find their Cardinal-Bishop, and express their disapproval of his presence there. Vaucluse tries to convince them that it was the Cardinal's divine mission to convert all the Jews at once. The prelates will have none of it, and neither will the Jews. The Cardinal-Bishop is reminded that he is due in the Cathedral to celebrate High Mass. The Jewish community is likewise reminded of its religious duties.
Before leaving, the Cardinal-Bishop turns towards Esther and her people, gently affirming the Christian message of hope - to which the Jews reply with their own affirmation of faith.
The last word is Cacan's. The masquerade, he says, will end with two sermons.
The opera, however, ends with four pianissimo chords of E minor, and an implied question mark.