The Bohemian Girl - A Review and Synopsis
An opera in three acts by the Irish composer Michael Balfe, libretto by Alfred Bun, first performed in London in 1843.
Count Arnheim, the governor of Presburg (bass);
Thaddeus, a noble Polish rebel in exile (tenor);
Arline, the Count’s daughter (soprano);
Florestein, feckless nephew of the Count (tenor);
The Gypsy Queen (alto);
Devilshoof the Gypsy Chief (bass);
Various others and Chorus
Synopsis: The story is set in Presburg (now Bratislava capital of the republic of Slovakia) at the time the capital of Moravia and with adjacent Bohemia under the control of the Austro Hungarian Empire. Standing on the Danube and only thirty or so miles from Vienna, a little more from Prague and Budapest it was an important strategic centre on some of the major European trade routes. In the early nineteenth century only ten percent of the city’s population was ethnically Slav, the rest were of either German or Hungarian descent in approximately equal proportion. Set at a time of rebellion and upheaval with many anxious to assert their independence from the Habsburg Empire the story revolves around Count Arnheim the governor of Presburg a fiercely loyal servant of the Emperor, his family and a band of travelling gypsies. The principle characters are the hero Thaddeus a noble Polish rebel in exile, the heroine Arline the count’s daughter and the Count himself. Other important characters include: The Gypsy Queen; Devilshoof the Gypsy Chief; Florestein nephew of the Count and Buda Arline’s maid. The action opens with Thaddeus the rebel being pursued by enemy soldiers and seeking refuge with some travelling gypsies. The gypsies assist his escape, disguising and hiding him and laying a false trail for the pursuers. When the gypsies subsequently hear his story they invite him to join their band. Meanwhile the Count entertaining guests at the castle has organised a hunt as part of the festivities, and in the company of Florestein, the six year old Arline and her nurse, the guests depart for the chase. Shortly however the alarm is raised when it is discovered that Arline is being attacked by a stag, thankfully help is at hand, she is rescued by Thaddeus and returned to her father with only minor injuries. The Count is overjoyed at her rescue and invites Thaddeus to the post hunt party to celebrate her safe return. Sadly the atmosphere is ruined and the party descends into chaos when Thaddeus refuses to toast the Emperor. A major insult to the monarch and a highly treasonable offence with possible life threatening consequences. To ensure the Opera doesn’t end prematurely with the death of the hero, Devilshoof enters the Castle secretly and assists Thaddeus to escape, abducting young Arline at the same time and carrying her off into the forest.
After twelve years of searching and suffering the Count is still mourning the loss of his daughter who is now eighteen years old and living with the gypsies who are back in town after a long absence to attend the fair. Devilshoof stumbles on Florestein on the road and robs him of some valuable possessions, however the Gypsy Queen orders him to return the stolen property which he somewhat reluctantly does, most of it, secretly retaining a diamond medallion for himself. Arline has begun to have strange dreams apparently of a former and completely different life and is asking questions about her parents and family which Thaddeus, who has fallen in love with her, hesitates to answer. Of course he knows the truth but he fears losing her. The Gypsy Queen also loves Thaddeus and is jealous of the attention he is showing Arline, she makes no secret of the fact that as Queen she had preferential rights and intends to win his affections. Thaddeus scorns the evil witch and asks Arline to marry him, she accepts but after the happy couple’s betrothal is witnessed by the rest of the gypsy band, the Gypsy Queen begins to scheme and plot to discredit her youthful rival. She cunningly places the stolen diamond medallion around Arline’s neck as they set out for the fair, where of course she attracts many admirers. Florestein is just one such admirer and although not recognising Arline doesn’t fail to spot the familiar medallion around her neck. Despite the efforts of Thaddeus and the rest of the gypsies to prevent it, Arline is seized, accused of theft and taken off to the castle to face the Count. During the investigation of the crime the Count recognises a mark on Arlines arm as the injury caused by the stag so many years ago and realises she is his long lost daughter. Arline now becomes aware of the significance of her dream and also the evil intentions of the Queen as she explains what happened to her and how the medallion came to be in her possession. Thaddeus pleads with Arline now cleared of the charges, not to leave him and rejected by the Count as a rogue and a vagabond, he is forced to admit his true identity. Now satisfied the Count is persuaded to overlook Thaddeus’ lack of respect for the Emperor and give the proposed marriage of his daughter and the Polish noble his blessing. During the celebrations which follow, the Gypsy Queen further enraged at the outcome makes a final desperate attempt to foil the wedding plans and tries to shoot Arline. Devilshoof discovers the impending danger and struggles with the Queen for the gun, a shot rings out and the would-be assassin is killed with her own weapon. The company breath a sigh of relief that the happy couple are unharmed and the celebrations continue. The opera ends with the final celebratory chorus “Oh What Full Delight” and all including the happy couple live happily ever after. A perfect “feel good” opera where justice prevails and villains get their come-uppance, I do like a happy ending, don’t you?
Although rather neglected and seldom performed these days this opera contains many fine arias, very popular and firm concert platform favourites with performers all over the world. Songs such as “A Soldiers Life”, “When Other Lips”, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”, and “The Heart Bow’d Down” have become indelibly associated with famous names from the past. I don't know if he ever got the opportunity to take on the role but I always imagine Richard Tauber would have been a fabulous Thaddeus, and of course Joan Sutherland's recording of “I Dreamt I Dwellt in Marble Halls” is perhaps the definitive version of that song. The opera though is more than just the few famous arias mentioned, it is full of outstanding music from beginning to end. Music with a convincing Bohemian flavour which conjours up realistic images of a former Europe, dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna and Prague. Very light with an up-beat, tuneful and popular appeal, the opera is well worth listening to in its entirety, I must say though there seem to be very few quality recordings available on the market, which is a shame. It would be nice to see it revived by some enterprising producer and given a twenty first century make-over with perhaps some modern orchestrations, I'm sure it could again enjoy some success in the West End. I for one would be first in the queue for tickets.
Palfreyman, July 20 2006
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